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On The Beat (Part 15)


Who's in the house? On the Beat is in the house - with a close look at what makes house beats and loops kick. Nigel Lord gets wicked in MT's popular drum programming series.


A COUPLE OF months ago, I heard someone on TV explaining his approach to writing and recording house tracks and claiming that in his opinion you didn't need a good tune to create good dance music. Though I imagine people like Berry Gordy and Quincy Jones might have taken issue with this remark, I feel the point was well made. The emergence of house as one of the dominant forces in contemporary music has highlighted a radically new approach to producing music for the dancefloor - one which pays little regard to melodic considerations but which locks almost the entire arrangement into a one to one relationship with the all-consuming beat.

On its transatlantic journey to the UK from Chicago where it first took root, it could be said that house lost a little of its eclecticism and took on a more refined feel which, though rather formularised, has nevertheless been hugely successful in this country and has since been exported all over the world. Like most modern idioms, it has its points of reference and certain "trade marks" by which it has come to be recognised. The TR909 drum machine (at the time of its release, one of Roland's least successful machines) with its mixture of analogue and digital voices, has, in many ways, come to be regarded as the ideal house beatbox. And whilst it is perhaps more difficult to point to an "ideal" house sampler (though the S900 must still rank as the most popular), there have nevertheless been a handful of sample loops which seem to crop up with predictable regularity - the classic drum loops taken from James Brown's 'Funky Drummer' and Lynn Collins' 'Think' (with its characteristic vocal grunts), for example.

Though always scheduled as a stop on our rhythmic roller coaster, I have to say I find it hard to believe anyone involved in the programming of house patterns should need any real help from me. Despite (or perhaps because of) their incredible effectiveness on the dancefloor, the inherent simplicity of house grooves puts them well within reach of even the rawest recruits to the art of programming. In fact, most people given a beatbox with which to program a basic four/four pattern could come up with something usable within a house context.

Nevertheless, if this month's lesson is only that of keeping it simple and direct, it clearly falls within the scope of this series to highlight ways of accomplishing just that. Part of the problem is that in most house styles, so much of the track is given a rhythmic emphasis (from the drums right up to the vocals) that looking at the percussion parts in isolation can be rather uninspiring and usually gives you no indication of the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the music of which they are a part. But it would be wrong to deliberately "colour" a rhythm part in order to make it more impressive in its own right.

I have therefore resolved to keep a check on my natural tendency to go on tweaking patterns and have left this month's examples in a purer, less adulterated form. What embroidering there is has been restricted to "secondary" instruments such as handclaps, and these may be omitted if preferred. There is, of course, nothing to stop you rearranging and experimenting with the patterns: you could go a long way with these grooves before interfering with their basic capacity for getting the feet moving.

But if it's house music you're involved with, there's likely to be a lot more instruments with a rhythmic role to play that have to be added on top of the percussion instruments, so remember to leave enough space within each pattern.

As regards choice of instruments such as the snare and bass drums: in general bigger ambient voices can be used, but the intimate nature of the TR909's sounds, and the space they leave for other rhythmic elements to work, is one of the reasons it found favour with house musicians. I have previously mentioned in this series that tighter, more intricate patterns simply will not accommodate long duration snare or bass drum voices. Well now we can start investigating the other side of the coin. If you have access to a TR909, then by all means use this, but there are more recent machines - notably the Alesis HR16B and the Roland R8 - which contain some excellent voices with which to program house patterns. In fact, I would strongly advise anyone with a sampler and a friend who owns one of these machines to do what they can to get hold of some of these voices, they really are that good.

Though I won't be touching on it here, it might also be worth looking into the possibility of writing the basslines (if they are being provided by a synth or sampler) into the same pattern as the drum parts.

In many house tracks the bass parts comprise such simple note progressions and take on such a percussive feel, it makes perfect sense to combine them into the same pattern as the drums and thus get a better overall feel of the rhythm track. With software-based sequencers, the delineation between percussive and melodic parts is much less sharply defined. As far as a sequencer is concerned, a note is a note: it doesn't matter whether it's on a drum machine or a synth. It's not quite as straightforward using a separate beat box, but it shouldn't be too difficult MIDIing it up to a synth or a sampler and writing notes in as part of the drum pattern. Try it; you could say it represents the holistic approach to writing rhythm parts.

The first of this month's examples could, perhaps, be described as the classic house groove. A four-on-the-floor bass drum, a couple of snare drum beats to each bar and a constant off-beat hi-hat. It's been used a thousand times before and it'll be used a thousand times again, but it's simple and effective and you'd be hard pressed to find a better dance groove. Pattern 2 loses the drive of the four to the bar bass drum and consequently has rather more space into which you could slot other instruments. It will run quite happily without the bongo parts, but they lift the pattern so effectively you'd be losing out on a lot if you didn't at least try them. Like the first example (and indeed, most house tracks) tempo shouldn't really move too far from the 120bpm mark and don't worry too much about the limited dynamic range - light and shade has never been a prerequisite of the dancefloor.

Pattern 3 has a little interest added from the tom figures at the end of each bar, but again, these are entirely optional. I would, however, recommend you keep the handclap line, as this plays a fairly important role in the structure of the pattern. That said, there's nothing to stop you substituting the part for other sounds, or even dividing it up between the high and low voices of a tuned instrument. No such decisions affect the programming of Pattern 4. This is again just about as conventional a pattern as it's possible to get. In fact, it's so straightforward, I'm sure I haven't included anything like it in the series so far. Be warned/encouraged - whichever is appropriate.

In Pattern 5, the open hi-hat of the usual house groove has been replaced with a ride cymbal and this tends to give the pattern a rather more fluid feel. If you're happy with the handclap/side stick parts (the two are intended to go together), but require a slightly different sound, you might try substituting other voices, but the click of the side stick is designed to tuck itself in just after the snare beats and anything of longer duration might sound a little obtrusive.

Finally we come to Pattern 6 - and once again I've kept the best until last. With a healthy driving feel, this pattern fulfils all the criteria for an effective house groove but with enough rhythmic interest provided by the bongos to give it a very distinctive flavour. The tempo is slightly higher than usual, but there is still enough variation to make the pattern usable for most dance tracks.

To wrap things up for this month, I'm hoping to compile an instalment of On the Beat entirely from contributions sent in by you, the great MT readership. Everyone must have at least one pattern with which they'd like to impress other programmers, so please, copy it out on a grid (or record it on cassette if you wish) and send it in to the editorial address. Your admission to the MT Hall of Fame is but a drumbeat away...

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


Music Technology - Oct 1990

Feature by Nigel Lord

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