Creating Live Rhythms
Hi..Thanks for the production tips. Are all of your drum tracks recorded live or do you sometimes use samples or drum machines? The reason I ask is that I have been trying to put together some tracks, but all of my drums sound mechanical or lifeless. I've tried using samples and software drum machines, but nothing sounds quite the way I want it. Unfortunately, I live in an isolated place and don't have access to a trap kit or live drummers. Any tips?
Thanks for any help - DJ Believe (myspace.com/djbelieve
This is a question I have heard being asked many times, and I think it goes to the core of the problem of using samplers and sequencers to create human-sounding music.
To give a simple answer I would say the following - if you want really live sounding music you need to use live musicians and instruments, with all the corresponding problems with artistic temperament, faulty gear, bad acoustics, nervous neighbours and actually getting the sound that you as a producer has in mind. However, to my ears it is quite a challenge to better the sound of great live music being played by talented and inspired musicians. When you listen to classic recordings like King Tubbys, Buddy Rich or the great Brazillian Bossa Nova bands, you're hearing the result of decades of practice and improvisation by master craftsmen, not forgetting the skill of the instrument makers and the acoustic studio designers. So, what is the humble modern producer to do without these fantastic resources?
Today's sequencing and sampling software is pretty amazing if you think about it. You, the producer, have at your fingertips a dazzling array of sounds and effects, fully controllable from a sophisticated score editing interface, making it possible to play, arrange and mix your music - work normally done by a team of well paid songwriters, arrangers, session musicians and engineers. However, the drawback is that despite all this power you still need to be able to give the music that special human element that can only come from study, practice and inspiration. Working alone you too will need similar skills to the musicians that you are replacing if you are to produce music of a comparable standard. As with any instrument, a sequencer in unskilled hands will more often than not produce boring, derivative, lifeless machine-music - which may well be fine for a career in the kind of music you hear in telephone call centres. If this is not what you had in mind then read on, as I attempt to give you some fresh ideas to improve your software composition skills.
1: First up, get to know your sequencer, and I mean really know it. You've spent the ca$h on a flashy system with the latest software, but do you know what all those buttons do - so this means thoroughly reading the manual from start to finish (pause for groans 'do we have to?'). Do this with the software running so you can actually hear what the theory sounds like - it makes it easier to absorb information if you actually do the edit with your hands whilst reading the book - and it can be really inspiring, discovering new techniques and effects -'So THAT'S how the pro's do it' you will be saying. It also means you will get to know the techno-jargon making it easier to understand when someone says 'increment the track delay 1ms whilst reducing velocity & note length' or whatever. You will need to know how to make micro adjustments to rhythms and melodies and how to modify the sampler's synthesizer-type controls to get the very best out of your software and to replicate the techniques you hear on other recordings - hey and it can even be fun! Also, utilize other production knowledge resources - books, magazines, online forums & publications and other producers and musicians .I'll put some links onto the further reading page.
2: Listen to live drummers.
It is helpful to do this before starting any serious rhythm programming, it will give you an idea of how a real drummer or percussionist subtly varies the pattern and sound of the drums to create interest without distracting from the musical elements of the song - i.e. the vocals and melodies. This is especially important if you are used to hearing a lot of programmed music, like a great deal of popular music today. Get used to hearing how real drum kits behave - the tone of the drums will vary depending on how hard they are hit and where on their surface they are struck - there are many books and articles written on the physics of vibrating objects, worth reading if you want a greater insight into acoustic recording. Listen to how the drummer varies the volume of each individual beat, how (s)he delays or advances the timing of beats to create a shuffle, how they add flams and buzz rolls to add flavour and lastly, get a feel for how the elements of the kit interact to create the rhythm - for example the kick and snare alternate with a hihat keeping a steady pulse on top. Listen to how the various frequencies present in the drum kit combine to make a composite sound - the low bass of the kick, the punchy midrange on the snare and the crisp treble of the cymbals. How have the drummer and producer carefully chosen their instruments to create that killer breakbeat - the well sampled 'Funky Drummer' is a good example - and how do the studio acoustics complement the kit ? Recommended listening is again King Tubby and the Aggravators, Buddy Rich and classic Latin percussion - further suggestions welcome.
One of the main principles of acoustics worth mentioning is this: The harder an instrument is played not only will it sound louder, but the tone will also sound rougher and fatter - meaning that the sound contains more frequency bands, often not harmonically related, giving sometimes a harsh, distorted, unmusical sound if pushed to the limits. The opposite is true, softly played it will be quiet, with a subtle, non-complex sound, often with simply related harmonics more inclined to sink into a mix. You can try this in practice with almost any real drum and your palms or a stick - just try not to break it!
3: Copy a classic drum track, nothing too complex. Load it into a sequencer and synchronize the tempo as closely as possible, and loop up just one good clear bar of beats. Now listen closely to what you hear for a few minutes and pick out the sound of each element of the kit and chose similar sounds from your sampler's library, and pan the sampler say 50% left and the original 50% right. For your single bar duplicate the kick pattern, preferably by triggering your sampler from a keyboard or drum pad. Once you have a reasonable take go to the pattern editor and adjust the volume, timing and tone to match the original as closely as you can. Then do the same for the other drum instruments - as well as panning, you may also use filtering or halving the tempo of the original to get a clearer idea of the rhythm. At this point you may also want to apply some eq to the samples and also light compression and reverb to match the recording - your beat should, hopefully sound like the original and you can move on to the next bar until you have a good minute or so of 'live' drums. This exercise will give you a good grounding in what makes a good live beat if you really take the trouble to analyze every little detail.
4:Torch your preset samples
. I hate those ghastly preset drum libraries you get with just about everything these days, they sound so two dimensional like cardboard cut-outs, lacking in any character or life and one of the reasons why so much music sounds identical - and the same goes for all these bogus sample loop cd's - burn the lot I say! That said, from my experience most libraries and cd's contain about 5% of usable material, so grab what you can and delete the rest - and what you do take please take your time and do your best to re-edit and re-arrange the sounds to make something new. Go through your existing sounds and put aside those that interest you, and be fairly critical, if it doesn't do it for you delete it, after doing a backup. Make sure you descriptively name and organize into folders what you have left. Now that we have discounted presets what sounds do we now use for our compositions?
As a serious producer you will need to spend quite a lot of time doing tasks that are not strictly creative, and one of these is seeking out sources of material for future productions - in this case sound samples. Unfortunately, I am not going to tell you exactly where I get all my sounds from, that is a trade secret, and years of painstaking hard work - it will be up to you to find your own sources and to create your individual sound, that's what being an artist is all about.
Here are a few ideas for sample sources to get you started:
- Get a good quality condenser microphone and pre-amp and possibly portable recording equipment and...
- Record any drums or percussion you can get your hands on, including various household objects or wherever your travels take you. Try to get as many individual hits as possible, and with different playing styles and volumes. If you can get someone to play a few handy loops on the instrument all the better, you can incorporate these into you compositions - a tempo backing track comes in useful. Make sure you do not overload the recording equipment and replay to check.
- Spend your time acquiring/borrowing as many vinyl LP's, CD's and downloads as you possibly can - use second hand shops, car boot sales, municipal libraries, friends & family and of course - The Internet. You don't need me to tell you how you can use the net as a music resource, there are countless tutorials out there. You must of course be very discriminating with your taste in music, you won't find much of value on the latest Britney album - then again you never know. Only experience and time will enable you to guess in advance if any particular record is likely to be of use. Then...
- Once you have created this veritable mountain of music, lock yourself in a darkened room and go through every minute of every recording, editing (Wavelab or Soundforge will do this) out anything of possible interest - no need to be too discriminating as writeable DVD storage is so cheap. Make sure you clearly label and archive everything, because if you don't you will never find that exotic vinyl loop you found in the car-boot sale when you come to need it. For example a great drum break might be labeled 'Live Funk Break-Top Hits vol.1 track2.WAV', so you know what it sounds like and where it's from - this also means you can text search your library by terms such as 'break', 'hits' or 'funk'.
Try to keep the sound quality high by using a good turntable and pre-amp and recording at 44.1 khz 24 bit wav. There may also be issues regarding copyright if you sample large chunks of music, but this is unlikely to apply to very short drum samples edited in the mix.
- The internet again, has endless free sample sites - do a Google search for the terms: free, wav, samples, soundfont, percussion, drums, loops, etc. You will need to be quite discriminating as much of the material is low quality and rather dated, but I have come across quite a few little gems on my travels. Many of the files need format conversion and editing to be usable in a sampler - a subject for another tutorial perhaps. There are also many non-musical mp3 reasources worth investigating, and don't forget Clandestine's free organic samples to download here.
- Learn to program one of the many great soft-synths out there - I am particularly impressed by the fantastic Linplug Albino, it sounds so good. These machines can produce some lovely, fluid, organic sounding percussion noises.
- Don't forget you can get unusual sounds from your radio receiver, TV, and telephone - get recording and editing, hard disk space is free. Have I forgotten any other sources? Let me know.
- Keep feeding it, your library, that is. The search for fresh samples is never ending! And whatever you do - BACK IT UP, twice, and put a copy in a separate physical location, such as a friend's house.
5: Programming the sequencer - what you really wanted to know. Now that you have read everything about editing midi on your sequencer you should find it straightforward to make changes to a programmed beat.
I usually start with a pre-programmed metronome beat panned to one side and then put down a basic kick pattern for maybe 4 bars, played live from the keyboard. This together with the snare will often determine the overall style & feel of the rhythm - be it disco, funk, reggae, rock or whatever's your poison. Next I overdub hihats or ride cymbals and then go back and correct the timing of any badly timed beats and usually mute the metronome. Timing is critical for a live feel, so I avoid using quantize and instead correct each note by hand in the editor - this way you are in control and can make a judgment about what sounds off beat but right, and that which totally throws the rhythm. Make each note your own specially crafted work of art. As a rule samples that fall on the main beats of the bar should be fairly tightly timed, and those in between can be quite loose, and allow them to flam - that is the kick and hihat do not need to be bang on top of each other on beat 1. Experiment with micro adjustments of timing when two beats coincide, moving on ahead of the other and vice versa. See how far you can go in loosening the timing of beats before they either sound completely wrong OR they start to create new rhythms, Using the sequencer's powerful edit functions you can select whole blocks of say hihats and give them all the same timing treatment.
Here's another trade secret about timing: When two sounds occur at the exactly same time with equal volumes they will merge into one sound and become indistinguishable. If however you start to move one earlier than the other in small increments of around 1ms the first sound will become prominent and the later less, even if the later one is louder. You could try this with say a crisp closed hihat and a sharp rimshot, ensuring that both samples have accurately edited start points and are panned together. You can use this to effect in a complex mix if you wish a percussion instrument to cut through or sink into the mix, or you can do this to individual beats to give accent and emphasis. Don't do it to everything though, otherwise the overall timing will suffer - for every early sound there must be a late one!
Velocity is also important when creating a live feel. You will normally wish to accent the main beats by making their velocity and therefore volume higher, the in-between offbeat's can be made softer as they are less important and can clutter up a busy mix with unnecessary noise - as a general rule those on beats 1,3,4, or 4 are loudest, those on the eights between are medium and the sixteenths between them are quietest. Also, if you don't really need that hi hat on top of the snare beat, turn it down, or delete it.
Of course you will sometimes wish to add some syncopated colour to your rhythm, and in this case selected offbeats can be accented by various means including velocity - listen to how Latin percussionists do this.
Note length is also a useful tool in the matrix & list editors - I like to cut beats back really short to give a crisp, clear rhythm, or longer if I want to emphasize them. For this to work the sampler's volume envelope release control should be set to around 20 ms - more on this and other tricks below. You will also need to become familiar with how to edit pitch bend and controller data in the editor.
A note on using the dreaded quantize control. Don't. But if you do learn how to use it sensitively. I avoid using straight 16th or 8th quantizes, instead using the Quantize Strength control in conjunction with a shuffle setting. Quantize Strength means that beats are moved towards the correct timing, but not exactly on to it - this means some of the original randomness is preserved whilst improving the timing, and you can control the amount. It is also worth creating your own quantize templates based on live grooves.
6: Programming the sampler, probably just as important as the above, this allows you to add an organic, subtly changing quality to raw samples. First of all it is important to have as many individual hits of any particular drum as you can. They may all be essentially be the same instrument being played in the same way, but the laws of acoustics say that the waveform and harmonic content is never identical. This is the main element that makes music sound live.
Before loading your new samples they should have been individually edited with Wavelab or Soundforge, removing any excess noise or clicks, fading the ends and putting a very short (500uS) fade at the front to avoid digital clicks. I also name and sort them according to playing style and volume. Then I arrange each instrument's samples chromatically along the keyboard, making it easy to select which sample is played - some programmers use velocity switching, but this is less flexible.
Once loaded into the sampler you can then start to utilize some of the sampler's synthesizer - type controls to modify the sound. You can adjust the volume envelope controls to allow a fade in, or a short fade out, or to have a long or short release fade-out. You can tune all or individual hits up or down, or route an LFO or envelope to the pitch control in subtle amounts. And then there is the filter - this is often used with a Low Pass type and the cutoff controlled by note velocity. Again, you may wish to route an envelope or LFO, or experiment with high-pass or band-pass filter types.
One of my favourite controls is the sample start offset. By changing from what point the sample plays back you can create sonic variations by removing the attack transient from sounds. And don't forget the reverse function too!
And the real icing on the cake - Automation. Having fully read the manual you will know how to control all of the sampler's controls from the sequencer - either real-time from a keyboard controller or by editing midi data in the editor - so much power at your fingertips, the world is yours!
7: Effects, used subtly, can add life to the most one dimensional samples. Reverb with both short and long decay times brings the whole kit together, but always eq the wet reverb to remove excessive treble and to add mid-range colour. Phasing and flanging under the control of an LFO adds movement to repetitive hihats, and our old favourites compression and overdrive will add fatness and warmth, but don't over do it! If you are really keen you could get a vintage spring reverb, or even build a live reverb chamber.
8: Working with live percussionists
-if you want live beats what better than a live drummer? I usually have a rough arrangement of the track worked out along with as much music as I can to give an inspiring backing track to live musicians, though I do leave space in the demo mix for their instrument. Bear in mind that once the tempo is set it is quite difficult to change it without affecting sound quality , and also try to avoid tracks with varying tempos as this makes it hard to re-arrange the live takes. In the studio the percussionist hears the backing track in the headphones mixed with their sound plus a little reverb, and I often use a quality large diameter condenser microphone and pre-amp, recorded at 24bit 44.1khz wav, taking care not to overload the recording. It makes sense to record a number of takes in different playing styles, and those which are not used can be re-cycled for other projects. Note that with the Internet you can do the recording remotely by sending them demo mixes via ftp, and receiving recorded takes in return.
8: You may actually want a mechanical sounding beat.
It has been suggested that one of the reasons for the popularity of old-school drum machines was their repetitive quality which can be an advantage when providing a backing beat for a song with strong vocals and melodies. A rock steady, deadpan beat seems to disappear into the mix after about 20 seconds, even if the drums are mixed quite loud, allowing the listener to concentrate on the musical elements of the song. This is because the human brain will mask out and ignore anything constantly repetitive - for example, who really hears air conditioning, traffic noise, or the clock ticking in the background? - we become so used these sounds our brain filters them out so we can concentrate on the conversation we are having or whatever.So, if you don't want your drums to stand out in the mix, make them totally repetitive and remove any variations. This is, so I am told, one of the secrets of why dance music works like it does, and also why it can sound so boring to those who do not understand it. For years session drummers strove to create the perfect backing beat, making every percussive hit identical,and of course this is actually quite hard for anybody except a real pro drummer to achieve. So this is the one exception to the need to create a live-sounding rhythm track and where sequencers excel.
None of the above is to be taken too strictly, remember there are no rules in music. It's up to you as an artist come up with your own original ways of working. Have Fun!
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