In the early days of dance music, cheap drum machines and unfit-for-purpose bass synthesisers were prodded and played with until something sounded good. And in many ways, that unwitting approach is still prevalent. The machines may have changed, but for many, the process is the same. Somewhat uniquely, musicality in dance production is a choice, not a necessity. A conscious rejection of musicality is nothing unusual. Free from the potentially constricting tyranny of notes, scales and modes, electronic music can, and often is, defined purely in terms of rhythm, timbre and texture. Some stick vehemently to this approach, pushing the edges of what can be found within those tactile parameters, while others—having leaped over the low barrier in search of a creative outlet—may be intrigued by what can be achieved through melody and harmony.
But where to start? Music theory can seem incredibly daunting. Numbers and symbols are scattered across the page like code, only to be unlocked by hours of pricey, diligent tutelage. Thankfully, the electronic music software industry has provided a number of solutions, the latest of which is Captain Plugins by Mixed In Key.
Captain Plugins is the latest in an ever-expanding range of products from Mixed In Key, all of which stem from the original piece of software the company is named after. While Mixed In Key is used to analyse and determine the key of audio, Captain Chords and the accompanying series of VSTs that make up the Captain Plugins suite aim to guide you through the creative process of putting together musical progressions while staying locked to a particular key or scale. The package currently includes Captain Melody, Captain Deep and Captain Play. The ideas behind them aren’t new: the suite is essentially a modular, VST version of Mixed In Key’s existing, standalone Odesi software. The difference here is that Captain Plugins runs natively inside your DAW, meaning it’s much easier to incorporate into your existing workflow by generating or responding to incoming or outgoing MIDI.
Any work with the Captain Plugins suite starts with Captain Chords, which acts as the master VST, sharing its note data with any slaved plugins you add from the suite into your project. This means that any changes to the sequence within Captain Chords will be reflected in the bassline created in Captain Deep, for example, or an arpeggiated lead line built in Captain Melody. Upon opening one of the plugins, you’re presented with a splash screen, giving you the option to choose a key and scale within which to work. This can be changed at any time once you’re in the plugin proper, so it seems a little superfluous. The other option, Randomize, is useful for when you’re starting from scratch or fancy letting chance do its thing. From there you’re delivered to the main plugin window, where a basic, one-bar, three-note chord in your chosen key and scale (or not chosen, if you took that route) is waiting for you in the note grid. Two rows above the note grid allow you to change this base chord for others in the same key (top row) and pick a voicing for each chord (bottom row). Hitting the + button to the right of the first chord duplicates it. From there you can select a different chord, insert a rest or enter a custom chord. It’s not possible to edit notes within the plugin yet, so this is the closest you’ll get. Don’t want to pick your own chords? The Progression section inside Captain Chords is where you’ll want to head. These Progression presets provide the ultimate shortcut to creating convincing harmonies. Choosing one of these fills out a four-bar loop with a four-note chord progression based around the set key and scale. Chords are added in legato-length notes, which can be twisted into numerous variations via the Note Length, Rhythm and Timing menus. Unfortunately, these variations are global, and can’t be applied to each chord individually. Hopefully, this will be addressed in a future update, as being at the mercy of this limitation proves fairly frustrating fairly quickly. Each chord can be resized by clicking and dragging, or split in half with the press of a button, though it’s a shame you can’t drag and drop the chords to re-order them as you please.
Six tabs across the top of the plugin window provide a few different ways of playing and storing musical ideas, and are echoed across all the plugins, bar Captain Play. (Captain Play is completely redundant, as it’s two features—the playing and recording of single notes and chords locked to a set key and scale—are both fully available inside Captain Melody and Captain Chords.) Besides the MIDI In and Play tabs, the other four function as scratchpads, giving you spaces to build up the various melodic sections of your track. They’re labeled according to how Mixed In Key imagine them to be used: Verse, Pre-Chorus, Chorus and, amusingly, Drop. Copy/pasting progressions between them is simple and makes for an easy way to play around with structure and variation, while it’s possible to export individual MIDI files from each for future recall.
The sounds themselves are solid if somewhat unremarkable, mostly rich, full-bodied and well-suited to lush musical progressions. The included reverb and delay effects are also serviceable. The reverb has Hall, Room, Plate, Spring and Arena options, while the delay offers nine time divisions, including a Ping-Pong mode. Both can be dialled in using a dry/wet slider, and while you’re probably going to end up using your preferred send effects, they’re certainly a pleasing way of getting a quick idea up and running. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the built-in filter, which has a fixed, harsh resonance and a flat, muddy and unpleasing tone. Thankfully, the VST Output mode allows you to circumvent the built-in sounds altogether, meaning the plugin’s MIDI output can be easily routed to a plugin of your choosing.
The seamless interplay between the different plugins is arguably the most enjoyable aspect of the suite. It is probably the main draw over similarly priced, more established products such as Steve Duda’s Cthulu and Scaler by Plugin Boutique. Being able to write a progression in Captain Chords and have a musically related bass, lead or pad line ready to go inside of Captain Deep or Captain Melody is undeniably fun, but I can’t help but wonder how quickly this kind of ready-made “inspiration” will lose its appeal. As a method for seeking out new chords you wouldn’t think to choose, or finding the root note when using chord inversions, for example, it’s undoubtedly useful. There’s no doubt that Captain Plugins is a shortcut, but whether it’s a shortcut to creativity, or a shortcut from it, is entirely up to you.