Massive is wavetable synthesiser released by Native Instruments back in 2007 to great fanfare. It’s known for its brutal sub ripping basslines, formant filtered vocaloid patches and grizzly distorted effects. But, underneath the facade of being this rebellious digital monstrosity, it’s capable some damned clever modulation that can be used in a very musical way.
One of the LFO types I’ve been sinking my teeth into is the Stepper – a unipolar step sequencer great for filtering and pitch modulation, reminiscent of the modular sequencers of old. Using the Stepper in syced mode (1/8 or 1/16 fore e.g) and modulating the pitch of an oscillator by 12 semitones, you can get some basic Tangerine Dream styled arpeggios.
When teaching this, I always recommend students look up a scale and convert the intervals to numbers to make it easier. With a basic minor scale we can start off with 0, 3, 7, 10 and 12, then adding 2, 5 and 8 as the next layer of complexity.
It struck me that basic counterpoint can be achieves with Massive’s three oscillators (please add a fourth in the next update guys! For this alone). With some rudimentary music theory knowledge and a piece of squared paper, I set about creating some three voicing counterpoint with Massive.
Here’s a quick video explaining how the stepper LFO works, how to make the three voicing counterpoint patch and squeezing a little extra out of the patch with the performer LFO. If you want to understand how to program the patch, read on a little further…
Okay, What is Counterpoint?
Probably best we define our terms first! Counterpoint is a small ‘c’ classical era way of writing for several voices, or parts. Wikipeida describes counterpoint as:
…is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent [polyphonic] yet independent in rhythm and contour. It has been most commonly identified in classical music, strongly developing during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period, especially in Baroque music. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum meaning “point against point”.
Counterpoint is generally governed by a fairly strict set of rules called species which I’m going to liberally ignore for this patch for good reason. Here’s a really brief example I’ve made in Ableton demonstrating three voice counterpoint.
I’ve coloured coded each voice using the velocity tool (this isn’t supposed to indicate different volumes, it’s just there to help separate each voice. Notice how the voices don’t overlap at all.
Massive’s architecture means I am also limited to one octave (more on this later), to just three voices and I can’t easily use different subdivisions between a single voice (quarter and eighth notes, for example).
So, what I am trying to achieve is each of Massive three oscillators have a independent pitch, moving to create a simple thee voice chord, a bit like a polyphonic arpeggiator or successive chord triggers.
Choosing my Scale
Whilst there are many choices available to me, dipping too far into modes and synthetic scales can produce some fairly grating harmonies if you’re not careful. So for simplicity I’ve stuck to a basic minor scale.
C natural minor has the notes C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb and back to C. These intervals translate to 0, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10 and 12.
We can also use B natural, which is found in the harmonic minor, and has an interval of 11.
Technically there are other notes that would work, but these are very circumstantial and I want to keep this as simple as possible.
This generates the chords C-, Dø, Eb, F, G- and G (because we have the B natural as well as Bb), Ab and Bb. Technically we could argue Dº, Eb+ and some sort of B(b5) are all possible but I don’t want to overcomplicate my harmonies at this early stage.
If you’re unfamiliar with the chord symbols above, have a read of this.
Some tips for using the stepper LFO. For musical results ensure you have ‘snap to grid’ ticked, as this will only allow you to input whole integers. Alternatively you can use alt + click when moving the steps around, this will also lock them to whole integers. Numbers will decimal points will be out of tune, and although that can produce some interesting results, it’s not what we want here.
I’ve already mentioned above, but using multiples of 4 as to sync our stepper will also produce better results. If you want to try something polyrhythmic or more aleatoric, experiment with changing the rate between steppers.
I’ve loaded up my default patch (as the one Massive provides needs some work in my opinion), the main things to consider are the synth is monophonic, all oscillators are routed at full amplitude to filter 1 which is in series with the mix set to filter 1.
In addition my amplitude envelope (envelope 4) has no attack and the maximum level (Massive-speak for sustain). I’ve added a medium release time and in the Osc tab synced all my oscillators phases to restart at 0º when a new MIDI note is received.
Lastly set all of the oscillators to a waveform of your choice, I’ve opted for a sawtooth but you can be more adventurous if you want. This can get a little buzzy, so perhaps consider a low-pass filter. We can accentuate the patch with delay and reverb but I’ll ignore both of these for now.
As the maximum range of the stepper LFO is 12, we can’t do anything but this an expect musical results.
There might be some happy accidents to be found in other values, but I’m not here to explore them!
Let’s start by focusing on oscillator 3, which is being modulated by stepper 6. This is acting as our lowest voice of the three.
As I mentioned above, all of our examples are going to be in C minor, so each of the intervals generated by our steppers (0, 2, 3 etc) will relate to the intervals above the note I am playing, which will be a C. Let’s look at stepper 6:
I’m syncing all of my steppers to a rate of 1/4 and using a host tempo of 94 bpm. Here the notes are:
0 0 2 3 2 2 3 2 3 3 5 2 0 2 2 3
Which translate to the notes:
C C D Eb F D Eb D Eb Eb F D C D D Eb
Notice I’ve been careful not to go above the F. This oscillator alone sounds like this:
Let’s move on to oscillator 2, which is controlled by stepper 7. The stepper looks like this:
This has the intervals:
3 5 5 7 8 5 7 7 7 8 8 7 3 5 7 7
Which looks a bit like:
Eb F F G Ab F G G G Ab Ab G Eb F G G
And sounds like this:
Lastly, here’s oscillator 1, controlled by stepper 8, which is the highest harmony of the three:
The intervals are:
7 8 10 10 12 10 10 11 12 12 12 10 8 8 11 12
Which amounts to:
G Ab Bb Bb C Bb Bb B C C C Bb Ab Ab B C
And sounds like this:
All Together Now…
When we add the three oscillators’ intervals together we get this:
Osc 1: G Ab Bb Bb C Bb Bb B C C C Bb Ab Ab B C Osc 2: Eb F F G Ab F G G G Ab Ab G Eb F G G Osc 3: C C D Eb F D Eb D Eb Eb F D C D D Eb
Each stack is a three note chord, sometimes an inversion. It reads like this:
C- F- Bb Eb F- Bb Eb G C- Ab F- G- Ab Dø G C-
And that sounds like this:
While we can get quite experimental with having certain LFOs running at different rates, with different loop lengths, from different start positions, transposed or even without being restarted, the major drawback from this method is that the intervals are fixed to the root.
By this I mean if we program a minor scale styled counterpoint, we can’t move through the keys, and there’s no kind of intelligent scale quantitation available. However if you can look past this and just use the tool as an interesting arpeggiator or, by selecting very conservative intervals (0, 5, 7, 12) we could probably get this working with transposition.
This really is just the starting point of where you can take this synth. I’ve uploaded the patch to download here. There’s many different ways this can be taken and I’d be interested to hear anyone’s results. Enjoy!