Chapter 4: The Practical

Congratulations on making it this far. We’re halfway through now, and on to chapter 4.

You know what that means? It’s time to get practical.

In this chapter, we’ll cover:

  • Warping stems and acapellas
  • The super popular deep house vocal technique
  • How to pre-arrange with an acapella
  • Finding MIDI, making chords and melodies
  • How to choose stems
  • Creative ways to use stems

Warping stems and acapellas

For the sake of brevity and the fact that the most popular DAW among EDMProd readers is Ableton Live, I’m only going to cover warping/tempo adjustment in Live.

If you use another DAW, I advise you to consult the manual, or search “sync acapella [your DAW]” in Google.

How to warp acapellas in Live

So, let’s say you’ve downloaded an Acapella that’s at 128BPM, and you want to bring it down to 120BPM. How do you do that in Live?

If the acapella doesn’t have any timing issues, then it’s a pretty straightforward process.

When you drag a stem into Live and click on it, you’ll be presented with the below dashboard.

Figure 7

You’ll see there are a number of different settings here. What we want to focus on is the Warp section.

My acapella is currently at 128BPM, and I know this for a fact. If you don’t know the tempo of your acapella, a quick Google search will suffice or you can simply use the Tap Tempo tool in Ableton (look at the top-left of your screen in Live).

I’ll enable warp and change the Seg. BPM to 128.

Note: I like to use the Complex Pro warping algorithm. It’s worth playing around with each and listening to the difference. Most people opt for Complex or Complex Pro.

figure 8

Boom. Easy.

It’s worth double-checking that it’s in time, so I’ll click play and have the metronome enabled. If you do this, make sure that the acapella is actually in-time with the metronome to start with. It will always sound wrong if it doesn’t play in the right place.

Now, this acapella that I’m using is fine. I don’t have to do anything beyond this, but sometimes you’ll come across acapellas that don’t follow the same tempo throughout or haven’t been edited that well.

How do you deal with them?

Fixing timing issues

There are two ways to fix timing issues with warped acapellas: manual editing/chopping, and using warp markers.

The first is self-explanatory, you simply chop pieces of the acapella and move them around so they’re on beat.

The other approach is to add warp markers to points where the vocal moves off the beat or comes in a bit too early/late.

Simply right-click above a transient and click on Insert Warp Marker(s). You’ll then be able to move this around to adjust.

Warning: this will affect the acapella as a whole. It’s sometimes a better idea to chop the acapella up individually if it’s a one-off problem. Manual warping should be used if the acapella is ridden with timing issues that manual *chopping* in the playlist can’t really fix.

We’ll go through this in more detail during the walkthrough.

The Deep House Vocal Technique

I wasn’t sure about including this in the guide because it’s genre-specific, but a lot of people asked for it.

I’m going to use this technique on the Calvin Harris Sweet Nothing acapella I warped earlier. I’ve taken it from 128BPM to 120BPM.

I’ll take one phrase from this acapella and duplicate it in a new track. Here’s the section I’m using:

Figure 9

The next thing I’m going to do is transpose the duplicate phrase down 12 semitones and apply some EQ. This part is going to lead into the drop.

Figure 10

Now I’m going to take the part from the bar before the drop, duplicate it again, and transpose it down another 12 semitones, keeping the EQ settings the same. Here’s what we’ve got:

Finally, I chop up the vocal in the drop to make it a little more groovy.

There you go. Easy, huh?

Pre-arrangement

Normally when I work with an acapella, I have a general idea of how I want the remix to sound. I won’t have the whole picture, but there’ll be glimpses of sections repeating in my head.

Taking the Calvin Harris acapella again, let’s hypothetically say that I’m making a 128BPM progressive house track with a length of around 4 minutes.

Because I have these guidelines in my head, I can drag acapella in and start pre-arranging it.

What does pre-arranging mean?

I use pre-arranging because it really comes before the arrangement. It’s a very simple starting point. I’ve only got one instrument (the acapella), but I know that it’s going to play in certain sections and be absent in other sections, so instead of arranging after I have all the instruments in place, I do it beforehand so I can fill in the gaps where needed.

As you can see below, I’ve arranged the acapella in a certain way and added markers. This is subject to change. I may move pieces around as I add in more instruments, but for now, this is the basic arrangement.

Figure 1

I’ve split the acapella up into 4 tracks. This allows me to process each one differently (I might want the chorus vocal to sound slightly different to the verse) and also gives me a better overview of the vocal arrangement.

Composition

Sometimes you’ll be given an acapella without any other information. You won’t know what key it’s in, what chords should play underneath it, and while this is a great challenge for some – it’s also a nightmare for newer producers.

The most helpful thing to do in this situation is to figure out what notes constitute the chord progression or melody, and recreate them.

So, how exactly do you do that?

1. Finding MIDI

Your first solution should be to use Google. Unless you’re extremely quick at transcribing audio to MIDI, or you want to train your ear, then there’s no point taking longer than necessary.

Simply search for the song name + MIDI. For example: “Calvin Harris Sweet Nothing MIDI”

Figure 12

The first link that comes up is a link to download the MIDI file on NonStop2k. Assuming the MIDI file was good, I could download it and use it as a starting point.

2 – Audio to MIDI

Figure 13

Many modern DAWs will have an audio to MIDI function. If you’ve been given stems without their respective MIDI files, then it can be a good idea to use this tool to get a general idea of how it’s composed.

Note: audio to MIDI technology is not perfect yet, so you will have to clean the file up a bit, but it gives you something to start with.

3 – Transcribe from tabs

Before I got into music production, I played guitar for 4 years. I still play every now and then, but I’m incredibly grateful for learning how to play.

Why?

Because if I can’t find MIDI for a popular song, I’ll look up its guitar tab (or chords). So, let’s take the Calvin Harris acapella from earlier and look at the accompanying guitar chords for the track.

Figure 14

There we go, the chord progression is E B G#m F#.

At this point, I can simply plug those chords in to the piano roll, adjusting where needed. If you’re following this strategy and you don’t have good theory knowledge, just Google the structure for each chord.

Creative ways to use stems

There are hundreds of different ways to use and manipulate stems. I’m going to cover just 4 of them, but I encourage you to experiment yourself. You can use these 4 as starting points for experimentation.

1. Sample them traditionally

Most people think of stems as whole pieces of audio. Something that should be kept more or less intact.

A creative way to use stems is to view them as something to sample.

If you get an old jazz vinyl from the record store, you’re not going to view the song as a stem, are you? You’re going to look at it as something to sample – to extract little parts that catch your attention.

So, let’s say you have a bassline stem from the original track. Why not take one or two hits from that bassline and use them as a starting point for a more unique bassline? Or you could manipulate the sample and turn it into something completely different, like a percussive sound.

Creating vocal chops from an acapella is the same thing. You’re looking for individual parts in the stem that stick out and could be used for a different purpose.

Here are some ideas:

  • Bass/lead/pluck stems:
    • Sample a single hit and layer it over your own lead/bassline/pluck
    • Double or halve its speed
    • Rearrange hits so it plays a different sequence
    • Time-stretch a single hit to use as a grain FX sound
  • Vocal/acapella:
    • Cut-up individual pieces to use as vocal chop
    • Re-arrange words and phrases to create a unique sequence
    • Transpose and time-stretch for interesting FX sounds (like the deep house technique shown above)

2. Chop ’em up like crazy

Stems exist to be mangled. You can completely change the vibe of a bassline stem or melody by chopping parts out.

You can take a bassline like this…

And with a couple of quick cuts, turn it into something completely different…

Figure 16

Seem basic? That’s because it is!

3. Wash out

If you need to fill in your remix with a bit of atmospheric FX, one technique is to take a stem from the remix pack and chuck a ton of reverb on it to wash it out, and then place it in the background.

You can do this with vocals, synths, almost anything.

I’ll take the Sweet Nothing acapella and apply the following effects.

Figure 17

Before

After

4. Make them lo-fi

Want to add a vintage feel, or simply make a stem more unique? Apply some EQ and slight bitcrushing and you can have something distinctive in no time.

Using the same vocal phrase as above, I’ll apply some EQ and Redux to get something unique.

Figure 18