Production Central: Beat of a Different Drummer (Part 1)

I''ve always had a fascination with percussion instruments and groove-
oriented music. In fact, the drum kit would have been my first musical instrument if my parents hadn''t persuaded me to take up the guitar. I love playing the guitar, but I''ve always been a bit of a tinkerer.
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I''ve always had a fascination with percussion instruments and groove-oriented music. In fact, the drum kit would have been my first musical instrument if my parents hadn''t persuaded me to take up the guitar. I love playing the guitar, but I''ve always been a bit of a tinkerer. When I was a child, my guitar would soon see its strings reduced from six to two, and the pick give way to an old broken drumstick, which I''d use to bang out rhythmic patterns while fretting different note progressions. The guitar became a homemade two-string dulcimer of sorts, and by playing with this technique, I was able to focus more on the rhythm and less on the tonal passages. Variations in time became as important as altering the pitch of the notes themselves. The feeling was tribal and I had found the groove. Or maybe the groove found me? Either way, I''ve spent my entire musical career putting as much weight on the rhythmic elements of music as on the melodic.

There is an art and science to programming drums. What makes a drum progression interesting is the push and pull (swing) between notes and the weight each hit has in comparison to each other. The tonal characteristic of a drum changes with different strikes, and different players hit with difference emphasis. One of the hardest techniques in drum programming is making a passage breathe—adding a human element where there is none. Although humanizing a programmed beat is often less important in electronic music, in rock music the human touch is what makes a record feel alive.

In part one of this column, I''ll look at drum programming as it pertains to electronic music. Next month, I''ll get into more advanced methods, such as shifting elements in time or removing notes from the quantization grid, methods of loop editing, creative uses of loops, and “live” drum programming.

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FIG. 1: One of the handy features of Reason''s ReGroove mixer is its ability to apply shuffle globally.

Drum machines and sequencers can create perfect rhythmic passages that have the machine-like characteristics common to early ''80s pop, hip-hop, and straight-eight dance music. The choices for quantization include whole-, quarter-, eighth-, 16th-, 32nd-, and 64th-note values in straight, dotted-note, and triplet varieties. When we introduce swing to this quantization, we have the luxury of almost any variation of time in between these standard subdivisions. Most sequencing software allows free movement on the grid, as well as movements as small as a tick.

Swing is what gives rhythmic passages their funk, and it is one of the most critical programming elements to understand. The classic drum-machine reference for swing is the Akai MPC-60 shuffle. For the examples I''m discussing and showing here, I''m using the Propellerhead Reason ReGroove mixer and applying the MPC-60 shuffle percentages. What I love most about the ReGroove mixer (see Fig. 1) is its ability to apply a groove or swing to multiple tracks. Changes made to that groove affect the tracks that have the selected groove associated with them. This comes in quite handy when you want the whole sequence to have the same groove as a drum loop or rhythmic passage. Experimenting with different grooves in a sequence becomes as easy as loading a new groove template in the ReGroove mixer.

To illustrate the importance of swing, take a classic boom-bap drum pattern with 16th-note hi-hats and apply different percentages of swing to it. (Note: All the note volumes are the same.) First listen to the passage with a straight 16th-note quantization at 95bpm. Then listen to the passage as you add different amounts of swing. Start with 51-percent shuffle, followed by 55, 57, 60, and all the way up to 75 percent. Notice how the beat transforms from a straight robotic pattern to one that gets jazzier and seems a bit loose as the swing increases (see Web Clips 1, 2, 3, and 4).

It''s interesting to note that if you change the tempo of the beat to other genre-specific settings, it''s the swing that gives those feels their characteristic sound. For example, a programmed beat with 55-percent shuffle at 130bpm is the classic sound of Florida breaks. Drum and bass at 165bpm often uses a shuffle of 55 percent on the hi-hats while the kicks are shuffled at 63 percent for a slightly jerky feel. Get used to these different types of shuffle quantizations (see sidebar “Common Shuffle Settings” below) because they are the bread and butter of programmed beats.

Next up: volume. A drum loop that was played by a live musician has natural volume accents and tonal change between strokes. These accents add variety and can help a static 8- or 16-bar loop have more life. When programming, the best way to figure out where the natural accents would be if played by a live drummer is to physically tap out the beat. You''ll notice that you''ll strike the hi-hats louder on the beats that hit concurrently with the snare and kick. Once you get the general volumes in place, try altering the volume of the accent hits by plus or minus one to five ticks.

I''ll often make a copy of a 16-bar pattern and change the volumes of the hi-hats, but keep the same kick and snare pattern. This technique gives me two distinct patterns that tend to fool the human ear into thinking there are more changes in the programmed beat than actually occur.

Another classic technique is giving the first beat of a measure the strongest accent. This technique is what I call the “James Brown” as Brown was the king of that kind of rhythm. Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, and the Crystal Method all use this weighted first beat in their productions. In electronic music, the beat often has an 808 kick on the first note of the measure to really drive home that weighted first note.

If you are programming a shuffle hi-hat, try altering the volumes so that the odd-numbered hats are louder than the even-numbered hats. This creates a more natural shuffle feel and is a major part of programming shuffle beats and snare rolls. Experiment with different volume differentials to see what works best for you. An example would be the loudest notes at a volume of 127 and the secondary volumes at 124 or 122 or even lower.

I often use multilayered samples that are tonally different depending on the volume of the strike. Another method would be to use a filter with a frequency modulated by the volume. Louder hits are full frequency and the softer hits are slightly muted or rolled off. Remember, our ears like change and tonal changes create interest.

The next step in programming a great beat is adding grace notes. These are the notes that happen in between primary hits and ghost notes on the snare, and as drummer''s stick rests on the snare. I often program snare drags that roll into a kick and hi-hats that open and close, tightening and loosening the feel of the progression. I usually play these into the loop live and don''t quantize them to give the loop more movement.


Here are typical settings for shuffle in various musical styles.
Hip-hop: MPC 55 to 59-percent shuffle
R&B: MPC 61-percent shuffle
Break beat: MPC 57- to 62-percent shuffle
Two-step: MPC 65 to 69-percent shuffle
Drum and bass: Kick and snare 55- to 61-percent shuffle; hi-hat 60- to 63-percent shuffle
Florida breaks: 55-percent shuffle

Ming is a New York City-based artist, producer, and DJ. He owns Hood Famous Music and co-owns Habitat Music.