Tech Tip:Better Beats through Potent Programming

Reprinted from with the permission of the author and publisher Craig Anderton



You don't have to do hip-hop, rap, or dance music to have the need to program beats-even singer/songwriters want something better than a metronome to play against. But there are beats that just sit there lifeless, making you wish you hadn't gotten into an argument with your drummer and caused him to quit the band, and there are beats that jump out of the speakers, grab you by your butt, and get you moving. So what's the "it" factor that makes the difference?


I've been programming beats for years, as well as worked with people who are beatmasters, and closely observed dance floor posteriors during this time to see which beats have the highest Booty-Movement Factor (BMF). Now, you too can benefit from this selfless research.



The Big-Time, Important Rule


Always program your beats while other instruments are playing. You don't need much: a bassline, a percussive synth part, and maybe a pad. Playing along with other instruments keeps your beats from getting off on some mutant tangent, and lets them play well with others.


The bass part is especially important. Program the bass first, and if it's a line that makes you want to move (or even better, makes you want to hum it), the drums will fall together perfectly.


When creating beats, be honest with yourself. If you don't start moving around like a gerbil in heat when your drum loop plays back, the people on the dance floor won't either. Don't waste time fixing something that doesn't work. Start over from scratch, and remember you're there to have fun. If you're not having fun, your listeners won't either.





Most loops are either one, two, or four measures. Each kind has a different personality, so get to know your beats, and use them for what they do best.


One measure: Aside from daytime television, there are few things more boring than a one-measure loop repeated by itself over and over and over again. So, a one-measure loop's mission in life is to provide a background for other beats, percussion parts, or goofy sounds, so you can put together layers that work together. The best one-measure loops are plain and normal. Clever syncopations, if played over and over, are like a house guest who just won't leave. A simple kick/snare/closed hat combo rules. For one-measure beats, simple = good.


Two measures: Two-measure loops are cool because they're like aerobics-one measure breathes in, the next breathes out. The structure I use for two-measure beats is something I call "plop-float-tease." This is important, so look at Fig. 1, which shows this pattern programmed in Reason's ReDrum module.


Fig.1: A two-measure loop, programmed in Reason's ReDrum module.


"Plop" means a heavy downbeat. Make the velocity on the kick drum a little higher, increase the kick treble a bit so it hits harder, layer a low tom hit with the kick...anything that makes the sound plop. You want people to feel, not just hear, the downbeat.


"Float" is the middle section. This is more like the one-measure concept; you want something that's fairly neutral and keeps the beat progressing, without calling a lot of attention to itself.


"Tease" disrupts that normal flow and sets you up for the next plop. This can be some tom hits, removing the kick and hats for a couple of beats while you slip in something else, a breakbeat, whatever. When you apply beatus interruptus, when the beginning of the loop hits again, you have a strong downbeat that re-syncs the dancer's butts/brains.


Four measures: These are good for "canned" beats and sample libraries for the rhythmically-challenged, because if they're programmed well, they can stand on their own without a lot of extra layering. For these, I have a favorite structure that combines some of the one- and two-measure concepts. Measure 1 is simple (but has a plop at the downbeat), measure 2 is simple but with a tiny tease leading into measure 3 (which usually repeats measure 1), then measure 4 adds a major tease on the last couple beats to make a fill.



The Swing Thing


Swing lengthens the first note of an equal-valued pair of notes, and shortens the second one to compensate. Swing is crucial for a high BFM, especially for hip-hop type tempos that are 100 BPM or less. Eurotechno robot stuff sounds terrible with swing-don't even bother. Also if you're using other loops with your drum loop, they probably don't have swing added, so the parts will start arguing. But at 85-90 BPM, injecting swing is like taking Vitamin Beat. Even a little bit, like 55% swing, will make a difference.



Lose the Cymbals


Cymbals are musical one-night stands, because you want them to show up, party, and leave. So make loops without cymbals, then add one-shot (single event, non-looped) cymbals on a separate track.


Another cymbal note: Sorry, but a lot of cymbal samples just don't cut it. When you find a good one, treasure it-and copy it too, in order to create one tuned lower and one tuned higher. That way you have two variations on a good-sounding cymbal, which beats hunting through a bunch of samples to find variations that sound decent.



Percussion Tips


Don't get fancy with the kick, snare, and hats. You need a rock-solid foundation so dancers can feel the groove. But you also need some ear candy on the top, which is percussion's job description. You can go pretty nuts with congas, shakers, tambourines, and similar instruments as long as there's a solid foundation. They help propel the beat, and are a way to sneak in double-time and triplet parts.


These elements are important because they raise the overall energy a level. This is necessary for the "plop" and "tease" phases mentioned earlier. You want that extra energy to kick off a loop, or get people all excited before the next downbeat. Double-time percussion can also provide those all-important variations that occur during the 4th, 8th, and 12th beats of a four-measure section.


But when it comes to adding percussion, behave yourself:


-1st. Keep the levels sane. Percussion instruments have a lot of treble, especially tambourine, and they'll make your ears bleed unless you keep the volume mixed relatively low. You can always boost the treble if you need to kick these up a bit, but if they're too bright and you need to cut the treble, you'll muddy the snare, kick, hats, etc.


-1. Use velocity a lot to vary dynamics. Level variations keep the parts from getting annoying. And be aware that drum/percussion samples often include multiple variations-if you're doing congas, for example, there will be at least two main conga samples, and maybe a slap hit. Use 'em all.



And Now, A Word From Big Al


Albert Einstein once said that E=MC2, which means that if you get enough mass moving fast enough, it becomes energy. That's the whole point of beats. Get those bodies moving, and you'll create a lot of energy. More energy = more dancing = more sweating = more people going to the bar for drinks = more money for the club owner = job security for you.



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