by Jeremy Sylvester
Garage has been around since the 1990s, but it continues to influence other EDM genres as well as retain its own following. Whether you’re interested in creating “pure” Garage music using UK Garage loops or want to incorporate some its elements in other forms of music, the following tips should help get you off to a good start.
Drums are the backbone of any Garage production, and a solid drum groove is the most essential element in any UK Garage track. Before getting into choosing your sounds, remember that timing is everything. Shuffling, swung beats give UK Garage its unique stamp—so when building your drum pattern, it’s important to set your quantize/swing groove to between 50-56\% (Fig. 1). This will set the tone for the rest of the elements added later on.
Fig. 1: Setting a little swing for MIDI grooves or quantized audio grooves gives more of a Garage “feel.” This screen shot shows the Swing parameter in Logic Pro's Ultrabeat virtual drum machine.
Creating good drum patterns requires a good drum kit, so let’s start with the kick drum. Spend time searching for good sounds; for 4x4 Garage tracks, a strong, punchy kick drum that’s naturally not too bass heavy, and with a some midrange frequency presence, is the perfect starting point for any groove. This will leave some headroom for when you start to look for bass sounds to create bass line patterns later on; you don’t want the kick to take over the low end completely.
Once you’ve decided on a kick (of course, with DAWs you can always change this later on), search for a nice crispy clap. If it has too much sustain, try to take some release off it and shorten its length. You want it to sound quite short and sharp, but not too short as you still want to hear its natural sound.
Next, begin to add all of the other elements for your pattern. It’s very important to keep the groove simple, with enough space in the groove to add all your other sounds later on. Lots of people make the mistake (myself included!) of over-complicating the drum—as they say, less is more. The key is to make sure every element of your pattern has a distinct role, so that every drum element is there for a reason. When programming drums, imagine you are a “drummer” and concentrate on how a drummer plays to help you construct patterns. Another good tip is to make several patterns, all slightly different, to give your overall groove some variety. Also, keep your hi-hats neat and tidy; you don’t want them to sound undefined and “soupy.”
Keep the kick drum and other bass parts in mono, with other drum elements (such as hi-hats) in stereo to give the groove a nice spread. Maintaining bass frequencies in mono is particularly important if you ever expect a track to appear on vinyl.
Resist temptation, and keep effects on the drums to a bare minimum. Too much FX (such as reverb) can drown out the groove and make it too wet, which sacrifices the energy of the drums. This will be very noticeable over a club sound system, more so than in the studio. Additionally, try playing around with the pitch of the sounds (Fig. 2). De-tuning kick drums or percussive elements of your groove will bring another dimension to your pattern and completely change the overall vibe.
As well as the groove drum pattern, another important element of UK Garage is the melodic structure. If like many people you don’t play keyboard, then you can always use one-shots/hits to help you. One-shots can be in the form or short chord keyboard hits, bass notes, percussive sounds, or synth stabs.
When adding melodic elements to create a pattern, listen to the drum groove you have and work with it, not against it. The rhythmic pattern of your melody must complement the groove; in other words, the drum pattern and melody line must “talk to each other” and the melody must become part of the groove. Try using lowpass filters automated by an envelope, as well as effects, to manipulate and create movement with the sound; then add reverb for depth and warmth. Use parameter controls over velocity maps, for example, to control cutoff and decay and add variations. This will create shape, and adding some compression will really bring out some new life in your sound.
If you are going for a rhythmic UK garage 4x4 style, space is important. When I mentioned above about “less is more,” it really means something here. Picture a melody in your head and imagine how people will be “dancing” to it. This will determine the way you create your melodic groove pattern. UKG melodic patterns tend to be “off beat” grooves, not straight line groove patterns. This is what gives Garage its unique style and vibe. When choosing sounds, try to look for rich harmonic sounds; some good options are obscure jazzy chords, deep house chord stabs, or even sounds sampled from classic keyboard synths (such as Korg’s M1 keyboard for those classic organ and house piano patches).
When arranging your song, always keep the DJ in mind and imagine how he/she will be mixing your track within their DJ set. The intro is very important for DJ’s as this allows them enough room to mix your track into another. Make your arrangement progress in 16 bar sections, so the DJ and the clubber know when to expect changes within the song. Within each of these sections, some elements of the groove may consist of 1, 2, 4 or 8-bar repeating patterns. These elements tend to move around by adding, removing, or altering every four or eight bars.
Breakdowns tend to be in the middle of the track, so if you have a track that is six minutes long, you can drop the breakdown around the three-minute mark. There is no hard and fast rule to this, so use your imagination; this is intended only as a guide. You could also have a mini-breakdown on either side of this, for instance, right after the intro and just before the first major section of the song when everything is in.
Be imaginative, and experiment with different arrangement ideas. You could start with drums, then lead into some intro vocals and then the mini drop, or you could start with a non-percussive intro that builds up into a percussive drum section and then goes into the song’s main section; it’s totally up to you and depends on the elements you have within your song. It’s also a good idea to finish the final section of your sing with drums. This is something a DJ really likes, as it allows once again for them to start mixing in another track within their DJ set.
Garage is known for its very percussive vocal chops; this is an essential part of the genre, especially when you are doing “dub” versions. You can use various kinds of MIDI-based samplers and software instruments to do this. Back in the day, Akai samplers were very popular—you would chop up and edit sounds within the device, map it across a keyboard, and play it manually. Nowadays there are many different ways of doing this, with instruments uch as Ableton Live’s Simpler or Logic’s EXS24 being the most popular. Another option is to slice a file (e.g., like the REX format; see Fig. 3), then map the individual slices to particular notes.
Fig. 3: Slicing a file and mapping the slices to MIDI notes makes it easy to re-arrange and play vocal snippets on the fly, or drop them into a production. Furthermore, you can often re-arrange slices within the host program. In this screen shot from Reason, the original REX file mapping is on the right; the slice assignments have been moved around in the version on the left.
Play around with vocals by chopping up samples every syllable. You could have a short vocal phrase of 5-6 words, but once chopped up and edited you can create double or even triple the amount of samples; this allows you possibilities to manipulate the phrase in any way you want, even completely disguising the original vocal hook. Map out these vocals across a keyboard or matrix editor, and have fun coming up with interesting groove vocal patterns over your instrumental groove pattern. Also try adding effects and filters, and play around with the sound envelopes in much the same way you would with the one shot chord sounds (as explained earlie)r. Treat the vocals as a percussive element of the track, but listening to the melody and lyrical content so it still makes sense to what the track is about. It’s a good idea to program 4-5 variations from which you can choose.
I hope you find these tips useful; now go make some great music!