Natural Phrasing in the Arp

Arpeggiators as a whole have the reputation of being cold and mechanical, or accused of being 'unmusical'. For many types of music, this digital perfection is exactly what you want. But P5's new Arpeggiator has a number of capabilities that allow you to infuse some natural-sounding inflections reminiscient of acoustic instruments with human interaction.

One advantage is in the per-track implementation. Introducing slight Arp variations between parallel instrument tracks tones down the strict meter, and allows for mixing up timbre, timing, and level interaction. The fact that you can also load up patterns as a preset offers rich possibilities [within some limitations]. Each of these methods deserve their own article. In this one, I'll concentrate on some performance techniques that'll breathe a liveliness into your acoustic emulations.

We'll do that by injecting some elements of human error. No human player ever hits all the targeted notes with the same precise timing, loudness, or harmonic content. P5's Arp parameters can be automated or controlled via MIDI Remote Control. We have to find ways to connect that human imperfection, and layer that over the MIDI tick-accurate precision of the Arpeggiator.

Velocity & Latching

This is the single best tip that I can give you on this: Use velocity as a control parameter. Unlike the other available Remote Control messages, this one is too important to 'intercept'. You can use it both for it's original purpose and as a control source at the same time, even controlling multiple destinations. Velocity is something that all controllers transmit in one form or another, and it's one of our key links connecting the Arp to performance techniques.

In the Arp, velocity fits nearly everywhere, but using it to toggle the Latch feature introduces a natural phrasing to the sequence under fingertip control. Assign the Latch control under MIDI Remote Control [MRC] in the right-click menu there. Now any velocity pressure value that you play from 64-127 will enable the latch, and anything under shuts it off. When your fingers leave the KB on a softer note, the Latch will disable to silence. Releasing at a higher velocity will continue the Arp 'motion' by Latching it.

If you're playing an old Casio (for example) without velocity, your Note On value will always come in at 64, turning on the Latch, and turning it off with a release. If you have any M-Audio controller (or many other similar brands), your velocity is full-range for your phrasing, but instead of a Note Off, your release sends a Note On with a velocity value of 0. This means that all Latching will stop when no note is pressed. This requires a certain adaptive technique, in that you always need a Note On depressed on the KB to continue a Latch, even if it's a non-sounding C0. But the advantage is that you're assured a Latch Off by lifting your fingers.

Something with true Note Off capability (like a Novation, for example) acts a little differently, in that anything above a value of 63 will continue the Latch, and you really have to play softly to disengage. I've found that a quick and light 'palming' of the keyboard is very effective in Latching Off, and Notes above the threshold will arpeggiate beautifully at several velocity levels. It's a different technique, and each controller type has it's own advantages. The best scenario is in having a controller of each type, and simultaneously transmitting on the same MIDI channel.

Whichever option that you have, it's best to just 'play' the Latch parameter with a mixture of legato/staccato technique, and feel out the possibilities on your own KB. Remember that each individual finger has a separate influence on the destination values, so that's a lot of power over variables. I've managed to fool quite a few people who should know better with my 'acoustic guitar' projects, and the the techniques extend to piano, stringed instruments and beyond.

Sustain & Expression

If you don't have these, just go get them. The Sustain switch can be substituted as that control source above for Latching, but so many synths implement this that it's a shame to give it up. The beautiful interaction of sustained and damped Notes adds so much to the Latching technique above. The key to this is in variation, without leaving any one state [On or Off] active for any length of time. You can simulate this by using a slider on the Arp's Gate control, varying the Notes from 'palm-muted' to ringing out. Channel Aftertouch makes a great source for this one, as added pressure brings out the sustained notes, with very subtle fingertip control.

If you have an expression pedal, you'll get more subtlety by assigning it to CC#11 [Expression], rather than Master [Channel] Volume [CC#7]. The former varys a percentage of the overall level set in CC#7, and if you have a means of limiting that range in software [Hi/Lo values], the slight variation becomes even more natural to the ear. Again: subtle and slow movement, and frequently vary the pedal position.

Channel Aftertouch, Pitch & Mod Wheel

I've mentioned AT with the Gate control above. This is the only other usual control message that you have at your disposal without ever leaving the black & whites. The way to approach this is that while you're only outputting a single value at a time, each finger can introduce it's own influence to the parameter. That's the potential for a lot of variation in rapid succession, and that's just what we want here. Use it for timbre changes [filter cutoff] in your soft-synth, and still control another parameter simultaneously. Perhaps that could be a [MRC] Shapes parameter in the Arp. The applied pressure can change the algorithm in the Arp and vary the note order with each setting. Or the Octaves or Rate parameters, and extend the Arpeggiator's range or inject a flurry of notes for brief interludes. Too many uses to list here, but see if you like it in conjunction with the Remote Control Tricks.

The Pitch and Mod wheels are so commonly used that I also wouldn't want to give up the functionality, but in certain emulation situations, pitchbend and/or vibrato might not enter into the equation. If they do, the application is narrow and momentary. In those projects where unneeded as such, it's nice to know that you have these two handy tools at your disposal. The PB wheel is hi-res, and snaps back to a center value. That makes it a 'natural' for controlling Arp controls with the same behavior, like the Pitch Offset [input some passing tones], Gate Control, or even the Chord Mix.

Mod wheels sometimes hold their physical value position, but often are configured to snap back to zero in a range of 0-127. That behavior allows you to control any Arpeggiator parameter and access it quickly, with the security in knowing that a quick release of the control will bring the parameter back to its default position. Once again, I hate to give it up, but the potential is there to solve some unique problems in performance.

To Conclude

P5's new Arp is head-and-shoulders above most any other arpeggiator that I've seen, and those approaching this level of interactivity have been confined to a single synth. Let's see if we can't break down those old 'clinical' stereotypes about arpeggiators, considering the tool set that we've been given this time around, and fool even the most ardent critics.

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