Developing Dramatic, Layered Chord Progressions in Ableton with VNTM

Having recently launched the Tale Of Us-approved imprint Apparition, Amsterdam’s newest melodic house and techno powerhouse VNTM discusses how he achieves the dramatic chord progressions of tracks like “Dark Knight.”

If I had to choose, one of the most vital parts of my records would be chord progressions and pads. I sometimes try to make tracks without them, but I rarely succeed. The pads create movement and set a vibe in most of my productions, and they play a very important role in expressing my feelings and thoughts.

To create tension and suspense, I always use different layers of pads. So I felt it was interesting to dive deeper into this and show you how I create different layers and movement throughout the tracks without repeating the same sound and structure over and over again.

First of all, when writing a record, I try to pick a pretty standard waveform pad, like a saw or square wave, because it’s easy to write the actual notes without FX. To make it less complicated, I’m using Ableton stock plugins to show you how I do it, but any sound can be replaced by hardware or any other VST plugin that you prefer instead.

If you take the “Analog Slow Sweep Pad” preset from Ableton, for instance, you get a nice, deep pad that could really work well for some ambience, and to set the mood. I’ll try not to make drastic chord changes or difficult progressions here, because you can add these later.

When you have this chord sequence, you will notice that there is already some movement in the filters, but it’s still pretty static and not yet exciting enough to fill a whole track. So the second step to create a more interesting vibe is to add movement with another layer, most preferably a little pluck synth or a shorter stab that works well with an arpeggiator.

One of the presets from Ableton that works well for me is the “Azimuth Arp Plucks.” If you add the same chords into this arp you will get a really interesting sequence. After this I add the “Max For Live LFO FX” to add LFOs to different parameters, like filters, reverb and the filter resonance.

To make it interesting, I’m not sticking to musical ratios like 1/16th or 1/8th tempo, but I choose a rather random ratio that will evolve over time and is not stuck to a certain amount of measures. 

And I’m assigning the LFO to multiple parameters to create more differences over time. Playing with the dry/wet amounts will also help to create more depth.

To create another layer to make things more exciting I always search for something heavy that can add the drama if needed — a good starting point would be “Dual Osc6 Vibrato Bass.”

I’m creating a bassline with this that is twice as long and covers more notes and creates a bit more direction. I’m adjusting the LFO a bit because it’s too heavy, but with these settings you’d be pretty close to a solid bass to add the last bit of power and to make your chords overwhelming.

Listen to the results below.

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