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Drum Programming (Part 3)

A Series By Warren Cann. Part 3.

This month: hints on creating more exciting song arrangements.

This month, I'll explain the 'mapping' system I've developed for keeping a record of drum pattern use in a song, and demonstrate its advantages. The explanation is a bit wordy, but it all helps to get the hang of the system and why it's useful.

To create a suitable grid, I started by taking some lined, foolscap-sized paper, turned it sideways so that the lines on it ran vertically, and drew a horizontal series of 12 parallel lines. I vertically closed off the left-hand end of each two lines alternately, counted 32 of the paper's vertical lines to the right, and then closed off that end. This formed six horizontal rows of long, thin, oblong boxes. Because the paper was already lined, the divisions meant that each row was exactly 12 inches long. I then divided each row many times, again vertically, tracing on top of the lines that were already there, to form more boxes; these squares will represent drum pattern 'links' in the assembled song 'chain'. I made each of the rows contain a number of boxes divisible by four (explained later), then numbered them consecutively above and below each one as shown in the diagram. The number above each box corresponds to a Step in your drum machine's Song Mode. If your particular drum machine allocates the first step in the assembled song chain to 00, then begin the first box with 00, if it starts with 01, then begin with that. The numbers running along the bottom represent the Bar or Measure numbers.

Space is tight, so make the bar numbers smaller than the step numbers; also, don't forget to make the very first bar number of each row the same number as the last bar number of the preceding row; rows 1 to 6 each end in bar numbers 33, 65, 97, 129, 161, and 193, respectively. Therefore, rows 2 to 6 should also begin with 33, 65, 97, 129, and 161. You'll end up in a mess if you don't. Why? Well, think about it. These bar numbers represent points in time, so any given bar number can be considered in one of two ways; it's the end of a measure, or it's the beginning of a measure, it depends on whether you're looking backwards or forwards. You must regard the beginning of bar 33 as also the very end of bar 32. So, if the beginning of row two is the same point in time as the end of row one, then they're also the same bar number. After all, you're only splitting up the Step Chain into six rows in order to get it all on one sheet of paper; if it was all one continuous chain it would be six feet long. Not exactly handy.

Because I had six rows, each containing 16 squares, I ended up with 96 steps in the grid. Each step/square represents two bars, so I had a layout which could cope with songs up to 192 bars (2x96) long. I made each of the boxes represent a 2-bar measure of music because many drum machines set their measure length for each pattern at a default value of two bars. Another good reason is that many rhythms require two measures in order to establish themselves. The Alesis HR16, for example, defaults to a value of eight beats which, in 4/4 time, equates to two bars. The use of a 2-bar length box also enables you to keep all of the information for a song (at reasonable tempos, up to around five or six minutes long) conveniently on one page. If you regularly turn out dance tracks at fast tempos, then you may wish to add another row or two. I suggest you draft another sheet entirely, starting with step 97, bar 193, and use it as page B — otherwise you won't have any room left for adding your notes — intro, verse, chorus, and so on. You'll appreciate the clarity when you're tired and under pressure from the clock.

After adding some lines around the perimeter of the page for writing pertinent song information (such as Title, bpm (beats per minute), Disk Name, Saved As, and Back-Up), I photocopied the master sheet. I use these blanks to program with, and I recommend that all subsequent writing on these sheets is made in soft pencil, rather than ink, because you'll constantly be erasing, revising, and altering the information as the song evolves and new ideas for the arrangement occur.

On a second sheet of foolscap paper, I wrote out two columns of numbers corresponding to the number of patterns available in the drum machine; in the case of the HR16, 100 patterns are available to the user. It's tedious writing it all out each time, so photocopy a quantity of these, too. Each time you use a new memory slot you write in, adjacent to that number, just what it is you've programmed into that location. It doesn't have to be music notation; it can be anything, as long as you understand it. You won't needlessly duplicate work you've already done, you won't waste time auditioning each memory slot because you can't remember if you used it or not, and you won't waste memory by keeping work that you don't need, due to fear of erasing something by mistake. The two sheets, the Song Chain chart and the drum machine Pattern Data list, constantly complement each other.

The system is easy to use: just fill in the squares as you go along. If you start the song with just a bass drum, and that pattern is programmed into memory/pattern number 01, take your pencil and write 01 in each of the boxes for as many bars as the part lasts. If you have, say, eight bars of that part, write 01 in the first four boxes — each box is two bars, remember — so you can see at a glance that steps 1 through 4 play pattern 01. If, after eight bars, you want a hi-hat to come in on top of the bass drum, you obviously need to use another pattern. Let's say you use 02. If you want that to play for another eight bars, then write 02 in the boxes representing steps 5 though 8. And so on... You may start off with a chart containing a relatively simple series of pattern numbers but, as you polish the song and add more complicated parts which necessitate further individual patterns, the numbers will soon begin to twist into a long string of complex links.

This system has two advantages; because you know where every single bar is and what happens there, you can instantly locate any desired event, and, while you are entering Step information into your drum machine when in Song/Chain mode, you can see what pattern occurs at any given place. When using the Insert Song Step or Delete Song Step functions, it's sometimes all too easy to get confused as to just what you actually did when you pressed that Enter button. Now you can check. When things get out of sync you'll know exactly why (and where) your synth tracks and your drum track have parted company. When you leave the drum machine to begin sequencing your instrument tracks on your synth, you'll also be very grateful to know that you have a cue sheet giving you the bar numbers of every section.


Let's leave the mapping system for a moment and begin to talk about counting measures and working out song arrangements. Western popular music has mathematically influenced the way in which we listen to music. Song arrangements, whether they be Pop, Reggae, Thrash Metal, or Rhythm & Blues, all follow fairly predictable forms, and each constituent part of the song generally tends to be written in an even number of bars (note: I said 'generally'). Intros, verses, choruses, bridges, solos — they're all four, eight, 12, or 16 bars in length.

"Song arrangements, whether they be Pop, Reggae, Thrash Metal, or Rhythm & Blues, all follow fairly predictable forms, and each constituent part of the song generally tends to be written in an even number of bars."

Take one of your favourite songs and break its arrangement down by counting the bars of each section. A typical arrangement might look like this:

Feedback & drum fill 1 bar
Intro riff 4 bars
1st verse 8 bars
Pre-chorus refrain 4 bars
Chorus 1 16 bars
Intro riff repeat 4 bars
2nd verse 8 bars
Pre-chorus refrain 4 bars
Chorus 2 16 bars
Solo (over riff x 2) 8 bars
Bridge 16 bars
Chorus 3 16 bars
Chorus 4 16 bars
Chorus 5 16 bars

You can easily see the song is, essentially, verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/bridge, with chorus repeats to fade — the other parts are there just to spice things up a bit. Whatever type of song it is, if you break it down like this you'll soon see the same basic structures appearing over and over again. Try working out the bar-counts and arrangements of other songs; when you find it easy (and it is), you can move on.

Let's assume you've written a song and, at the moment, just have the one beat looping around and around on your drum machine. The first thing you need to do is to count out the number of bars for each section of your arrangement. We'll use the following arrangement as an example to work with.

Bass 8t drums intro 4 bars
Riff x 2 8 bars
1st verse 16 bars
Riff 4 bars
2nd verse 16 bars
Chorus 1 12 bars
Riff 4 bars
3rd verse 16 bars
Chorus 2 12 bars
Bridge 8 bars
Solo 16 bars
Break-down 8 bars
Riff 4 bars
4th verse (short) 8 bars
Chorus 3 12 bars
Chorus 4 12 bars
Solo (over riff x 4) 16 bars

So, distilled to its most basic form, you've got verse/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/verse/chorus/chorus. As before, the other parts are there to pad the track out, giving the music both variety and room to breathe. Radio playlists are designed around the classic three-and-a-half minute single; in order to meet this requirement, songs are sometimes so savagely edited (to make them 'radio friendly') that their arrangements are condensed down to the bone — for example verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/chorus repeat to fade. In our case, however, consider the arrangement an 'album' version.

If you find the above bar-count style description too dry, think of it this way: our track starts out with an intro — a hard, funky, slapped-bass line syncing tightly to a driving kick 'n' snare pattern to grab some attention immediately. A guitar riff appears, which then leads everything into the first verse. After that verse, it's back to the riff you used in the intro, which helps break up the two verses at the beginning of the song. It also helps to add tension, by making you wait a little longer before the chorus bangs in. After that first chorus, the riff comes in again to set up the third verse, which is followed by a second chorus. The bridge comes in straight after, nicely setting things up for the solo. At the end of the solo, where the intensity of the track is peaking, it all breaks down. For purposes of light and shade, it's a good idea to chill out a bit here, in order to be able to re-establish the excitement full-throttle later. So, everything cuts out, leaving only a bass drum and hi-hat, a shimmering keyboard line for atmosphere, and some percussion. This builds up into the groove of the riff again, which leads into the last, half-length verse — at this point, the song has achieved a certain momentum and you don't want to get too laid-back, so keep the last verse short and decisive. The subsequent chorus is doubled up and, instead of continuing to repeat the chorus for a fade-out, the riff reappears; the vocals stop except for a few ad-libs, a lead instrument solos like crazy over it, there's lots of drum fills, the intensity builds, and you execute a definite ending — no cop outs here.

Viewed like that, the arrangement takes on more meaning. Now we can tailor our drum parts to the requirements of the arrangement and give the whole song a cohesive feel. You can see, as well as hear, where the song needs work. It's much easier when you can take an overview, rather than constantly having to listen from the top 'for context'. Next month we'll map everything out on our song sheet and assemble a basic song chain.


Read the next part in this series:
Drum Programming (Part 4)

Previous Article in this issue

Win a Soundcraft Spirit Mixer!

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ST Notes

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jul 1992


Drum Programming


Drum Programming

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Viewing) | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14

Feature by Warren Cann

Previous article in this issue:

> Win a Soundcraft Spirit Mixe...

Next article in this issue:

> ST Notes

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