Some thoughts about beats

by Rauli

SID tunes seldom have the drums to brag about, and the melodies can easily get most of the attention while remixing. So what about the drums? In this tutorial I allow myself to express some ideas about how to digitally play around with them. I guess you will find contradictions, abuse of terminology, strange statements and bad spelling in it. Write me your comments. I already feel the urge to rewrite this. If I get some feedback, I surely will.

Sampled loops or not, or both

Sampled loops
If you use a loop from a sample-CD or steal it from someone elses recording, make it your own. It's not about copyright issues, it's about being creative. It's no fun recognising someones beat in a song, and even less fun if it's stolen from you. Use all the tools you have to model it into something different from what it was in the beginnig. Maybe it was the funky hihats you fell for, if so, EQ away the rest. Or if it was the sound of the bassdrum that first caught your attention, get rid of the mid and high frequencies. You can often compose something interesting by taking the low frequencies from one loop, the high frequencies from a second and the mid range from a third. Of course you have to make sure you stretch the parts to match each others tempo. You can also just cut away some sounds in a loop. The gaps that you can hear in the single loop will probably disappear in the final beat. You can also experiment with pitching of the loops.

Drum machine
It might be simpler to make clean beats using a drum machine than reworking sampled loops. The more minimalistic beats, in the often dance oriented genres, could be put together in a minute or two, but the fun doesn't have to end there. There are lots of ways to cofuse and abuse the pumping dum-khaa pattern. More of this a bit later.

The combination
A ripped and reworked drumloop can often lose some of its clarity and definition in the process. Adding drums with a drum machine can help the loop back on track. Try adding drums that work well along the loop and helps define the beat. When this is done you can often find redundant sounds in the original loop that you can drop. It can also work the other way around. You have a nice beat programmed, but it needs a bit more flavour. Find a loop you can adjust to blend in well.

Composing the full song

Sometimes it might work just fine to have a beat looped through the whole song, without any breaks or variations. But it is also possible to have as much variation in the beat as in the rest of the song. When you are finished with the whole tune, mute all channels but the ones with the drums. Listen to the whole song this way. Does it still sound dynamic and interesting, or is it just dull? Do you use varied breaks to lead the listener into and out of the different parts of the song? Is there something new happening in the different parts of the song, or is there just more of the same? How can you use drums to emphasize some stabs an chords in your tune. What happens if you lose this here and add that there?


Experiment with compressors on your drums. It takes some practice in listening to hear what goes on when you turn those knobs, so just go nuts over them. Some drumsamples are already compressed quite a lot, so try to learn hearing what you gain by compressing, and then use this effect when you feel you need it.

Some say that you should never use reverb on drums. Of course you can, but be careful not to overdo it. It's easy to smear all those sounds together by reverbing them. Using reverb on bassdrums an hihats mostly just messes everything up, but try it on a single snare, or rimshot, and you can get an effect of depth in the beat. You can also use reverb to make a nice swooping sound that leads you into a hit of the drum. Just reverse a drumsound, add some reverb and the reverse it back. This on the first bass hit in a beat gives it an interesting punch. And don't forget to find out what a gated reverb does for your sound.

Try different delays on different drums. A simple hihat can be made more complex, and less like a machine, by adding some delay. Extreme delays on double or triple hits with a sharp drumsound can produce a nice effect. Some delay can really funk things up, a lot will make a mess of it all. And listen carefully in the breaks where the drums go silent. You probably want to silence the delay in those parts.

If you use an effect on all the drums, the result will surely be horrible. Maybe horrible is what you want, but if not - don't overdo it. Still, just try things out. Is there a flam function on your gear, and what can it do for you? How does your hihat sound if run it through a phaser? Can you make any sensible use of that flanger? And why not plug every drum throug a filter and go apeshit over those knobs?

Messing up the sound

Sometimes you might want your drums to sound more dirty. Take a loop an undersample it. Convert it to 22050Hz or 11025Hz. This makes it sound really LoFi and can help you to get away from a too clean sound. Use your new undersampled loop in combination with cleaner drums, or maybe in its pure form in parts of the song. You could also trash some of your drums by adding some distortion. Maybe in a combination with undersampling.


To make it all sound good together, listen to it. With the other instruments, with just the drums, with just some of the drums, from other parts of the room, from another room, with headphones, through speakers, with the volume pumped up and also on a really low volume. Compare it to the beat from a commercial CD that has a groove you want to get close to. Then take a pause. Eat, sleep, fall in love and then return to your work and listen again. Try to hear the single components, but don't get obsessed with them. Then concentrate on the big picture. And after a while, listen to something totally different to flush your ears clean. Aphex Twin, Tom Waits and Massive Attack. What have these guys done to make their drums sound the way they do? And then back to work with your beat.

Feel free to send me your thoughts and comments!

- Rauli (