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On The Beat (Part 5)

The basis of this month's article on drum programming is swing - the rhythmic basis for music as diverse as jazz and hip hop. Nigel Lord swings out.


BEFORE GETTING OUR forks stuck into this month's rhythmic meat, I'd like, if I may, to clear up a little confusion which may have been caused in my last article through the use of the term "Rimshot" in place of the intended Side Stick or Cross Stick. As most (though not all) drummers know, a rimshot is played by hitting the drum head at the same time as the rim, whereas the side or cross stick stroke involves laying the stick across the drum and tapping it on the rim. In sonic terms, the difference is that of a loud "crack" (the rimshot) and a subtle "click" (the side stick). Playing last month's examples with a rimshot would have produced a rather overbearing effect, and that wasn't what was intended at all.

Actually, the problem stems from the fact that the terms have become almost interchangeable in beat box parlance, but the two are quite distinct and shouldn't be confused - as I rather carelessly did. Still, it's been worth putting the record straight if only because the side stick is an instrument which features quite heavily in our investigations this month, which concern that most misunderstood of rhythmic beasts - the shuffle.

I don't know about you, but I spent years steadfastly avoiding any rhythm which carried the shuffle label - ranking them just below foxtrot and beguine in terms of potential usefulness within a contemporary setting. Even the name is enough to put you off - it conjures up images of sweaty, ageing R 'n' B pub musos who've been out of it for the last ten years but who've got together just for a few laughs and a pint. Or is that a laugh and a few pints...

Fact is, there's no such thing as a shuffle rhythm at all - at least not in the same sense as, say, a reggae or samba rhythm. Shuffle is simply a way of playing a particular pattern in order to alter its basic feel, and as such can be applied, with varying degrees of success, to practically any groove. Thankfully, with the advent of quite sophisticated shuffle facilities on machines like the Roland R8 and R5, this fact is becoming far more widely appreciated amongst rhythm programmers, and the considerable potential of shuffle rhythms is at last coming to be realised. Certainly, that elusive foot-tapping quotient I referred to a couple of months ago can be increased considerably by the application of a little judicious shuffling, and happily it represents a form of rhythmic variation available to users of even the most humble machines.

At the heart of any rhythmic shuffle is the triplet - coincidentally, one of the most important elements of hip hop rhythms. This is commonly played on the hi-hat or cymbal, but can equally be applied to the bass drum or indeed any instrument. The triplet is a group of three notes played in the time of two (and indicated by a small number 3 above them in conventional music notation). Because of their two-beat duration, instruments playing triplets can be accommodated within the standard 4/4 time signature of most contemporary music, but alongside other instruments the effect of this is to produce a rolling rhythm with a pronounced swing to it.

Interestingly, certain notes within the triplets can be replaced by rests without losing the basic shuffle feel, and this, of course, gives us much greater flexibility when tailoring rhythms to a particular song or track. Very often, in fact, so many of the triplet notes are stripped away, it becomes difficult to identify a shuffle groove simply by looking at it on paper.

Speaking of which, the standard drum grid method of notation is not, perhaps, the best way to visualise a shuffle. The existence of the "three-based" triplet within a "four-based" time signature can often be rather confusing. If, however, you keep an eye on the small figures at the top of the grids numbered 1-4 in each bar, it shouldn't be too difficult to work out what's going on and when. To make it easier, I've set all the instruments for each example on the triplet-based grids even though instruments such as the snare drum quantise as 8th or 16th notes. I've done it this way to make life easier for those programmers with machines which cannot quantise individual instruments for triplets.

Unlike earlier articles in this series, where, despite some quite extensive alterations each rhythm preserved the same basic feel, applying a shuffle to a pattern alters its whole complexion, rhythmically, and often prevents it being used in the same musical context as the original. Because of this, I haven't included the "base patterns" with this month's examples - the six rather distinctive shuffles we'll be looking at stand very much on their own feet.

That said, I must once again stress these patterns provide examples only of what can be done, and are intended to act as a starting point for your imagination and programming skills. Take a little time programming them into your drum machine (or sequencer) note by note - but once there, take them apart, change them around, take parts out, put your own parts in. Above all, try to adapt what you see and hear to your own programming.

Following the standard set in last month's article, the low, medium and high dynamics of individual beats are represented by open, dotted and solid diamonds. But remember: these dynamics relate only to the levels within each instrument line. Establishing the relative levels between instruments isn't possible on the printed page, I'm afraid, so you'll need to set up the balance for yourself.

To get the ball rolling, we'll start with a fairly simple groove but one with a broader range of uses than many shuffle rhythms. If, like me, you've had a natural prejudice against shuffles in this past, Pattern 1 might serve to change your mind.

The triplet notes are provided by the closed hi-hat, but as with many shuffles, one of the notes has been replaced with a rest. To indicate its position within the bar, however, there is a short opening motif comprising a full triplet which has the added advantage of giving the rhythm a little extra definition. The snare drum figure at the end of Bar 4 also helps define the pattern, and leads nicely into the second half of the rhythm where a more elaborate version of the figure forms a natural cadence at the close of Bar 8.

Of course, the patterns may be restructured so that the two snare drum figures fall in the most rhythmically useful position in the track, and there's nothing to stop you adding extra parts should they be required. A quite fast rhythm, it needs to run at around the 150bpm mark if the snare and hi-hat figures are to sound coherent, and as with all triplet-based rhythms, the dynamics are absolutely essential if it is to have the feel of a true shuffle.

Patterns 2a and 2b also make use of an opening triplet on the hi-hat, but apart from this have little in common with Pattern 1. Altogether more complex grooves, they make full use of the accompanying side stick part weaving in and out of the snare/hi-hat lines.

Once again, take careful note of the dynamics - the three levels included represent an absolute minimum in terms of expression. And you'll also need to keep a watchful eye on the tempo: at around 120bpm, they're slightly slower than would normally be associated with rhythms of this kind, but this is necessary if the patterns aren't to sound cluttered.

As is often the case when tom toms are introduced into a rhythm, Patterns 3a and 3b have quite a full-bodied feel, despite the fact that the drums only contribute one or two notes every other bar. The inclusion of an additional triplet line on the ride cymbal helps give this pattern a rather jazzy groove and this is complemented nicety by the repeated off-beat side stick figures at the end of each two bar phrase.

The rather peculiar symbol at the beginning of Bar 8 is in fact a flam - a pair of notes played in very quick succession. If your machine has a flam facility, this should pose no problem, if it doesn't, you'll need to program the two notes individually - consecutive 32nd-note triplets should sound about right, but try experimenting. Also, this last side stick figure (Bar 8) would sound rather better with steadily increasing dynamics rather than just three levels, if your machine can handle it. If it can't, and it isn't capable of producing flams or resolving to 32nd-note triplets either... well, now might be a good time to think about an upgrade.

With their strident bass drum lines, Patterns 4a and 4b have a rather monolithic feel to them, but this is offset to a considerable extent by another jazzy ride cymbal part and a neat little clave motif repeated throughout the rhythm.

As you can see, there are more flams to program (32nd-note triplets), but these aren't quite as essential in this pattern and could, perhaps, be replaced with a single, medium dynamic note. In fact, the entire clave line could be given over to a wood block, or maybe even a cowbell, providing it is subtle enough and kept well down in the mix. You might also try using a cymbal "bell" sound (the cup in the centre of the cymbal) in place of the conventional ride cymbal or maybe even a shaker providing it has a long enough duration.

Patterns 5a and 5b, though fairly conventional in structure, have a "call and response" feel to them provided by the first and second bars in each of the four phrases. And whilst they appear here as one continuous rhythm, they can be reassembled in any order you please.

Rather than programming dynamics into each instrument, this rhythm relies on the interplay between instruments to provide light and shade - the only exception being the accented snare beat at the end of Bar 8. It's fairly tolerant tempo-wise, running from 120 to over 145bpm, and relying as it does on quite conventional instruments it should sit quite happily in most machines

Nothing more I can add, really.

Finally, we come to Pattern 6 - a rhythm designed to run at a much slower pace than the rest of this month's examples.

Distinguishing features include a rather subtle clave line, 64th-note triplet flams (sorry) for the side stick in Bar 4, and 32nd-note triplet double flams (sorry, sorry) for the hi-hat at the beginning of each bar. Oh, and if you're feeling particularly masochistic, you might try lowering the level of the second note in the double hi-hat flam (that is, the third note in from Beat 1) to give the figure a little more definition.

This all sounds much more complicated than it actually is, and given the difficulty often experienced in programming slow tracks, it should certainly prove worthwhile. Tempo at the top end shouldn't go much beyond the 1O0bpm mark, but can drop to well below 80bpm should this be required.

And that's about all for this month. Next month we move on yet again, so till then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reachin' for the off switch...

Series - "On The Beat"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (Viewing) | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

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Hollis Trackman II

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Kawai K4 & K4R

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


Music Technology - Dec 1989

Feature by Nigel Lord

Previous article in this issue:

> Hollis Trackman II

Next article in this issue:

> Kawai K4 & K4R

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