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On The Beat (Part 31)

After some 30 months, Nigel Lord's seminal On The Beat series draws to a close. Over the months, it has covered programming skills and a wide range of drumming and percussion styles, and proved popular with amateurs and pros alike - it will be copied but never bettered.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg; the beat or the song? This month's rhythm programming exercise searches for the answer.

The question I'm most frequently asked by those seeking my "expert" advice on drum programming is whether 'tis better to write a piece of music around an existing rhythm track or whether the rhythm should be tailored to suit the music. As you'd probably expect, my answer is that it depends: either approach has its advantages and is determined to a considerable extent by the kind of music you play and - perhaps more importantly - by the kind of results you expect to achieve.

Far from being a minor aspect of your music, the rhythm itself and the rhythmic aspects of the melodic and harmonic components of your work are critical to your style and, ultimately, to the area in which you end up operating. And this goes well beyond the obvious divisions between dance and non-dance music. Much of the problem centres around the fact that there is a far greater rhythmic component inherent in the performance of melodic ideas than vice versa. Put simply, it's impossible to play any kind of melody without giving it either a real or subconscious rhythm. The physical act of playing notes is in itself rhythmic. In contrast, rhythm tracks can, and frequently do, have no discernible melodic content whatsoever.

In practical terms, this means that for a melody line to be rhythmically workable after it has been conceived and performed, it has to be played to a structured guide rhythm which, though not necessarily of interest in itself, may be easily replaced by a rhythm pattern. Amongst other things I'm describing the metronome here, or to give it its more recent title - the click-track. A further name we might use, listening to a lot of contemporary music, these days, is the drum machine - since many people still use this wondrous instrument as little more than a glorified metronome.

Which brings me back to the question of whether rhythm tracks should be programmed before or after the rest of the song has been written. Clearly, you need the metronomic qualities of a rhythm track to assist in writing the rest of the song - and the drum machine performs this task admirably. The problem is, having done so, it's all too easy to forget what the drum machine could then go on to provide, rhythmically, and accept the feel of a characterless drum track which has been selected just to get the feel of the song. This, I'm sure, happens on many occasions where drum machines are used; unlike their human counterparts, they make no distinction between interesting and uninteresting rhythm tracks. And as sophisticated as they have become, they still can't swear at you from the corner and demand respect as a fellow musician.

Another aspect of the problem is the nature of click-tracks themselves. Because they are utilitarian and usually only very thinly populated, rhythmically, it's all too easy to fill in the spaces left between beats with the other instruments - the most obvious example being the bass. On then attempting to replace the guide track with something a little more stimulating, you'll often find that everything sounds overbearing - as if it's been grafted on top of the rest of the song. Which, indeed, it has.

As far as I'm concerned, discipline is of vital importance when it comes to writing and performing music. My rather blasé attitude towards jazz centres on what I perceive as being too great a freedom to do what you like. When it works it's art, when it doesn't it's a dull ache, and too few contemporary musicians seem to know when they've crossed the line. What I like about composing around an existing drum track - particularly the more complex rhythm - is that it imposes a certain discipline on your approach to the rest of the music. Having to cope with a snare drum note occurring on an unpredictable beat of the bar or a fast hi-hat figure can be very stimulating and is often the springboard for other ideas. And the same is true of sampled breakbeats.

I'm not suggesting we opt for gruesomely complex rhythms to satisfy some masochistic urge in ourselves as musicians - or as a means of showing off. We might still groan under the presence of 70s pomp-rockers, but even they have been reduced to playing harmless ballads for the most part. No, I'm putting forward the notion of writing music around more distinctive rhythm parts, in the belief that we will be encouraged through this to write more distinctive music.

To that end, may I present this month's patterns. Six interesting, and hopefully stimulating, rhythms which, if used as a basis for your songwriting, might just move you off the straight and narrow and into fields of musical experimentation where others seldom tread. Make no mistake, these are not rhythms designed to be deliberately off the wall. There's no complex programming involved, no odd time signatures, and a number of them would be extremely danceable given the addition of a few complementary instrument lines. All they are is an attempt on my part to add a little spice and flavouring to the more routine patterns which so regularly crop up in contemporary music.

As usual, choose your instruments with care - try to avoid those which overlap too much in the frequency spectrum and be prepared to adapt and experiment. Watch out for the non-triplet ride cymbal part in Pattern 2 and keep a check on your overall instrument mix. See ya...

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 | 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 (Viewing) | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35

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


Music Technology - Jun 1992

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Nigel Lord

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