Reggae Roots (Part 6)
Groovin' on the Front Line
A practical guide to programming reggae tracks with a few examples for you to try out.
Pauly and Joe Ortiz of Heavenly Music once more join forces with Edgar G. Roover, to unravel the mysteries of serious Reggae.
This month we bring you more ethnic grooves, as we delve into the hypnotic pulse of Reggae. Having had the pleasure of touring for 13 months with a real live Jamaican Reggae band, we could see and hear (and most importantly, feel) first hand what was happening in a given groove. To enable you to try these patterns as quickly as possible as well as keeping continuity, we are using the grid format presented in this series thus far, with the top of the grid acting as an info line and chords above the beat on which they occur. The chord structure is usually a simple triad and inversion, which helps to add that 'crucial' atmosphere — more on this later. The patterns are all in four-bar lengths, and all three patterns use the same fundamental instrument line-up, consisting of Drum Kit, Bass, Organ and electric or acoustic Guitar. A typical reggae line-up would also include a small brass section, background vocalists and, of course, the lead vocalist. Hi-hat beats 2, 3 and 4 of all patterns should be accented, as it helps to emphasise the pulse of the groove.
For Pattern 1, we recommend a tempo of around 155 to 165bpm. This type of groove has been around for quite a while and is still one of the most used rhythms in Reggae. The Bass drum should be deep, fat, round but with just a touch of hi-mid boost for definition, being careful not to make it too 'clean'. Bass drums fall on beat 3 of every bar along with the rim shot. The rim shot should be chunky and solid. The hi-hats are very forgiving; whether you use thin crispy ones or dull heavy ones — they'll work. The hi-hat plays eighths throughout, with the occasional open hat. The hi timbale is identical to the one used in latin music — tight, ringy and tinny, with or without reverb and, as you can see, used very sparingly in this pattern. The snare drum, if used, can be a big, fat, dry snare or a bright tinny reverbed snare. A tip for you — if you're applying reverb to the rim shot, or indeed anything else, bear in mind that higher tempo settings may necessitate the use of shorter decay times to avoid things getting cluttered. The Organ part must be one of the 'bubbly Hammond B3 going through a Leslie cab' type with a good amount of reverb. The bass sound can be either an acoustic upright or even a fretless bass without chorus or reverb (unless you're into serious 'dub' mixes). Ideally, the bass should sound as if it is strung with flat-wound strings and EQ'd heavy on the bottom end with very little (or no) top end. The guitar sound should be that of a clean Strat as it would sound when switched to the middle and back pickups and played with short clean strokes (about a triplet 16th long) with a touch of chorus or flanging and reverb. If you don't have a good Strat sample then a bright clav-type keyboard sound will suffice.
Pattern 2's tempo can be between 65 and 72 bpm, and at first glance it looks very similar to Pattern 1, but as you'll see, the accents have been displaced on the organ track, which serves to really pump the groove along even at this moderate tempo setting. The bass drum is also different, in that it is playing on each beat of the bar, adding a sense of urgency to the drum part. The bass part is played almost staccato fashion, giving it a spikey character. As stated earlier, the chord work is fairly simple; there's a good reason for this. Reggae doesn't seem to like dominant 7th chords with flatted 5ths and the like. Anything too fancy and the groove may lose focus, so try to avoid them when writing your own Reggae tracks.
For Pattern 3, tempo settings between 130 and 150 work just fine, though at this tempo setting a longer reverb setting may help to pad things out a bit. This pattern is almost a typical medium rock pattern that only serves to prove how important the bass, guitar and organ phrasing is to Reggae. On first listening to Reggae, you may think to yourself that it's easy to play. Wrong! Each member of a Reggae band is playing like clockwork to make the next one sound good. They're having fun playing, but they're also employing a certain amount of restraint in avoiding the pitfall of getting too busy. Another tip — one of the best things to do by way of experiment is to use a quantise value of 8T (triplet eighths) or 16T (triplet sixteenths), depending on your tempo setting. This quantise value, if applied carefully, can really make a pattern swing. On Steinberg's Cubase, for example, you can record something quantised to straight eighths or sixteenths, then freeze the quantise, before applying what is known as 'iterative quantise', which then starts pulling events around a little at a time until the feel is just right.
As with Latin music — or indeed any music — Reggae demands a little discipline. Most authentic Reggae and Latin music is lyrically serious — like Blues, it's a music that reflects happiness, pain, joy, anguish or any other aspect of the human condition — which is why it has the occasional tendency to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Another important aspect of this music is space, which adds even more intensity and starkness to a groove; this has the added benefit of letting the reverb do its work. To understand what we mean, have a listen to Third World's Journey To Addis or Bob Marley's Catch A Fire LPs.
In short, get your green, yellow and black woolly hat off, let your dreadlocks down, boot your sequencer up and enjoy these patterns.
Editorial by Edgar G. Roover
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