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On The Beat (Part 7)

In the early '70s reggae was the star of the pop charts; these days its profile is lower but its influence almost inescapable, Nigel Lord looks at programming Ja rhythm.


WITH THE (NOW) widespread acceptance of African music amongst audiences both in this country and the continent, and the successful assimilation of hip hop into the charts as well as the dancefloors, it is perhaps time someone acknowledged the part reggae has played in shaping our understanding of contemporary pop.

In addition to extending cultural horizons beyond simply the music of Britain and America, reggae's refreshingly different rhythmic emphasis was possibly the first serious challenge to Western preconceptions about popular dance rhythm in nearly two decades. And with mid-'70s toasters from U-Roy onwards laying down what can only be described as the prototype rap tracks, tracing a direct line of descendance to present day hip hop and house styles would not prove a particularly exhausting task.

Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, reggae has all but disappeared as an overt musical force in this country: a victim of its own resistance to change. During its flowering in the second half of the 70s, however, one of the most striking aspects of its popularity was its ready absorption into mainstream pop - both culturally and rhythmically. As so often happens, the common perception of what constitutes reggae music was coloured to a considerable extent by the unselfconsciously plagiaristic tendencies of many white musicians. Of course, when we're talking about bands of the calibre of the Police, this poses no problem at all, but I can remember a time (round about '77-'78) when seemingly every gigging band decided they had to introduce a reggae track into their set - often with some pretty dire results.

Speaking of the Police, few drummers (reggae or otherwise) would deny the huge influence Stewart Copeland has exerted within the skin-bashing fraternity. His style, though never a model of technical excellence, is, nevertheless, wonderfully fluid and shows great feel. No-one in pop music can punctuate a song quite like Copeland, his use of accents and intricate hi-hat patterns is often quite inspired. Certainly, there's more than a passing nod in his direction in many of the figures which serve to embellish this month's patterns - and I would be the last to wish to conceal the fact.

Part of the reasoning behind this is that, stripped down to its bare essentials and removed from its rightful position alongside a complementary bass line and clipped guitar chords, the quintessential reggae drum track is somewhat less than remarkable - often comprising nothing more edifying than a 4/4 bar with the bass drum on beat one and a snare on beat three. As you might imagine, in a series which cannot rely on programmers being able to call upon the services of the extra musicians which a style like reggae ultimately demands, it has been necessary to synthesise a reggae feel to the patterns included, using, wherever possible, the trademarks adopted by reggae drummers (Copeland among them) over the last couple of decades.

This includes of course, certain stipulations about the drum sounds themselves, which in general should be fairly tight - and in the case of the snare drum, quite highly tuned and "ringy". This latter point is actually pretty important if you are to achieve a convincing effect. In fact, you could try substituting a timbale for the snare drum if one is available, or better still combine the two to get the inherent ringiness of the timbale with the depth of the snare.

Incidentally, as a general rule, I've found that simply raising the pitch of a sample (on those machines where this is possible) doesn't provide very convincing results. It may just be the machines I've used, but it seems that changing the pitch of percussive samples, though quite interesting in its own right, falls some way short of recreating the effect of physically raising or lowering the pitch of the acoustic instrument. Perhaps one of our more erudite American authors will write a 16-part series on the subject, one day...

As you will see, extensive use is made of the accented snare beat combined with a crash cymbal stroke, and this is particularly effective within reggae patterns, especially when played as off-beats, as they mostly are here. It should be noted however, that in all cases the dynamic level of the cymbal needs to be much lower than that of the snare: as I pointed out last month, it isn't possible to notate dynamic levels between instruments in a way that would have any meaning for every type of machine, so you'll need to experiment. Once you've established the correct proportions however, you should find it possible to stick to them - as indeed you should for the instruments in all the patterns included here.

Of all this month's examples, Pattern 1 probably has the most obviously reggae feel to it. It rolls along at a fairly sedate pace in that characteristically lilting reggae groove, until... blat! Right at the end of bar six there's a hard, uncompromising accented offbeat to spice things up a little. The snare flams in bars two, four and six should also be accented: that is to say, the second of the two notes should be considerably louder than the first (if you have no flam facility, program these as consecutive 64th notes).

As with all rolls, if it is to sound convincing, the snare figure in bar eight really needs be given some care when programming. In case it isn't clear, the first three notes should be played in the space of one quarter of a beat (half of one square on the grid), and should be comprised of a low, then two medium dynamic notes.

By itself, pattern two isn't immediately recognisable as a reggae groove: it's one of those fairly conventional patterns which really do need a well-chosen bassline if they are to succeed as a rhythm track. Having said that, it does have rather an interesting hi-hat part to recommend it: the timing is more or less the same as the snare figure in the last example, but the levels are somewhat different. Once again, an accent on the second beat of the flams would make all the difference, and don't forget the higher dynamic on the last open hi-hat note in bar eight.

Speaking of open hi-hats, pattern three features a quite prominent open hi-hat part which fits nicely around the fairly rigid bass/snare lines. An altogether faster groove, this one needs to run at over 140bpm for best effect, but once again, there's plenty of space to slot in other rhythmic instruments - particularly chopped guitar chords on the second and fourth beats of each bar. The side stick could easily be replaced by other, short duration instruments, but it's a sound which fits nicely in a reggae groove and provides considerable rhythmic interest. It's also a sound traditionally used by reggae drummers.

Pattern four is a further example of what can be done with other instruments even if bass and snare drums are anchored down to their traditional positions in the bar. The three tom toms provide what are, perhaps, the most distinctive figures, and for this reason need to be kept well down in the mix. And the same is true of the crash cymbal, which, in this pattern, goes beyond the role of simply accenting the snare as in previous examples. Incidentally, if your machine only has two toms available, combining the mid and low parts together shouldn't prove too much of a compromise to the overall sound, and neither would accenting the high tom beat in bar eight rather than programming a flam.

Though moving away from the classic reggae structure, pattern five has, nevertheless, an undeniable reggae feel to it which is quite compelling. A nicely relaxed groove - the 130bpm tempo limit is an absolute maximum, it should, if possible, be run somewhat more slowly. The most striking aspect of the pattern is the slowly decaying side stick part running through each pair of bars. In many ways this is redolent of the pioneering use of echo by many reggae artists in the 70s and early '80s, and really does serve to give the pattern a distinctive flavour. The dynamic level of each note is indicated by the small figure inside each diamond and should be averaged out over the available dynamic range of your machine (seven representing the maximum level, and one the minimum).

Those working without the benefits of full dynamic programming will just have to try using accented- and non-accented notes to achieve some sort of similar effect (...difficult), or alternatively, simply program in the first two notes and pass them through a digital delay to produce a bona fide echo.

If, after programming these patterns, you gain the impression that this month's examples reflect the flavour of reggae rather than a strict adherence to its rhythmic form, this is quite intentional. Simply put, a groove that relies so completely on the feel of a human drummer cannot readily be transferred to the machine. (It is not their technical prowess which has made Sly and Robbie two of the most in-demand session players of the last decade.) And anyway, as I said earlier, I've always believed one of the most attractive aspects of reggae is its ability to fuse so effortlessly with other styles, and I'd like to think these patterns reflect that.

To round things off this month, I thought I'd include two or three extra patterns as a sort of Christmas bonus (I'm writing this in early December). To a large extent patterns six, seven and eight represent an amalgam of the ideas I've touched on in the rest of this month's examples. They're still a little bit rough around the edges, but they should stand up in their own right - particularly pattern six which is programmed in triplet time (see December's article). Anyway, see what you can do with them.


Read the next part in this series:
On The Beat (Part 8)

Previous Article in this issue

Steinberg Topaz

Next article in this issue

Musictronics MEX D50/D550 Expansion

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


Music Technology - Feb 1990


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Feature by Nigel Lord

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