As I teach myself how to program rhythms that I enjoy listening to, I’ve learned some lessons that might interest the musicians among my readers. Lesson One: the most efficient way to program a rhythm is to play it. You can play it all at once, as I do, one part at a time, or however you want, but some form of tapping pads on a MIDI drum controller or the keys of a keyboard is, I think, the most robust methodology for getting a rhythm down. Electronic music is already mediated enough by layers of technology, so why not keep things human as long as possible?
Playing a rhythm to record it has several benefits besides quickly bringing you from inspiration to MIDI data. First, it literally gets you playing. Ten times out of ten tries my ideas materialize only after I’ve been playing around for a while—trying stuff out, experimenting, making mistakes, trying again, trying to understand what the music needs. With drum programming, I have to stand there, tapping and auditioning different sounds in different patterns before anything “occurs” to me. Usually what happens is that one constellation of sounds and rhythms coalesces into being a fit for what I’m aiming to do. This sound/rhythm constellation tends to be catchy and challenging, yet still fun to play—in other words, it has all the ingredients for becoming an addictive motor pattern. I might try some variations on it, though I usually don’t get too far because I’m worried I’ll forget how to play the basic rhythm. So I hit record and play.
A second benefit of playing a rhythm to program it is that it captures all of your timing nuances—both good (i.e. intended) and bad (i.e. not intended). Even when I record to a click or previously recorded tracks (or both), my timing constantly fluctuates in little ways. It takes concentration to stay “in the pocket” as drummers say. And even though I know I can go back later and correct my timing errors, I don’t want to do that because that’s an extra step and I would prefer to nail it in one take. Also, correcting the notes so that they fall on the nearest main pulse or subdivision of that pulse, a process known as Quantization, opens up potential problems. If nothing else in the music is Quantized, why should the beat be? A third benefit of playing a rhythm is you can perform it for the duration of the piece. Even if a piece may never need a beat throughout, I’ll play my part idea from the beginning to the end. This gives me time to get into a flow, challenges me to maintain the intensity for the duration of the piece, and invites me to try out variations as I go. This last idea has led to on the spot decisions to deconstruct a beat: the closer I get to the end of the piece, the more I take notes out and make the pattern more and more spare until there’s almost nothing left. Who says beats have to stay the same way all the time?
Lesson Two: layer your rhythms. I often begin with one kit or collection of sounds, record a part with that, then go back a record a second kit, and sometimes a third kit. Layering rhythms ratchets up the excitement level of the music, because now you’re responding to the beats you’ve already recorded and you can feed off of that. (For example, you can take a call and response approach to layering sounds.) It’s often while layering a second part that the first part’s identity is revealed. Trying to drum something catchy on top of what I think is already catchy holds a promise of a mega-catchy composite rhythm. Okay, maybe not mega-catchy, but at least a rhythm greater than the sum of its layered parts.
Lesson Three: alter the sounds of your rhythms. Once I have one or two parts in place, I make quick adjustments to pitch and timbre. Is that hi hat grating? Raise its pitch into a higher register. If a kick drum is a mere thud, mellow and detune it so that you feel it more. These kinds of adjustments can be done in minutes and it’s imperative to work fast because you want to intuitively shape what you have to sound more cohesive. As with everything else in the digital realm, you can always go back later and continue tweaking, but why not commit to a set of relationships right now? Altering your rhythms’ sounds can also be done with effects, and here you have hundreds of options. What has worked best for me is to automate whatever effects I use so that their presence is felt in gradual and subtle rather than abrupt and obvious ways. With effects, a gentle hand is key. At least that’s my preference.
Lesson Four: ruthlessly edit your rhythms. I’ll begin by muting entire sections of beats, or staggering entrances of various beat layers so that everything isn’t happening at the same time. Next, even though I played each part competently, the patterns are still rife with inconsistencies and other irritations that need to be addressed. My editing doesn’t square off beats so they are perfectly on, but rather removes hits that are sticking out and needlessly calling attention to themselves. A rhythm always sings more when you delete some of its hits.
One by-product of working with rhythms that you played yourself is that you get to know them well, the same way you get to know a chord progression or a melody. The more you hear your rhythm soundscape’s parts in isolation and in combination, the better positioned you are to make ever smaller adjustments to get the parts to sit just so. With your played beats, as with the track as a whole, you’re working towards making everything interact so smoothly and thoughtfully that the music radiates synergy and sounds inevitable.
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In general, I don’t like beats that are too regular, yet I also don’t like beats that are merely functional. I like beats that are different—beats that make me think about their patterns of beatings. So when I compose (electronic) beats, I avoid typical beat-making moves: having the beats mark the backbeats (e.g. in 4/4 time, the accented beats sounding on 2 and 4), having four-on-the-floor kick drum patterns, and having any beat component (e.g. the hi hat, the snare, the kick drum) playing a single pattern over and over and over again. These avoidances push me to make a beat that’s always changing, not run of the mill, yet also doing the work beats are supposed to do, which is to keep, or at least mark, time.
In much popular music, beats mark and divide time and serve as a clock off of which other musical parts orient themselves. But there’s no reason a beat has to be rigid and unchanging, or ploddingly obvious with how it breaks time into smaller units. Rather than being a short pattern that repeats (e.g. typically 4 or 8 beats long, or one or two measures of 4/4 time), a beat can be configured in other ways. We can, for example, think about beats in terms of timelines and pulsation. Timeline is a term that describes a key element in West African drumming practices: here the timeline for a piece is typically played by a musician striking a repeating pattern on a metal bell. The pattern is usually a combination of short and long strokes, and these strokes demarcate where one is in the cycle of time. For a piece in a 12-pulse meter, a timeline pattern could be something like this (bell strokes are bold):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
The bell timeline part is not the piece’s beat, but rather a rhythm and a metrical framework within which the drummers fit in their rhythms. Listening to the bell, the drummers interweave their parts and with the cycling time of the music as articulated by the bell.
I’ve been thinking about timelines and pulsation a lot lately while working on music, because programming conventional beats doesn’t give me the results I want.* But I’m finding a way forward by recording beats that adhere to the piece’s pulse but not its metrical structure. I avoid using drum “fills” to mark the end of bars, and I avoid short-term phrasing. Instead, I play ever-changing rhythms for minutes at a time—enough time for me to get into some kind of synchrony with the music and develop patterns that add a voice to its texture without declaring, I’m the beat.
A second thing I do is manipulate the sound of my freestyle timeline patterns so that their timbre and pitch become integral parts of their voice. Throughout the history of popular music, the sound of the beat over the course of a song almost always remains the same: the song begins and ends with the same snare drum sound, for instance. There’s a simple reason for this: the drummer was playing a single drum kit, or the drum programmer was using a single drum machine or sampler. But digital music tools throw question marks at this and other performance conventions. It’s as if the tools are asking:
Well, if you’re not playing an actual drum kit to make a conventional beat, why do your sounds need to be timbres of acoustic instruments that stay fixed over time?
Using the most conventional sound-shaping software, a beat’s sound can be re-pitched, its attack and release changed, and so on, so that it hardly resembles a drum kit drummer’s beat. All this to say that by thinking of beats as timelines and pulsations whose timbres can change over time, I felt freer to re-define how rhythms would sound in my music.
Here are three interesting pieces of music that come to mind whose unusual beats give us pause:
*And by programming I mean playing. I play every sound I record—it’s kind of a thing.