Arpeggiators are extraordinarily fun musical tools because they blur the line between human and computer performance. Simply hold down a note or a chord on a keyboard and the arpeggiator will spit back a bouncing stream of notes related to the ones you pressed—instant musical gratification!

But arpeggiators aren't just for lazy keyboardists. They open your ear to new patterns and ideas, provide a groove, and some types even work on guitar. In this episode, we'll hear some of the wonderful and unexpected things arpeggiators can do. (DMI 09-07-2007: 7 minutes 51 seconds)

Production Notes

In recent episodes, I spent most of my production time cleaning up noisy telephone and Skype recordings, so I was glad to have high-quality audio to work with this time. The challenge was choosing which of the many arpeggiator examples on my hard drive to share. I also added snippets of popular arpeggiator-driven songs, using Ambrosia WireTap to capture the output of streaming online music players.

Loading the examples into BIAS Peak, I created fade-ins and fade-outs and then normalized the audio files to make the subsequent mixdown easier. Then I realized that the Digital Media Insider theme music features an arpeggiated bass line, so I decided to include it as well. But when I opened my original Ableton Live arrangement, I discovered that I'd played the bass part at the same time as the chords, using a multilayered patch in Steinberg Xphrase. To make the bass line stand out, I deleted the chords during the first eight bars (see Figure 1). I then pumped up the volume with Izotope Ozone's compressor and EQ.

MIDI Bass Line

Fig. 1: This MIDI piano-roll view in Ableton Live shows the bass line from the Digital Media Insider theme (the notes below C3). Although I played single notes, the arpeggiator in Steinberg Xphrase expanded each note into a little riff. A keyboard split turned the notes above C3 into burbling chords. The drum groove came from another layer in the patch—instant band!

I also tried a new recording technique this time. In the past, I recorded my voiceover directly into Peak, but for some reason, that program always ramped up the Mac's fans as soon as I hit the Record button, adding background noise. So this time I recorded into QuickTime Pro instead and then opened the audio file in Peak for editing. I suspect QuickTime Pro puts less load on the CPU because it's not creating fancy graphics, so the chips stay cool.

For a mic, I returned to the Rode Podcaster instead of the SE Electronics USB2200a I've been using in the last few episodes. Both mics plug directly into a computer via USB, but the Rode has a better pop filter, so I don't have to do as much cleanup on "P" sounds.

As usual, I then pulled the voiceover, examples, and background music together in Ableton Live 6, enhancing the vocals with Ozone.

The last step was to render the mix to an AIFF file and convert it to an MP3 in iTunes using a drag-and-drop AppleScript from Doug Adams. (I've found that iTunes is much faster at encoding MP3s than Peak, with no significant quality difference—at least at 128kbps, the rate we use for Digital Media Insider.)

The Digital Media Insider theme music came together in Live as well. The opening sound effect is a compressed mouth noise spliced onto a tone cluster I generated in Native Instruments Reaktor. The main groove is from Steinberg Xphraze. (Jim Aikin turned me on to both virtual instruments in his article "My Five Favorite Soft Synths.") The piano is from the Garritan Personal Orchestra, which I discovered when we interviewed Gary Garritan.

The theme also features a few percussion samples dredged from my hard drive. Altogether, it took just six tracks. Effects processing was courtesy of Live's default plugins and Freeverb.

Related O’Reilly Articles

Secrets of the Arpeggiator

Arpeggiators are some of the handiest gadgets in computer music. With an absolute minimum of dexterity, you can create driving rhythms and superhuman tapestries of notes. Jim Aikin explains how arpeggiators work, what features to look for, and how to use them to revitalize your music.

Digital Media Insider Podcast 4: (((Echo)))

Sync and grow rich! Hear how tempo-synced effects can bring your music to life. Plus: virtual guest appearances by drummer Stewart Copeland and drum machine pioneer Roger Linn. Musical examples include an echoing arpeggio.

Make Your Own Music Software with Pure Data

This introduction to Miller Puckette's Pure Data (Pd) graphical programming environment for Windows, Linux, and Mac explains how to make custom music software for free. It also includes a downloadable arpeggiator patch.

David Battino is the audio editor for O’Reilly’s Digital Media site, the co-author of The Art of Digital Music, and on the steering committee for the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IASIG). He also writes, publishes, and performs Japanese kamishibai storycards.

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