Automation and expression

Many acoustic instruments have a wide variety of expressive possibilities. A performer usually has many ways in which the sound of the instrument can be subtly changed thoughout a performance.

For example, a guitarist often has more than one string available to play a particular note on. The strings can be excited with a pick or with fingers. The pick or fingers can excite the string at various points along the string. The other hand can ‘stop’ strings on the fretboard as they’re being excited, or ‘hammer’ the fretboard to simultaneously stop and excite the strings. The fretting hand can bend (stretch) strings and slide between notes.

An instrumentalist can spend years learning how to control these performance techniques and then learning how to use them effectively. A seasoned performer will be constantly varying the way in which the instrument sounds in order to better support the music.

Electronic instruments are even more versatile in their sound. A single parameter can dramatically alter the sound into something completely different. Many synthesisers have real-time performance controls, assignable parameters, modulation and pitch wheels.

Use them!

When adding a new synthesiser part to a composition, think about how you can change the timbre of the sound throughout the length of the song. Try to do this in a way that supports the dynamic contour of the song. Make the tweaks in realtime if you can – use a MIDI controller with knobs anor sliders if you’re using softsynths. If you’re recording MIDI, you have the added flexibility of being able to record the expression in multiple passes – you don’t have to do it all in one take like acoustic performers have to.

The same extends to effects processing. Subtly adjusting delay or reverb parameters over time can add drama and movement to song if it supports the overall contour. Alternatively, it can be used to reduce the dependency on more obvious dramatic movement in foreground instruments (the main instruments don’t have to move as much because everything is moving). Automating insert effects such as saturation, modulation (chorus, flanger, phaser), or more esoteric effects (such as ring modulation or pitch shifting) can add movement to parts that are already recorded, or instruments that don’t have a lot of expressive range.


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