One of the core beliefs here at Melodics is that focused, consistent and regular practice — even if it is just 5 minutes a day — is hugely beneficial to your growth as a musician.
We believe that putting aside time for regular practice in small increments is a better approach for gaining lasting skills and knowledge when compared to long, unfocused or infrequent practice sessions. As such, in Melodics we have included mechanics that emphasise aiming for 5 minutes practice per day — and give rewards that celebrate the frequency with which you achieve that 5 minute daily goal.
One of those mechanics that we have used to reward regular practice is Streaks, which tracks how many days in a row a user has reached that 5 minute daily goal in Melodics. This has functioned as a great motivator for a lot of you – seeing that Streak number keep ticking up is a fantastic way to keep you on your practice journey every day.
However – even the most dedicated musicians need days off sometimes!
This is why we are introducing Trophies.
Trophies, like Streaks, reward you for putting in that 5 minutes a day, but instead of starting back at square one when you miss a day, you are rewarded for your cumulative practice efforts.
Every practice session brings you closer to your goals as a musician, so you will receive Trophies for reaching milestones such as 7 days of practice, or 50 days, 100 days, or even more. You will be awarded these Trophies whenever you reach those milestones, whether it takes 100 days or 150. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill – but they didn’t say you had to do those 10,000 hours all in one go!
But for those dedicated Streakers, don’t worry, Streaks aren’t going anywhere.
You can still see your current Streak and your highest ever Streak right there in the progress screen where you have always been able to see it.
The calendar still keeps track of your sessions in Melodics so you can see how regularly you have been practicing. We still encourage trying to practice every day you can, because that’s the quickest way to improve.
However, for those that struggle to make time every day to practice on Melodics, losing a Streak can be a bit of a demotivator, so we want to include something in Melodics that celebrates all of the effort that you are still putting in.
“One night at midnight, I realised that I had forgotten to practice that day. I was so bummed that I didn’t practice for a month! Then I realized that while a streak is amazing, it’s more about putting in the work and enjoying the process. I quickly got back on track again.”
When these particular Kiwis fly, they go far and wide! In the six fresh years of The Beths taking center-stage, they’ve racked up a loyal flock of fans, signed with an international label, toured locally and abroad, and created a storming impression within the burgeoning indie rock scene. We spoke to the talented drummer of The Beths, Tristan Deck, about all things music in his world, including two new Melodics lessons for their hits, Jump Rope Gazer and Great No One. Tristan’s eclectic music taste and his fused style of pop-punk and jazz drumming has added to The Beth’s unique alternative and indie sound. We got the inside scoop of what it means to be flying high during turbulent times. Here’s how The Beths remain focused, adaptable, and keep their engines revving despite the odds.
How did you start playing drums with The Beths? What were you doing musically before joining the band?
I knew Liz and Ben through studying Jazz at Auckland University. I knew they’d started a band and the first time I heard The Beths play I fell in love with the music. I knew I wanted to be a part of it but was content to enjoy the band as a die hard fan. I was teaching drums and playing a lot of jazz and improvised music around Auckland. Jazz music remains a great love of mine, I love the drum language and the collaboration and spontaneity. I met Jon properly on tour with Aldous Harding and some touring work with The Beths needed to be filled. A dream come true! During that period in 2019 I became a full time member of the band.
What does it mean to you and the band to see songs by The Beths picked up and taught through a platform like Melodics?
I’m chuffed! The music I was listening to when I started learning drums was half what my parents played around the house and half whatever was on the radio. Back then NZ artists were featured at a higher proportion to overseas music on popular radio stations so I started practicing while listening to lots of music from Aotearoa without even realising it. I’m chuffed because I have a very high opinion of the quality of music being produced here and am stoked to be contributing to a scene I love!
Any pro tips for cracking the drum parts on Great No One and Jump Rope Gazers?
Great No One is so much fun to play. It’s fast and has lots of big anticipated offbeat hits. Listening to lots of pop punk will get your ears in the right place for the drumming language used in the drum part. Think of the drumming on the immortal album American Idiot by Green Day, Love & Disrespect by Elemeno P, or Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings.
What impact has Covid had on the band’s plans over the last couple of years?
Massive! We’ve had to shift from a large amount of touring and playing to staying in NZ or at home in our bubbles. We’ve done internet live streams for single and album releases and done lots of playing together, learning and workshopping different songs. I miss touring but spending a good bit of time back in NZ is wonderful. Whenever I’m on tour I miss going to watch gigs, which inspires me and makes me want to play more! There are positives and negatives for both situations.
You recently announced a 2022 North America tour, what impact will Covid have on how the shows happen? Are there certain precautions you have to put in place at the shows?
The touring landscape has changed permanently since early 2020. It’s heartbreaking to not be able to travel and play and meet people. In balancing our desire to return to a touring world the overwhelming priority is keeping people safe and healthy. The wellness of gig goers is something we take very seriously and will not put at risk by playing shows before it is prudent to do so!
Do you have any rituals or habits that help keep you on top drumming form? I try to pick up my sticks every day. I’m constantly drumming in my head and tapping ideas out on tables. I like building drum solos in my mind too – thinking about the things that I can play and arranging it in ways that sound interesting to me (and hopefully others!). It’s a great way to practise composition as well as being a memory exercise.
Any final tips for beginners or anyone thinking about playing drums?
Set realistic practice goals and focus on being regular with practice more so than the volume of practice. Make friends with as many other musicians as you can, it’s never too early in your drumming career to start playing music with others!
Compare how it felt listening to music before you ever learned an instrument, to how it feels now. Different?
Personally, I’ve found that after learning about music, how I observed it entirely changed. When I was younger, enjoyment of music for me was essentially pure unabashed appreciation for what I heard — I didn’t think about why I might like it, I just knew whether I did or not. But now that I’m familiar with playing and composing music, I can’t help but engage with it more; deconstruct the song, analyse the musicianship, critically listen to the instrumentation or compare it to my own ability.
You see, experiencing music changes for people if or as their musical journey progresses. Sometimes it’s good to remember what it was like before — how fresh and exciting it all sounded — and just enjoy music again as innocently as with the ears of a child, unadulterated by knowledge.
If you’re feeling burnt out on learning, here are some suggestions of other ways to engage with music that don’t involve actually practicing or playing – that could help you tap back into the aspiration and grit needed to keep you on your musical trajectory.
Listen to music (just, really listen)
Engaging with recorded music increasingly reads as consumption, rather than something to do with pleasure or leisure, or invigorating our own creativity. Reconnecting with music as a source of nourishment and inspiration can help jaded learners fall back in love with music and stay in the game. Here are a few ideas for how you can recalibrate your relationship with music through the way you listen:
Practice active listening as much as you can. So often, listening to music is a passive activity – especially now that algorithms are so finessed at serving stuff up. Dial down the distractions, and give yourself a moment with some tasty tunes where you actually shut your eyes and hone in on the way a song’s been constructed: what’s really going on in there, and why does it make you feel so good – or not? Here are some suggestions of what to listen for, from Ableton.
Create a playlist of songs you’d love to play live, and close-listen to the tracks. Imagine how your body would need to move if you were playing along, on your instrument of choice. What would your breath be doing? Your muscles? How would you centre yourself and lock into the groove? Great performers inhabit their music, and vice versa – their instrument, and the sounds they make with it, seem to be an extension of them. A lot of that boils down to psychology and being fully in the zone, not necessarily playing in a way that’s technically perfect. So, go on, spend some time with music thinking about how it makes you feel, and how you’d create that same sort of energy if you were the one performing.
If you need a little more hand-holding than that, we’re here for you! Check out this playlist of tunes the Melodics team is listening to, over on Spotify.
How much does the way we listen affect the impact music has on us? Australian composer and sound artist Lawrence English is a firm proponent that listening to music is a creative act in and of itself. Catch his Loop 2018 talk on the topic here.
We’ve also put together some Guided Listening blog posts, to help you identify an area of interest, and really dive in. Explore them here.
Get to know your heroes
Listening to podcasts is a great way to absorb inspirational insights into the career trajectories of your musical heroes: hear war stories; find out how their songs were put together; demystify their enigma (or have it reinforced); and learn where different artists sit in the wider cultural landscape. These are some of our go-to’s, which never fail to get us psyched about playing music ourselves:
Questlove Supreme is a fun, irreverent and educational weekly podcast that digs deep into the stories of musical legends and cultural icons in a way that only Questlove can deliver. Not your typical interview show, this is about legends and legends in the making bringing their legacy to life in their own words. Look out for eps with the likes of Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch, Chaka Khan, Weird Al, Biz Markie, and Babyface.
Song Exploder sees artists dissect one of their strongest songs over the course of an episode and, piece by piece, tell the story of how it was made. Isolating the individual tracks that comprise the final recording, host Hrishikesh Hirway asks artists to delve into the specific decisions that went into creating their hit. Over 200 episodes have been created so far, featuring the likes of The Roots, Yo-Yo Ma, Jon Hopkins, Fleetwood Mac, Billie Eilish, Metallica, FKA Twigs, Arlo Parks, and Robyn. Also clock the Netflix version.
Broken Record sees Rick Rubin, Malcolm Gladwell, and former New York Times editor Bruce Headlam take turns interviewing some of the biggest names in music. Rubin’s episodes are of particular note – hearing the legendary producer chew the fat with the likes of Brian Eno, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and David Byrne is pretty special stuff, and a great reminder of how magical music can make you feel.
Switched on Pop
Switched On Pop is a podcast about the making and meaning of popular music hosted by musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, produced by Rock Ridge Productions, Vox Media Podcast Network and New York Magazine. The hosts chat with leading artists, songwriters and producers to break down hit pop tunes to figure out what gives them their x-factor, and the role cultural context plays.
What had happened was
What had happened was sees Open Mike Eagle sit down with legendary hip hop artists for an in-depth look at their life, impact, and legacy over the course of one season. Season one covers DJ Prince Paul (De La Soul, Handsome Boy Modeling School). Season two covers El-P (Company Flow, Run the Jewels).
There’s more to music than playing live! Developing your understanding of things like sound design, production and composition can help you to find the fire for music creation and performance again. Here are some great resources that take you behind-the-scenes of music making:
Sound design, production and composition tips
Signals Music Studio – From songwriting to modal theory for dummies, Signals Music Studio cover all bases
It’s one thing to decide to learn an instrument, it’s another to stick with the process until you’re skilled enough that you can play without thinking. There are plenty of reasons our enthusiasm can start to wane – and sometimes there are very real, practical reasons we put our instruments aside.
Here are some reasons we commonly hear from our users as to why they’re struggling to stay motivated. We’ve faced all of these personally too, so it’s important to feel that you’re not alone in this.
Combating these is the only real barrier to you shooting for the musical stars, staying on your learning journey, and above all having a fun and rewarding experience.
Life can get busy, and it’s easy to feel like learning music is a luxury – which quite often means it’s the first to drop off a person’s to-do list. But even five minutes per day can lead to progress. In fact, frequent chunks of deliberate practice can be more effective than infrequent but lengthy practice sessions.
Daily warm-ups, short exercises, practicing a small loop, or even attempting just the first step in a lesson are easy ways to dip into Melodics for quickfire sessions, regardless of how busy you are. It’s good to remember too that giving your creative self some time to flex can make for better energy and focus when juggling those real-life priorities.
We get it, no one likes the sound of a bum note – and watching those little Melodics icons turn every colour but green can be a defeating feeling! But mistakes are a natural part of learning, no matter how long you’ve been playing or how much of a pro (or newbie) you are.
Continuing to challenge yourself in new ways is essential if you want to keep levelling up. Melodics’ live feedback function makes it easy, by highlighting the small adjustments that will help you hone your game.
Flipping the narrative so that you associate mistakes and challenges with growth – and address them rather than shrink away from them – will free you up to enjoy the learning process and stick with it.
Failure isn’t a thing at Melodics, rather, there’s an opportunity to identify areas to work on with laser-like accuracy, and help you reset and sharpen your approach. Knowing where you mistakes are is a blessing, so, embrace them, and consider them part of discovering a clear path to progress.
There’s no finish line in the learning journey and that’s a great thing.
I don’t know where to start
Self-directed learning can be a daunting process, especially if you’re used to learning from a human teacher. If you’re struggling to find a place to start within Melodics, try one of our courses.
Check out our Courses page, which features clearly themed groups of lessons based around related learning objectives, and focus on things like specific skills, iconic sounds, and basic theory.
Taking it a step further, the Melodics Guided Path provides a curated walkthrough of some of our fundamental courses, ensuring you’ve built a solid foundation for pads, keys or drums for you to be more comfortable exploring by yourself afterwards.
For more tips on getting started with Melodics, have a read of this.
My practice sessions are inefficient and unproductive
Do you find you default to the familiar, and repeat the same activity every time you sit down to practice?
Making a plan beforehand and keeping a progress journal can help to keep you moving forward and maximising the time you have to devote to learning. Write a list of things you’d like to achieve within a certain timeframe, and keep notes about your progress, including any blocks. Spend some time focussing on addressing these – rather than skipping ahead before you’re ready just because it’s more fun in the short term.
If you find you keep getting distracted, make use of your ‘favourite’ button, which you can use to save lessons that appeal to you to a playlist. Come back to them later and you’ll dive in and engage with the task at hand with far less kerfuffle.
I spend too much time getting my environment ‘just right’, and run out of time to actually practice
The obvious answer to this one is to dedicate a spot in your home or office to music, and leave your gear set up just how you like it so that you can dip in for any length of practice time.
But let’s be honest: having a dedicated music-space isn’t possible for everyone!
So we suggest a simple shift of perspective: rather than feeling like you have to be totally in the zone to practice, occasionally allow yourself to think of practice as something to tick off the to-do list, like doing some exercise or having a shower. Sit down, plug in and play for however long you can – even if the room’s a mess, and the lighting isn’t quite right. You might find you end up in your flow state anyway 😉
We’ve designed Melodics so you can easily plug in and play, and we’re always working to remove any barriers (both in- or out-of-app) that might slow our users down – such as growing our ever-expanding list of supported instruments, releasing our app for iPad. Got any suggestions? Share it with us here.
I keep overcomplicating it
It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds when learning music; we get deep in the theory, and intellectualise something that should be feeding and feeding from our creative energy. Don’t get us wrong, theory is important – and learning the ‘rules’ of music can help free you up to play with, or break, them later on.
But if you’re finding your learning journey is getting a bit dry, letting yourself have a good old fashioned muck-around can help bring the joy back.
Make a playlist of tunes you love, and play along to them for the sheer joy of it –and don’t worry whether you’re doing it perfectly. Remember, music is supposed to be fun, and reminds you why you’ve picked up an instrument in the first place. Playing for fun keeps you in the game.
I love performing, but find it hard to motivate myself to practice
It’s easy to get caught up in the enigma of music and forget that, actually, the greatest performers work really hard to make it look easy when they’re on stage. If you take the time to practice you’ll be more confident and relaxed when performing, and your audiences will notice the difference. Sure, it’s way more fun enjoying the fruits of your labour, than doing the labour itself, but Melodics offers a sweet in-between: you get to practice by playing along with tunes you enjoy, and we’re adding new lessons all the time so it never gets boring.
For more on achieving your musical goals, check out this great piece on Habit Hacking.
Ashley Simpson started off using Melodics with virtually no musical experience — yet now she’s realising her musical goals of live performances, producing and recording her own original compositions as the artist Flawed Freedom.
To ice the cake — Flawed Freedom’s debut album ‘Four Thirty’ has just launched.
Reflecting on her childhood in Sierra Vista, Arizona, Ashley Simpson, aka the finger-drummer and music producer Flawed Freedom’s fondest memories revolve around music. “I used to ride in the car with my mother and sister singing along to Deborah Cox, S.W.V or Xscape,” she recalls. “Thinking about music also makes me think about family barbecues; you already know we always had music going at those,” she continues to include NSNYC, Backstreet Boys and Motown Records. “I played sports as a child, and I really wanted to play drums and piano, but my mother couldn’t afford for me to do both, so that was that,” she says.
But years later, in 2018 Flawed Freedom chanced across a video clip that stopped her in her tracks: a short routine from the well-loved hip-hop producer and finger-drummer Beats By J Black.
“He’d flipped a sample from ‘So Gone’ by Monica and he was finger drumming it,” she remembers. “I just fell in love.” Blown away, she showed the video to her boyfriend and said, “I wish I could do this.” He replied with a simple, supportive question, “Why can’t you?”
“Why can’t you?”
By this point, Flawed Freedom was no stranger to Youtube tutorials. She had purchased a midi keyboard and racked up a bit of digital audio workstation experience recording herself improvising in the Logic Pro program, but that was about the extent of it.
“I’d purchased a controller, and I wasn’t even sure how to map it correctly using Logic,” she admits. All of that changed when J Black’s youtube videos led her to an advert for Melodics.
“I was so intrigued by J Black, and the software had lessons from him in it … I wanted to do all of his lessons straight away, and I just clicked with it. I didn’t have to think about what kick to use or what snare … The plug and play functionality made it very easy.”
With no real agenda or clear plan, Flawed Freedom made a point of trying to do something music-related every day. It’s a simple practice, and one that she still follows.
“I don’t think I had a particular goal in mind when I first picked up finger drumming, I just really liked music and wanted to learn how to flip samples. I was intrigued by the pads, triggering these pads, and the live performance aspect. I really would have never thought that I’d have a YouTube page or an Instagram, you know? It’s been such an interesting, unexpected journey.”
Once she was practising in Melodics regularly, Simpson gravitated towards lessons from STLNDRMS, OddKidOut, Jeremy Ellis, DiViNCi, Jeia and, of course, J Black. “I kept trying to be better, and it was really fun for me. It became such a de-stressor. If I was in a bad mood, I would finger drum. If I was happy, I would finger drum. So it just became part of my everyday life.”
“I think maybe the first or second day I practised for two hours or something,” she remembers. “I just could not stop playing. I really pride myself on my quality, and I wanted to get the three-star rating. I was not happy with one star; I wasn’t happy with two stars. I would just come right back to it. I’d be on there until my arms hurt.”
Daily practice taught Flawed Freedom about timing, hand independence and strength. “It all helped me get my fingers and arms to the strength I needed them to have,” she laughs. “I did not have that at first. I was struggling, but it was so fun.”
Session by session, the pure pleasure of that process helped Flawed Freedom unlock skills she’d never even dreamed of having. “I don’t want to overuse the word mind-blowing, but I continue to surprise myself and the people closest to me because I’ve just picked this up so quickly,” she reflects.
Practising those lessons also reinforced her thinking around the sound that she was dreaming up in her head. “I think I have a lo-fi hip-hop sound,” she explains, while also referencing her fandom for the dearly departed Crenshaw rapper/social motivator Nipsey Hussle and North Carolina rapper, producer and Dreamville record label owner J.Cole “I really like old school samples and that soulful sound. I think I’ll start to incorporate vocals into what I do soon, but really it’s hip-hop and trap with a soulful bent.”
“I really respect the fact that she has bars and is such a great vocalist. Her recent album Industry Games was very impactful to me.”
Once she started to feel comfortable in her skills, Flawed Freedom took a few crucial steps. First, she contacted the British Sri Lankan producer, live performer, DJ and educator Gnarly Music for some online music lessons. Gnarly assessed Flawed Freedom’s experience, explained some fundamentals to her, and set her up to play and record on Native Instruments Maschine hardware/software digital audio workstation.”
Reflecting on it now, she realises that she didn’t fully comprehend how much of a foundation Melodics had given her at the time.
“When I started taking lessons with Gnarly, she told me, ‘Wow, you’re picking this up pretty quick,’ there were some advanced hi-hats that she showed me. Gnarly said they took her however long to learn, and I was learning it in our third or fourth session. I’m almost certain that if it hadn’t been for Melodics, getting the basic timing of things down and learning how to work my hands differently, I wouldn’t have advanced so quickly with her.”
Giving practice purpose
After beginning her Maschine journey with Gnarly Beats, Flawed Freedom tackled the nerves that can come with sharing your music in public by opening an Instagram account and a Youtube Channel. She started uploading videos of her routines and improvised jams regularly and was quickly rewarded with warm praise and a sense of purpose.
“In my short experience, I’ve started to really understand the impact of what I’m doing,” she says. “At first, it was all about me, but now it’s about inspiring people. It’s about helping people with anxiety. It’s about showing little girls that it might be a male-dominated industry, but there’s still space for us here; just as much space. I don’t take it lightly.”
From there, Flawed Freedom cut back on her Melodics use while she was honing her recording and live performance skills in the studio. “I got a little gear and software crazy,” she laughs. “Now I use Maschine, Ableton and FL Studio.” Working away, she developed a beat-making practice she describes as a mixture of sampling and music theory. “It just kind of flows,” she continues. “Now it’s about feeling. Do my ears like this? I start a lot of my tracks with piano, and I really like mallets. I try not to overthink it and just do what feels good. If something doesn’t sound great, I’ll save it and come back to it later. I just want people to be moved.”
The future is bright
More recently, however, as she prepares to start releasing her recordings properly, Flawed Freedom has found herself returning to Melodics regularly again. “I’ve recently gone back and stuff that was so difficult back then, months ago, or however long, I can knock out now, no problem,” she enthuses. “I think that’s really cool just to see the progression and know that I really am putting in the time and the work to be better.”
This time around, she’s also found her relationship with the software shifting, reflecting: “At first, when I was doing Melodics, I was just focused on drums and timing”. Now what I take from Melodics is this. If I do a lesson on finger independence and I don’t do that well, I know that’s something I really need to work on. So whether it’s in Melodics, or outside of Melodics, I’m doing things to try and work on my finger independence or my hand independence.”
Moving forward, aside from releasing music, Flawed Freedom has dreams of opening her own online beat store to sell instrumentals to vocalists and rappers. After the pandemic is under control, she hopes to start performing live and pay it forward by teaching finger drumming and production to eager students. And when the time comes, she knows what she’ll say to them:
“Don’t take it too seriously, don’t stress yourself out, and have a good time. Be consistent — and that doesn’t mean you have to set a confined schedule of what you’re going to do — but just consistently work on your craft. Make sure you’re true to yourself. Everyone has opinions. Everybody has feedback, and that’s nice, but do what makes you happy. Make the music that you want to make and be consistent. Be true to yourself, and you can’t go wrong.”
Hopefully, as Flawed Freedom’s profile rises, she’ll continue to communicate these messages to others for years to come.
Four Thirty – Flawed Freedom – the debut EP
Purchasing her first home on 20th April 2021, and with a tumultuous 2020 in hindsight, Flawed Freedom has now entered a transformational period of her life, coinciding with releasing her first EP ‘Four Thirty.’
For her, “April 30th signifies a new beginning” — a fitting symbol of the rapid metamorphosis from the musically-untrained Ashley Simpson, to the finger drummer and producer Flawed Freedom.
With that beginning, I’ve released fear and doubt and shared my very first EP. Four Thirty is a blend of soul, funk, and hip-hop and it’s my hope that it relaxes folks as well as makes you want to move.
Here at Melodics, we believe it’s never too late to get started on the journey of learning music. We also know that when you start learning music later in life, it’s easy to feel discouraged by what you need to catch up on or frustrated with your progress.
Today, we’re sharing a story with you about someone who came to music later in life, pushed through discouragement, and changed the sound of popular music.
“There are some very happy people who top out playing in the lobby at holiday inns. But the they’re playing music, and they’re happy… So it’s supposed to make you happy. Don’t value your gift according to where you fall on the scale of ‘commercial’, ‘professionalism’: enjoy it! If you can lock yourself up in your closet and just groove, don’t cheat yourself out of that!.”
— Bill Withers
When the great American soul man Bill Withers released his signature song ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ in 1971, he was an unknown 31-year-old singer-songwriter and musician who worked a nine-to-five job assembling toilets for an aircraft parts company in Southern California. That year, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ ascended into the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart before becoming the first of three gold records in the US for Bill.
Even as his star rose, Bill initially refused to give up his day job, to the extent where the cover of his debut album, Just As I Am, was shot at his workplace on a lunch break. As ‘Ain’t No Sunshine was followed by ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Lean On me’, Bill became a ubiquitous star within the great pantheon of American music. Seemingly overnight, he was the toast of the country.
In reality, Bill was anything but an overnight success, and actually, coming to music later in life became a source of strength for him. By the time he bought his first guitar in his late 20s, Bill had spent just under a decade serving with the United States Navy. He left school at 17 because of a chronic stutter which left him withdrawn and socially disconnected. In the navy, Bill received speech therapy, which built his self-confidence.
Growing up as an outsider gave him a sharp observational eye, and coming to music at an older age gave him time to think about what really needed to be said in songs. In 1967, he garnered his first opportunity to show off his skills through releasing a single titled ‘Three Nights And A Morning’ through the New York-based Lotus label. Although the single was produced and arranged by the great Mort Garson, it sank without a trace at the time.
Undeterred, Bill continued performing in nightclubs around Los Angeles, writing songs and recording demo tapes with money earned from daytime assembly jobs at IBM, Ford and Douglas Aircraft Corporation. In 1970, Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records, heard one of Bill’s tapes and signed him up for the first of three albums through the label, Just As I Am (crediting none other than greats Stephen Stills, Booker T Jones, Jim Keltner, Al Jackson Jr., Bobbye Porter in musical personnel).
‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ turned nostalgia for something that was hurting you into a top ten hit, and ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and ‘Lean On Me’ placed affection for family and friends on an equal footing to romantic love. Song by song, Bill drew from his life experience and observations to establish a new emotional vocabulary for popular American music. If he had started writing music earlier or hadn’t had challenges to overcome first, Bill wouldn’t have had as deep a wellspring to draw from as a songwriter and musician.
The story of the first stage of his career is a telling reminder that it’s never too late to start pursuing something you love, and actually, if you’re willing to work at it, starting later can be a deep and enduring source of strength.
Bill Withers left the public eye just as he arrived: quickly, and on his own terms. “The business came to me in my 30s. I was socialised as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me… When somebody asks ‘what have you been doing?’ the answer is ‘living’,” he reflected in 2003. “I have no bitterness. I just live and whatever happens, happens.”
“So if you feel like you have the gift, and you want to find out. Make yourself available, and the world will let you know”
What’s our most precious resource and something you can only spend once?
If you didn’t guess already, the answer is time. It’s rather ironic, that given its fleeting nature, we still tend to spend our time quite casually…
A lack-of-time, however, is the #1 reason people give for abandoning their dreams of learning or mastering an instrument. And yet time is the one thing guaranteed it will take to get there!
In reality though, life is filled with plenty of high-priority things — so in our quest for finding that perfect balance, we say that even 5 minutes of music every now and again is better than never at all.
So in the spirit of prime numbers, here’s 7 things the time impaired can do in Melodics that’ll fit in and around just about any other life commitments, ready any time you find yourself with a spare moment or three.
1. Do a quick session with one of our Daily Warmups or workout exercises.
The point of these isn’t about learning anything specific, or playing the notes right as you’re not playing a whole lesson or course. The main thing here is that you’re using your brain differently than you do at other points of your daily life.
You’re limbering up, building your muscle memory and dexterity. You’re just passively getting used to being confident on your instrument, and importantly: you can stop doing a warmup just as easily as it is to start one: whenever you feel like it.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but playing a lesson a few grades too hard for you means that your expectations really aren’t going to have you beating yourself up about the inevitable score! Even for seemingly impossibly fast songs, you can slow the track down using Practice Mode to a point where it’s playable.
So what’s the point of this then?
It’s amazing how much simply getting the lay of the land helps set a benchmark for future attempts and how you improve with time. You don’t even have to complete a lesson to benefit from this.
Use the filter settings to search by lesson grade, and pick something a couple of grades higher than where you’d comfortably sit. Give it a quick crack!
3. Jam over a track on a lesson you’ve nearly or recently completed.
Look for the unlocked Playground Mode icon on any lesson’s completion screen.
Heaps of musicians record themselves jamming, or free-playing over their compositions to get creative, listen back and evaluate their playing, or to find some sweet-sounding gems they might save for a rainy day.
So mix it up! Don’t feel that using Melodics is all about practise, learning or getting feedback on your ability. It’s really important to just be playing music for the sheer joy of it — and prove to yourself and no-one else that you’ve got a couple of tricks in the bag.
Playground Mode is the perfect way to remove all script, structure and rules and just play whatever you feel like. And the cool thing is you can record and listen back to your last attempt.
You unlock this mode on any lesson you’ve already passed (i.e. getting 1-star or more on it), so check it out!
It’s easy to get caught up in doing something new — but what about those lessons you probably did ages ago and passed? We’re not A+ passed — we mean the stuff you might’ve just scraped by on… But we bet you’d totally smash them out of the park if you tried them again now.
Go on, let’s put a bow on some of those 1- or 2-star lessons with a 3-star performance (or… more?), and show us all that progress you’ve made!
Use the search filter to browse by 1- or 2- stars to find a good lesson.
Remember when you’d spend hours agonising over creating that perfect compilation? Choosing songs to fit on 23-minutes a side, whilst perfectly capturing every nuance of your personality, every agonizing detail of your teenage complexity?
Yeah, na, me neither. These days it’s done in a heartbeat on Spotify anyway. And you can do this in Melodics too: just think of the favourites button as a hot-key for your personal Top 25 (PRO TIP: it doesn’t have to be at your normal workstation, you could even download the Melodics iPad app and make a playlist from anywhere you feel like!)
So one of the best ways you can make your practices faster and more productive is removing the obstacles and being prepared!
Do yourself a favour, and pick some favourites now for practising another time!
Lessons and courses are all divided up into component steps.
Not only is it not required for you to complete the lot in one sitting, rather, it’s often better to just stop after the first step, and come back to continue or redo the rest at a later date. Think of it less like a marathon, and more of an enjoyable hike — you’ll still end up going the same distance either way. And hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day…
That’s right, we’re telling you not to finish a lesson — just do the first step.
Spreading lessons out over time helps build habits better — it reinforces repeated behaviour with multi-session structure, rather than 1-offs, doesn’t overload your brain or drain you of energy, and above all bite-sized pieces makes the prospect of success easier to achieve and less labourious.
Hands up if when you think about practising, you tend to focus on the effort of setting up instead: clearing off your desk, opening up the app, plugging your instrument in and turning it on, thinking about what genre you want to play, scrolling through and previewing endless lessons? It’s a motivation killer! Remember what we said about 5 minutes every now and then is better than never at all? Let’s make sure then that it’s time well spent: fun, simple and effective.
So here’s something different: you can still play in Melodics without even plugging an instrument in! Regardless of whether you play keys, pads or drums, or what your favourite genre is: rhythm, timing, and dexterity are universal traits foundational to musical confidence (so it’s not just ‘ok’ to try play a different instrument or genre when you’re practising — it’s great for you!)
1) Open up the Melodics app;
2) Choose any simple and easy lesson (tip: browse by low grade), and;
3) Use your laptop’s keyboard or the onscreen UI if you’re on iPad.
Here’s some handpicked lessons you can do on a computer keyboard or iPad UI:
Playing any of the instrument-parts from one of your own musical compositions;
Recording tracks in a realistic, less robotic fashion than you would from “drawing” the notes in a DAW’s piano roll;
Be a confident player in performances or live shows;
Be able to sit down at a keyboard, pads or drum kit and play a beat or progression like you hear in your head;
Learn a new instrument, and play it good simply for the sheer joy of it!
Do any of these resonate with you personally?
Learning anything, especially an instrument, requires plenty of dedication. Not everyone is prepared for this, and can at times find themselves overwhelmed. If this sounds like you, we’re here to say: don’t give up! This article is here to show a path that can help you progress towards any goals you have. How? By rewiring your habits.
Habits present a way to demystify how some people are seemingly on an effortless trajectory for success. Though there is always a degree of effort required (regardless of how apparent it may seem), luck certainly doesn’t factor much, if at all.
There is a lot of info in this article, but if you take the time to think on what you’ll learn in these 5 steps from time to time, you’ll be able to translate any aspirations you might have into habits: the actionable, bite-sized steps you can use to achieve success.
Think of your own personal goals as you read this too. It’d be interesting to note if how you define them changes!
Having a broad aspiration is great! After all, you can’t improve without challenge. But it’s at each step within the process of reaching that ultimate outcome where you should define multiple successes.
Why? Aspirations as goals are inherently lofty — they’re not dreams, because there is a real chance of you achieving them. But depending on how complex or ambitious your goals are, it can be difficult to see a potential path towards actually achieving them — so instead, the route you do end up taking is often met with frustration, feeling overwhelmed, or simply not making the progress you want. Treating aspirations as dreams is not a path to success.
Define success by your habits, not by your goals.
Defining your concept of “success” solely by an end goal isn’t necessarily an effective way to make good progress. It may even set you up for avoidable disappointment. To summarise Tony Robbins (love him or hate him), “that’s trying to eat the whale whole, without taking smaller bites”.
Instead, consider your system of habits: the required process as a whole of how to actually get to your end goal.
As an example, your end goal might be focusing on buying your dream instrument — so one chunk of that system of habits might be setting aside some of every pay cheque to start saving. A second habit in the system might be ensuring you don’t spend those savings elsewhere in the meantime!
“You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems”
— James Clear
STEP 2: How are Habits Formed?
This step is aimed at deepening your background understanding of habits and what makes them a recurring system: how they work, form or are broken. Let’s drill down.
“You are what you repeatedly do”
— James Clear
As animals we’re sort of wired in a constant pursuit of feeling rewarded. This behaviour not only satisfies us and satiates cravings; it evaluates which actions best satiate these cravings, so we can learn and repeat them. This is a 4-step perpetual cycle of learning we call the Habit Loop.
The 4-Step Habit Loop:
Which emotion, bit of information or sense triggers you to go on to engage in a behaviour which will resolve the cue and make you feel rewarded?
This could be something primal such as thirst, hunger, cleanliness; or more psychologically complex like dissatisfaction or boredom
Cravings are the motivational impetus behind habits. They impart a desire to change whatever has triggered you: How do you wish to feel or be rewarded?
A classic example is looking at the motivation behind cleaning your teeth: you’re likely motivated by craving fresh breath and oral hygiene; not the act of cleaning your teeth itself!
The response is your action — your habit itself per se. How do you respond to a craving?
During this stage you might consider several different potential actions, evaluate the pros & cons; the friction involved in doing each option, and your ability to ultimately execute them. What is your motivation to respond?
An example might be when you’re cued by boredom, your craving is entertainment, and your chosen response is to browse social media.
Reward is satiating your prior feeling of craving, but also your subconscious moment of reflection. Every time you’re rewarded, your brain reviews and evaluates how effective your response was at addressing your craving and feeds back into the habit loop for next time.
Continuing on from the previous example, the entertainment of checking social media can start to become associated with a means to resolve boredom, depending on how effective the reward was — but do you start to become bored with it as a means of entertainment after a while?
How are habits broken?
Habits break just as they are formed! Successfully-formed habits have an obvious cue, an attractive craving, an easy-to-do response, and a sufficiently fulfilling reward.
Your brain is constantly weighing up the benefit at each stage: evaluating friction and motivation, urgency or ability to respond against the ultimate reward.
If a habit loop can only occur if all 4-stages of the criteria are successful, then breaking the cycle and preventing habits could be done in theory as simply as removing or reducing one or more stages:
Remove the cue if possible (the habit will never be triggered);
Minimise the craving or make it unattractive (you’ll be less inclined to respond);
Make the response itself problematic or arduous (there’s too much friction or you won’t be able to do it);
Make the end reward dissatisfying (engaging in the habit wasn’t worth the effort).
Creatures of habit
This episode of Hidden Brain is a fun little podcast that might give you some good tips on behaviour! Here, guest psychologist Wendy Wood shares some of her research into habits; how to build good ones (and break the bad ones.) As an anecdote, she would actually sleep in her running clothes to reduce the friction of going for a run. Go figure…
“So there was a study that is quite amazing, I think – but it has been replicated a couple of times – on how far people travel to the gym. If people travel about 3 1/2 miles, then they are likely to go to the gym five times a month on average. If people travel 5 miles, then they’re likely to go only once a month on average…
The 5 miles presents friction. The 3.5 miles is much less friction and makes the behaviour more likely.”
— Wendy Wood
STEP 3: Tips for Hacking the Habit Loop.
So now you know about the habit loop, why you have certain habits, and how they’re broken — you might be considering your current goals, and how you could begin to harness knowledge of habits to create a different version of yourself.
Whilst the urge to enact sweeping, profound life-changes is natural, often it’s far more effective to alter existing habits incrementally, than it is remove or form completely new ones. Use the 4-stage loop of your current habits to your advantage!
“Small adjustments make a massive difference to your life”
— James Clear
If you use habits to make tiny 1% improvements to one small thing on a daily or recurring basis — over the course of weeks, months and years, you end up being multiple times better than where you started. No matter how small, every 1% change is a success, and something to acknowledge or celebrate.
Habits also present a small chunk of changeable behaviour — but beware the temptation to “over chunk” and become overwhelmed by the minutiae of steps involved in enacting change.
Here’s some easy tips on slightly altering an existing habit’s cue, craving, response or reward, to make change and progress easy and achievable. You don’t have to do all of them, you can start as small as just picking one:
TIP #1: Make the cue obvious
“Habit Stack” by attaching a new habit to an existing habit or routine you already have. Find yourself an obvious cue.
e.g. Your daily after-dinner dishes: stack a small 10 minute practice session as part of your post-dinner cue or routine.
TIP #2: Make the craving attractive
“Temptation bundling” associate the action of a new habit to a craving of a reward you know you love, so to prevent it feeling like punishment.
e.g. You might love a daily wind-down beverage. You can bundle the temptation of a relaxing drink with completing your 10 minute practice session goal.
TIP #3: Make the response easy
Remove as much friction as possible, to make your new habit as easy as possible to do.
e.g. leave your practice gear out and ready to go, so you don’t have to spend time setting up right before hand.
Pre-plan your practices before so you hit the ground running when you start.
Don’t set your goals too high (remember the “1% change” or “2 minute” rule)
If you do better than your target, that’s awesome, but the main path to success is getting the obstacle low enough for you to easily climb over and change without struggling with motivation.
e.g. “Instead of practising for an hour, I’ll just practice for 5 minutes.”
TIP #4: Make the reward satisfying
You’ve already bundled your temptations, so you best make sure you reward yourself!
Another effective technique is to tie your reward back to your cue. Use reinforcements that also help remind you to act, motivate to continue, and provide immediate satisfaction for keeping up your new habit.
A common tool is maintaining a habit trackeror checklist, a blog, post or video diary, or using your Melodics Daily Streaks as a reminder. e.g. When you visually see your accomplishments, you’ll be motivated to continue acting in the same manner.
TIP #5: What to do when you fall off!
“Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”
— James Clear
No-one is too big to recover. Musician and Melodics user Gretchen King perhaps describes it best from her own experience in falling off the wagon after having practiced for 300 consecutive days:
“One night at midnight, I realised that I had forgotten to practice that day. I was so bummed that I didn’t practice for a month! Then I realised that while a streak is amazing, it’s more about putting in the work and enjoying the process. I quickly got back on track again.”
— Gretchen King, musician
Habits aren’t all-or-nothing: habits certainly change, evolve or lapse with time, so don’t stress it too much if you can’t keep it up consistently. You can absolutely recover if and when a routine breaks down; if you can’t get back on the horse and continue from where you left off, re-evaluate your purpose and set new 1% goals to get back to where you want to be.
STEP 4: Start tracking your habits!
Ready to transform your own musical habits? Here’s a handy exercise to go through of everything covered in this article:
What’s your “big” goal?
What smaller successes build up to the big picture?
What frequent habits do you need to reach each success?
For each habit, what is your obvious cue, attractive craving, simple response and satisfying reward?
If you’re dedicated to updating your habits and working towards meaningful, personal success, consider what your responses to this exercise would be, and use your answers to set yourself daily or weekly goals in an obvious way.
STEP 5: Doing something with your Habits.
By changing your habits to be what you actively want them to be, you’ll find your own identity starting to evolve as well.
It’s a subtle distinction that might even sound obvious. But realising that clear personal identity helps you identify as part of a select community or a tribe; where you have the mandate to do all that other stuff you’d be expected to do. Stuff which also helps you on your way to reaching your goals. Is your goal to run a marathon? Great! You’re part of a tribe of “runners.” Is your goal to “be able to play the keyboard part all yourself from one of your own musical compositions?” Then your identity could be “I’m a keyboardist.”
Why join the tribe?
Nothing fosters motivation like belonging to the tribe does. Having fun together helps, but social reinforcement and obligations doubly so! If your personal goal is transformed into one shared by a group, your identity becomes linked to those around you, and you all work together to support and sustain each other’s identity. Development and progress is no longer your individual pursuit. Now it’s: We are musicians. We are a band.
“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world.”
— Dave Grohl, putting it sincerely.
There’s a tribe waiting for you:
You like playing music live? Join a local band, association or attend open mic nights or just support the community and watch their live shows.
Melodics derives a lot of inspiration from the teachings of James Clear, both in how we’ve developed our music education app and the design of our curriculum, but also in how we conduct our every day lives as musicians — and hence the advice written in this article (it’s littered with his quotes!). We’d say that if you’re serious, his book ‘Atomic Habits’ is a must-read; and his blog provides some fabulous insights into the science of habit, motivation and productivity, decision-making and creativity.
It’s been a busy and productive 12-or-so months for Melodics. In addition to some major milestone product feature launches, we’ve also really expanded our curriculum at all skill levels: producing and releasing over 200 new lessons (there’s over 1300 total in the full version of the app now), expanded to include 8 more genres (52 total and counting, from ‘Afro Cuban’ to ‘Vapourwave’), and have significantly bulked up our Guided Paths for aspiring musicians in each of our 3 instrument types.
Beyond producing and releasing more musical content, the last year’s product developments were grounded on the following points:
It’s important for growing musicians to feel their burgeoning sense of musical ability as they progress.
They will also need the tools to define, measure and track their musical progress throughout their journey on their own, and in a way that makes sense to them and others.
Remove barriers to reaching a state of euphoric musical “flow”, make sure students are getting good feedback, rewarded, feel motivated when they succeed, and give them the tools they need to build up to perfection with greater autonomy.
Getting the full experience — whenever, wherever inspiration strikes. (Re)Introducing Melodics for iPad.
Our first major release of the year: In April 2021, Melodics went Mobile (again)!
We know how useful a spontaneous, ergonomic, portable (yet powerful) device like the iPad is for musicians wanting to play or practice with as little hassle as possible. Going mobile is a great way of breaking down barriers that might otherwise prevent you from getting into and enjoying making music ASAP.
We actually have had an early-access iPad app since early 2020. And yet, we were prevented from updating it with all the new features available in the Desktop versions of Melodics since May 2020(!) — that is, until we could incorporate In-App Purchases (IAP).
We want Melodics users to have the same experience anywhere: from their desktop, laptop to iPad — so IAP was developed to appease the powers-that-be and get our iPad up and running once again.
We’re proud to say, that day has come: all Melodics customers can use their existing credentials and subscription to get the full Melodics experience on their iPad for a smoother music workflow and to play music whenever the mood strikes.
This is no real wonder — zooming in with focus, chunking, and starting slow before building up are highly effective Deliberate Practice techniques musicians have used to master difficult passages, error free, for 300,000 years long before 1993 (when the term was coined).
Upgrading Practice Mode was broken up into 3 projects:
“Slow it Down” (time stretching ability whilst maintaining the pitch of the original track);
“Zoom in with Focus” (snapped loops, and ensuring a minimum 1-bar duration);
“Review and Repeat” (presenting users with ‘listen back’, ‘practice’ or ‘perform again’ options; encouraging active listening and critique of performances, and with only 1-click, users can return back to redo sections without having to find or reset loops).
Over 25% of our users now use Practice Mode multiple-times every single session — and it’s in this group of methodically-minded musicians where we see the greatest rate of skill improvement and musical progress.
Feel and measure your musical progress. Introducing Step- and Course-end Commentaries.
We thought it might be nice if we better expressed key “learning outcomes” for all our musical content. So we did: course end-screen summaries are now updated with an explanation of what it is exactly you’ve learned.
We also tweaked our step-end commentaries based on the previous performance. Whether it was just “Nice improvement”, “You’re getting ahead of the beat. Take it easy” musicians using Melodics receive more dynamic messaging and feedback tailored to how they’re performing, as they’re learning; and what they could do to improve for the next try.
Don’t just play it til you get it right. Play it til you can’t get it wrong. Introducing Memory Mode.
Not being able to feel one’s progress is a major systemic reason why people have tended to quit learning their instrument within their first year of trying in traditional education models.
Launched in 2020, Memory Mode is at its core a feature designed to help musicians truly feel a sense of their own progress: could you play it blindfolded?
Memory Mode can only be unlocked if a user first gets three platinum stars — a flawless delivery in the final step of a lesson (which in itself is a great way to feel progress). When playing through the lesson once again but with the feature enabled, the screen progressively dims to darkness until it remains blacked-out completely (so long as you keep playing the notes perfectly without error).
“I think there is a narrative that Memory Mode pushes you towards your learning edge, encouraging you to internalise the lesson rather than rely on reactions.
Like a rehearsal, you might have the chord chart in front of you, but the need to check it becomes less and less as you start to truly learn the song. As a musician, you might instead begin to start thinking more about what’s coming up much further ahead in a song, or about how you’re playing. I think Memory Mode helps to emulate this scenario.”
– Benjamin Locke (Head of Music @ Melodics)
Perfecting a lesson in Memory Mode earns the user three black-out stars, and currently sits as the highest achievement — a “holy grail” of musical ability — in the Melodics award tiers. Most importantly, this feature challenges musicians to progress outside the comfort of the normal live-feedback, visual mechanics of Melodics, and instead showcase their true independent mastery in playing a song by ear. It’s no easy feat, but all the more worth it for when you do get there.
Give your practice purpose: track and measure your progress. Introducing Record collections.
All too often, we learn to place an inflated importance on musical theory; using words, definitions, logic and reasoning as some missing “key” to “unlocking” music. In the process perhaps we forget that for like 95% of human history, making music is, at its core, a kinaesthetic endeavour; a combination of physical and aural skill, memory and sensations. Theory as a science is the relatively new kid in town..
It does have an important place in music, but it shouldn’t be a barrier to you becoming a confident musician in your own right. If it did, we wouldn’t have The Beatles, M.I.A or J Dilla (to name a few) around to enjoy.
So anyway, in December 2020 Melodics unveiled its latest major release: Record collections. Records document a new bit of musical information you’ve learned by passing a particular lesson (e.g. technique, theory, method etc) — and summarises the concept through video and an explanation in the app.
On one hand, these reinforce our chicken-egg approach that theory (probably) stems from music, not visa-versa; but also acts to supplement Melodics’ unabashedly self-guided, learning-by-doing approach to learning music or an instrument.
Your collection showcases that you are, indeed, learning real-life, important musical things as you work your way through Melodics; it helps you track and measure your progress in accepted musical terminology, whilst also alleviating any feeling of intimidation or perceived elitism which can sometimes prevent one from learning musical theory. When collecting Records, you still have an active relationship with music, but now you can better define what it is you’ve learned, as you learn.
As an aside, a byproduct from Records’ development is that users can watch embedded Melodics produced videocontent basically anywherein the app itself — a cool platform to mull over future possibilities. Stay posted!
We at Melodics are continuing our efforts towards helping musicians consciously and easily reaching a state of “flow”, and helping them get more out of each practice session. Whether this is building on Records’ videos more; releasing more content and helping Melodics users find the right lesson at the right time; or doubling down on improving the plug & play platform we’ve built — you’ll just have to wait…
Melodics also would like to increase its commitment outside of strictly “the App” — that is to help support inclusion and equity in our diverse community, our industry (both music & technology), and our workplace both locally in Aotearoa New Zealand and abroad. More on that, as well, coming real soon.
But with this year in hindsight, we’re humbled by our incredible privilege to be where we are. We do hope Melodics users aren’t just having more fun playing music they really enjoy, but have a higher sense of achievement, feel increasingly empowered to take control of their own skill development, musical progress, and goals, and to go out and contribute positively to the world. What we’ve all done to date really is just the tip of the iceberg!
A sample flip is a production technique beatmakers use to create an instrumental or a backing track for a vocalist. Whether you’re working on a hip-hop, house, techno or RnB track, there are various approaches to flipping a sample. Some of them are universal, and some of them are genre-specific. We are going to focus on a traditional hip-hop sample flipping technique, which you can apply to any composition style you want.
This technique is sample chopping, or ‘chop the sample’. First, we have to find a sample. For this example, we are going to use one sample source, a stereo audio file. The sample we have chosen is from ‘Reflections’ by Albert Jones. We used Tracklib to source the sample: an online record store where anyone can clear samples affordably and fast. Released in 1973, ‘Reflections’ is a soul/RnB track. It has big drum fills, gritty organ, amazing backing vocals and some beautiful melodic information that I want to showcase in the beat.
You can access it for free using this link or if you are already a Tracklib user, head directly here.
There are many ways you can chop or cut a sample. You can chop random events from the song, cut bigger chunks like a 2 bar loop, or layer events from other parts of the song over the 2 bar loop. The limit here is your imagination. We are going to chop the sample by even 1/4 notes. To find the 1/4 notes, count along to the song, the 1/4 notes are the 1,2,3,4 count of each bar. The snare drum lands on the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar.
Bigger chops, like a 2 bar loop, keep the feel of the song intact in the sample. When you chop the sample shorter, 1/8th or 1/16th notes, the feel becomes more muted. However, you can use those shorter chops to push and pull against the rhythm of the sampled song, and create your own feel.
Begin by giving the song you’re sampling from a close listen. Keeping your eyes closed may be helpful, as you’re trying to get as deep inside the track as possible to find out which parts stand out. Look for a section that speaks to you, and reminds you of the goosebumps feeling that always draws you back to music.
During the early years of hip-hop, DJs focused on playing breakbeats from records for the dancefloor. The breakbeats in songs were what excited the crowd and made them get down to the music. Correctly looping and chopping beats is the foundation of sample chopping. It is your duty as a beatmaker to convey the excitement, emotion and feeling you hear to the listener. Sometimes the goosebump moment comes from something unexpected in the music. It could be a crack in an emotional vocal, an out of tune bass note, atmospheric reverb, an overly keen saxophone phrase, or a breath.
The first thing which stands out as chop-worthy on ‘Reflections’ is it’s very emotive intro-section. A quick online search reveals that the sample has already been used by Mary J. Blige (through Tracklib). However, you can quickly turn the disappointment of a previously used sample into a competitive drive. The challenge becomes flipping the sample in a new direction. Let’s take the intro and chop it into 1/4 notes.
I’ve used Ableton Live’s sampler instrument to chop the sample manually, in real-time. That way, as I play the pads sequentially on my computer, every hit of a pad will create a new slice. As I am chopping, I am also listening out of any pads that grab my attention. In Live, if you hear something you are vibing, you can start looping it in then and there.
Now it’s time to look beyond the intro.
The first verse has some great vocal moments. The bass is hot and a little bit out of tune, the guitar is similar but sonically perfect (gritty, dry, beautiful mid-range), and the drums have great mid-range in the kick, a nice dry snare, and 16th note hi-hats. All of these elements will work in the beat, so let’s chop the first verse into 1/4 notes.
The first note of the chorus is magical. Something is calling out in it. Is it the bass performance, the background vocals, or the air in the beat? Perhaps it’s the vibraphone reminding me of a Dilla beat? It’s still a mystery as to whether we’ll use it in the final beat, but let’s try to remember that feeling when we make decisions about what to chop. We’ll cut the chorus into 1/4 notes.
Once you’ve chopped your sample, it pays to zoom in on each chop. You do this to make sure they’re cut as close to 1/4 notes as they can be. If you want, you can leave the chops loose with time before or after the cut, but the tighter you chop to the original 1/4 note tempo, the more control you’ll have when you play them back. You can adjust the start and endpoints of the chops by your ears or eye. Trimming by ear is closer to the experience you’d have using classic machines such as the SP1200, ASR 10 or MPC3000 sampler, as none of them had a waveform display. When you trim by ear, there is more chance of a happy accident, and the chop might “feel” nicer in the beat. Trimming by eye will give you a tighter, more quantized chop.
Laying the groundwork, introducing the beat.
On our 8×8 Push controller, we now have 64 chops to use for our beat. A simple approach would be to play back a row of pads, 4 or 8 pads sequentially. The intro to the original song is perfect for this. This progression is a |I / / / |ii / / / |iii / / / |ii / / / | progression, a fairly common progression in soul/R’n’B. The ii and the iii chords are minor chords, so they build tension and suspense really well. Let’s loop up one bar, the iii chord. This is going to be our intro.
This loop feels so good it could be our main loop for the song. Still, we want to go deeper, not just do the obvious, and showcase some chopping skills. This section is our intro setup, where we play the loop out so the listener can catch the vibe of the original song. The chop here 1/4 notes makes for this sequence | hit | hi-hat | piano | hi-hat |. Chopping the iii chord section is good because the vocal sounds like it is circling back on itself, which creates the illusion of an infinite loop. Speeding up the chop also makes the flow/rhythm of the sample change subtly, adding a nice swing.
Rearranging the puzzle pieces, finding the main loop.
If you play across all the pads, you’ll be surprised by what jumps out as potentially usable for the main loop. Start by playing the pads as ¼ notes, and letting the sample play out between hits. After that, try different combos of pads.
When a beat is chopped up evenly, you can find some really cool patterns. Try 4 pads sequentially [1,2,3,4], 4 pads reversed [4,3,2,1], 4 pads flipped [1,4,3,2], and 4 pads diagonally [A1,B2,C3,D4]. Then, try 8th notes. In this instance, this doesn’t work so well with 1/4 note chops, but it works really well with the intro chops.
This part of the process can feel like musical Tetris. A random order of pads leads me to this pattern.
The minor chords create suspense, and the chops of the vocals and organ generate tension. I took notes on where the drum fills were on the pads, so I am going to use them to expand the loop from 1 bar to 2 or 4 bars with fills. As luck would have it, we already have some good drum fills within our existing chops.
Bring in the drums
Now we have our main loop ready; we can dig for some one-shot drum samples to overlay on top of it. I selected my drum samples from STLNDRMS – All Of The Drums. The kick I’ve chosen has a good mid-range punch and a sub-note on it. The snare is crunchy, with aggressive mid-range distortion, and the hi-hats are very clean. I also selected a handclap to layer on the snare for extra snap.
I want my drums to have a little swing/rub. To give them this, I push and pull on every second hi-hat. It’s subtle, but it creates a cool feeling.
Bring In The Bass
I have chosen an 808 drum machine kick for my bass and mapped across the Push in the standard chromatic layout. I added saturation to it to bring out the upper harmonics in the sample. This helps us hear the pitch of the note. It also makes it audible on smaller speakers. The bassline outlines the harmonic chord progression and works alongside the kick drum pattern.
Bring in the piano
I wanted to add one more live element to the beat, so I decided on piano. This gives the sample a strong chordal structure, and it’s good to have one consistent chordal instrument happening in the song that will mesh all the sample chops together. The chord is a Dmin7 then up a tone to Emin7. I used the Arturia Piano V and went for a dry, studio sounding piano. I tracked the left and right-hand parts separately as I can’t fit a 3-octave range on the Push at the same time.
As I track the intro, verse buildup and verse, I have to automate the tempo so that the slower intro samples fit nicely. The increase in tempo gives the beat some organic movement, which an instrumental locked to one speed wouldn’t achieve. I also filtered the sample in the verses to give the drums and bass some breathing space, just in case this beat ends up being sent to a vocalist.
Create A Live Performance Layout
To create a live performance layout, I have bounced out the original sample layered with the bass and the piano. It was going to be physically impossible to play all the parts simultaneously. This lets me play the sample chops with my left hand and the drums with my right hand. After workshopping different options and layouts, I have come up with a strong layout, and colour coded it so I can remember where the sections and samples are.
I have kept the sample chops to the same length as in my original beat because I like the way it feels when I manually play them. It also means I can get a bit of that rub feel happening, by stretching the time between the samples and the drums.
I bounced all the samples out of my original session and re-organised them in a new drum rack. Bouncing them out of the original session with all the track EQ and master buss plugins on them means that my live performance layout will sound mixed and consistent over any PA speakers.
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