The Zen of Tracking

By Introspective

(Contents of this page mostly by Matt Swoboda)


The Basics

This assumes some knowledge of trackers, samples, etc. Leads aren't really something
to be started until you have the basics down. =)

There are two parts to tracking a lead: the notes and the effects. Lets start with
the notes, as that is what most people tend to start with. 
Before you read this section go and read the sections on chords, chord progressions
and scales.. makes my job MUCH easier. =)

Much depends on the style of music you are writing. For a slow balladish track, a 
slow, less complicated lead could be more appropriate. For a fast jazz track, 
something a bit more tricky might fit better.
  At its most basic level the lead follows the chord progression. For a harmonious
sound, its best to use notes which are strong in the chord you are using as the 
strong notes in the lead. For example, in the chord Cmajor the strong notes in your
lead (the most noticable notes, which are longer or louder or more emphasised) 
would be C, G, and also E. 
  When writing the lead, put down the strong notes down first. This gives you a 
basis to work from. Of course, its also pretty boring just using strong notes in 
your lead, so you want to add something a little more adventurous in the gaps. Thats
where scales come in.
  The simplest way to do it is just move up and down your chosen scale. For example
suppose you were using a major pentatonic scale, C D E G A, and your chord progression
was a simple Cmaj -> Gmaj:

 You start with this, with some simple strong notes down (and lots of gaps). Its dull.

    Chords				Lead (note + octave)

 1  C	 E	G			C4
 5                            E4
 9  G	 B	D			G4
15                            D5

Now lets use some scales a bit to make it a little more interesting.

    Chords				Lead

 1  C	 E	G			C4
 3                            D4
 5                            E4
 9  G	 B	D			G4
11					A4
13					C5
15                            D5

Now then. Its not quite as dull as it was before. In fact you could probably
get away with leaving it there. However in the neverending quest towards being
interesting we're going to add some extra filler notes to plug a few gaps. These
are going to be at a lower volume than the stronger notes. Note we still want
to stay in our chosen key of Cmajor (no sharps/flats if you were wondering.. :)  


    Chords                    Lead

 1  C	 E   G                  C4
 3                            D4
 5                            E4
 7                            F4                                      
 9  G	 B   D                  G4
11                            A4
12                            B4
13                            C5
15                            D5

We almost have something usable here. Now, there is a stage further we could go
to embelish it. This is more something you use in jazzy songs than you would in
ballads, but anyway. Add some notes that shouldn't really "be" there, ie. that
are out of key, and change a few of our boring notes. Sounds a bit weird, but
at least it'll catch the listener's attention.
Using a chromatic scale (ie. all the white and black keys on a piano in sequence)
can be a very nice effect if not overused, and is demonstrated in the first 8 
lines below:

    Chords                    Lead

 1  C	 E    G                 C4
 2                            C#4
 3                            D4
 4                            D#4
 5                            E4
 7                            F4                                      
 8                            F#4
 9  G	 B    D                 G4
11                            A#4
12                            B4
13                            C#5
15                            D5
16                            C#5

Thats the basics. Now, although so many songs have very boring leads, its pretty
easy to one that isn't: just remember that when it comes to leads, your chord
progression is the thing that matters first. After that, use a scale that fits
the style you are trying to do, and preferably go for a more interesting one than
I did here. =)

Now on to the technical part. This is based, like the rest of the Tracking guide,
around using Fast Tracker 2, but of course the ideas can be transfered to Impulse 
Tracker and other trackers.

You can make tracking leads very difficult for yourself if you want to, but really
that isn't necessary. FT2 has some very useful tricks which you should take advantage

Firstly, let me introduce you to a "trick" that is incredibly useful yet hardly used:
You don't have to put an instrument number by a note. [technical stuff follows] =)

  Normally you would put a note down as eg. " C-4  1  34   850  ", where "C-4" is the
note, "1" is the instrument number, "34" is a volume line volume change, and "850" is
an effect line panning position change. Put this in the first line of the tracker.
Now a few lines after, say you wanted to change to a D but keep the same volume and
panning position. You could put in " D-4  1  34   850  " - but, as well as being
a waste of time, this fills up all the effect and volume line. You could achieve
exactly the same thing by just typing " D-4              ".  No instrument number,
effect line or volume line effects. The volume, instrument number and panning
position are taken from the last time they were set. This effectively leaves the
effect line free for stuff like portamentos and vibrato, and also for volume
slides. It is best to get into a practice of just putting the instrument number
and panning position once at the beginning of the pattern, and then leaving the
volume line free for volume slides/changes and the effect line for portamentos
and vibratos and sample offsets. 
  Note there are drawbacks. One is no fadeouts
with this technique. Since volume is kept from the previous note, any fadeouts
will mean that the notes following it can be reduced to silence. Secondly, a 
similar problem applies to volume/panning envelopes, although this can be used
advantageously. Thirdly, any volume changes will keep from note to note so if you
cut a note off, be sure to increase it again for the next note. =)

The effect you will probably use to most obvious effect is the portamento command.
The main times to use this are for notes which are close together, and also for
weak notes. 
Also the vibrato command is very useful, especially for longer notes. 

From the notes we entered before, modified a bit:

[Using same effect commands as FT2, so:
 +/- = volslide up/down
 3xx = portamento, where 01 is weak and FF is very strong (with full range in between)
 4xx = vibrato
 8xx = pan position]

    Chords                    Lead   Instrument  Volume     Effect

 1  C  E    G                 C4     1           30         860
 3                            D4                            3F0
 4                            D#4                           3F0
 5                            E4                                            
 7                            F4                            3F0
 9  G  B    D                 G4
11                            A4                            3F0
12                            B4                            3F0
13                            D5
14                                                          481
15                                                          481
16                                                          481	

This is a very simple pattern. Instant-note-change portamento ("3F0", used instead 
of "3FF" only because it is quicker to enter into the tracker) is used a lot as it 
simplifies things; a slow one like "308" is only used when that sound of a slow 
side is needed. 

Now for the real reason why the not-putting-an-instrument-number-by-a-note trick is
useful - echoing. This is a way of getting a fuller sound from a lead, and is used
by almost every tracked multichannel song by a good composer that you will see. =)

It is simply a case of putting the same notes as the lead, with the same instrument,
on another channel, with a (usually 2 or 4 or 8 line depending on the speed/tempo)
delay, at a lower volume (usually 1/2 or 1/4 the level of the main lead). A different
panning position is often used to make it even better. This effect greatly increases
the sound quality of many leads. =)

    Main lead channel (same as above)              Echo channel		

 1 C4     1           30      860       
 3 D4 		   	      3F0
 4 D#4                        3F0
 5 E4                                     C4     1    18    8C0
 7 F4                         3F0         D4                3F0
 8                                        D#4               3F0
 9 G4                                     E4
11 A4                         3F0         F4                3F0
12 B4                         3F0
13 D5                                     G4
14                            481					      
15                            481         A4                3F0	      
16                            481         B4                3F0


The echo channel is at 1/2 the volume and on the other side of the speaker, 
slightly further away from centre than the lead channel. Otherwise they
are the same. Use copy and paste. =)

A quick note on volumes:

Just as a lead which stays at the same small number of notes throughout sounds 
very dull, one which stays at the same volume throughout isn't very interesting
either. Use volume slides up and down and volume changes to add some feeling to
your leads. 

That's that for basics. Now on to some advanced stuff.

			A Bit More Advanced


Effectively, the technique used above for writing the notes to your lead was a form
of improvisation on the chord progression. There is another way to do it however: 
improvisation on the tune. 

See the section on structure and making a song out of a piece of music for more on 
this. If you use that idea, you will have thought of a melody and based your piece
on that, with a counter melody and some bridges, etc, to keep the piece flowing 
and enable the listener to follow it. The main melody or "hook" is the thing the
listener will go away remembering, and end up singing in the bath or something. =)
If your piece doesn't have a memorable tune to it or something to be rememberable
by, it can end up just being forgotten as a piece of unmemorable generic music. And
I'm sure you don't want that.

The best melodies are simple, a short phrase of strong, long notes. This makes it 
easier to follow for the listener and also means that when you come to do a lead 
you have much to work with. Take that melody as your basis, then using scales and 
filler notes embelish it, complicate it and turn it into a lead. 
  The trick is to make the melody still strongly present so it can be followed and 
doesn't just sound like a collection of notes going up and down a scale, but not to 
just leave it as it is in the lead, as this makes the song sound too repetitive. 
Improvise on it. I advise you to listen to Necros's "Orchard Street" or Dune's 
"Waypoint" for examples of how this can be done really well. 

Moving on..

However nicely you do that complicated lead part, if you put a complicated lead 
throughout the song it gets tiresome and too hard to follow for the listener. 
Instead, try to put a balance between fast complicated parts and slow parts. 

When tracking those slow parts remember the portamento command. Dune used this
to great effect in "Last Train". Try this, for example, the "octave slide": 

1     C5  1  40   880          F03
5     C4          30C
6                 300
7                 300
8                 300
9                 300
10                300
11                300
12                300
13                300
14                300
15                300
16                300

With a synth lead and fast tempo this can be a very nice effect. Try also putting
a volume slide in at the end with some vibrato.

Remember also that leads don't always have to stick to the rhythm of the song 
quite so much as other instruments might. If overused this can lead to a random
sound which is a bit too hard for the listener to folow, but occasional use can 
add interest.

Now a quick note on instruments. In fact, lots of instruments will work well as 
leads, from guitars and trumpets to pure synth sounds. Just experiment and pick
the one that works. 
An interesting technique with synth leads in jazz/funky songs in particular is to 
use a large number of portamentos, like on nearly every note, and a looped sample.
This means the sample never gets to restart for long periods of time. Make the 
loop on the sample long (and works well with pingpong loops) so it covers most of
the sample, now go and edit the sample with a sample editor like Soundforge to
add a few effects to it: like wah wah, phasing, or anything that changes the 
texture of the sample but not the pitch. When you use the sample in your leads
now, you'll notice it changing texture over the part, which can be a very nice
effect. Dune used something like that in "Last Train", and Necros did also in
"Orchard Street". Radix also did something similar in "Sarsipass's Ark".

If you want to see the masters of lead tracking, to see how it should be done, 
I suggest you download the following people's songs:

Radix, for great synthish jazzy/funky leads, with a great technique
Dune, for complete musical mastery and superb technique too
Necros, for similar reasons
and Wave, to see a different technique with leads. 

Oh, and mine, of course. =)

Look out for some tips in advanced tracking of leads soon.

Here are some takes on leads of my own, and from other sources:

The ability to write leads is initially like looks: either you got it or you don't. That's INITIALLY, mind you. Some people pick up tracking in a week, at the end of which they've got mind-boggling leads, catchy stuff that makes your head spin. Others just flop around, pounding random notes on the beats (or worse, off the beats). But you CAN get better, no matter how well you track leads at first. (Watch out, though... You can also get worse.)

The best way to write a lead is to know what you're about to track before you try and track it. (Huh?) I mean you need to have the lead in your head... You need to know exactly what you're aiming for. Whitle it, sing it, or whatever... Once you've got the riff you're looking for, keep tracking until the lead matches what you're singing.

A quote from Smash:

Easy way to do it:
Start each phrase with the note of the chord you are playing
(if its cmajor play c, etc).. and at each chord change do the 
same. Then just twiddle up and down the scale between the notes.
Eg, for key Cmaj..
Chords: Cmaj...Fmaj...Gmaj...Dmin... (yeah, sucks, but.. just 
an example)  Lead could go: C.DEF.E.G.F.D.B.
And just use slides in appropriate places (eg. the DEF bit), and
vibratos between long notes. Its really easy, actually. =)

And another (from a separate message, but still Smash):

Right, a quick bit of advice on leads.. they need feeling.
Most leads either imitate, at a most base level, a guitar (for 
long notes like siners, lead synths, etc), or a piano (for short
note leads).

To do piano leads, put a volume command on every note, and vary
them up and down a lot. Piano pieces are never all at the same
volume. And use note delays occasionally.. timing is important.
With guitarish leads, use volume again (use slides this time),
and use lots of vibrato commands on long notes (start soft, 
getting stronger).  Portamentos are very useful too. And always 
echo [your leads]..

The notes you don't hear prominently are just as important as
the ones you do..  in gaps, put some quiet notes in.. and at 
the end of long notes put a little twiddle in occasionally.
Look at radix and dune's pieces, they track leads like no 
other. =)

Oh, and Spyder offered this tip (which I've condensed) in TW15, "Stupid Music Tricks":

Compose a simple lead. Then put an interesting rhythm on it.

Play the lead once.

Now pick one or two effects (transposed, retrograded, inverted, etc) and apply it to a copy of the lead (in another channel, for instance-- so they're layered over one another). You might want to change the rhtyhm of the copy to make it either exclusive of the origional or paired with it. There you go! Instant funky leads... Not great, but it's something new to try. And just trying things is an important process in tracking excellent leads!

BTW: if you were wondering what some (or all) of those effects were, here's a mini-guide:

transposed: the same lead, but moved up some number of tones on the key (or scale). You can either do this without correcting accidentals (most funky, unless you're transposing to the five of the key, in which case it'll just sound hollow), or with accidentals corrected (so there are no notes outside of the current key (sounds more natural this way)). It's best to mix transposition with another effect. If you don't, you'll get 'parallels', which sound pretty dumb over time.

retrograded: basically, this means going up the same number of steps you went down, and down the same number of steps you went up. Again, you have the choice of correcting for the key you're in or not.

inverted: Playing the notes backwards in time, so a C-E-G-F-B phrase would be played B-F-G-E-C. The option you have here is inverting the rhythms as well, or not. A fairly standard technique that can have some great results.

syncapation: Well, we'll talk about this later, in the rhythm section. But for now, it's basically 'offsetting' notes by some predetermined value.

Well, it seems everyone wants their say! : ) I had Protocol of pHluid check in, and he dropped this article in my mailbox:

Leads are like the voice of a singer. In fact, listening to some of the leads from songs from all different genres I found several similarities---and they all sound good. The easiest of all is to take a variation of Smash's quote:

	Start each phrase with the note of the chord you're playing.

You can also use the 3rd and 4th as good starting points. It works because as the chords change, you accustom the listener to the change.

Pitchwise, as you complete a phrase (usually lasts about 2 - 4 measures in Common Time), the melody rises and falls in an even arc, inflections added along the way. Copying the lead 2 - 4 times in the chorus is the easy way to fill out the rest of the measures. Vary the ends of the odd-numbered phrases and beginnings of the even-numbered phrases. If you want to add more realism to woodwind/brass sections, start the pitch off detuned DOWN by a step or two and porta to the correct pitch. At the end of the phrase, do the reverse.

Volumes rise and fall with woodwind instruments. Synths w/ fairly constant volumes (but warping, modulated sounds) work well. Pianos vary volumes a lot because the strength of the keypresses varies. Guitars usually start out strong, weaken in the middle (or whenever there is lots of fast complex work), and finish strong (fading out occasionally). It also helps to soften volumes on instruments played at low and high pitches---not many people like a wailing saxophone at twice the volume of the song.

Vibrato doesn't usually happen until after an instrument has held a pitch for a while. If the volumes are high, vibrato should be applied harshly. If you're in a moody, slow section, gradually apply vibrato.

To keep away from boredom, pitch slides and trills work well. Don't fade out leads when their parts get interesting---people _want_ to hear that. Don't crowd high-pitched leads with other high-pitched, sustained instruments.

(Thanks, Elliott!)

Lastly, I'd just like to throw in this little tidbit: Assuming you've read the theory section (or know it already), then try sticking to a mode when you track your lead. It may sound lame, but it will emliminate playing around with accidentals all day, and let you lay down something smooth and rather nice-sounding. If you are really looking for something funky, try using a different mode in the same key as the chord progression... Like a blues scale (CD#EGAbD#G) over a not-so-vanilla C-maj (CGCDGCE). Try combining two chords in your leads, and just running up and down the mess that they create... Like a 1 over a six... Say, in C-minor, C,D,Eb,G,Ab... then jumble the order up: C,D,G,Ab,D,G... Etc. By combining several different keys/modes, you can get all kinds of leads, from funky to smooth.

MusicTheory101|Chords | Bass | Drums | Fine Tuning

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Updated Sept 17th, 1997
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