The Zen of Tracking

By Introspective

MusicTheory101|Chords | Bass | Leads |FineTuning

Drums

Let's start with Farmer's guide to tracking the basic beat:

Basic Drumbeats by Farmer


Table of Contents

Setting Up ............... What do YOU think it is?
Part 1 ................... Basic bassdrum/hihat dance beat
Part 2 ................... More complex beats, adding a snare
The Art of Irritation .... What not to do in your beats

Setting Up

First, you'll need the following samples:
1. Bassdrum kick
2. Closed Hihat
3. Open Hihat
4. Snare

Part 1

Ok, to start, put a bassdrum (probably will sound best at middle-c) on every hilighted row like this (for now we'll only use track 1):
00 C-5 01 -- --- <-
01 --- -- -- ---
02 --- -- -- ---
03 --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- --- <-
05 --- -- -- ---
06 --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...
Play it back. If it's right, it should sound like an evenly spaced thump thump thump. Ok, so it's pretty boring, right? Let's spice it up a bit. This is where your open hihat comes in. Put an open hihat between each bassdrum like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 03 -- --- <-
03 --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- ---
05 --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- --- <-
07 --- -- -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...
Woah cool, now you have a dance beat. It's still pretty bland though. Try this: On the two lines before every bassdrum, put two closed hihats on the first beat only like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 02 -- --- <-
03 C-5 02 -- --- <-
04 C-5 01 -- ---
05 --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...
Be sure to leave the second beat alone. Play it back now. Pretty nifty, eh? But now it sounds too mechanical. Lower the volume of the second open hihat to 42 or so like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 02 -- --- 
03 C-5 02 42 --- <-
04 C-5 01 -- ---
05 --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...
Now play it. Here, you have a perfect beat to base a dance tune off of. Experiment w/ volume levels (but not on the bassdrums) and see what you can come up with. If you fill in with closed hihats between the bassdrums, you have lots to play with. Ok, snare time.

Part 2

Ok, so you have your perfect dance beat, right? Let's spice it up some, shall we? Ok, on channel #2, lay down a snare next to every other bassdrum, starting with the second one, it'll look like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 02 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
03 C-5 02 42 ---    --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- <-
05 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
08 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
09 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
10 C-5 02 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
11 C-5 02 42 ---    --- -- -- ---
12 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- <-
13 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
14 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
15 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...    ... .. .. ...
(notice how I extended the first column by hilighting what we had and pasting it over again). Now we have 4 beats with 2 snares. What gives? This is the most boring drum track ever! Ok, calm down. Now try this: See how you have two closed hihats? What would happen if we took the first closed hihat out and changed the second one to an open hihat (and also took out the volume change)? It'd look like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
02 --- -- -- --- <- --- -- -- ---
03 C-5 03 -- --- <- --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- ---
05 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...    ... .. .. ...
Play it back now, you have kind of a more jazzy beat. When you have a note and then one three lines down, that's what happens. Can we do that with a snare? Sure we can! Put another snare after the first one three rows down like so:
00 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
02 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
03 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- ---
05 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- <-
.. ... .. .. ...    ... .. .. ...
Now this is starting to shape up rather nicely. Optionally, for a more subtle version of that, you could lower the second snare's volume to 42. Ok, now copy what you have and paste it starting on row 08. (it should look the way it did last time when you pasted it). Remember that "skip three rows down" technique? You can also put it before! Stick a snare in on row 09. It should look like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 02 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
03 C-5 02 42 ---    --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- 
05 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---    C-5 04 -- ---
08 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
09 --- -- -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- <-
10 C-5 02 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
11 C-5 02 42 ---    --- -- -- ---
12 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- 
13 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
14 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
15 --- -- -- ---    C-5 04 -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...    ... .. .. ...
Ok, there's your first beat. See how we jazzed up the snare? Try that with your bassdrum and see what happens.
00 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 02 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
03 C-5 01 -- --- <- --- -- -- ---
04 C-5 01 -- ---    C-5 04 -- --- 
05 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---    C-5 04 -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...    ... .. .. ...
Stick a bassdrum into row 03. Want to try something really wicked? Take out the bassdrum on row 04 and put it on row 05 like this:
00 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
01 --- -- -- ---    --- -- -- ---
02 C-5 02 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
03 C-5 01 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
04 --- -- -- --- <- C-5 04 -- --- 
05 C-5 01 -- --- <- --- -- -- ---
06 C-5 03 -- ---    --- -- -- ---
07 --- -- -- ---    C-5 04 -- ---
.. ... .. .. ...    ... .. .. ...
Pretty neat, huh? Now repeat channel 1 from 00 to 07 all the way until the end of the beat. Even better. One more thing to try, on the snares that aren't on the important beats (important beats being 04, 09), make the note a C#5 instead of a C-5.

The Art Of Irritation

Don't:
Make melodies with your hihats
Put cymbal crashes everywhere
Crowd your beats with way too many bassdrums

Ok, that's it for this version! Now go and track.

Big thanks to Farmer for that section. : ) I'd also like to add here some tips from Necros (TW12, "Advanced Tracking Tips"-- Paraphrased & expandded here):

You can produce a 'swing' effect that's commonly used in tracking today, by changing the tempo at each row. Necros calls it a 'floating tempo'. It's accomplished by tracking something like this:

00 C-5 01 -- F60  (Sets tempo to 60bpm)
01 --- -- -- F90  (Sets tempo to 90bpm)
02 D#5 01 -- F60  (Back to 60...)
03 G-5 01 -- F90  (Back to 90...)
04 --- -- -- F60  (And so on.)
05 A#5 01 -- F90       .
06 G-5 01 -- F60       .
07 --- -- -- F90       .
.. ... .. .. ...

Here's a few things I have to add, myself:

It's a nice change from those annoying quantised beats you see everywhere else... There are many varitions on it, too... A rule of thumb is to leave the first one at about 2/3 of the second. You'll have to fool around to get exactly the amount of swing you're looking for. Example: instead of just going 8,5,8,5,etc., you can make the swing more severe by using four different tempos: such as 2,4,2,7,2,4,2,7,etc... (As in basehead's "High on Hedonism")... Very cool.

While generic drums are thing to avoid at all costs, it's usefull to know what a generic beat looks like. You should go track these. Why? Because in order to avoid something, you need to know what that something is. There is no knowledge that is not power. Learn these.

I'll just use a basic system of:

B   for bassdrum
H   for a closed hihat
O   for an open hihat
S   for a snare
:|  a symbol for 'repeat' (that's as close as I can get to the music symbol
    for it without using weird fonts)

A note in parenthesis is optional.

Now then, the generic beats. Drum lines are made up of two basic parts: the beat, and fills. The beat is something that is regularly repeated, and makes up the meat of the drums for the song. Fills (or fill-ins) are little ditties that the drummer uses either to draw a section of the song to a close, or accent a phrase. Fills are the equivalent of cadences in chordal theory. (qv.) They're not repeated the way beats are, and always occur right at the end of a pattern (or half-pattern).

Techno beat:  BHOH :|          ...[yawn]  Use this in very small doses.
Dance beat:   BHOHSHOH :|      ...A cheesy variation on techno.
Dance fill 1: BHHHSHHS         ...This fill is the most common fill ever
Dance fill 2: BHHHBHSSS(S)     ...This is a worse fill than 1, but less common.
Rock beat:    BHHHSHHH :|      ...Blah!!!  Even worse than Dance.
Hiphop beat:  BHHHSHBSBSBHSHHH :|.Track this one and see.  Could be worse.
Hiphop fill:  BHHHSHBSBSBHSHSS ...Fairly nice, but common.

...When tracking drums, you must be intimately aware of your friend and bitter enemy, 'Copy-Paste.' While drums should always follow a distinct pattern, they must still feel alive. They need energy here, a pause there, syncapation in between, and gradually fluctuating volume. Most importantly, you must match the feel of the music. Rhythm is an integral part of your music, not some mechanical loop that you throw in there so someone can dance to it.

Try and keep a balance between chaos and pattern. Since we're talking about drums here, I'll explain why that's important about drums, but you should strive for this balance in every section of your piece, even in the piece as a whole. While chaos is the spice of life (or is that variety? Six of one...), patterns are what allow people to identify to your music. Think of it as a metaphor for people: every person has a need to feel origional, to be something greater than just another clone. There must be something special about them, or they begin to feel unimportant and depressed (which may well be their way of becoming origonal, as it were). At the same time, no person can be so far removed from his/her comrades that they loose a sense of connection (love, if you prefer) to others... No man is an island, as they say. People's morals and direction all flow from a need for conformity, society... Call it what you will.

Your music (your rhythms, in this case) must be alive in this same way. Your listener must be able to identify with it... Which is why you choose a basic rhythm (as above) or simple samples or on-the-beat tracking. Yet you must still apply the chaos (the spice, the variety)... This can be done through unusual samples, or complex rhythmic themes, or unusual time signatures, or by abandoning those generic styles we listed above. Both of these lists should be read with an EXCLUSIVE 'or', though.

What do I mean? I mean you would be ill-advised to use bizarre drum samples and an odd rhythmic theme and track it all in 7-beats-per-pattern. Why? No one will be able to follow it. It's too much... Too weird. At the same time, you can't take a generic snare drum and a generic kick bass, and go BSBSBSBSBS the whole song through. Why? It's BORING!

Try to think of all these aspects being rated... You've got rhythmic themes, samples, speed, beats-per-pattern, and style all on a scale of -10 to 10, where 10 is something everyone everywhere has heard a LOT of, and -10 is totally unheard of. What you should strive for is an END TOTAL of 0, once you add up all of the categories (rhythm, time, speed, etc). An example: you can use a generic techno beat (BHOH:|) (rated an 8 on rhythm) if you use a weird 'bosh' vocal sound for the hi-hat, a 'doink' for the open hat, and a sample of a 10-ton I-beam being slammed with a sledgehammer as your bassdrum (about a -8). Why is this cool? 'Cause people can follow the beat (they've heard techno a bizillion times before), but they don't get bored, because the samples are fresh. If you used the same samples is a weird B.O.OH.BB.HHH.BBOBOO.O.H:| pattern, people will go "WTF?!?" and delete your song on the spot. Conversely, if you took those samples from Second Reality, you'd have your listeners yawning half-way through it, always asking "okay, when's the cool part?" and still deleting your file. : )

Balance. That's the Zen of tracking rhythms.

Oh, and, uhh... Watch your volumes, too. There's nothing quite as annoying as a hihat on full volume.


MusicTheory101|Chords | Bass | Leads | Fine Tuning

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Updated Sept 17th, 1997
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