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On The Beat (Part 1)

This new series on drum machine programming is intended to provide an understanding of the drum patterns which form a wide range of music. Nigel Lord starts close to home with basic pop and rock patterns.


This introductory series on drum machine programming will cover not only programming basics, but the basis of a variety of rhythmic styles - in the months to come we'll look at styles including rock, reggae, go go and hip hop. First a few pop basics... Text by Nigel Lord.

AS THE PERSONIFICATION of all that is wrong with pop in the '80s, the drum machine has few equals. Often the only piece of equipment which can be cited by name in one of those full-bloodied Luddite rants we've all been subjected to over the years, it has reserved for it that special brand of vitriol poured over any piece of equipment with the temerity to take on a role previously associated with a human being.

Yet still they endure. Despite the re-emergence of the real live article, despite public rejection of the more obvious strains of synthesised music, despite the current disenchantment with a system which constantly entreats us to upgrade in favour of this year's model, we have seen a whole crop of machines released over the last 12 months, all anxiously snapped up and in some cases, generating that special buzz of excitement which accompanies the release of a genuinely groundbreaking instrument. Clearly, the beatbox - however humble or sophisticated its operating system - is no mere passing craze; it has withstood the rigours of time and fashion, and more than a decade after its inception, still maintains its presence as a viable musician's tool.

Despite the longevity of the machine, however, it really cannot be argued that the skills required to program it have developed much beyond the rudimentary. I speak, of course, in very generalised terms: there are programmers around who can take your breath away with the intricacy and subtlety of the patterns they coax from their machines. Likewise, there are those whose simpler, more powerful programs can be guaranteed to fill a dancefloor, even though their only distinguishing feature may be a particularly insistent bass or snare drum sound.

In the broader field, however, rhythm programming still tends to sound stilted and dull. Irrespective of the massive leaps in beat-box technology over the years, it seems we are quite content to fall back on the cliched and predictable. And despite the availability of a vast range of percussive and rhythmically useful sounds, we still rely on the bass/snare/hi-hat combination which has characterised pop music for more than three decades now.

THERE IS, OF course, considerable debate as to who makes the best programmer. As Editor of a magazine for drummers and percussionists for some four years, it might be assumed I'd automatically lend support to the theory that only in the hands of a real drummer can we expect to hear convincing results from a drum machine. And indeed, there is definitely something to be said for this argument. But the days of drum machines having to sound like real drummers are thankfully at an end; and certainly, some of the most innovative and compelling rhythm programming I've come across over the years has come from players with no experience in the rhythmic arts whatsoever.

Primarily, this relates back to the point I made earlier about most programming being bound by convention. Quite simply, if you're not aware of the conventions and there is nothing to stand between you and your natural creativity (technique not being a consideration when it comes to hitting buttons), then clearly, there is more than an outside chance that something new and original may shine through. The difficulty for most of us, however, is that whether we have experience of actually creating rhythm patterns or not, we are nevertheless bound by what we perceive to be the "right way" to go about programming them. And the problem is compounded by the fact that genuinely new and original rhythm tracks tend to be specific to the piece of music they are written for. It is not usually possible to hold them up - out of context - as examples of how we should approach programming.

What we are left with, then, is the process of taking patterns which may justifiably be called conventional, but adding to them a little spice here and there, so that although they may still be readily used within the more popular song structures, they carry with them that extra sparkle which lifts them above the mundane and the predictable.

And indeed, this will be the aim of the first few articles in this series. As you might imagine, this approach puts them very much in the beginner's class, but in my experience this is precisely where most people tend to stagnate and need a little extra push in the right direction.

ONE OF THE main obstacles to overcome in a tutorial series such as this, is that of keeping it relevant for users of equipment of varying degrees of sophistication. Inevitably, you find yourself taking a "lowest common denominator" approach - and in all honesty I can't pretend to have totally avoided that here. If however, the examples given are used in the right way - as pointers to particular programming techniques and as a spur to further experimentation - then this should pose no problem. For the average programmer it shouldn't be too difficult to spot the potential of a particular rhythmic phrase, and from this, determine how it can be best realised using the facilities at his or her disposal.

The other difficulty, as you might imagine, lies in simply knowing where to start. Too advanced, and you risk going over the heads of people on the first rung of the ladder (with the most basic equipment); too simple, and there's a danger of losing the interest of more competent programmers (probably with more sophisticated machines) by retreading ground they covered some time ago. But I have to say I do tend to favour the latter approach; at least that way you cannot be accused of leaving anyone behind on the grounds of limited knowledge -or limited equipment. To the more advanced programmers I can only say: keep watching this space, sooner or later you're bound to find something of value. And even with the most simple patterns, you might just come across an interesting variation on a theme.

One thing I will take for granted, however, is that everyone understands the standard "grid" system of rhythm pattern notation. It is without doubt the simplest way of transcribing patterns on paper, and is the system employed on most Roland machines, as well as the drum edit pages within many software sequencing systems. Needless to say, it will be supplemented with further information where necessary, and any deviation from the standard format will be fully explained.

RIGHT, LET'S GET cracking with a handful of variations on the standard bass/snare/hi-hat combination found throughout rock and pop music. The purpose of these examples is to illustrate the vast range of different grooves which may be created simply by shifting around a few bass and snare notes within a two-bar, 4/4 pattern. This month, we'll make no effort to program dynamically - all notes are of fixed volume (unless you feel like getting adventurous) - and no other instruments are involved, so all these patterns can be produced on the most basic machines.

Taking as our rhythmic base a pattern which is probably the most common in popular music:


we can, by simply inserting a space between the two consecutive bass drum notes, take a little of the mechanical feel out of it:


Then, by moving the third bass drum note back a beat, we can produce a rather more driving rhythm.


By adding an extra bass drum note at the end of the second bar, the driving effect becomes even more pronounced, but we lose the feel of a two bar rhythm:


The insertion of a fifth bass drum note lends an even harder edge to the pattern and re-establishes its two-bar feel:


IN MANY WAYS, the development of the last five examples reflects the change in emphasis - away from the snare and onto the bass drum - which has characterised much of the dance music of the last ten years or so. If, however, we turn our attention to the snare line and add an extra note here, we produce a pattern which, though much favoured by punk bands in the late '70s, should be avoided at all costs as a machine program


Things get a little better with the reintroduction of a third bass drum note but not a lot.


AS IF TO prove that it's not the complexity of pattern which gives it the necessary feel, this next rhythm actually uses less snare and bass drum notes than any of the preceding ones, yet produces a far more effective groove, which can form the basis for a vast array of rhythmic variations:


Try adding an extra bass drum note on the off-beat just after the snare:


Moving the extra bass note to the off-beat just before the snare gives the pattern the feel of a closing phrase...


Linking patterns nine and ten together produces a simple, but highly effective groove which works well as a framework for a more complex bass guitar line (or any bass instrument) to be woven through it.

Finally, those into heavier musical styles might like to try omitting every other hihat beat from any of these patterns; the effect is more ponderous, but speeded up a little, can be very usable.

And that's about it for this month. In the next article there should be much less in the way of chat and more practical examples - this time with a few dynamics thrown in. So until then...


Series

Read the next part in this series:
On The Beat (Part 2)



Previous Article in this issue

Roland U20

Next article in this issue

XRI Systems XR400 MIDI Mate


Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Music Technology - Aug 1989

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Feature by Nigel Lord

Previous article in this issue:

> Roland U20

Next article in this issue:

> XRI Systems XR400 MIDI Mate


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