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On The Beat (Part 1)

the next generation

How to funk up your drum patterns

Programming drums is still one of the key areas in creating groovy, backing tracks, but where can you get a ready supply of patterns... why, The Mix, of course. Nigel Lord once again ventures into the unknown to offer some tips to get your beatbox firing on all cylinders. So here it is, On the Beat 2¼, The Sequel..

Everyone's got a skeleton in their closet. I'm no different, except mine's still got skin. A whole set of skins, in fact. And my past caught up with me a few years ago, when Music Technology magazine asked me to start a series on drum programming. On The Beat 'ran and ran', as they say in publishing; a kind of Frankenstein's monster I began to wish I'd never spawned.

Many theories were put forward why this should be: were programming drum rhythms seen as a black art by most musicians, or was it simply that no-one had ever bothered to guide us through it? Others suspected it was simply a matter of giving a half-dozen free drum patterns with every issue of the mag. I was too busy trying to think up new examples every month to worry about the reasons, and find ways of conveying complex rhythmic ideas through the written word.

One of the biggest problems arose from a phenomenon most people will have encountered if they've spent any time programming drum and percussion tracks - namely, that rhythms tend to be instrument-specific. Patterns would often call for the use of a specific kind of snare drum, for example; substitute this for a different snare sound and the pattern lost something of its feel.

But of course, with only the programming details to guide them, I had no control over what kind of instruments were selected for any of the rhythms I included. The popularity of the series seemed to suggest that readers were managing to overcome this obstacle, but I was still restricted to using only conventional instruments such as bass drum, snare, hi-hats and cymbals, and so on - those sounds which I could rely on readers having access to. My personal favourites (scaffolding pole on oxy-acetylene cylinder under a motorway flyover, for instance) weren't a viable option for most people - particularly those unwilling to make a pilgrimage to the necessary flyover.

New format

But now here we are in 1994: a new magazine, the prospect of a new programming series - and what's that on the front... a CD? Perfect for including samples of all the sounds used in the patterns. In fact, we could even include the patterns themselves - just like they do on sample CDs. Well, yes we could, but that would just turn it into a sample CD and that would be cheating. There's an inherent inflexibility about using sample loops as the basis for rhythm tracks, and they do little to foster a greater understanding of just what it is that makes a good rhythm tick (no pun intended).

Better to stick with the idea of including the various sounds used for each pattern, but encourage you to program your own tracks in your own special way. As with the original series, I've no intention of making things too prescriptive. Treat everything you see as the basis for you own experiments, and we stand some chance of moving away from the homogeneity which has blighted rhythm programming in recent years.

As its name implies, the next generation won't re-tread old ground. Without leaving beginners out in the cold with drum patterns they can't make head or tail of, I shan't be going right back to basics which have been well covered over recent years.

The only other key difference I intend - apart from all the new ideas I've had chance to think up - is to take on board computer-based sequencer programs such as Cubase and Notator. The drum machine is still very much with us, but it has lost some ground to these more broad-based programming systems. Its applications are increasingly restricted to a source of drum and percussion sounds accessed via MIDI.

But really, this is no problem at all. In fact, the layout of the pattern grids I'll be including each month is much more suited to sequencer programming, perhaps using a dedicated drum edit page. The drum grid has become virtually the standard form of notation for this kind of musical data, and is easily understood by most people. A key for the dynamic level of the notes is included, as you'll see, but it may be worth pointing out for anyone coming to it for the first time that the principle difference between this and other forms of notation is that duration is not included as a component of the entered notes. This is because on drum machines, which were essentially the first instruments used for programming, sounds were replayed for their full length irrespective of the duration of the trigger signal.

In most cases, this will be true of the drum and percussion sounds selected for the patterns in this series, but there may be some instances where non-percussive sounds are used, where the duration of the note will need to be extended so as not to cut them off prematurely. You can gauge this by assigning the sound to a keyboard, and holding the note for the required length of time. Programming it into a rhythm is a simple matter of entering the appropriate editing page (like Key Edit on Cubase) and extending the note length accordingly.

Gloves off

(Click image for higher resolution version)

But enough of the preliminaries - let's get to work. And we'll start this month with a couple of patterns which, 'though distinctive in terms of their sonic complexion, are ubiquitous enough to be useable across a wide range of styles.

Pattern 1 is a fairly conventional groove made much more interesting by the addition of two or three subsidiary parts. These are lined off from the main rhythm by the horizontal red lines you'll see on the grids. The idea is you program the main hi-hat, snare and kick drum section of the pattern, and then introduce the secondary instruments - congas, a-go-gos and clap/kicks - as and when (or even if) you like. The pattern is designed to function with any combination of instruments, and can therefore be customised to suit whatever track you incorporate it into.

In the form it's presented here, Pattern 2 effectively contains an intro, a fill and a main rhythm all in one. Bars 1 and 2 form the intro, bars 3 and 4 provide the fill, and bars 5-8 comprise the main body of the rhythm. Clearly there's no need to use it in its present form - you can divide it up so that the fills, for example, occur at an appropriate point in your track. You might even decide to use the intro as a groove in its own right - it's up to you. Thanks to the heavy, gated instruments, this is a powerful, driving groove, but one which will stand - indeed, warrants - further experimentation.

(Click image for higher resolution version)
(Click image for higher resolution version)

Get busy

Finally, a few programming notes. The instruments are included on this month's RE:MIX in the order they are listed in the patterns. Sample them individually and assign note numbers in the normal way. Even though certain sounds are used in both patterns, I've included them in both sample sets to avoid confusion.

The grid resolution should make it clearly where everything goes and the patterns should be quite straightforward to enter into your machine. The key I've included shows the average MIDI velocities for each of the four dynamic levels used in the patterns. I've deliberately restricted them to four levels, so as to keep things as clear as possible, but both rhythms will benefit enormously from having individual note velocities raised or lowered to a point between those indicated. And although using MIDI as the standard does offer a means of ensuring relative volume between instruments is maintained, it is more than likely you'll need to adjust the overall level of individual instruments within the mix.

For those who don't have samplers - obviously life isn't going to be quite as simple. I'd recommend that you listen to each instrument and try to find as close a sound as possible from those you have available. After you've got the patterns up and running, you could then try substituting various sounds until you're happy. Then go and buy a sampler...!

On the RE:MIX CD

The drum sounds that correspond to the On The Beat patterns can be found on the RE:MIX CD

- On The Beat samples

Series - "On The Beat - The Next Generation"

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All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

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Graveyard rave

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


The Mix - Oct 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Chris Needham, James Perrett

Sound Advice


Drum Programming


On The Beat - The Next Generation

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Feature by Nigel Lord

Previous article in this issue:

> Mixed Media

Next article in this issue:

> Graveyard rave

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