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midichords // about 5 years ago //
It is not a secret that we at Midichords love chord progressions and you may have noticed that we have dedicated several tutorials to chord progressions and how they can be turned into arpeggios and other cool elements. In this article we will look at how Danish producer Jon Skarin uses a chord progression as the foundation for his production ‘Hymn of the Last Whale’.
Hymn of the Last Whale is a splendid composition in my opinion and it illustrates really well how you can create a song with nothing more than a chord progression as your starting point. I am not claiming that some simple magic is all it takes to compose a great track. Hymn of the Last Whale breathes talent, inspiration and skill and there is no shortcut for that. Nevertheless, we can learn something from the techniques Jon has employed. 
Before we continue, let us first listen to the track.
It really is a solid and uplifting production with an awesome atmosphere. If you do not agree, you may stop reading, but if you are curious about how this track was made, don't leave us and read on.

Chord progression

Now, I'm not going to talk about the groove and the sound of the (last) whale. I will focus primarily on the chord progression and the elements that have been derived from it. So let's have a look at the mother of all elements first. 
That looks like a chord progression alright. It spans 12 bars which is somewhat unconventional. In trance you'll mostly work with sections that are an even multiple of 8 bars in length. In other words, 8, 16, 32-bar loops and so on. But in this particular track 12 bars works really well. You can listen to the progression below:


Sounds good right? Now, let's have a look at the basslines. In Hymn of the Last Whale, the bassline is layered into a high, mid and sub bass. This is good practice. The sub bass gives weight and body to the track, the mid and high bass give it character and ensure that the bassline translates well to all audio systems (like your car stereo).

Let's start with the mid bass. 

Let's zoom in a bit on the first two bars.

In the piano rolls you can see that the mid bass follows the middle note of the entire chord progression. Actually, in the track it is a few octaves lower, but it follows the same notes.

Jon Skarin used reFX Vanguard with a specific preset to create the following sound:

The high bass looks a bit different.

Again, we will zoom in on the first two bars to show a bit more detail.

For the high bass, Jon follows the top note and low note of the entire progression. Finally, the sub bass follows the middle note, like the mid bass, but using a different pattern.

As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of the sub bass is to give the track weight and body. Its frequency range is usually between 20 Hz and 100 Hz and can be felt rather than heard.

Combined, the three basslines sound like this:


A great VST like reFX Vanguard allows you to arpeggiate your notes with just a few clicks. While such out of the box solutions are quick and painless, they are not always a good idea. If you use such a feature with care however and make it part of the creative process, you can achieve some astonishing results.

In Hymn of the Last Whale Jon Skarin demonstrates how beautiful a reFX Vanguard  generated arp can sound. 

What he did was put the original chord progression in two seperate Vanguard channels, with one chord progression moved up one octave. He chose some cool presets and enabled the arp for both.

Below a few screenshots showing the Vanguard interface and the 'arp' settings used in the track.

The result is a beautiful multi-layered arp.

Let's combine bass and arps and see how that sounds. Even though we do not have all elements and no groove, we should be getting pretty close to the track's atmosphere.


Granted, this is not mixed and mastered and does not sound exactly as the real deal, but I'm sure you get the idea.

More arps

At some point Jon Skarin also throws in some trance sparkle/bells. Look at the arp pattern he created:

See how it literally follows the chord progression over 2 octaves? The bottom line is that the chord progression you start out with helps you to choose the notes of your melody/lead and other elements you may want to throw in. 

Hymn of the Last Whale is really an exercise in using a chord progression and crafting an entire track around it. Bass, arps, sparkle and other melodic elements all adhere to the notes of the original chords. But what makes the track stand out is not the chord progression or arps or basslines. For example, you can start out with a great series of chords, but end up with a bad, dull sounding track. Hymn of the Last Whale sounds great because the producer - Jon Skarin in this case - has been creative and made all the right decisions. Apart from the elements that I have highlighted in this article, the track uses a lot of filtering, EQ'ing, automation, etc. This, combined with overall arrangement of the various elements, resulted in this really awesome track.

I'm once again sending my thanks to Jon Skarin who so willingly sent me the entire FL Studio project for Hymn of the Last Whale. It is Jon who is the artist behind the music. We feel privileged that we may use his work for our own and our valued visitors' inspiration.

Last, but not least, you can download the 'Hymn of the Last Whale' midi construction kit here. Have fun!



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