“Rhythm is the most perceptible and the least material thing.”
– Leopold Sedar Senghor (quoted in John Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility).
I find making electronic beats difficult, which is strange because I have the dexterity to play them on a controller, and at least in theory, I know what makes a good one. But recently I made a beat which, as of this morning, still sounds half decent. Let’s take a look why.
What makes making beats difficult is that there are a lot of things that can go wrong because a beat involves numerous qualities interacting. First and foremost, a beat is construction in time. A beat has a tempo (which can be just right or not), it makes musical time manifest, and it conjures a flow with a feel–a moving energy out of its relations. A metronome click is a kind of beat, though not a very interesting one. A jazz drummer keeping time on the ride cymbal is another kind of beat. The EDM four-on-the-floor is yet another. As a construction in time, the most apparent quality of a beat is its timing. Is it steady? Does it push forward or drag? Does it sound human- or machine-like? (Or both?) It’s difficult to play a beat that feels steady yet flexible. In the same way we stretch our limbs to lengthen our muscles and keep them supple, a beat ideally exercises a built-in sense of mobility.
A second quality of a beat is that it usually comprises several different sounds in tension with and in opposition to one another. The most common sounds in popular music are bass drum (low pitch), snare drum (high pitch), and hi hat cymbals (even higher pitched). The relationship between low and high sounds is often call and response-like, in that these sounds alternate in a kind of complementary dialog. The sounds of hi hats or other percussion (hand drums, claves) often function as a steady timeline that provides a backdrop for the bass drum-snare dialog. Other drumming cultures show similar pitched concepts in play: the tabla drummer in Indian music plays high-pitched strokes in his right hand, while his left plays bass tones on a second drum (the bayan); djembe hand drummers in West Africa are joined by the lower-pitched djun-djun drummers who provide bass tone counterpoint to their treble solos. And so on.
The mistake I make when I try to make a beat is that I do too much. I’ll persist in doing too much for a few minutes, fully realizing that what I’m doing sucks. But I give myself permission to make ugly sounds. At some point, I focus and realize that all I need is a bare minimum of sounds. This is what I did recently when I made a beat that was half decent: the beat didn’t need anything besides a bass drum and a cross stick (the rim of a snare drum). I recorded the pattern I had been playing for a few minutes. So far so good. But as I listened to playback, the pattern was still busy: there was a bass drum hit after the snare serving no purpose. The bass drum hit was preventing me from experiencing the beat in a way that I wanted to but couldn’t. So I went through the 16 bars and deleted the extra bass drum hits. A little better.
A third quality of a beat is its sounds. One thing even the most amateur of amateur electronic musicians have no shortage of is sounds. There are thousands of drum sounds on my laptop and most of them I’ve never met. Occasionally I encounter one in passing (e.g. I’m auditioning a kit while sound diving) and can’t believe what I’ve been missing. There are mellow drum sounds and aggressive ones, sounds that are overly genre-marked (e.g. hip hop sounds, dubstep sounds, etc.), retro and cutting edge sounds, sounds of vintage drum machines, and slick recreations of acoustic kits. One of my production problems is that I kind of love them all because there could be a perfect context for them out there somewhere, though maybe not in my music. My problem is that I’ll never get to know all these sounds, and even the ones I get to know I may not find the ideal use for. So when I’m listening to a sound I try to figure out what I like about it, and also how to remember how to find it again. It helps to save things as “Favorites” but that list is growing quite large–soon everything will be a favorite. At the moment, my working framework is that I go by gut reaction to a drum sound’s timbre. Sounds have built-in affect and if you listen to them closely, they suggest a mood in which to work.
A fourth quality of a beat is its receptiveness to effects processing. By effects I mean something as simple as EQing the beat to make it feel different. But it doesn’t stop there. Reverb can add space, delays can add motion, filters can add groove, and so on. You can also combine effects to make effects chains which seem to have no end. Where does one stop with effects? My strategy is to do the least possible to create an effect that is apparent.
Finally, and this is something I’ve been mulling over: a beat is like an idea that can be developed. In music, the default for most producers is to simply repeat the beat. This ensures that at the very least you have a rhythm that you can rely on because it continues unchanged for a while. You can stop thinking about it. But there are other and possibly more interesting ways to develop a beat so that it grows or evolves or disintegrates over time. As I was making my half decent beat I realized, while looking at the screen, that I had a few phrases in front of me that I could play with. I could play parts of the phrase or the entire phrase; patterns could be reversed or inverted, played double time or half time; even individual notes could undergo changes. Considering these possible alterations seeded an idea: there is so much more I can still do, but maybe what I have is already enough.