An in-depth tutorial on how to play the virtual band by synchronizing chords, licks, phrases, patterns or fills via MIDI.
MAY 10TH, 2020
Between Virtual Bassist, Beatmaker, Virtual Drummer, Finisher and Virtual Guitarist, you have everything you need to start producing music at home.
Perhaps the easiest way to produce music would be to hold down the same note on a keyboard for each track and let ujam work its magic...but where’s the fun in that?
This guide will go into how to build your ensemble from the ground up, get your ujam plugins playing together cohesively, and help you finish songs faster. If you want to compare music production tools before getting started, check out ujam’s range of products.
Although this guide is geared toward music production for beginners, you’ll find some unique features that will show you how to quickly produce music with ujam.
Setting up your DAW
In most DAWs (digital audio workstations) such as Ableton Live, Logic, and FL Studio, you’ll want to place each ujam plugin on a separate track. The more sophisticated your arrangement becomes, the better it is to make track folders or groups (one for your guitars, one for synths, etc.). That way, the session becomes much easier to manage.
In the interest of simplicity we’re going to assume you’re using one drum kit (Beatmaker or Virtual Drummer, either is fine), one bassist and one guitarist (to thicken up the sound, you can create another guitar track with slightly different settings, and then pan one hard left and the other hard right).
Each DAW has its own nuances, but as long as you load your ujam instruments into tracks, organize them in an easy-to-search fashion and connect a compatible MIDI controller, you’re good to go.
We could give you a step-by-step framework to creating the chorus, a few chord patterns you can use to kickstart your creativity, or maybe even the best drum kit to start off with...
But that wouldn’t be nearly as fun as this one word:
Yep! You’ll get into a songwriting rhythm much faster if you play with each instrument on a keyboard for a good few minutes first. Do this with your bass, drums and guitar, and don’t hold back. Find out what you like about each instrument and determine its strengths. Then you’ll be much better-equipped to get to work producing a song!
Make no mistake: even if it sounds simple, this step is important. The more intuitively you know each instrument in your collection, the faster you’ll be able to write quality music; you’re equipping yourself with the building blocks for composing an excellent song and getting your production just right.
How to drag MIDI phrases or patterns into your track
The real magic of ujam plugins isn’t the fact that they give you ready-made MIDI loops, or even that it’s so easy to alter the effect settings to perfectly suit your tracks; it’s the uniquely versatile MIDI Drag & Drop ability that allows you to instantly copy any Song Part from a ujam instrument directly into your session and manipulate it to your heart’s content.
Once you find a pattern you like, you can click on the dotted drag area above a key and drag it into a track in your session, forming a new MIDI clip. You can modify that MIDI clip at will, making variations to the rhythm, notes or beat as you like, and you can even drag that clip into a different instrument’s track for fun (and wildly unpredictable) results.
Also, don’t limit yourself to only dragging MIDI clips to other tracks with similar instruments. If you want some fodder for your imagination, try dragging the MIDI from a bass into your drums or vice versa!
Which chords fit well?
Up until now, we haven't made any concrete recommendations on how to get started producing a track. But to make this part a little easier, you’ll want to start by finding your favorite drum groove and using MIDI Drag & Drop to place it in a MIDI clip in your session. Make any modifications you like, duplicate it and make some more slight changes, and place the new clip immediately following the first one. Do this as many times as feels right, while being sure you have sufficient variety to keep things interesting.
Next, choose the bass line you want to use. Play the root note you want to work from (and optionally, create a chord using the Play Range of the keyboard, which will change which bass notes are played), and choose the Common Phrase you enjoy the most. While holding down a note or chord, use MIDI Drag & Drop to place that Song Part in a new MIDI clip. Line it up with the beginning of your drum groove, and you’re well on your way!
Now here’s where it really becomes a matter of experimentation. You have your bass and drum grooves, and now it’s time to add in guitar (if you’re not sure which guitar to choose, starting with Sparkle is a good bet)! Play a few chords in the Chords key range and choose a Common Phrase to start with. Record yourself playing the Common Phrase note and chords right into your session. Quantize your note lengths so they start and stop exactly where you want.
As a note, Carbon is currently the only Virtual Guitarist with MIDI Drag & Drop built in; for all others, it’s sufficient to play the notes you need into your session and add MIDI notes to switch between Common Phrases.
In general, keep the guitar and bass root notes the same. You can certainly get more creative, but when in doubt, they’ll sync up much better if they’re following the same notes.
A quick shortcut that consistently gives great results is to use guitar power chords (root and fifth notes only, neither major nor minor). This way, you can focus on creating something that sounds cool without worrying too much about what key you’re in. Virtual Guitarist Iron is great for playing around with power chords, particularly if you’re writing rock or metal. Once you get the root motion feeling good in the guitar and bass, then you’re free to start thinking about major, minor or any specific tone color you think would fit well. Creating great chord progressions might be tricky at first but it’s not a mystery.
If you feel you need an extra leg up when building chords, our friends at Mixed In Key have an excellent tool called Captain Plugins to do most of the heavy lifting.
How to match phrases?
A note: not all Common Phrases will fit into the groove you’ve created. This is largely a creative decision, but as a general guideline: make sure your guitar strumming doesn’t clash heavily with the bass and drums, otherwise things will quickly get messy. A good guideline to follow is: the more activity there is in the bass and drums, the less there should be in the guitars, and vice versa. If you adjust the MIDI clips just right and play around with enough patterns, you’ll find you can mimic the guitar rhythm in the bass, which tightens things up really fast.
The question of how to produce a song with a perfect balance between all elements is based largely on instinct. When in doubt, put your song up against others you admire, and do your best to determine where it rivals the original in energy, creativity and production quality, and where it falls short. Then work to bridge that gap every time you sit down to produce a track.
The masterpiece: combine patterns, fills and licks
Congratulations! You’ve begun putting everything together. Once you do this for a couple sections (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), you’re ready to get a bit more playful. This means beginning to incorporate Style Phrases into your guitar and bass, and Fills and Breakdowns into your drum kit.
This is almost entirely a matter of personal taste, listening to many different genres of music, and not being afraid to bend (or even break) the rules a bit.
These tools are designed to offer variety and spontaneity, and as with any other audio plugin, there’s no right or wrong way to use them. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions that should help keep your productions lively and clean without being too mechanical:
- Don’t use Style Phrases/Fills/Breakdowns from different instruments all at the same time; vary which instruments use them and at what times.
- Vary where you place them every few measures; making slight changes to each loop will make the song less predictable (and therefore more interesting).
- Don’t overuse them. Sparingly, they make a song much more enjoyable; but if added in too often, they’ll likely seem forced.
This is far more of an art than it is a science. There’s more information on how to become a music producer than anyone could ever hope to synthesize (pun intended), and the best way to get better at electronic music production is to practice as often as possible. Eventually you’ll be able to create music faster than you ever thought possible, and it’s ujam’s mission to help you do so. Keep at it, be spontaneous, and above all: have fun!