Digital Music - Lesson One: A Few Basics and Some Genres

In this first lesson, we will learn how to build rhythmic patterns using a loop-based, music creation software program called Fruityloops. We will begin by focusing on what is called the step-sequencer, a tool that allows one to sequence sound files along a grid.

Getting to know the Grid (Step-Sequencer)

The grid can contain as many boxes as one desires (go to <options>, then <song settings>). Grids of 16, 32, and 64 boxes--i.e, large multiples of 4--are the most common and the ones I would recommend trying at first. Each sound (a .wav file) is stored in a separate channel, of which one has an unlimited number (it starts you with 4). Fruityloops comes with a large and varied soundbank, consisting mostly of synthesized sounds. With a .wav editor (such as Cooledit or Soundforge) and a little imagination, however, the sky is the limit.

Fruityloops allows you to listen as you edit, making composition a real-time activity and allowing your eyes and ears to guide you through the creation process. I would recommend listening as you go, so that you can get immediate feedback on the changes you make. (The <spacebar> is a good shortcut for starting and stopping).

Let's begin by considering a simple three-channel, sixteen-beat grid:

In "traditional" (i.e., european art music) terms, we could consider each little box to represent a sixteenth-note, which one can designate to stand as a "rest" or an "attack." Sixteen-sixteenth notes equal one whole-note, eight-eighth notes, and four quarter-notes (or beats).

Loaded into the channels are a kick drum, a snare drum, and a hi-hat cymbal: the three basic percussive elements in most genres of popular music, from hip-hop and rap to house and techno, r&b and funk, rock and pop, dancehall and roots reggae, drum and bass, jungle, trance, electro, etc.

All of these musics have forms based on repetition--on looping--and they all have thier own conventions. Learning the conventions of a particular genre of music is the easiest way to begin producing music in that style. Once these conventions are mastered, one can break the rules as much as one desires in order to express an original voice.

As one can see, the grid changes color from blue to red every four boxes. If we look at a 16-box grid as one four-beat bar, each change in color signals the beginning of a new beat (or quarter-note). For example, if we place a kick drum on beats 1 and 3 and a snare drum on beats 2 and 4, it would look like this:

This basic pattern is often a good one to begin with, as many genres share its placement of kicks and snares. See if you can count along: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 . . .

What, then, makes this pattern sound like, say, hip-hop as opposed to techno?

The answer is tempo--the speed of the music. Fruityloops allows one to control tempo quite easily. You can change the b.p.m. (beats per minute) with a drag of the mouse:

Be aware that Fruityloops always begins new sessions at 140 bpm, which is quite fast, relatively speaking. Generally, techno music ranges from 120 to 150 bpm, whereas hip-hop runs from 80 to 110 bpm, dancehall hovers between 95 and 120, and something like drum 'n' bass can get as fast as 170 bpm. Bear in mind, again, that these are conventions--not hard and fast rules. Nevertheless, such conventions are familiar to people: we recognize them immediately upon hearing them; conventions, such as a snare drum on beats 2 and 4, make us nod our heads and tap our feet.

Making a Hip-hop Beat

Let's begin by slowing the tempo to something more in the hip-hop range. A tempo somewhere in the 90s, along with the following pattern, will sound like hip-hop or rap to most people:

As one can see, I have simply added a hi-hat pattern--accenting every other box, or every on-beat and every off-beat--to the basic kick-and-snare pattern from above. Hip-hop is not, however, restricted to this rhythmic pattern. Many variations exist, and one will often want to play with this basic pattern in order to come up with something fresh.

For example, hear how profoundly the feel of the beat changes if we simply shift the second kick-drum over a bit:

There are various other conventional (and satisfying) places to add or substitute kick-drums in hip hop. Although one almost always wants a kick on beat 1 to emphasize the downbeat, try placing kicks in other places for some nice syncopation. Each new kick adds a different kind of movement to the rhythm. Experiment a bit to feel the difference and find particular places that you like to accent.

Similarly, one usually wants to keep snares on beats 2 and 4 (to produce the proper amount of head-snapping effect on the backbeat), but additional snares can provide effective moments of surprise and movement. One generally wants to avoid a kick and snare sounding on the same beat. Sometimes, however, the effect can be powerful, especially with a kick on 2 or 4 or a snare on 1.

The hi-hat provides a kind of glue for the beat, linking the kicks and snares and providing the kind of steady foundation that enables syncopation. Altering this hi-hat pattern, though less conventional, can sometimes be effective. Alternating between on- and off-beat accents

is one way to vary the hi-hat pattern, but such patterns tend to sound better when played with shakers or other types of percussion (which can always be added to or substituted for the hi-hat).

Again, be aware of the importance of tempo or speed. No matter how faithful to convention, a hip-hop pattern will not sound like if hip-hop if played too fast or too slow. Try to keep the tempo somewhere between 80 and 110 bpm. Experiment with tempos in this range to change the feel of your beat, or to match the rate at which you want to rap, sing, or dance.

Inna Dancehall Style

If we keep the tempo in the high 90s and low 100s, we can morph our hip-hop beat into a dancehall riddim remarkably easily. The predominant pattern for dancehall is instantly recognizable with its driving, 3+3+2 rhythm.

First, shift the snares over two boxes to the right (one eighth-note, or half a beat, later).

Next, add a couple additional kick-drums, (place them on the final blue box of each blue group), and dancehall's distinctive beat emerges instantly.

Looking at the kick and snare patterns together, one sees a pattern of 3+3+2: the first kick lands on beat 1, the next three boxes later, the snare lands on the third box after this, then, just two boxes later (beat 3), we begin again. 3+3+2. The slightly assymetrical rhythm plays against the steady underlying pulse to provide some real momentum.

Of course, this is only one possible, though the most common, way to lay out a dancehall pattern. Often dancehall producers dispense with snares altogether, substituting kicks for them, or use many more. At other times, producers will leave out part of the pattern, hinting at it instead of banging it out. One can also experiment with a less regular hi-hat pattern.

One final layer to add is what producers call the bass, which rarely plays a "moving" bassline but instead, with a recurring low tone, supports and fattens the basic 3+3+2 rhythm. One can create this bass attack by taking a particularly bass-heavy kick drum or a resonant bass sound and doubling the basic pattern.

Techno Techniques

Let's round out our survey of genres by looking at the standard pattern for most techno music. The biggest difference between techno and the genres we have looked at so far is tempo. Generally, techno's tempos range from 120 (for fairly slow "house" music) and 150 (for particularly frenetic techno), and some sub-genres like to experiment with tempos close to 200 bpm.

If we look at the rhythmic pattern, however, we find the same basic building blocks: kicks on the downbeats, and snares on the backbeats.

Additionally, most techno patterns add kick drums to beats 2 and 4, on top of the snares.

Put a hi-hat on the upbeat of each beat (the third box of each color), and the whole thing comes together with a nice buoyancy, as the hi-hats provide some lift, some bounce, in contrast to the pounding, "four to the floor" kick-drum.

Depending on whether one augments this basic beat with minimal, synthesized textures or latin-tinged soul samples will make the difference between creating techno and house, respectively. Slight differences in tempo also make a big difference in the subgenre the rhythms suggest.

Recap: Some Steps for Beginners

1. Put a kick drum in the first box of the grid. This will establish the downbeat and make it easier to build a rhythm with a strong reference point.

It also may be helpful to put snares on beats 2 and 4,
the first boxes of each red group.

A hi-hat on every other box doesn't hurt either.

2. Get the tempo to a spot where you like it. Depending on the type of track you want to create (hip-hop [80-110], dancehall [95-115], techno [120-150], etc.), getting the tempo right is crucial to producing the right feel.

3. Change the sounds of your drums, if you don't like the way they sound (the default sounds in Fruityloops are often more suited to techno than, say, hip-hop). Next, add more sounds to the mix. Fruityloops provides an unlimited number of channels, so you can add as many sounds as you desire. [We will learn how to do all of this in the next lesson.]