The backbone of most contemporary music is the drum beat. While all the other instruments may be adding color and emotion, the beat is the pulse keeps it all together. When you start getting into the world of producing one of the first things you'll want to learn is how to write an effective and interesting beat.
This tutorial is for people who are new to producing music and want to get a head start on putting a good beat together. It iss also for anyone who does not have a rhythm section background and could use a refresher in what the primary functions of a solid beat are and how to put them to use.
I'm going to start by breaking down the main elements of a simple but solid beat and how they serve the overall groove. We'll go step by step through the process of creating the simplest of drum beats, and then taking those elements we'll see how easy it can be to start making the beats more interesting and introduce some ways to be more complex. We will also take a look at how to apply the same elements to less traditional sounds for a new sense of freshness.
For this tutorial I'm going to use the following notation in the examples:
The kick drum is in the bottom space, the snare drum in the third space, and hi-hats and cymbals on and above the top lines. Also notice that the hi-hats are marked with Xs to distinguish them from drums. I have seen some variations on exactly which line to put each drum on, but the above orientation is pretty standard.
The Elements of a Beat
As far as I'm concerned there are three basic elements that make up a good beat. Of the millions of variations on drum beats every one of them should combine their parts to cover these areas, which are:
- Something to keep the time
- Something to keep the groove
- Something to keep it interesting
You might be wondering what the difference betweening keeping time and keeping a groove is. Consider the following two examples.
Here we have a hi-hat ticking away on every beat:
It's pretty clear what our tempo is, so we have a sense of time, but this is boring and it doesn't really "feel" like anything. It doesn't groove.
Next we have a snare hitting only beats 2 and 4:
If you weren't looking at the image you would have no idea where beat 1 was. Chances are you would think this snare was hitting beats 1 and 3, because you have no other context. Our sense of the actual meter and tempo is lost.
Finally we'll put them together:
Now the hi-hat is keeping the time for us while the snare is proividng us with a groove. The difference might be subtle, but pay attention to how the first element, the hi-hat, is ticking away and giving us little more information than what our tempo is, while the second element, the snare, is adding "feel". Obviously in this example the "feel" is not very inspiring, but (unless you've been sheltered from music for the last 100 years and this pattern is not ingrained in your soul) you can't help but naturally feel a groove.
Interest is an element we're going to dig into much more as we go along, but the main concept is that if your beat is as dull as the hi-hat and snare pattern above it is going to fail.
There are plenty of examples of all three of these elements coming from the same source, such as this hi-hat pattern which keeps a steady time, gives a feeling of groove, and maintains a level of interest:
Where your sense of time, groove, and interest comes from is not important. What is important is that you stay aware that you need all three for a successful beat.
Creating a Simple Beat
So now that we've seen the basic elements let's put them into action by creating a very simple beat. We'll use the traditional drum kit elements of a kick drum, snare drum and hi-hat.
1. Something To Keep The Time
Our first important element is to give the listener a clear sense of the time. Traditionally this role is given to the hi-hat, so we'll start there. Instead of the quarter note pattern (one tick on each single beat) we'll give it a little more energy by having the hi-hat play every 8th note.
Because it can be hard to tell if the tempo is 110bpm or 220 bpm, I'll adjust the velocities so that every beat is a little louder than every offbeat. This also gives us a nice little touch of variation and interest.
Now we have a much greater sense that the pattern is ticking along at 110bpm, which essentially means we are locked in to the pace of the song.
2. Something To Keep The Groove
As I mentioned above, the groove is the "feel" of your beat. It's the soul that brings the music to life and gets your toes tapping. It's a crucial element, but it's also relatively simple one to implement. As before, the most common (and arguably the best) way to achieve this is to have the snare playing on beats 2 and 4.
There it is, short and simple but eternally effective.
3. Something To Keep It Interesting
Our time and groove elements are in place, now we just need to add a little character. This is where the kick drum comes in. This is an area where the lines between elements can get blurry and you need to keep in mind that every single sound in your beat contributes in some way to the overall time, groove and interest. I'm not going to argue that the kick drum doesn't provide a sense of time by hitting the downbeat. Nor can I argue that a good kick drum pattern can't make for a nice groove. But consider the context of the previous audio clip. Do you have a sense for the time? Do you "feel" something more than just a metronome click? Than you don't need the kick drum to cover these elements, you need it to make your beat interesting.
The primary way to create interest in a drum beat is to play with the rhythm. Part of what makes our current beat so dull is that it's painfully predictable. Nothing ever happens! So as we introduce the kick drum into the beat, we'll keep this need for interest in mind and give it one tiny shift to spice things up.
We could have had the kick drum play on beats 1 and 3, but before too long that would be mind numbing. Instead we've shifted the second kick drum to come in on the and of 3. There's nothing revolutionary about this pattern and it might be on the low end of "interesting beats", but it works. That one shift of an 8th note gives a sense of "unpredictability", even if the pattern loops eternally. Our internal clocks are programmed so firmly to feel the steady unwavering pattern that all it takes is for one little shift to catch us a little off guard. And that's all it takes for it to be interesting and fun.
You might be unimpressed that one 8th note shift is enough to keep it "interesting". Repeating the same thing over and over can't be interesting can it? Consider this example where the kick drum hits unpredictably because we want to add "interest" to it:
In our effort to keep it interesting, we've violated our other laws of a good beat. While listening to that I am lost and have absolutely no sense for the time. Are we in 4/4? 5/4? What? And because we can't follow the time we can't feel the groove. It's a mess.
Never trick yourself into thinking that in order for a beat to be good it has to be constantly varied. If the core elements of your beat are solid the only variations you implement should be the icing on an already delicious cake.
Taking It Further
From the example above we've seen how to put together the basic elements to create an effective drum beat. If we left the beat alone as is it would be perfectly functional. It's not terribly exciting, however, so let's look at a few ways that we can spice it up.
We'll create variety in this beat by leaving every single note exactly where it is and adding new notes for filler and momentum. It can be just as effective to take things away instead of adding, but right now our core structure works and there is no need to take anything away from that. Let's go through and fancy up one drum at a time in the order we created them.
The only way we can add anything to the hi-hat part is by using 16th notes. We could have the hi-hat play constant 16ths instead of constant 8ths, but that's essentually just another version of establishing the time:
Instead let's only add the occasional 16th. Adding a 16th note between two 8ths in this pattern gives the beat a sense of forward motion, like it's pulling us along. For this reason I'm going to add a 16th at the very last beat of the second and fourth measures to pull us forward into the 1st and 3rd measures. Also for interest I'll add one additional 16th to every measure. The placement is not crucial because the main point is a touch of color. Experiment to see what feels good for you. The reason I am only adding one to each measure is because the added 16th should be considered touch of spice, not a bucket of sauce.
Next we'll spice up the snare. A very common approach is to have the snare drum play the 16th note before beat 3, so that's what we'll do. Similar to the hi-hat I'll also add a 16th before measures 3 and 1 for a sense of pulling us into the new measure.
It's very important to notice that the added notes are much quieter than the backbeat hits on beats 2 and 4. They could even be considerd "ghost" notes because they are barely attacked. If they were played too loudly they would add clutter, keeping them soft allows them to instead add flair.
Now it's time to add some variation to the kick. I'll make only a small addition by a kick on the and of beat 2 in each measure. I'll also add one on the and of beat 4 on our 2nd and 4th measures for that same added momentum. If I added too many more notes in the kick it would start to sound like sneakers in a dryer. We need to keep it simple to avoid losing effectiveness.
Finally we can add a little more color by having a crash cymbal on the first beat of the first measure and open hi-hats pulling us forward every two measures:
Keep in mind that just because this new beat is busier doesn't mean it is necessarily "better". In fact this might be too busy and beginning to verge on messy. The decision about how much to add or take away is going to depend on a few fators including context and personal taste. "Less is more" is always a safe rule of thumb.
Using Less Traditional Sounds
Now let's look at two beats created using less traditional sounds than a typical acoustic drum kit. For these examples I'll be using an electronic kit made up of various 8 bit sounds.
We'll start this first one in reverse order, beginning with the kick. Here we have a very simple pattern, the kick drum hitting the downbeat of every measure and the and of 4 on every other measure. That one little addition of the kick on the and of 4 gives the beat some momentum and interest versus just slamming the downbeat.
Next I'm going to use a kick/noise sound as our snare and give it our traditional backbeat role.
Next we'll add a click sound to function like the hi-hat. What's different about the hi-hat this time is that it is hitting every single offbeat instead of every beat. This gives the groove a constant sense of moving forward as each offbeat lifts us up a little. I've also added one extra tick per measure for variety.
Here now we have the whole beat, with an added hit/crunch sound on beat 4 of the last measure which functions kind of like an open hi-hat, pulling us into the repeat.
Let's put together another groove based on the same kit. This time we'll do a 3 bar pattern, starting from the hi-hat again.
I'm using two high pitched noise sounds for the hi-hat. I'll do an 8th note pattern, but notice that I'm using the softer and weaker sound on the offbeats. The beat feels fluid but the downbeats are clear.
Next we'll introduce the kick. The main groove is to have the kick hit 1 and the and of 3. The beat on 1 keeps us grounded while the beat on the and of 3 gives us interest and variety. Although all three measures use this underlying pattern, I'll add two more hits in the middle measure for contrast.
I want this beat to be somewhat introductary, so it doesn't have to hit hard. Because of that I'm not going to add a snare on beats 2 and 4, I feel like there is already enough sense of time and groove from what we have. I will add two sounds to function like a cymbal and open hi hat, however:
Finally I want to exploit the uniqueness of this kit so I'm going to use some various sounds as effects. Because our main groove is so grounded, these can be placed at almost random order. They are functioning entirely for color and interest and don't need to give us any of the timing or groove elements. I wont notice this, but here is what the effects sound like on their own:
Here we have it all put together:
Here are these two beats used in an entire piece of music. The second beat we created us used for the intro and A section while the first beat is used in the B section.
Expand on the Basic Principles
By now you have seen from the previous examples that as long as you are in control of the main elements of a beat it is not too difficult to put something together that is effective and interesting. Just remember: time, groove and interest. Experiment with different ways to keep simple grooves interesting and remember that often only the slightest variation can be necessary to maintain interest.