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 body!