Great dance music is more than just cool sound design and
memorable riffs. While these are the elements that will make a track
distinctive, the bottom line is always the groove. Nowadays, many
artists are content to set their quantization and shuffle to standard
values (e.g., sixteenth-notes) with a touch of swing, but the real artistry lies in perfecting the groove—a great drum library isn’t enough.
Producers like Wolfgang Gartner, Olivier Giacomotto, and
Deadmau5 are slavishly devoted to beats that have real flavor and
character. It’s no secret that part of their success comes from the fact
that they sweat all of the details. So this month, we’ll kick
off a two-part Dance column that focuses on the minutiae of perfecting
your rhythmic elements.
CLICK HERE for audio examples of the techniques below.
Many producers think of quantization as a “set it and
forget it” type of tool. With standard quantization settings, all of the
note-ons are locked to tempo, but what about the note-offs? When it
comes to perfecting the feel of a funky riff or loop, it really pays to
spend some time tinkering with the ends of your MIDI events so that they
fall exactly on beat.
Ableton Live includes note-off quantization as part of its
preferences, but not every DAW includes this feature. If that’s the
case with your DAW, spend some time tinkering with the exact placement
of your note-offs. You’ll soon find that your grooves will have a
tighter and often funkier feel.
Shorten that Kick
While certain genres—such as hip-hop, trap, and
breakbeat—often rely on long boomy kicks, other genres benefit greatly
from shorter kicks, since they leave more room for the bass line to
breathe. A good rule of thumb for house, electro, and trance music is to
keep the length of your kicks to approximately an eighth-note, either
via MIDI or shortening the decay and adding a touch of compression. The
trick here is keeping the kick punchy without losing the sub-bass
element, so experiment with both approaches.
Drummers know that moving the instruments that hit on 2
and 4 (snares and/or handclaps in most cases) can be a powerful approach
to giving a groove more intensity. In a sequencing environment, there
are two easy ways to experiment with this technique. If your snare/clap
parts are on a separate track, use your DAW’s track delay to move the
parts slightly forward or backward in time by 5 to 20 milliseconds,
depending on the sound and feel you’re after. You might be amazed at how
much this affects the overall feel of your track.
Alternately, if you’re working with a beatbox-style grid
with all of your drum parts visible at once, temporarily turn off
quantization (or snap-to-grid) and move the snare or clap slightly
forward or backward in relationship to the kick. Either approach works
equally well—it just depends on your DAW’s features.
Pro tip: Wet and/or organic clap sounds almost
always benefit from being slightly ahead of the beat, since the
individual claps that make up the texture don’t hit at the same time.
Next month, we’ll look at more ways to make your grooves
both interesting to the musical brain and compelling to the dancing