As I mentioned in the overview, we use Sunvox for the majority of our compositions. These are the reasons why Sunvox is excellent:
1. Compose on iPhone and other mobile devices. We wrote most of the tracks on our debut album while sitting in vans on tour. Spaß was written in Germany, Panorama was written in San Antonio, Ticket to Everywhere was written at the dentist's office, etc.
2. Transfer files to the computer and back. So you can play a big midi keyboard connected to the computer, back up files, and export them to other programs.
3. Many synth types. We mostly start with triangle or square waves, but of course use the fm synth, sampler, and all the others.
4. Effects. The effects don't have to be stellar here because we're going to tweak the sounds later. But it is worth noting that you can automate all parameters of each effect, so you can make the sounds change over time which is really a fundamental part of electronic music.
Learn more about Sunvox here:http://warmplace.ru/
Every composition starts with an idea, and if the idea is a really good one then the final result is likely to be good. Many, many ideas are discarded right at the beginning until something interesting finally comes up. Here are some different ways we generate content to start the composition:
1. Design a synth sound that's interesting. Then when you mess around with the synth some idea for a chord or melody can be born.
2. Pick a chord progression. Chords really dictate the mood more than rhythm or melody. We generally like a happy sound so we go for a lot of major chords, but to keep it interesting we use chords from closely related keys, like V/V (Maj II) and IV/IV (Maj VII). We also like common-tone progressions such as going from I to iii, or I to bVI(flatVI).
3. Pick the chord durations. For a standard sounding song, change chords each bar. People expect chords to change each bar in pop music and it's good to give them what they expect sometimes. But we do need to change this for some variety. To have a peaceful feeling, sit on the I or IV chords for a while. To increase tension change chords a lot and don't have any I chords. If the song is likely to repeat the same progression multiple times in a row, consider starting and ending on I for a solid sound, or make the progression end on V for the song to have more forward motion.
4. Melodies for us generally happen after the chords are written, but sometimes it's the other way around. Usually it will be a combination of arpeggiated chord-tones with passing tones. Emphasize the Major 7th for a bittersweet feeling, or the 2nd for a peaceful feeling. Change notes on the beats for stability or off the beats for excitement.
5. Bass and Drums. Sometimes the 'melody' is really the bass part or sometimes it just blends between the kick drum and the chords.
The First Section (A Section)
Now we have some ideas, here are some of our favorite ways to put the content together:
1. Build it up. Start with one 'instrument' and slowly add in the others. This works because people can hear all the different layers and understand what's going on. Then take away some of the layers in places for a nice change. This is really standard stuff for electronic music, and works well in music without a clear melody.
2. Drop it. Start with just the simpler or quieter parts, then all of a sudden drop all the sounds you can on their heads!
3. Start big. Just jump right into the full mix, then trim it down for a contrast.
4. Phrases. If the melody is more prominent, then we often put it together like a song with vocals. We don't just repeat the same melody over and over, so you need at least two different phrases, like a verse and chorus. These phrases need to be different, like one of them needs to have many chord changes and the other have few changes. Or at least switch which instrument sounds are used.
Second Section (B Section)
After that first section of the song is done, what do we do next:
1. Stick with it. If we feel like we just want more of the same content, then we will copy and paste until the end. An easy way to keep interest is to take away certain 'instruments' (especially drums) or add in more instruments. Sometimes we take a song with a 4 bar melody and add a 16 bar melody over the top. Studies have shown that the most listening enjoyment happens when the music is familiar but has changed somehow.
2. Break it down. Take the first section's content and manipulate it somehow. Make it half speed, up an octave, change the beat, use fragments and sequence them, etc. The point of this section is to leave the safe zone of the first section and take the listener on a journey before returning home.
3. Something new. Perhaps the first section needs a contrasting second section in a different key or with a different emotion. A lot of electronic groups don't do this because you're basically writing new content which is more difficult and risky than sticking with one idea. Develop the new content using some of the same techniques as the first section.
4. Climax. If the song has some tension to it, then it will need to climax somehow before it's all over. This is a good spot for chords with dissonance.
After the first and second sections are written, it's usually easy to finish the song by repeating or manipulating those sections. We rarely write a third unique section, but sometimes it must me done!
Here's a rough analysis of all 17 tracks on our album, note that lowercase letters mean that the section is missing something like the melody or drums:
03 Quell the Goliath
A,A,B,B nomelody,B,C buildup-A,A,B,B,B,B+A mashup
05 Space Babies
a buildup,buildup on IV chord,A,A,A,A,IV chord,A,A,A,A,IV chord
06 We Are the Robots
a buildup,a buildup,B,B,C,C,B,a buildup,A,C,B,A,a buildup
08 Around the World
b buildup,a,A,B,B,a,A,B,B,B newmelody,a,A,a
14 Legacy Begins with Me
a breakdown,A,A,B,A,A,B,a breakdown,a,b,A,B,a breakdown
a buildup,a buildup,B,B,A,A
17 This Isn't Goodbye
a,A,a,A,B,a,A,A,B,b,A new beat-end
I hope this analysis of the forms of our songs helps somebody come up with different ways to organize the content in their own music, and that this article as a whole can help somebody who wants to get into writing music or is just looking for some new ideas. Stay tuned for the next article, about just-intonation!