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In this article, we are going to go through what an arpeggiator, what it does and then and look at arpeggiator controls and terminology with the robust arpeggiator in the proprietary DAW Ableton Live.
Of course, the concepts looked at here are common to most if not all arpeggiators, both soft and hardware.
Let’s jump right in.
What is an Arpeggiator in Music?
An arpeggiator is a MIDI device (either soft or hardware) that takes and repeats a note or notes that you play. If you give it a single note it will repeat that note. If you give it more than one note it will repeat those notes in sequence.
The arpeggiator is a MIDI device which basically means it deals with the MIDI note data before it’s given to an instrument which then turns that note data into audio that we can hear and work with.
That means you can drag an arpeggiator onto an audio track, it can only go into a MIDI track.
The arpeggiator can be very useful in creating sequences.
We take a note or a chord (3 or more notes) and rather than playing them in unison, we play them in a different order.
The idea is to introduce a rhythmic aspect into a note or chord.
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How an Arpeggiator Works: Arpeggiator vs Arpeggio
The term arpeggiator comes from the musical term arpeggio which is a type a broken chord (a chord broken into a sequence of notes).
Just like an arpeggio in classical music, an arpeggiator may repeat some of the notes from the broken chord and span one or more octaves.
An arpeggiator generates arpeggios for us electronically.
If you want to get the MIDI from the arpeggiator, you have to record it to a new MIDI track.
This process of recording a MIDI track is, of course, different for every DAW.
Generally, you have to play and hold the notes in the arpeggiator and then record this onto a MIDI track.
As I said earlier, the arpeggiator itself has a lot of controls on it. You’ve got lots of ways of creating variations to our arpeggiated sound. Time to look at some of those.
An arpeggiator allows you to choose the style in which it will play those notes.
Say you pick a sequence of three notes — C, D♯ and G.
You can play the up (C, D♯ and G) in ascending order, down (G, D♯ and C) in descending order, randomly, as chord triggers, up & down, down & up, and so on.
You can offset the sequence so that you start from a different note.
In the style “up”, an offset of -1 starts with the last note (G in this case).
You can adjust the interval between the notes in the sequence using the groove pool. You adjust the groove by changing the global amount on the groove tool.
The idea behind the groove function is to add some feel. It basically changes the strength of rhythm and feel.
This is created by adding offset in a certain rhythm.
If you play straight it will feel like no swing is being applied and then as you add more, you’ll feel the swing kick in stronger as more is added.
The groove can be straight, swing 8, swing 16, swing 32, and so on.
Hold, as you might suspect, will hold the sequence so you don’t have to keep pressing the notes. Think of it as a loop.
From a performer’s point of view, this is a really good control which basically means once you’ve established the first chord, it will continue that cycle of notes until you intervene and change what the chord is.
You just have something started there, lean over to another part of your performance setup and then just enter the new chords as needed, and still be able to work between two devices.
The synchronized rate lets you control how fast the sequence will be going.
1/32 will be faster than 1/8 which will be faster than 1/4, for instance.
The unsynchronized or free rate will let you control the speed in each of the notes lasts, in milliseconds.
A rate of 20ms will play the sequence faster than, say, 120ms.
Sync can be switched to a non-synced form (it’s just a measurement of time), which is really good for what we call stutter edit.
Gate will determine how long the MIDI note that is being sent will be.
Short will be staccato in style, long will be legato in style where they will flow into the next note creating a continuous flow.
Just like the other options here, these could be changed over time with automation.
Perhaps, the best way to visualize this is through the envelope.
This is often a percentage. 50% will be shorter than 100%.
Repeat is self-explanatory — how many times a sequence repeats.
Values are numeric (1, 3…) through to infinite.
Retrigger restarts the sequence.
You can choose to retrigger the sequence every time you hit a note or by beats (say, every 3/8).
Arpeggiator Steps and Distance
Step changes the notes on the next sequence.
The distance is, well… the distance between the steps.
A step of 1 with a distance of 12 semitones, for instance, will play an octave higher after playing the current sequence.
A step of 1 with a distance of 1 semitone, on the other hand, will play the sequence notes one semitone up.
Arpeggiator Transpose and Key
Transpose changes the notes between the major and minor scales.
The key indicates the scale of the notes in the current sequence.
If your current key is, say, C, and your transpose is set to major, your current sequence is C major. If that’s a minor, your notes are in C minor, and so on.
You can create some very interesting sequences with steps and distance, thanks to the transposition.
Arpeggiator Velocity, Decay, and Target
Decay will be the amount of time it will take the sequence to decay to target velocity.
Decay will typically be in seconds and
If you toggle velocity on, set a decay of 1s and a target of 0. It will take 1 second for the sequence to decay to silence.
You can set the velocity from the wavetable.
You can also retrigger the velocity.
How to Use the Arpeggiator in Ableton Live
Using Ableton Live is very simple.
You’ll be able to follow along in Ableton 10’s Intro, Standard or Suite because this plugin is included functions the same in all of them.
You can add an arpeggiator to any sound that you like.
To do this, you need to go to MIDI Effects, select an arpeggiator and then click and drag it to the left your instrument plugin.
If your instrument plugin is Range Noise Arp, for instance, that will sit to the right of your arpeggiator.
It doesn’t go on the same place as your audio effects because you’re not dealing with audio, it’s actually arpeggiating the MIDI signal, and the that MIDI is getting fed into the instrument and then through the audio effects.
Unfortunately, Ableton Live will not respond to your sustained pedal when the arpeggiator plugin is active.
In my opinion, this is probably the only real weakness of the arpeggiator plugin.
My personal preference would be that if I hold down the sustain pedal, the arpeggiator continues to play. Currently, this isn’t possible without some complex, third-party coding — that just isn’t accessible to the vast majority of users.
If you need to use the arpeggiator hold, you can leave the hold on and then map that via MIDI map to a button so you could toggle it off and on.
If you find this is not that big of a deal, a quick workaround is to just get in the habit of holding notes on your MIDI keyboard for as long as you need them to be arpeggiated.
If you have specific settings that you like, you can always save them as presets by hitting the save icon on the top right of the arpeggiator plugin to save them to your user library.
There is also a preset library you can start off on but eventually, you’ll want to reset that to its default actually produce something unique — that’s the whole idea.
An arpeggiator, in practice, gives you some pretty useful ways of
…first dialing in and trying to get something that works well in the context of what you’re working on…
…second varying whatever you are working on over a duration of time as you are producing music.
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That’s it for this article.