It was about 4 a.m. and we had just wrapped up a long session. While I w as packing up my gear, I put on the Beatles One CD and started playing “The Long and Winding Road” (which I can listen to 20 times in a row). The assistant, who is about 20 years old, asked me, “who’s that?” I figured he was young and couldn’t make the distinction between john and Paul, so I answered, “Paul McCartney.” His reply was, “Oh, he was in that band Wings, wasn’t he.” Yes, Paul was in Wings. He also just became a billionaire (that’s three commas in his bank statement), the first to make that much money entirely from music.
My dad recently asked me what I think the similarities are between the master composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Beatles. I told him the similarity is that a beautiful melody is timeless. If you take the Beatles and strip away the lyrics, the arrangements, the sound, the production, and all of the other elements that led them to superstardom, what you’re left with are melodies that have stood, and it will continue to stand, the test of time.
In classical music, the tempo is constantly changing — it’s a variable to add or release tension. Meter changes are also very common. This is just another similarity between the Beatles and the masters of previous centuries. Although the Beatles music may have been simple in many ways, when you try duplicating it with a sequencer, you run into a few challenges, such as meter and tempo changes. Most pop composers use 4/4 time with consistent tempo throughout the song. But listen to a few Beatles songs like “A Day in the Life,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I want You (She’s So Heavy),” or “We Can Work It Out” to see great examples of how the Beatles weren’t tied down to any meter or tempo. That was part of their genius.
Some musical styles benefit from being locked and sticking to a groove. But live musicians consciously or unconsciously speed up a little throughout certain songs, which helps to build excitement. Try some gradual tempo changes in your songs and see if you like the technique. On most sequencers you can pull down a window that will give you options to select the starting and ending bar, the starting and ending tempo, and the curve of how fast and where you want the changes to occur. Try bumping your tempo up about 5 BPM from halfway through the song until the end. You might just love it.
Another useful practice is to fit a sequence to a work with an irregular tempo, like a score for which you must hit cues, or a remix that requires you to lock to the vocals. Controlling tempo becomes another technique in your toolbox that you can pull out when the appropriate occasion presents itself. Remember, however, that digital audio (whether loops or finished takes) is not as flexible as MIDI data and will be out of sync when the tempo changes.
Here are some ways around some of this: record your loop into your digital audio sequencer at the set tempo. Make the tempo change that you want and select the option that allows you to adjust audio to sequence tempo. You can also adjust any audio tracks that you’ve already recorded with this method.
An easier option is to record the tempo changes with the MIDI tracks first, then record all your live instruments and/or vocals. This way there is no degradation in quality due to time compression on the audio tracks. Some sequencers, like Performer, allow you to grab a sample and just drag it to fit the needed space. The program makes all the necessary adjustments.
Sometimes you need that one bar of 2/4 to make it all fit right, and meter changes are also usually simple to change in a sequencer, just like you would any other data. The challenge is to use this capability musically.
A successful meter change usually requires two or three steps: First, enter the starting tempo or meter. Second, execute the change and listen to it. (Inserting odd bars and extra beats can wreak havoc with previously sequenced material, especially if it’s repeating data.)
Finally, change it back if it doesn’t work.
But when it’s right, it’s right. The Beatles were notorious for adding extra heats to their songs. Check out “All You Need is Love,” “Good Morning,” and “Good Day Sunshine,” then try to find a loop to fit! Tempo and meter changes may be out of fashion in pop music, but they make tracks more complex, and, if done well, more interesting.
Arty Skye is a multi-platinum, Grammy nominated producer/engineer as well as the founder of SkyeLab Music Group. He has worked with thousands of musicians and renowned artists such as Will Smith, Madonna, Santana, Alicia Keys, Wu-Tang, Kelly Price, and more.