Drum Programming (Part 7)
A Series By Warren Cann.
The right amount of variation - not too much, not too little - is crucial to a good drum track that supports a song properly.
In last month's instalment, we wrote a few very basic fills and inserted them into our Song Chain. We've used 2-bar phrases so far (to keep our default length of 2 bars = 1 Song Step), but drummers often use combinations of beats and patterns to create more interesting phrases of different lengths.
If the pattern in Figure 1 (one bar, looping) played for a long time it might start to get boring. To add some variation and make a four-bar phrase, create another pattern (Figure 2) with its kick drum changed in the second bar. When the two are chained together in Song Mode, you have a 4-bar phrase which keeps the essence of its parent rhythm but with more energy and activity (Figure 3). The different bass drum figure in the fourth bar is also a good example of what might be called a non-fill — when you want to add something subtle, but don't want to disturb the snare and hi-hat groove with a fill, just change the kick drum slightly. It serves the purpose of a fill but in an unobtrusive way; a crash at the end is entirely optional. It works and it's simple. You don't have to have drum fills every few bars and a dozen layers of percussion instruments to have a good drum track.
Contrary to what you might think, an amazing drum beat isn't a prerequisite for a great song. How many songs can you think of where the drums are definitely the star of the show? A few, sure... there have been a lot of hits based on drums and/or drum-heavy rhythms; from The Surfaris "Wipe Out' and Sandy Nelson's 'Let There Be Drums', to 'We Will Rock You', by Queen, and just about anything by Gary Glitter. The list may be long, but it is certainly not endless. Compare that to the number of hit songs that, essentially, have reasonably straightforward drum parts in them. My point is that, compared to the number of hit songs in the rock archives to date, songs featuring the drums above all else are definitely in the minority. In most songs, the drums play a supportive role to the overall whole. No one would doubt that songs like 'Walk This Way' (Aerosmith/Run DMC) or 'Primal Scream' (Motley Crue) are extremely biased towards in-your-face rhythms, but pare it all down and the drums are actually playing quite simple parts.
Nor do you have to be complicated to get funky. Some of the funkiest material ever recorded has the drums playing a simple kick and snare backbeat. Mostly it's what goes on around the drums that counts. A clipped rhythm guitar and bassline can spell out the funk, while the drums just nail it down. Please, don't confuse 'busy' with 'best'. Give the drums some space. I can't teach you good taste but, if you listen to the drums in music you admire, you'll gradually assimilate the approach. Remember: initially you don't have to understand it to be able to copy it and use it. You could take, for example, the rhythm Prince uses in 'Kiss', change the drum sound (if you like), and — once removed from its original context — you could build just about anything on top of it.
The interaction between parts is far more important than the amount of parts. If you start writing a song around a bass riff, it makes sense to have the drums follow and complement the feel of it — you don't need to follow its every beat, just the essence. If you start out with a very complicated pattern, you may find it loses something the moment you add anything to it. You get into a mixing battle; the moment you turn up the bass, the drums lose their punch, but if you turn up the drums the bass starts to get lost, and round and round we go. If that's the case, reconsider the pattern. You don't have to rewrite it, just thin it out a little. You don't have to use all of its ingredients at once — start out 'smaller' and gradually get bigger, then, when you introduce something new, make room for it by dropping something else out. You can save the whole, kitchen-sink version for later on in the song if there's an opportunity to drop everything else out for a few bars.
If you've come up with a fill that you're particularly pleased with, don't spoil its effect by using it a dozen times during the same song; you weaken its impact and tip off the listener that a) it's a drum machine they're hearing; b) the programmer was lazy; and c) he really liked that fill. You can get away with it on certain fills, the small, subtle ones, since they don't draw an inordinate amount of attention to themselves, but the flashy, big-deal ones are best used sparingly. If you want a lot of energy and incorporate a lot of fills, take the trouble to make sure that they are all different from each other.
However deeply you get into points of detail, the method is constant; if you program a really knock-out fill, you insert it into the appropriate spot. As other instruments are added to the song, you'll constantly be re-evaluating your choice and placement of fills. Because you have everything mapped out, you can enjoy listening to a playback. You can forget technical details, just soak it in and listen aesthetically. Then, when you think "Hmm... there should be a fill here" or "Ahh... I should change there", you don't have to distract your creative flow trying to work out when and where, you need only glance at the Step/Bar# indicator on your machine's display, write down a number, and you're free to come back to it later.
The process by which we've thus far created a song map of an arrangement, programmed various rhythms, assembled the patterns into a basic Song Chain, and inserted fills into the chain, is the basis of drum programming. To achieve more complexity, you just devote more time to adding ever-increasing amounts of detail. The degree to which you hone your rhythm tracks is dependent upon your ability, your time and your hardware's facilities. An old racers' aphorism is "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?"
Technology is often a double-edged sword: it enables you to do things that used to be either impossible or terribly time consuming but, by virtue of those same abilities, it can also lure you into a mire of minutiae that is difficult to drag yourself out of. The machines can be so smart while they're busy being so dumb. We get excited because now we can have drums in our spare-room studios without the attendant problems of lack of space and complaints about noise, the DI'd drum sounds are great, and everything is conveniently MIDI'd. And, after all, the great advantage of a drum machine isn't just rock-steady timekeeping, it's that you can constantly keep going back to make changes. You aren't stuck with what the drummer played on tape; you can get in there and change it, you can rearrange the rhythms to suit your new priorities, you can redesign parts so they remain an integrated whole.
But there are pitfalls. If you're sequencing with a computer, that monitor screen's window into the world of your data can mesmerise you into feeling that everything has to be perfect. But, remember, people don't play 'perfectly' — that's what gives music its animation. Be selective over what you spend your time on and don't lose sight of your overall goals; it's easy to get sucked into making that hi-hat part or tom-tom section sound totally amazing — then you look at your watch and discover that five hours have gone by... Hey, if you've got the time and enthusiasm for that sort of thing, go ahead, just try to keep some sense of overall perspective so you'll know when you're about to cross the line from improving the feel to where you're embellishing something that only bats can hear. Having said that, it's ironic that the majority of time spent editing drum parts is for adding imperfections, rather than eliminating them.
When you get tired and can't seem to make any headway, when you encounter the wall of a temporary creative block, you have a few options. Stop. Go have a break; make some tea, walk the dog. Anything that takes your mind off it for a while, consider it a positive distraction. If that's too extreme for you, if your determination has the better of you and your nerves won't let you walk away for a bit, then make a 'messing around' copy of your work and go wild. Do any and all of the silly things that inhibition or good taste has held you back from trying. Try all of the things that you know won't work. It only takes one small spark of an idea, one brief burst of craziness, to lead to "Hmm... that could be interesting...".
When inspiration needs a nudge, here's a trick that software sequencers can do with rhythm grooves; have a set of toms and percussion mapped across your keyboard, turn your monitor volume off, and set your sequencer to record for a few bars with the quantising set to 16ths. Put it in Record and run your finger up and down the keyboard several times, starting in arbitrary places each time, until you're sure you've 'filled all the holes'. Now, bring your monitoring volume back up and, depending on how and where you mapped your voices out, you're liable to hear something within those bars that sounds great. You can chop out the good bits, copy them, and carry on working now that something has suggested itself to you. You just needed a way of stepping outside of yourself for a moment to rekindle your enthusiasm and get you back on track again.
If you've already got the basis of your Song Chain assembled but you're feeling less than thrilled with your placement of fills, try adding two, three, or four bars of the most common pattern to the front of the chain. By shifting your current selection of fills along by that number of bars, you've deliberately thrown everything out of sync with itself, and you might get lucky and hear a few 'happy accidents'. You'll hear a fill differently if it's in a place that you might not have consciously put it.
When even that doesn't help, you could do some of the really boring — but necessary — tidying up which helps you keep your work in order. Admit to yourself that you're temporarily leaving creative mode entirely; erase unused patterns, check that you've correctly written down all of the patterns on your data sheet, ensure that your backups are up to date... at least you'll be doing something constructive by eliminating potentially confusing loose ends. Finally, there's one last thing you can do. If it's late, go to bed and get some sleep. Try again another day.
Feature by Warren Cann
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