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Action Music 2: This time it's personal!

Hi fellow Forumlings

Well after my first action music blog post there had to be the inevitable sequel.

So ... my first post had no aspirations to be comprehensive but it tried to cover some of the basics. In this post I'd like to cover a few more tricks that I've used of late. Again there's no effort to cover all bases but more to open discussion. I'm sure I'll have further posts on this subject.

My latest track is called City Rampage and is now available to buy online.

Getting That Fast Pulse
So, in City Rampage, I spent a lot of time playing with the pulse of the music. In the first post I mentioned how we could build up a huge stack of percussion from 'boomers' to 'patter'. However looking in more detail, we can try out different combinations.

For instance I've found that even at quite high tempos (like 140bpm+) with the smaller percussion playing 16th notes, we can still maintain a fairly static and stolid feel by keep the lower percussion grounded with slow and steady beats. Of course this ties in with the range of melodic instruments as well. Higher instruments (in pitch) behaving like light percussion and bass instruments tying in with the bigger heavier percussion.

As an example try writing a piece with fast violin runs and fast "patter" percussion both playing 16th note ideas. Underneath this, try holding down a very steady beat with either a solid bass note or a simple whole note rhythm on the bass (and low bass drums). You'll probably find that although the fast instruments add tension, the steadiness in the low frequencies gives a sense of stability ... this is extremely useful for brief moments of calm within frantic music without losing pace.

Of course, for most of the music you want that frantic 'momentum' and for that you need to get that bass moving around. You might remember from my first post that I recommend against overuse of heavier elements in a fast piece because they fill up the mix way too quickly. There are two ways around this: -

First is the "Matrix" approach of ludicrously fast bass and drums. This definitely works. In fact this is similar to the classic rock 8th note bass line but pumped up to unnatural speeds. Natural instruments (and samples of such) may sound way too full for this to work so you have to either use synthetic sounds or EQ/filter/compress/cut your samples to allow them to work. Heavy compression with a slow attack might be enough to just get the basic "hit" from heavy drums but remove most of the muddiness from the release.

A second and more traditional approach is to make very good use of syncopation. In this way we generate a feeling of excitment through emphasis of offbeats in the bass line and heavy percussion. This is exceptionally effective and can really make the underlying pulse of a track move while often playing surprisingly simple and sparse parts. In fact the ultimate example of simple syncopated bass might simply play on the 1 and the "and of 2". This can really make a piece move. Once this sits into a groove then breaking the beats with up more syncopation can help to keep things exciting and unexpected. Occasional bursts of 16th notes in the drums can also work here.

Working on the underlying pulse is a big way of controlling the feel of a track and I recommend experimenting with this throughout an action track if you need to pull back the pulse and calm things down.

Of course action tracks are about generating tension and excitement and for this we turn to...

Excitement Generators
Ok, this is a blanket label I give to little tricks and devices that can be used to add moments of excitement and interest within action tracks. They can build upon themselves or just be used to liven up some of the more pedestrian moments. Most of these speak for themselves but I'll elaborate on anything I feel is useful: -

- Fast runs in the strings and woodwind. These are usually scales or arpeggios. Often done to emphasise a hit but continuing fast runs really help to add a sense of excitement. Consider using odd note groupings (like 7s or 11s) and perhaps chromatic scales.
- Crescendi in the brass. Usually quite high. Perhaps use a cluster voicing or perform some kind of "jazzy" trick with the note (doits, falls, etc).
- High ostinato patterns. These can be even as simple as a repeated note, in either a straightforward or syncopated manner. High strings work well for this but I also love using a high staccato piccolo. There's a great grace note sample in Symphobia that is perfect for this.
- Drum breaks. A sudden rush of intense drumming, perhaps emphasising a drum that has taken a background role so far.
- Effects. Screaming glissandi in the strings, electric guitar pick slides, synth noises. All great for suddenly grabbing attention and sounding exciting.
- Off beat hits and unpredictable syncopation.
- Sustained high notes in the strings/woodwind/synths.
- Large changes in dynamics.

Adding a Sense of Cohesion
One problem when working on action music can be making it feel like one long piece of music rather than many different small snippets stuck together. The easiest way to prevent this from happening, even if there isn't any real conventional structure is to add 'sonic touchstones' in the track. These are some element such as a motif, rhythmic idea, sound effect or whatever which can continually show up through the music. This allows the track to continue to develop and move into new areas but continue to reference familiar ideas. Using various melodic devices as ostinati is a great trick as is having a distinctive rhythmic pattern which can be played on all instruments, including percussion. Check out John William's Minority Report soundtrack and the track Anderton's Great Escape for an amazing example of sustaining interest in an action track that's nearly 7 minutes long! It continually develops but feels like one piece of music.

Well, another rambling piece from me. I hope that this gives some more ideas and I'd love to discuss this further with people.



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Comment by James Semple on June 30, 2009 at 1:16am
Hi Dankk, no insult taken. Basically I normally include links to a relevant track when writing these articles. Up to now I'm pretty sure every track I've linked to has been free. In the case of this last piece, it was written for a client and so I can't give it away for free but if people really want to hear it then at least they know where to get it. On the other hand, this blog post was written before I became an admin and so I may remove the link now.

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