Approaches to Making Beats

Making beats can be a complex subject, which is why there are artists and producers who specialize in beat and groove production. Here I will outline the main general ways that beats are produced in contemporary electronic music production.

Sequencing

When you look at typical electronic music sequencers, you may not realize that you are looking a rows of whole notes, at least as they are typically configured. After all, a whole note looks like this:

A whole note (image source)

And a sequencer looks like this:

A 16-step sequencer (image source)

In the context of hardware and beat-oriented samplers, a sequencer normally has a single sequencing row:

A hardware sampler with one sequencer row (image source).
A software drum machine (image source).

While one can use the 16 steps in many ways — such as making patterns with fewer than 16 notes, or making patterns with more than 16 notes (by chaining one after another), or by deciding that each step should represent a durational value other than a 16th note — most commonly, the 16 steps are chunked into groups of four, so that taken together they add up to a whole note. And in music notation, one whole note equals one bar (or measure, identified by the vertical bar divisions in the score).

In the figure below, the fourth row is the subdivision of the whole note where four 16th notes are grouped into clearly identifiable quarter notes:

The fourth row is what you often see materialized on samplers, drum machines and software or hardware sequencers (image source).

In FL Studio, the fourth row above is clearly visible in its sequencer:

1 Bar in FL Studio, four groupings of four 16th notes (each grouping representing a quarter note).

So just remember that every group of 16 sequencer steps is normally 1 bar of music, as per Google:

1 Bar (also called a Measure) = one whole note

A good online place to experiment with drum pattern sequencing is Splice’s Beatmaker, where you can try out patterns others have produced, and load sound banks with samples from their library:

Sequencing drum patterns — above, 2 bars (32 steps) in Splice’s Beatmaker

It’s worth keeping in mind that, while the default setting for sequencers is 16 16th notes (= 1 bar = 1 whole note), the most common length of a melody is 8 bars, and so often you will want to chain multiple 16-beat patterns together so that there is change and variation in the rhythm across several bars.

Outlined in red below are the 8 pages you can chain together in Xfer Records’ Nerve (a drum workstation, discussed more below), which allows you to combine up to 8 bars (e.g. 8 16-step patterns) for creating a pattern with a duration up to the usual 8-bar length of most main melodic lines.

Another key number is 12, which is a handy number since it’s the number of notes in an octave, which allows for easy MIDI control. Outlined in green below are the 12 sets (A-L) of 1–8 page patterns you can store in a Nerve preset:

Up to 12 sets of 1–8 bar patterns in storable in Nerve.

Manually Placing Waveforms

Many beat producers like to work with sound in a more material or tangible way and will often like to just grab waveforms from their sound pool and place them in the timeline where each beat can actually be seen as a sound wave representation.

This provides a very different look and feel to the way you are working with sound. For example, if you are using a plugin like Nerve or iZoptope’s BreakTweaker where each pattern is tied to a single MIDI note (e.g. if you are triggering sequencer patterns A-L with keyboard notes C4 to B4), this is what your complex beat patterns will actually look like in the DAW:

There are lots of beats happening here, but all you can see are single MIDI notes, since each note is triggering a pattern.

My way of dealing compositionally with such low level information of single note values and labels is simply to make the lowest MIDI note the simplest pattern (e.g. a 4-on-the-floor kick), and increase beat complexity as I move up the MIDI notes, so I at least have a read on the simplicity-complexity spectrum with this kind of UI information.

So, it’s not surprising that some creators may prefer to actually see the beats! In the example above, I could actually have all the beats in just one row of the timeline — I just prefer to alternate them for visual clarity, as the actual channel assignments of the sound banks to the mixer are done in the plugin itself. But if you lay out your beats on a sound file by sound file basis, you will have many more rows of vertical information to keep track of.

This approach can be particularly useful if you want to load your beat patterns with sound effects or sounds which won’t necessarily repeat a lot. Below you can see and hear an example of a beat pattern produced in this way. Keep in mind that there’s, well, a lot of manual editing to be done, when going the manual route!

Manually placed beat pattern elements, which you can hear below.

An interesting UI blend of these two methods — placing and seeing the waveform, and yet still sequencing with them in a time grid — is used in Captain Beat, where you can see the waveform inside of a step sequencing environment:

Waveforms in the Sequencing Grid (Captain Beat)

Piano Roll Patterns

Splitting the difference (if I can put it that way) between the single MIDI note and waveform approaches is the piano roll pattern approach, where you can see the beats in their rhythmic complexity, but represented as MIDI notes rather than sound waves. Some drum plugins will export a label list to their defined MIDI notes in the DAW’s piano roll (as shown below), whereas others force you to hit a bunch of notes on your keyboard or in the piano roll to figure out which note triggers which drum pad (a definite UX pain point).

With piano roll-based patterns, you can see the rhythmic complexity, but not the waveforms.

More complexity is visible within the piano roll itself, since it displays more granular note event and velocity information (and any other automations you may be doing in the piano roll), and ideally, also the drum pad label associated with each MIDI note row.

Piano roll complexity. At image left, MIDI notes are labelled by the drum pad name.

Some DAWs like FL Studio have special note drawing tools specifically for writing in percussion information in the piano roll. These notes will default to very short notes that are most useful in a rhythmic context (not shown above, obviously : ).

Beat Workstations

Today there are quite a few plugins that are real work horses or power houses (or, powered work horses??) for churning out highly complex rhythm material. Some of the main ones of this sort are:

  • Xfer’s Nerve
  • Arturia’s Spark 2
  • iZotope’s BreakTweaker
  • Native Instruments’ Battery 4
  • FXpansion’s Geist 2
  • Sonic Charge’s MicroTonic

Beat workstations like these provide incredibly detailed per note, per beat and per pattern sound manipulation. Notes can be chopped into micro glitches, while filter, effects, velocity, panning, gate, envelope, LFO and pitch parameters can be randomized and sequenced to a high degree of complexity which takes beat making to a new level which is really distinct from the early drum pad machines that are their historical precedents.

Mondo Modulation (the first time I think I’ve ever written ‘mondo’ but it definitely suits plugins of this kind!).

‘Old School’ Drum Machines

Speaking of early drum pads, they are abundantly available in many plugin varieties today, which might even come bundled with your DAW. Old school software drum pads will usually give you banks of 16 pads which basic controls over sonic aspects like volume, panning, sample starts, maybe some envelope adjustment, pitch tuing, MIDI note assignment, sample velocity layering and similar basic audio parameters.

Some also come with banks of different drum kits and a lot of MIDI patterns to explore for making beats in different styles.

FL Studio’s FPC ‘old school’ drum pad plugin. Basic audio parameters and nifty banks of MIDI beat patterns shown at right.

And of course, there are real hardware drum pads, if you want to go hardcore old school. Oh wait, they still make these, so it’s like, um, New Old School or something. Though, often today hardware drum pads are actually just MIDI controllers and don’t store any audio samples. If you really have an old school itch and $5000 to spare,

Nothing says Old School like something old and physical that costs a lot.

Samplers and Samples

The beat workstations and drum pads discussed above are essentially rhythm-specialized samplers, but any sampler can play back samples of material to be used as beats. So, just for being thorough in this article, samplers need to be mentioned as a core beat making option. A unique choice in samplers for exploring rhythms would be one that includes extensive automation, modulation and even spectral editing and processing, such as iZotope’s Iris 2, which tends to be on sale these days. Iris 2’s plugin ‘thing’ is extreme manipulation options over frequency bands, shown below at the top left spectrograph:

An interesting take on the sampler plugin genre. Sampler w/ spectral processing.

Cyborg Drummer

Perhaps an old-fashioned yet ultra modern way to get beats is to work with a cyborg drummer, by which I mean an actual drummer who has been enhanced with computational beat-making powers.

For instance, your real drummer can churn out their beats on a physical MIDI drum kit hooked up to a drum sample beast application like Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 3 or Steven Slate Drums. The former software includes drum samples recorded for playback on up to 11 surround channels recorded with George Massenberg (who invented the parametric EQ) and comes with 230 GB of raw sound samples.

Superior Drummer 3
A Cyborg Drummer — real drummer with MIDI drum kit and drum sample software (image source).
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