By Jon Chappell
iZotope's iDrum is a rhythm programmer that uses a grid, just like the hardware drum machines of yore. (Click images to enlarge.)
Even if you import all your beats from groove libraries, or have a friend who programs them for you (don’t we wish!), you can benefit by breaking down all basic beats—from hip-hop to swing to country to insane death metal—and plotting them on a simple drum-machine-style grid. Many drum programs still work using a grid, and the operation is simple, intuitive, and fast: click on a grid square with your mouse (or a keystroke) to add a drum hit, click it again to delete it. You do this on the fly, as the beat plays in tempo, so you hear very quickly the results. Like the coat hanger or the paper clip, it’s been very hard to improve on this basic design, and it’s still ground zero for envisioning, editing, and fixing drum beats.
Grids were once the only way you could program drums because a crudely rendered, 12- or 16-slot matrix was all that could be implemented on all early drum machines (including all Dr. Rhythm machines and the immortal Roland TR-808). But even though drum-programming interfaces have been much improved with the addition of photo-realistic high-resolution graphics on flat-screen computer monitors, grids are still a remarkably effective, efficient, and comprehensive way to grok standard drum set patterns. The trick is, you just have to know the basics of meter.
All popular (that is, non-classical) music can be organized into a surprisingly small number of meters. Meter is what’s represented in music notation by the time signature, the stacked numbers appearing at the beginning of a piece (or whenever the meter changes). The most common time signature, or meter, is 4/4, and other common meters include 2/2 (more commonly known as “cut time”), 3/4, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8.
And that’s pretty much it. Just about any song you can think of in recorded history can fit comfortably in one of these six meters. (One notable exception is Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five,” which is in 5/4; but even that could be recast as alternating bars of 3/4 and 2/4.) What’s more, you can often substitute one meter for another. For example, a slow blues in a triplet feel (think “Stormy Monday”) can be written in either 12/8 (using the normal four groups of three eighth notes) or 4/4 (with triplet eighth notes on each beat). There may be some theoretical differences between 12/8 and 4/4 with triplets (as there is between 2/4 and 2/2), but these can’t really be heard by the listener, nor do they affect the actual creation of the groove. It’s the same kind of thing as telling the piano player to play an A# in the key of F. Bb is the more correct term theoretically, but it makes no difference to the actual sound produced.
The individual grid slots, or boxes, correspond to the smallest subdivision used in your song. In a country song, that might be a quarter note in cut time, so you’d need only four slots to play a basic beat—bass drum on beats 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, and hi-hat on betas 1-4. In a straight-ahead rock song, you can get away with just 8th notes, assuming you don’t do any fancy drum fills that require 16th notes or 8th-note triplets.
Look at Figure 1, which is the screen used in iZotope’s iDrum. The instruments are stacked vertically (indicated in yellow), while the time grid is shown horizontally (the red arrow indicates the progression of time from beat 1 through 4; the red underlines indicate the beginning of each beat). In this case, the meter is 4/4, and the blocks are where we can enter drum hits, simply by clicking the mouse on them. If you want four kick drums on the beat, just click on every fourth square (outlined by iDrum in green, which may be a little hard to see in this screen shot), which is to say squares #1, 5, 9, and 13. Snare hits falling on beats 2 and 4 (the backbeat) would require mouse-clicks on squares 5 and 9.
Fig. 1. The individual instruments of the drum kit stack vertically (shown in yellow), while time (in beats and sudivisions) is represented horizontally (in red).
Because there are four squares, or spaces, per beat, we can enter values down to 16th notes (which come four to the beat). If we wanted to stay in 8th-note territory, we’d just click on every other square (the first and third of the beat), and ignore the in-between ones. Figure 2 shows the grid with circles on the beginning (main part) of the beat, with the 16th-note subdivisions as you would say them (“1___, 2_&_, 3-e-&-a, 4-e-&-a,” etc.) inside the corresponding squares.
Fig. 2. The parts of the beat labeled, with the main part in circles and the subdivisions written out with their spoken syllables.
Let’s start with the most basic of grooves, the straight-four rock beat. This can be used in songs like Creedence’s “Proud Mary,” the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes,” Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down,” and the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” It’s as simple as could be: a kick drum on beats 1 and 3, the snare on 2 and 4, and closed hi-hats in eighth notes all the way through. We’ll add one more thing to give the bar a little “kick” (no pun intended): an additional kick drum on the offbeat between beats 2 and 3 (the “and of 2”), which will propel the groove along. Figure 3 shows what this looks like graphically.
Fig. 3. A straight-four rock beat with the kick on beats 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, and the hat-hat playing steady eighth notes at various volume levels (represented by the different heights fo blue segments).
You can listen to the results here.
Now look carefully again at Figure 3 above to note one additional modification I’ve made in the hi-hat part. In iDrum, clicking on a square makes it solid green. But the green filler is actually several stacked LEDs, which indicate volume. So clicking on a square produces a hit at maximum volume. But you can then go inside it with your mouse and pull down the volume to any desired level. I’ve randomized the hi-hat levels here to keep the part from sounding robotic. Note that the overall level of an instrument can still be raised or lowered with the knob on the left side of the screen.
Let’s take another example that departs from the 8th-note unit used in creating the basic groove. A tom fill would typically be used at the end of a section leading into another. (And the new bar would start with a crash cymbal on beat 1 before resuming basic time-keeping.) A tom fill in 4/4 typically uses 16th notes, so I’ve written a basic one in Figure 4. Note that basic time is abandoned after beat 1, and that the tom fill is preceded by two snare hits on 8th notes. So to the ear, the fill starts on beat 2, with two snare hits and proceeds (from high to low, in pitch) with toms in 16ths. It sounds like bam bam, dig-ga dig-ga, doo-ga dung-a. Listen to it here.
Fig. 4. A basic tom fill, shown grid-style.
To represent your groove on a grid, first choose your grid based on your music’s smallest subdivision, or slice of the beat. If you know you won’t have, say, any 16th notes in your song, you can work with a grid that has just two 8th note per beat, or a total of eighth grid spaces. If your meter was 3/4, you would need just six spaces. And if you never subdivide the beat (as is common in, for example, fast jazz waltzes), you can leave the grid in quarter notes. Following is a list of some basic grooves and how they relate to the grid approach:
Check out iZotope’s iDrum for a good interface in a grid style. As mentioned, vintage drum machines also use the grid approach, and have the added benefit of providing vintage sounds and a useful musical tool, especially for live work. By reverse engineering the existing grooves in a grid-style interface, you can learn a lot about how grooves are constructed, and can begin to shape existing grooves to your own specific musical purposes through judicious edits.
HarmonyCentral.com is the leading Internet resource for musicians, supplying valuable information from news and product reviews, to classified ads and chat rooms.