The Rhythm Method
Beat Box Hits
Or, the much-maligned art of drum machine programming. Tony Reed talks to the experts, and Richard Walmsley dissects some classic tracks.
Drum machine programming is more of an art than many people realise — but like all art, it relies on a fair share of luck too.
The drum machine has finally come of age. In little less than a decade, it has burst the bounds of the techno pop ghetto to become a potential component in the creative process of almost every band style. It has found its way into the most unlikely of liaisons: with gothic rockers The Sisters Of Mercy (who used an Oberheim DMX), alongside human drummer Stephen Irvine of Pop traditionalists Lloyd Cole and The Commotions (on perhaps their best single to date, Brand New Friend): or even, it is rumoured, on Heavy Metal band Def Leppard's million-selling album Pyromania, where the sound apparently derived from Linn-triggered AMS samples, programmed jointly by the producer, Mutt Langer, and the band's drummer, Rick Allen. Most important of all, though, the drum machine has finally arrived as an instrument. Acknowledged classics such as OMD's ground-breaking Enola Gay, Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing, Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight, and of course New Order's Blue Monday are all as dependent on a beat box as much as Eric Clapton was on his guitar.
So how does the drum machine actually fit into the creative process? As technology develops, and particularly since the advent of MIDI, this becomes an increasingly hard question to answer. It has now become virtually standard practice for drummers to play to click-tracks when in the studio, an approach now being used extensively in the live context, too. More directly, it is not uncommon for drummers to play with a drum machine taking care of the dog work, while they get up to something more interesting. This approach has been used both by Jon Moss of Culture Club, and Steve Coy of Dead Or Alive, who use the added freedom to improvise around on electronic and acoustic percussion — and to pose.
The hi-tech, showy approach of these musicians would not go down too well in certain other musical genres, however. Is it for this reason that The Stranglers' drummer, Jet Black, triggers an (offstage) Linn from his own kit and that Bruce Springsteen's drummer, Max Weinberg, is rumoured to have an entire electronic kit concealed within his (headless) Ludwig shells?
But this is getting away from the main issue at hand. To explore the different uses bands make of drum machines, in writing and performing, we spoke to a number of them — and to make this a little more than an academic exercise, we've reprinted some of the all-time great drum machine parts for you to use and adapt yourself.
(Our method of notation is adapted from that found on Roland machines, but any machine with a step-time facility will do as well — just take it line by line.)
One of the first bands to make the 'humanising' of electronic sound an objective were the Human League, who did much to popularise the sound of the Linndrum machine on the hugely successful Dare album. Part of that success was due, no doubt, to the way the drum patterns were evolved. Jo Callis explains:
"I'm used to working with live drummers, and when I do demos, I still use a live drummer..."
An attitude clearly shared by the inventor of the machine himself, Roger Linn:
"When someone is not a drummer, and programs a machine, it sounds like it — repetitive, dull and lifeless... a real drummer creating a program puts in all the nuances he'd play anyway, with the result that the drums really respond to the music."
And if translating all those nuances from live to programmed rhythm is too difficult, there is always a short cut, ably exploited by head Human Phil Oakey on many of his recent band and solo ventures:
"I often just add manual percussion on top of the Linn — it saves a lifetime of programming!"
A technique favoured too, by Paul Hardcastle of N.N. Nineteen fame, who, in Pre-Megastardom days, was earning himself quite a reputation as a session hi hat player:
"Steve Levine used to get me to play hi hat along with the Linn track — a real hi hat gives it a lot more bounce, and it sits up in the mix."
Even this fairly simple division of musical labour may soon be at an end due to the omnipotent influence of MIDI, however. One band who have relied on drum machines from the very first are Bronski Beat. In their earlier incarnation with Jimmy Somerville as vocalist they employed individual cassette backing tapes for variety in their live set, and the good 'ol fashioned Linn for recording. Nowadays, things are very different... In Buzz this month you can read what chief programmer and main clever person of the new-look band, Larry Steinbacek, has to say about his complicated way with vocal samples.
But the same machine which lies at the heart of that technique — Yamaha's QX1 digital multitrack recorder — has also had a profound influence on his attitude toward drum programming. Take it away, Larry:
"I do all the drum programming, and I've got a Linn2, the RX11, the RX15, and the TR707 and 727 to play around with at home, so it gives me a good variety of basic sounds right at the start. Consequently, I've never bothered getting any extra sound chips for the Linn, since the producers we work with usually have their own collections — funnily enough, we often use it more or less straight with the original sounds anyway.
"Usually, I'll have already written both the main drum and bass parts before I take it to Steve and John. At this stage, nothing's hard and fast, but it'll all have been reasonably well arranged, already making it essential to the final song structure. I tend not to chain any patterns together yet. Instead, on Hit That Perfect Beat for example, I program the pattern order 'live' against whatever else is making up the track, using the various machines connected to the QX1.
"It's a really great feeling watching the pattern evolve, as you take, say, three separate Conga tracks and merge them into a really complex part... I suppose at heart I'm a frustrated drummer, which is why recently I've been trying out Roland's Octapad connected to the drums and QX1. It's completely changed our approach to recording — you can actually hit something with sticks, dynamically, and then merge or quantise or do anything else you want to with the result. We're starting work on the new album any day now, and this set-up means we'll be able to halve the cost of the recording — just two weeks in a 16-track, instead of the usual 24-track... and that's with all the keyboard and drum machine performance parts already recorded."
Pre-production taken care of, what do you actually do in the studio, apart from record the vocals and do the mixing?
"I'm a great fan of composite sounds, so we'll probably spend time putting the drums through an AMS, triggering samples and so on... It'll be the old story again of hiring in snares to sample, and end up using the cases they come in! I've got a real liking for slightly distorted, edgy sounds, like overdriven bass drum — it really helps give a track some oomph, without standing out too much in the mix."
How about live?
"Well, we won't be using the Linn — and we'll probably use sequencers for the first time — the QX1 running the TX816, which makes a monster sound, believe me. To keep the spontaneity in, we might use some MIDI pads, and Steve'll play some drum sounds from his DX keyboard."
A far cry from the ultimate technology approach adopted by Bronski Beat, The Commotions' Steve Irvine has been using a TR808, an old workhorse of a drum machine, once innovative, then outmoded and almost forgotten. Now it's rapidly moving up beside the MiniMoog as a classic instrument, due in no little part to Paul Hardcastle's championing of the machine on, yes, you've got it, Nineteen.
Still recognised for its rock steady output, and simplicity of operation, it was precisely these qualities which inspired Steve as he set to work on Brand New Friend:
"The song started as a riff by our keyboard player, Blair Cowan, using a little Boss DR110 machine. When he came to me with it, I liked the idea of keeping a nice and cheap 'obviously not the real thing' feel to it, so I used an 808 we'd borrowed from Eno. Right at the start, I wanted to keep it nice and simple..."
So. All the ingredients for a perfect Pop song, right? Wrong. What happened next has provided the foundation for some of the best drum machine patterns on vinyl:
"All of a sudden, after I'd programmed the pattern I wanted, a track that Eno had been working on somehow got mixed up with it. And it sounded great, so I left it in."
This is not the only imperfection of drum machine design that has had positive effects.
"...An engineer told me,though I don't know how true it is, that because of the way the Linn scans a pattern, the snare voice never quite falls perfectly on the beat, which gives anything written on it a really distinctive feel in a way that's got nothing to do with the voices. We used it on a B-side, Lost Weekend, with me playing along on real drums, and it's great to use that mix to push the beat, dropping the real bass down, stuff like that..."
Perhaps the most lucrative 'mistake' ever made on a drum machine, though, was made by New Order's Steve Morris, on the trademark DMX machine which until recently characterised the band's percussion sound:
"At the time of Blue Monday, we were using a hideously complex and very unreliable set up using the DMX to clock a Prophet polysequencer, and the attached Prophet 5s. Wires everywhere. In some ways though, it was a very good setup, letting you do things like alter Quantise with the pattern running, and generally muck about in a very free way. The Yamaha machines we're using at the moment, are, on their own, a real pain to use, cos every time you want to change something, you have to stop the pattern, make the change, and restart it again...
"Anyway, back then, I'd figured out that you could use the variable dynamics of the bass drum to get a kind of repeat echo effect, triplets in time with the beat. I worked at this pattern all day long, against the bass riff on the song which we'd already worked out, and the machines kept crashing, wiping everything out. By the end of the day, I had a very good idea how the pattern worked! And then I forgot to put the variable dynamics in..."
And the rest, as they say, is history.
With the money acquired to a very large extent from that stroke of fate, New Order's working methods now encompass the cream of musical technology. Those early breakdowns have left their mark though, and these days New Order seem to have two of everything in the event of failure (even two Emulators) and this embarassment of riches has led to a whole new approach to rhythm programming. Steve explains:
"Most of the actual programming these days is done on the Yamaha RX11 but, as I mentioned, its memory and 'programmability' are nowhere as good as we'd like, so we program both it and the sequencer parts straight into a QX1."
So far, so Bronski Beat.
"...then we start putting different arrangements of the various parts into a second QX1, to see what they sound like. Doing it that way you very immediately find out which parts should be dropped, moved, or whatever."
Nice if you can afford it.
"I suppose it might seem a bit excessive, yes. I've still got an 808, though. The lights on the front, which let you see exactly what's going on and where, make it a great machine for writing bass lines. I get it to trigger the sounds over a CV/MIDI interface. Even the QX1's aren't a complete solution anyway — sometimes, just for the sake of 20 seconds worth of percussion, it's far easier to play the thing, for real. Even now you can get a much better feel that way. We do use the QX 'live' but do a lot of re-arranging — sometimes it'll be triggering Simmons SDS7, sometimes that'll be played live, or we'll use real percussion, or triggering sampled drum sounds from the Emulator, recorded complete with effects already on the sound, played manually from an Octapad.The bottom line is, the listener doesn't care two hoots how you do it, as long as it sounds good!"
On the question of feel injected into programming, one name keeps being mentioned, even by his fellow musicians. The name is Fred Mahr, the band is Scritti Politti, and the evidence is to be found on any number of tracks both for them and for the many 'freelance' assignments he takes on round the world. What's his secret?
The answer, it seems, is not at all straightforward: the Cupid & Psyche 85 album was:
"Technically, an amalgamation of AMS samples, Fairlight, Simmons, DMX, Linn, and other things... Originally, a lot of the control was done through the Fairlight's Page R, which is real simple — and can be a pain in the ass. Getting tied to sixteenths or even thirty-seconds can be very frustrating. I think in the end, one of the things that made the rhythms sound so good was the SRC. Of course, you can go to the Loop Editing page on the Fairlight, and re-arrange frames and so on, but that can be very time consuming. The SRC lets you get that same kind of push-pull effect with in the pattern, but a whole lot easier."
That, and Fred's own undoubted ability as a real drummer, earned the drumming on Wood Beez, what must surely be the highest compliment one drummer/programmer can pay another. As Steve Irvine put it: "I can't tell where the real drums end and the programming starts: that track's got feel, and style."
Use that as your by word when doing your own programming, and it doesn't matter if you're using the cheapest little drum box you can find, or the most expensive. Even now, in the age of the drum machine, style counts.
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