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From The Boiler Room: Patterns vs. Programming

Beat Designer

Beat DesignerWith the arrangements and tempi decided, it’s time to start building up the tracks and, again, a decision looms.  I’m not a drummer, but I can program drums fairly well – I had a lot of practise back in the days of Freeway.  (As an aside, if you want to improve your drum programming, I’d recommend recreating the drum tracks to some of your favourite songs.  This will give you an invaluable insight into how drummers build up their parts.)  Not that I had a choice – MIDI libraries just weren’t available back then, especially for some of the more esoteric numbers we did.

But things are different nowadays.  Every drum sample set comes complete with its own share of MIDI patterns, or “grooves” as they like to put it.  Performed by a real drummer, these will contain patterns that you would not have thought of.  More importantly, they also have dynamics that it would take you a considerable time to program, assuming you could get the “feel “of them right.  I’ll be using EZDrummer to provide the drums and [most of] the percussion on the album.  I own a fair number of the expansion packs, each of which comes with the aforementioned selection of grooves, so I have multiple libraries to draw on to build up my rhythm tracks.  I also have Studio Drummer for NI Kontakt, which has its own comprehensive MIDI library and can, helpfully, export them in an EZDrummer-compatible note mapping.  However, as I’ll discuss in a future post, I’m not anticipating using the Studio Drummer kits on this project.  And then, of course, as a Cubase user, I have all of the contents of the Media Bay pre-installed, (and that’s not just confined to drums).

The purist in me believes that I shouldn’t “waste” all that experience of yesteryear and that I should ignore the riches already sitting on my hard drive.  The practical side of me says, “you’ve paid for ‘em, use ‘em” – and then adds a more compelling argument.

If I was employing a real drummer, (or bass player, or keyboard player, for that matter), to play on these tracks, would I give him carte blanche to play what he wanted?  Of course not, (unless Neil Peart was available).  I’d work with him to get the part that I felt was best for the song, but, on the other hand, I wouldn’t always expect to have to tell him exactly what to play.  Within the guidelines I gave, I’d expect him to make suggestions based on his experience.  I’d expect him to bring his own style of playing, (his own internal library of “patterns”), and offer up what was best for the material.  And the important thing is that it would be different from what I would play or program.  He may be offering me clichés, but they’d be his clichés, not mine, and so to these ears, they’d be refreshing.

Taking that a step further, MIDI loops enable you to audition some musical ideas that are very much out of your comfort zone, something you would never come up with, but that might spark you to take the song in a whole new direction.  And if you like it, result!  If you don’t, it’s still a result, as you’ve

  1. tried something different and realised that your first thoughts were the best, and
  2. you’ve added to your mental database of song ideas.

Who’s to say that you won’t have a song in future that’s perfect for that rhythm or arrangement idea? That’s why I’ve decided to use the various MIDI grooves, (and fills), available to me to build up the drum parts for the songs – they were recorded by different drummers who will have different styles.  One thing I intend to avoid is mixing and matching between different drummers on the same song.   I want to have a coherent, (there’s that word again), feel to the songs and having drums played by one drummer on the verses and another on the choruses runs counter to that.

Bass Lines

I’m less clear on this when it comes to the bass.  As a guitarist, I know what I would play if I was playing the bass.  But before I’m vilified by each and every passing bass player, I also know that it’s not what a good bass player would play.  I’ll be discussing my choice of virtual bass player in a later post, but for now, it’s enough to say that I can use the Chord Track to generate a bass line from the VSTi I intend to use.  It will follow the chords of the chord track, so the patterns will change to stay in key, and there is a choice of both style and complexity of playing.  This ticks the box of not playing my own clichés, but the problem is, when it comes to bass, I like my clichés.  I prefer to play in the notes from a MIDI keyboard rather than draw them in one at a time in the Key Editor.  As I’m playing a keyboard, not plucking a string, this means my bass lines tend to move rather than hold one note and play 8ths against the beat.  I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that, but for me, it’s often the opposite of what I play.  If I was being critical of my style of [bass] playing, it’s that there isn’t always the necessary amount of light and shade in terms of note density.  I have a tendency to overplay a bit, which is (a) something to guard against and (b) unlikely to happen using programmed patterns.

There’s another issue when it comes to sampled instruments and that’s keyswitches.  A lot of sample-based instruments use keyswitching to choose between different articulations.  Using keyswitches can make a sampled instrument come to life, so I’d be crazy not to want to use them.  Preset patterns have these programmed into them, but any patterns I play in myself will need to have the trigger notes entered in the Key Editor afterwards.  My keyboard playing ability isn’t up to playing non-sounding notes at the same time as trying to give a half-decent, (as opposed to half-baked), performance.   As basslines err towards monophonic, I’ll have the necessary spare hand, but even so, let’s say it’s not within my skill set.  That’s not an argument for going down the patterns route, but it is a warning note that any “bespoke” basslines will require some further work to make the most of the instrument.  On this one, the jury’s out, so it’ll be a case of seeing how far I get with the patterns and filling in the gaps myself.

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