A Musical Analysis of Techno
Techno can be viewed as dance music in its most primitive form since it’s chiefly formed around the cohesion and adaptation of numerous drum rhythms. Although synthetic sounds are also occasionally employed, they will appear atonal, as it’s the abundance of percussive elements that remain the most vital aspect of the music. In fact, in many techno tracks any additional synthetic instruments are not often used in the ‘musical’ form to create bass lines or melodies, instead the genre defines itself on a collection of carefully programmed and manipulated textures rather than melodic elements.
Fundamentally, this means that it’s produced with the DJ in mind, and in fact, most techno is renowned for being ‘DJ friendly’ being formed and written to allow him (or her) to seamlessly mix all the different compositions together to produce one whole continuous mix to last through the night. Consequently, techno will generally utilize a four to the floor time signature, but it isn’t unusual to employ numerous other drum rhythms written in different time signatures that are then mixed, processed and edited to fit alongside the main 4/4 signature. Tempo-wise, it can range from 130 to 150 BPM, and although some techno has moved above this latter figure, it is in the minority rather than the majority.
Originally, techno was different from every other genre of music since it didn’t rely on programming and mixing in the ‘conventional’ manner (if there is such a thing). Rather, it was based around employing the entire studio as one interconnected tool. Here, a hardware sequencer was used to trigger numerous drum rhythms contained in connected samplers and drum machines. Each of these rhythms ran through effects units that were manipulated produce new variations which are then layered with others or dropped in and out of the mix to produce the final arrangement.
Today, this approach has changed, and the majority of the music is written and produced within an audio sequencer but the general theory remains the same. Rhythms are still layered on top of one another, so that not only they all interact in terms of syncopation and polyrhythm but also the tonal content is harmonically combined to produce interesting variations of the original patterns. Here, the audio workstations mixing desk is used not only to mix the rhythms together in a conservative manner but also as a creative tool with EQ employed to enhance the interesting harmonic relationships created from this layering or to prevent the cohesive whole from becoming too muddy or indistinct.
A techno loop will often begin as little more than the standard four to the floor drum rhythms common to both trance and house. A kick drum is placed on every beat of the bar, along with snares or claps on the second and fourth beat to add expression to these two beats. To compliment this basic pattern, closed hi-hats are commonly placed on every 16th division or variation of 16ths, whilst to introduce some basic syncopation open hi-hats are often employed and placed on every 1/8th division of the bar.
The characteristic style of the kick timbre within techno depends on its subgenre but typically the kick is boomy with a hard transient to keep it controlled. Typically the kick in many techno tracks is programmed direct in a Roland TR909 (either hardware of software) but the same style of sound can be accomplished with a carefully chosen kick sample. By rolling off any frequencies below 40 Hz and applying a small EQ boost at 400 to 800 Hz, it will often produce the atypical techno style kick. If there is no energy in this higher region to boost, then layering a hi-hat sample over the top of the kick can often introduce the bright transients that are typical of this genre.
Alternatively, the kick can be programmed in a synthesizer by employing a short decay combined with an immediate attack stage. Typically, a 100 Hz sine wave produces the best starting point for a techno kick with a positive pitch EG set a fast attack and a quick decay to modulate the oscillator. Although using a pitch envelope produces the best results, if the synth doesn’t offer one, a self-oscillating filter will produce the requisite sound, and the decay can be controlled with the filters envelope. The kick will need to be augmented with a square waveform to produce the usual bright transient stage. For this, the square wave requires a fast attack and decay stage, so that it simply produces a ‘click’, once this is layered over the original sine you can experiment by pitching it up or down to produce the required timbre.
Reverb is fundamental to the creation of any techno kick, but how it is applied depends on the style of kick required. A ‘standard’ techno kick is often treated to a small amount of hall reverb with a long pre-delay to bypass the transient of the kick, but the tail is kept longer than most genres so that the reverb is evident. This is followed by a noise gate to ensure the reverb tail does not decay away as in a normal situation but is deliberately and evidently cut short.
One of the most common style of techno kicks – the ‘Hiss Kick’ – can be created through sending the kick drum completely to a bus channel featuring a hall reverb unit with full diffusion and a decay of 5 seconds. A compressor is placed directly after this reverb unit with a fast attack and a long release (approximately 500 ms) with a ratio of 5:1, and the same bus channel is then used as the side-chain input for this compressor whilst the ratio is lowered until the reverb effect begins to pump. A filter is then inserted after the compressor that is used to cyclically modulate the higher frequencies of the pumping reverb effect. This cyclic modulation does not need to be evident and should be applied gently so as not to draw too much attention to itself.
The kick is then sent to a secondary bus that contains a room reverb unit with full diffusion but only a short decay of 1 second or less. This reverb is followed by a noise gate with a fast attack and release and the same second buss used as a side-chain for the gate. As the threshold of the gate is reduced, the reverb will begin to gate, and this should be set to personal preference. This noise gate is followed with another low-pass modulating filter that will cyclically modify the reverbs field. The timing of the cyclic modulation applied on both reverbs should be set differently, so they do not run in sync with one another. Finally, both reverbs are mixed in with the kick to produce the Hiss Kick that appears in a number of techno tracks.
The kick will also benefit from hard compression, but this must be applied cautiously so as not to remove the bright transient stage. Here, the attack should be set so that it bypasses the initial transient but captures the decay stage. A hard ratio of 5:1 followed by reducing the threshold should provide the common characteristics of a techno kick.
Techno will employ either snares or claps in the production, and these are commonly sourced from sample CDs but can equally be programmed in a synthesizer. For snares, it’s preferable to employ a triangle wave for the first oscillator and noise for the second. The amplifier envelope generator employs a zero attack, sustain and release with the decay employed to set the ‘length’ of the snare.
If possible, employ a different amp EG for both the noise and triangle wave. By doing so, the triangle wave can be kept quite short and swift with a fast decay while the noise can be made to ring a little further by increasing its decay parameter. This, however, should never be made too long since the snares should remain short and snappy. If the snare has too much bottom end employ a high-pass, band-pass filter or notch filter depending on the type of sound you require. Notching out the middle frequencies will create a clean snare sound that’s commonly used in this genre. Further modification is possible using a pitch envelope to positively modulate both oscillators, this will result in the sound pitching upwards towards the end, giving a brighter snappier feel to the timbre.
If claps are used instead, it is better to take them from a sample CD, since they can be difficult to synthesize but they can be created with a filter and amplifier envelope onto a white noise oscillator. Both envelopes use a fast attack with no sustain or release and the decay used to set the length of the clap. Finally, use a saw tooth LFO to modulate the filter frequency and pitch of the timbre. Increasing or decreasing the LFO’s frequency will then change the sonic character of the clap significantly.
To produce the typical hard techno sound, snares and/or claps will be treated to large amounts of reverb by inserting a reverb onto the channel. This is commonly set to a large room or small hall and employs a long pre-delay with a long delay and largest diffusion settings. After this, a noise gate is employed to remove the tail in an evident way whilst compression follows the noise gate to compress the whole timbre heavily.
Pitch modulation is essential on these instruments, but they are often treated over a period of three or six bars rather than simply modulated over the period of a single bar. What’s more, each snare is processed to a different pitch than previous whilst all remaining within 30 cents of the original. Like in Drum ‘n’ Bass, this modulation does not have to be applied in a stepwise fashion with each snare being a few cents higher or lower than the previous and generally producers will mix and match the pitch adjustments.
The hi-hats in techno can be programmed or taken direct from a sample CD. In many tracks, the hats are commonly sourced from vinyl or sample CDs, but some artists do program their own by ring modulating a high-pitched triangle wave with a lower pitched triangle. This produces a high-frequency noise that can be modified with an amplifier envelope set to a zero attack, sustain and release with a short to medium decay. If there isn’t enough noise present, it can be augmented with a white noise waveform using the same envelope. Once this basic timbre is constructed, shortening the decay creates a closed hi-hat while lengthening it will produce an open hat
A popular technique in a number of techno tracks is to employ nothing more than white noise from a synthesizer and insert a compressor onto the same track that is side-chained to a secondary rhythmical channel. This secondary channel is commonly a hi-hat set to no output on the mixing desk so that it can be used as nothing more than a rhythmical control for the compressor. Alternatively, some producers will simply side-chain the kick drum to the white noise to create a lengthy sounding hats that pump with the kick.
Typically the hats will be treated to delay and modulation. The hi-hats should be kept to short delay settings to prevent too much delay wash that will cloud the signal. Typically a 1/16 th or 1/8 th setting with a very short delay time proves enough. The open hats are commonly treated to a low-pass filter that is modulated via an offset sine wave or a sample and hold waveform. This is applied over a period of three bars whilst further cyclic modulation will be applied to the closed hats over a different period of bars. This prevents the listeners psyche from specifically identifying a fixed cyclic pattern in the different rhythms. Typically, odd numbered bars are chosen for the cyclic modulations since this works against the standard structural downbeat of dance music and results in a cross syncopation of modulation.
Excerpt from Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys, and Techniques by Rick Snoman © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.