Mad Beatz

Beats are the most important element in dance music: Without that foundation, nothing else works. With a massively fat and funky beat, you already have your ticket to a rocking club track or hip-hop masterpiece or — if you’re performing live — a direct connection to the hearts and hips of your audience.
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While it’s easy enough to load a loop or punch up a preset, all that will give you is a beat. But what you want, and what your fans want, is a mad beat! Something interesting, extreme, novel, and capable of making even the dead want to get up and dance. So . . . here we go.

CREATING MAD BEATZ

My favorite tools for dropping beats are hardware machines. I love knobs, pads, and buttons that I can really play. Of course, this is important for live use, as your audience will have more action to watch than just a guy moving a mouse and staring at a laptop’s TFT screen. But in the studio, think performance as well. If you want to capture something special in the studio, don’t try to perfect a part over and over and over until all its life is sucked out. Improvise and perform, and always be in record mode. When you’re really grooving with the music and performing, you’ll get some fantastically mad takes. And when you play with others, jam with them — don’t act like you’re overdubbing.

The step sequencers in machines like the Roland TR-909, TR-808, Korg Electribe MX, Electribe SX (Figure 1), Jomox xbase09, xbase999, and many others make it really easy to program the machines on-the-fly, which is always more fun than just playing back pre-programmed patterns. With live programming, every performance will be different, which will not only be exciting for your audience, but for you as well! And if you’re excited, that will show in the music.

With sampling drum machines like the Akai MPC, E-mu SP1200, and Korg Electribe SX, you aren’t limited to just drum samples. You can load entire loops, or crazy sounds like white noise, radio waves from a short wave radio, little parts of record hiss/scratches, or chopped up guitar noises to make the beats more alive. Of course, you can use this technique with software drum machines (like Reason, Project5, etc.) too.

My favorite gear combination is the Jomox xbase for kicking bass drums and aggressive hi-hats, Electribe SX for fun noises and distortion/lofi effects, and the Akai MPC for atmospheres and drum loops. This setup is enough to perform live for hours; in the studio, you’ll get plenty of raw materials and live, you’ll have your audience dancing to the beats and screaming in the breaks.

By the way if you use mostly hardware live, it’s a temptation to just bring that into the studio for recording and let it go at that. But don’t overlook all the software tools you can use in the studio. For example, the great thing with software drum machines is that you can easily morph your own drum sounds out of a couple of existing samples, and create entirely new sounds in seconds. Also you don’t have to mess with cables and rewiring between takes or songs, and some software effects are more sophisticated than what you can find in hardware. You may even be able to trigger them from your hardware so you get everything you want.

MULTIPLE OUTPUTS

One major key to mad beats is don’t be lazy and just pull a stereo output from your drum machine or audio interface. Use all the outputs! First, you can feed them into a mixer and “rock the mixing board” like a musical instrument. Push the levels, add dynamics, solo, mute — all of these make the sound come alive. Remember, samples tend to be pretty “flat” in terms of dynamics; it’s up to you to add the color and interest.

The other cool thing about multiple outputs, whether hardware or software, is processing. You can add colors and textures to percussion and other sounds while keeping a rock solid beat driving the track. If you have a hands-on MIDI controller for altering the effects processors in real time, that’s even better.

THE PROCESSING PARADE

Effect processors are a big part of making mad beats. It’s big fun to destroy beats on the run and reconstruct them at a later time. You can distort them, fatten them up with EQs and compressors, tweak them with wahwah effects, lower the bit rate with a bit reducer, use flangers and phasers, make them more “dub-like” with delays, and more.

Here are some cool toys which can be useful to create madder beats.

Equalizers: Okay, you know how to use an EQ, so I’ll give two cautions: Don’t push too much bass in your beats, and keep the highs under control. Bass takes up a lot of bandwidth in a master recording, and live, there are limits to what a sound system can handle. As to highs, with digital recordings it’s hard to get a “sweet” sound with lots of highs, and live, you don’t want to hurt your audience’s ears.

Distortion: My favorite tools to distort beats are the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and the Craig Anderton QuadraFuzz. But there are a huge range of distortion pedals and plug-ins; Reason’s Scream module (Figure 2) has lots of distortion options. While recording, try the whole range from soft distortion on beats that make the sounds warmer to heavy distortion for nasty rocking underground sounds. Also try distorting individual sounds, like snare, congas, rides, and claps to make those sounds more aggressive, but leave the kick and hi-hats undistorted to keep the drive. You also can also distort your drum sounds in the mixing board by overloading the preamp; it gives yet another type of distortion.

Bit Reducer: Nothing sounds more hardcore on a beat than a bit reducer, which simulates what a beat sounds like in lower resolution, like 8 or 4 bits, and can often reduce sample rates as well (Figure 3). It’s a must for all Commodore-64/Atari/Gameboy-music junkies like me. On our last few records we used the Alesis Bitrman and the Electribe SX bit reduction effect, but there are also lots of bit reducer plug-ins, including some freeware.

Compressors: They can make your beats louder, but they also can destroy your rhythm very easily. Be careful when using compressors! Most studios and clubs have excellent compressors, so a lot of times it’s best to retain the drum’s natural dynamics, and add compression later if needed.

Flangers/Phasers: These are fun to hear on a drumbeat, but use them sparingly. The effect easily gets anoying; processing a kick drum will “steal” its energy. Flangers/phasers are perfect for little breaks in the flow or on single instruments like ride, crash, or claps.

Auto Wah: This is a great effect for breaks, but gets old on a whole track.

Looper: If you use your mixing board for beat arrangements and breaks, sample some of your beat arrangements live into a looper to bring back in later. In addition to DJ loop players that autosync to the beat (beat detection), there are also more expensive, musician-oriented devices like the Lexicon/DigiTech JamMan, Electro-Harmonix 2880, and the Boss RC-50.

Delays: These are essential for beat design, as they make the rhythms deeper and more dub-like. Try bpm delays on the whole beat (for breaks) or on single instruments like snare drums, congas, rimshots, and so on. But bpm delays aren’t the only ones worth trying: Non-synced delays can add polyrhythmic effects, and complex delays like Native Instrument’s Spectral Delay are very cool. Other favorite “dub” delays are the famous Electro-Harmonix MemoryMan and their 16 Second Delay, the Roland RE-201 or 301 tape delays, and TC Electronics’ multi-tap delay. Of course, you can combine all these effects for more complex beats and sounds. And don’t overlook guitar processing software, like Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 2, for complex processing of rhythms.

IT’S UP TO YOU

It’s been said before: “Machines don’t kill music, people do.” Beats can be the most boring, dumb things in the world and make you wish drum machines had never been invented — or they can be totally cool and exciting if you throw your personality into them. Saying “drum machines suck” is like saying “paint sucks.” Well of course paint sucks, you have to get a brush, squeeze the paint out of the tube, and put it on a canvas before it gets interesting. Drum machines provide only the raw material, you have to provide the rest. Experiment with your own sounds, be true to your own style and heart, and use the best combination of hardware, software, and whatever else you can to build your own Mad Beatz!