“Classic” House and Techno Chords

Korg PolysixTwo themes heavily influenced early House & Techno music production – limitation and technology. The intersection of these two things often resulted in the unique style that many of us now associate with that “classic” sound.

A prime example is the use of planed chords or parallel harmony. If you’re into the sound of producers like Kerri Chandler, Jovonn, Mood 2 Swing or even more current producers like Motor City Drum Ensemble, Legowelt, Soulclap, or Detroit Swindle, you’re familiar with this sound.

Let’s look at how the planed chords technique came to be a popular staple of House and Techno.

The Technology

Samplers ushered in the possibility of pulling audio from existing recordings. Things such as chords could be sampled and turned into new melodies.

The way samplers work, however, changed the way that chord progressions would be played. Normally, chords in a progression would vary between major and minor, depending on the root note the chord is built upon.

But, sampled chords remain fixed. It’s either a major or a minor chord you sampled. That won’t change, so your progressions with a sampled chord sound “different”.  Samplers thus resulted in the popularization of a “new” style (with a very distinct sound) of chord progressions by early House & Techno producers. (Early 1900s composers like Debussy experimented with this, but it was not commonplace).

Chord progressions arranged in this way are now commonly referred to as “planed chords”.

The Limitation

Throw into the mix the fact that many House & Techno producers are not musically trained and it is not surprising that this method of sampling chords and creating progressions with them (also referred to as “parallel harmony”) became a staple of the genres from very early on.

Even if some producers were classically trained, the underground nature of the genres meant that most production was done in small studios, without access to the resources needed to use live musicians, who were more likely to stick to accepted music theory. Of course, access to gear was an issue as well. If you can’t afford to hire a string section or rent/buy an electric piano what do you do?  You sample it.

Chord  Memory

The sampler resulted in the popularity of this sound. But, there’s another technological advancement that helped push it along even more.

Some early synth manufacturers recognized the popularity of planed chords and understood that many producers might want to replicate that sound without having to sample the chords they played on their synth. Enter chord memory.

Chord memory essentially mimics what a sampler does, keeping the structure of your original chord intact, at the same time allowing you to trigger it across the range of your keyboard. Like a sampler, triggering the chord only requires striking a single key.

A few classic synths that really popularized this feature were the Korg Polysix and Memorymoog. It’s no surprise that you’ll find these synths all over classic House & Techno productions (along with sampled chords).

For many of us, chord memory still remains a popular feature. Parallel harmony just has “that sound” we’ve come to love. Some soft synth producers have also recognized this and include the feature. One such synth is Rob Papen’s Predator. Find out a bit about how it works in Predator in the video.