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Making the Beat: Drum N Bass Drums

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Welcome to the fifth and final installment of the drum based tutorial series that will show you what the beats are and how to make them sound good. In this tutorial we are going to continue to cover one of the few styles that were originally meant for sequencing, Drum N Bass.


Also available in this series:

  1. Making the Beat: Rock Drums
  2. Making the Beat: Afro-Cuban Drums
  3. Making the Beat: Brazilian Drums
  4. Making the Beat: Jazz Drums
  5. Making the Beat: Drum N Bass Drums

DnB has a unique groove that while unmistakably fast, as an overlying macro beat that is slow and smooth. Tonally, DnB can range from a liquid ambient quality, to harsh and driving, to a hip-hop tone, to even a jazz like sound. What makes DnB drums so hard to sequence? They are fast! Besides being fast, they often sound like they are in odd meters from where the kick and snare land. But fear not, we will approach this tutorial in the same fashion, just keep track of the concepts and you will be good to go! The last time we talked we built beats from smaller elements that when summed together formed our bigger beats; this tutorial will do so as well.

Keep in mind that this tutorial is not aiming for how to program all the extra drums and beats that usually come along with a lot of DnB beats. This tutorial is designed to show how a real drummer might approach DnB and to show the underlying beats that make up the more complicated versions.

With that all in mind, let the beat drop!

Setting Up: What You Need

If you have read my previous tutorials then this section will not be anything new to you. If you have not read it, then by all means do so! It is important to have an initial game plan on how you want to approach programming your drum beats, and this section will outline your options for you.

This tutorial is aimed to be predominantly DAW and plugin independent; you work with what you feel most comfortable using. However, some tools within the DAW or plugin are necessary to have in order to effectively complete this tutorial.

You will need either a step sequencer or a piano roll in order to place the rhythms.

A well rounded sample library for all drums and cymbals (you can use a drum synth if you so choose but make sure you can create a lot of different sounds with it).

The ability the change the volume of various hits throughout the drum pattern. Make some cymbal hits softer or louder than others, etc. Some may do it via MIDI, other might just change the actual volume of the hit.

Setting Up: What to Use

There can be features of a particular editor that make more advantageous over another when it comes to making drum beats on the computer; but it may have disadvantages as well. Here we will go over the different approaches to constructing drums on the computer and you can decided which methodology is works best for you.

Individual Sampler

This method involves loading samples into a sampler that can only play one sample at a time. Why use it? Usually these samplers have a lot of tools that allow you to manipulate the sample far beyond other samplers. Usually when using these samplers you either have piano roll access or a step sequencer. The disadvantage to this however is that most likely you will not be able to see the whole rhythm of the kit and will need to know exactly how the different instruments fit together.

Pre-constructed Kits

Some programs offer prebuilt kits and usually have the kit laid out across a piano roll so that you can see the whole kits rhythm. You usually will have finer control over the placement of each hit over a step sequencer. The disadvantage is that you may or may not be able to edit each individual sample to the fullest depending on the program.

Multi-Sample Sampler

These samplers are designed usually with drum sets in mind. They allow for multiple samples to be loaded in and sometimes multiple samples per instrument. Why would you want multiple samples per instrument? So that as you program volume changes the sampler will load different samples. This way you don't need five different hi-hats channels, five different rides, etc. You just program volume changes. Be careful though, sometimes these samplers can be very CPU intensive and can easily bog down your system if you're not careful. In regards to rhythm placement, some use piano rolls and others use step sequencers; it will depend on the plugin.

My Recommendations

I personally am an advocate of having the most versatility at my finger tips, but maintaining ease of use. I like the multi-sample drum samplers with piano roll access and mixer track access because I will have the most control over my sound without overloading myself with controls. If you are not looking for a lot of fine tuned control then try for a pre-constructed kit. If you are looking for glitch kit design or a lot of manipulation you might need the utmost intensive control and opt for the individual samplers. The choice is yours, and remember that these are general guidelines; there can easily be other approaches or different combinations of the above.


The Need for Speed: DnB Drum Theory

DnB has its roots in the early underground jungle scene and often times the two are grouped together. The original DnB music was made up of sped up records in order to get to the 160-190bpm rate that DnB usually sits at. However, the early DnB producers soon would slice up the beats and reorder the drum hits in order to create all new patterns. This allowed them to create beats that normally may not have been possible. The most famous of these sliced beats is what is known as the "Amen Break." This sampled loop is a short drum solo/fill played by G.C Coleman of The Winstons during their cover of Jester Hairston's song "Amen." Let's look at each of the drums and see what role they play in this originally electronic genre.

The Kick

The kick drum in DnB music is one of the primary elements to the whole genre. The kick is what gives the punch to DnB beats and one of two focal points in the drums. Generally the kick is played at one volume but various samples might be used in order to get a different effect at different times. The kick should be one of the primary aspects when working out the phrasing the beat.

The Snare

The snare is the other focal point of DnB beats It plays off the kick immensely and helps contribute to the overall phrasing of the beat. The crack of snare often will occur on odd beats and is what gives that syncopated feeling of not being in a strict 4/4 time. Just like the kick, great attention should be given to the snare.

The Cymbal

Cymbals are the constant time keeper for most DnB beats. Like in Rock the cymbal usually keeps a constant 8th note pattern but it does not necessarily have to. If played on the hi-hat there is plenty of room for open hi-hat hits to occur to act like a phrasing accent. Despite its constant feel, there are times when it may not have that constant quality if the producer used a sliced up beat. In these cases it may reach 16th note speed or even faster!

The Toms

Toms are not a very common occurrence in DnB music. Often times the snare and kick are used for fills in order to keep the beat moving. However there are producers and players who will use the toms. Stylistically they often are done like any Rock fill, albeit at a much faster tempo.


Breakbeat Basics

DnB is a form based around syncopation and rhythm. No matter how complex though the beat may get, there is still an underlying base beat. This section is dedicated to showcasing and understanding these core principles and beats so that the more complex styles can be looked at.

The format throughout the rest of the tutorial for presenting the actual rhythms of each individual drum in relation to one another. Each pattern will be listed from top to bottom so that cymbals are on the top and kick are on the bottom just as you would see if reading musical notation. Each will be accompanied with a picture to help visualize the pattern.

Breakbeat Basics: The Two Pillars

In my observations, there are two primary patterns that make up the bulk of Drum N Bass beats. These beats are the most crucial aspect to understanding the syncopated and driving feel of DnB music. Let's first take a look at the slightly less syncopated of the two:

Basic DnB Beat #1

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15

Snare: 5 and 13

Kick: 1 and 11


As I said before, this is the most fundamental DnB rhythms there is. It is not very syncopated (if you followed my Latin series you might think it's not syncopated at all!) but it has that push and drive. This comes mostly from the snare being on beats two and four like in a rock situation. If you slow it down it actually sounds like one of our basic rock patterns from way back. However at this tempo it takes on a slightly different quality to it.

Next let's look at its more syncopated counterpart and see how it differs from this one:

Basic DnB Beat #2

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15

Snare: 5 and 11

Kick: 1,7,13


That's a lot different huh? What makes this beat stand out is the kick landing on beat four instead of the snare. In addition to the kick, the snare on the offbeat of beat three anticipates the landing on beat four and throws off our sense of timing. Also when the pattern loops the kick playing on both four and one messes with the phrasing of the beat in a way many people are not accustomed to.

I highly recommend internalizing these two patterns. If you can't feel the different phrasing AND the driving pulse underneath, you don't have them internalized.

Breakbeat Basics: Playing with Placement

Using these other beats as a reference, let's move around the location of the snare and kick to create new grooves. Unlike the Rock tutorial, we will be aiming for that straight ahead but syncopated feel. Here is good pattern to start with, have a look:

DnB Beat #1

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15

Snare: 5 and 15

Kick: 1 and 11


This pattern is based around the first basic pattern we learned but the last snare hit is offset by one 8th note. However see how that little change offsets the whole beat? If you want to keep your audience in a floating feeling, this is a great beat for you. Here are two more examples:

DnB Beat #2

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15

Snare: 5,7,11

Kick: 1 and 13


DnB Beat #3

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15

Snare: 13

Kick: 1,3,7,9


DnB Beat #4

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15

Snare: 5

Kick: 1,11,15


These beats are far from complex but at the same time they have a great driving yet floating quality to them. The more notes you add the less floating it will sound and the more driving it will become.

Experiment with different placements of the snare and kick. I suggest not placing any more than two of the same drum in a row for 8th notes. Having any more than this can get a little overwhelming and will cause a loose in groove. For those of you who want more notes though, your time will come! But first let's talk about phrasing.

Breakbeat Basics: Extending the Phrase

Drum N Bass drum loops can often be felt in two bar phrases. By following this concept, the producer or drummer can add a more complete and creative feel to the music. These second bars often have more room to play with the location of the snare and kick, but these could still easily be a first bar as well. The first bar will be one we have already covered before while the second will be the new one. I will also exclude the showing cymbal for now so you can focus on the kick and snare phrasing. Here an example:

DnB Beat #5

Snare: 5 and 15 | 7 and 13

Kick: 1 and 11 | 3 and 9


See how the phrase shifts? These longer phrases give us a better sense of timing as well since the beat will want to resolve or repeat. Having a clear defined ending for the phrasing is key if you want clarity for complex beats. However that is not to say it has to be clear! Here are some more examples for you to work with:

DnB Beat #6

Snare: 5 and 11 | 3 and 11

Kick: 1,7,13 | 7 and 13


DnB Beat #7

Snare: 5 and 13 | 5 and 11

Kick: 1 and 11 | 1,7,9


Breakbeat Basics: Wrap Up

If you follow the above examples and experiment with your own you are very much on your way to making DnB drum beats. Think of the groove as a whole and not just beat by beat. Remember, play with landing on odd beats in conjunction with obvious beats. If you use too many off beat and anticipated beats it will sound like a regular beat!. These are just some beats though, now we need some variety to keep it interesting.


Breakout

In the previous section we focused on the primary structure of Drum N Bass beats and how to focus on the phrasing of the kick and snare. Now we are going to look at adding 16th notes and various other elements that can add some flavor to the beats.

Breakout: Notes Galore

When we begin to add notes to our rhythms we need to keep in mind the overall phrasing and feel. To solidify this idea, let's first look at how we can expand our current beats to make them more complex.

DnB Beat #8

Snare: 5,8,10,13

Kick: 1 and 11


Did you notice that if you remove the snare hits on 16th notes 8 and 10, its one of our original two beats? While the complexity was stepped up, the overall feel was the same. Here are some more examples to get your creative juices flowing:

DnB Beat #9

Snare: 5,8,10,15

Kick: 1 and 11


DnB Beat #10

Snare: 1,2,7,13

Kick: 3 and 9


DnB Beat #11

Snare: 13 and 16

Kick: 1,7,9


While these ideas are great for expanding on existing phrasing, what if we want to create all new phrases? The 16th subdivisions are good for enabling that as well. Here is an example for you to get some ideas from:

DnB Beat #12

Snare: 2,5,8,11

Kick: 3,9,13


Different right? Just like before, remember to also think in two bar phrases. Here is this previous beat thrown into a two bar phrase with a little bit of variation:

DnB Beat #13

Snare: 2,5,8,11 | 2,5,8,11

Kick: 3,9,13,15 | 3 and 9


Personally, this is one of my favorite beats for throwing off the groove. Now that we have a better understanding of how to think of 16th notes in a Drum N Bass context, let's move onto adding a little bit of character to the beats.

Breakout: Timbre Shifting

Up until now we have focused on strictly the rhythms. But what if we want a certain part of the rhythm to have a different sound without changing the actual drum? Two very easy ways to do this is to play with snare buzzes and with hi-hat variations. Let's first look at snare buzzes.

Snare buzzes are a great way to fill in the empty space between longer gaps of snare and kick hits. To illustrate this concept let's look at an example. Keep in mind that good snare buzz samples are hard to come by and if you try to make it on your own you will probably end up with a glitch effect. While that glitch sound is cool, it won't be a true buzz. The snare hit with the * by it will represent the buzz:

DnB Beat #14

Snare: 5* and 15 | 7 and 13

Kick: 1 and 11 | 3 and 9


See how the snare buzz fills in the space without really changing the overall feel of the beat? I recommend only using this trick when the gap is at least two 8th notes long between the snare and the next hit. You can do shorter versions but make sure your buzz is equally as short. Here it is used in another beat to get some ideas flowing:

DnB Beat #15

Snare: 2,5,8,11 | 2,5,8,11*

Kick: 3,9,13,15 | 3 and 9


While this trick is all well and good, it may not be good for every situation. Let's look at how we can add some hi-hat variation to our drum patterns. Let's start by adding some 16th notes in the hi-hat at key points.

Basic DnB Beat #16

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,8,9,10,11,13,15

Snare: 5 and 13

Kick: 1 and 11


This is a great way to fill in the space and shift the focus of the phrasing in your beats. Be careful however, by using this trick you essentially have added a 3rd dimension to your phrasing and you need to take care in how the groove flows. Once again here is another example:

Basic DnB Beat #17

Cymbal: 1,3,5,7,8,9,10,11,13,15,16

Snare: 5 and 11

Kick: 1,7,13


Breakout: In Review

Adding complexity to Drum N Bass beats is not terribly hard but it needs to be done with care. Randomly throwing around buzzes and extra notes can lead to jumbled and muddy patterns that won't sound good. Stay conscious about what you are adding (or not adding for that matter!) and you'll have much better results in the long run.


Sound Color

Now comes the part where we talk about the samples and what works and what doesn't for the style. Up until now we have focused on creating the beats in the DnB style. However, we need to make sure we are getting a good sound out of each drum. If you read my previous tutorials then you know that some people are on a perpetual quest for the perfect drum sound. Once again, if you are one of these people let me tell you that it does not exist. When dealing with programmed drums trying to sound real, you need to have the best samples you can get a hold of; end of story. Process all you want, but good samples are key to good drum sound. Now, you still will need some processing regardless so do not count yourself out yet if your samples are not godly.

However, Drum N Bass is originally a programmed form of music. Often times the drums are designed to not sound real at all. What we will focus on is making the kit as a whole sound appropriate for the type of DnB and what you need to do in order to achieve that end. As I said in the beginning of this tutorial, you will need a lot of samples in order to get a good feel out of your programmed kit. Now we will go in depth on how to use them.

Sound Color: The Kick

A good kick is key to the creation of a quality drum sound regardless of genre. The Kick is arguably the most important aspect of Drum N bass music. Whether it is in a live jazz like context, or a heavily processed industrial sound, the kick has to remain punching and out of the way of the bass line.

  • For a live sound, go for kick samples that showcase the tone of the drum. You will literally want to hear the ring of the kick. If its too dead sounding it will end up sounding more processed. Remember, you are not a major rock act trying to sound like their processed album!

  • If you want a fuller more pop style sound then you will want a kick that has a nice bottom end with a clear hitting punch. The drum probably will not have too much natural decay, if at all. Just keep in mind the very low end of the kick and if it conflicts with the bass.

  • For the industrial and hardcore sound, you will need some heavy processing. These kicks are usually bit crushed, distorted, and mangled beyond belief. If you want this sound, make sure your punch really sends up the metallic and dirty sound and that the decay is a little bit smoother, but to each their own.

These of course are just guidelines but it hopefully gives you a sense of direction when trying to figure out your kick sound.

When actually programming of the kick you should probably have two kicks, but not more than three. The kick is a very consistent sounding drum in DnB music and usually is the same sample played over and over. I recommend using the other samples as effects and not relying on them for the whole beat.

Sound Color: The Snare

The snare is an interesting subject in the DnB world. The snare can be tight and high pitched or deep and heavy. It can have a natural timbre or a trashy over processed sound to it. It is up to the style of DnB to dictate how the snare should sound.

With the snare you will need one primary hit from which to base your others off of. Generally, this main snare sample will fall on the major beats of the pattern (remember why we started with the simple beats?). Your other hits, in particular 16th notes, should probably be a different but related sample. Make sure these notes are softer in volume to mimic the playing of an actual snare. Even in the heavy and processed sound style of DnB, these snare hits still do some sort of volume shifting. Having them all at the same volume just sounds bad.

Sound Color: The Cymbals

Cymbals tend to fall into two categories when it comes to the cymbals actual timbre; dark or bright. Dark cymbals tend to have a rounder, warmer, and heavy tone to them while the bright cymbals are cutting, sharper, and higher toned than their darker counter parts. Also, you can have a combination of both dark and bright cymbals and get what some call a rich cymbal. DnB producers will often use a china cymbal for a dark tone with a rich edge to it. This applies not just hi-hats and rides, but crashes as well. While these might be the way we categorize the actual cymbals, we also have to consider how the cymbal is played.

If you want a tighter ride sound make sure your sample doesn't have too much of a ring afterwards. However if you want a more of a wash, go for that longer decay sample.

How do we use cymbal samples? This will by far be the biggest pain in the entire tutorial but one of the most essential. Your cymbal samples should be fairly similar, closer to the way we did the kick. Why? Because most people do not actually sit there and intently listen on the tone of the cymbals. There is always variety but it is usually subtle and so to should your samples. You usually have to randomly assign your cymbal samples to get that psychoacoustic effect of knowing it is there but not noticing it. However, if you are lucky enough to be using a multi-sample sampler, then see if your plug-in can randomly playback your samples for you in your cymbal channel (see what I mean when I said I love multi-sample samplers?) You generally will need about 3-4 samples to get the effect.

A great of producers however will use the same sample over and over again for the hat to purposefully give it that electronic sound. Again, which way you decided to go it up to you. Remember, variation for live, consistency for electronic.

Sound Color: Toms

The toms are not commonly used in Drum N Bass music and generally should be left for fills if used at all. Live DnB will use them more often and should maintain a clear and natural tone. A more produced live sound could get away with using more electronic tones as could most of the other styles.

Sound Color: Review

The biggest concept to keep in mind is that context means a lot in DnB when deciding what samples to use. Don't try and mix natural drums with produced drums unless you have a very specific effect in mind. Remember also that too much variety can actually sound bad in the more produced forms of DnB.


Drum N Bass in Review

Did I mention I like to repeat myself? I think I did. But if you didn't get the idea already here is something you may have heard before. That is an awful lot of material to cover! DnB music is tricky to say the least and is not normally something you hear every day (especially if you live in the USA). However, keep in mind that there are a lot DnB rhythms all around you. I can say from personal experience that half the time I hear elevator music or background music on a weather channel, it has DnB style drums. I hope you have learned a lot from reading this tutorial and now have more musical choices at your disposal.

For all of you who have read my other tutorials, I hope you have learned a lot from this series and are better drum programmers because of it. Drum programming is more than having the right samples or the right automation, it's understanding what you are trying to convey and knowing the style you're working in. Once again thank you for your support and thanks for reading!

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