You’ve finished an arrangement, and you’re generally happy with it. It has a variety of sections, you’ve created Fuzzy Boundaries between them, they all seem to last for the right amount of time, and there are contrasts and appropriate levels of tension and release. But somehow, it still sounds like “loop music”—repetitive. You can’t consider it finished in this state, because it feels too predictable; it won’t offer any surprises beyond the first listen.
Modern DAWs suggest a workflow that combines loops into larger arrangements, and many genres of electronic music are defined by repeating patterns. But perfectly repeated loops can become tedious after a while. Here is one technique for creating a sense of surprise within an otherwise loop-based context.
At various points in your arrangement, insert unique events—sounds, gestures, or variations that occur only once and are never repeated. There are a few different types of unique events you can try
- Single events. These are short samples or sounds that can be strategically placed throughout your arrangement to add a layer of unpredictability. These can be almost anything—pitched or unpitched percussion sounds, single notes or chords played on an instrument that is otherwise never heard, etc. A good source of single events is the sample library you already have. Try finding unusual samples that would otherwise be out of context for your song. Depending on where you place these events, the effect on the listener can be quite varied. For example, placing single events at or near formal boundaries can make them feel like part of a transition, while placing them at formally insignificant moments can be quite jarring and interruptive, especially if they’re also placed in odd rhythmic locations that play “against” the grid of the song.
- Single musical gestures. These are short phrases or one-time alterations to otherwise consistently repeating patterns. It’s common to vary a musical phrase near a formal transition, but it can be especially interesting if you also create one-time variations within the middle of a phrase. Some DAWs offer various types of note- transformation tools, which can apply processes to a selection of MIDI notes to change some or all of them in a way that maintains a relationship to the original. These tools can provide an interesting way to create one-off musical gestures.
- Single processing gestures. Consider applying dramatic, one-time changes to the effects processing on one or more tracks. For example, set up a chain of effects but leave them bypassed or off. Then use automation to make them active only once before disabling them again. Single processing gestures can be especially disruptive if they’re quite short or if they occur in unusual places in a phrase.
Depending on the genre you’re working in, you can be quite creative with these unique events. Unless you’re working in a very commercial context, you don’t generally need to worry that “weird” (i.e., out of key, out of rhythm, etc.) unique events will ruin the texture of the music. But note that you should probably use them sparingly within a single song. Even though each individual event occurs only once, using too many unique events in a song can create its own sense of predictability. Listeners will begin to expect that something jarring or unusual will occur, which reduces the effectiveness of the technique.