Knowing how to give your beats variation and complexity is an essential skill as a musician or producer, whatever the genre. Get started producing complex beats with this beginner’s guide.
By DJ Pangburn
In the early days of electronic music-making, bedroom producers were pretty content just to make nice four-to-the-floor or New Wave pop grooves. Over time, some musicians wanted to add complexity to beats, as well as to the overall instrumentation. For a few musicians and producers, this drive grew more and more intriguing, if not slightly addictive.
There are different schools of thought on adding complexity to beats. Some people might be content adding layers of percussion to their beats, while others might want to play with timing. And others might play with programs like MaxMSP and Pure Data (see: Autechre, Plaid, and Jamie Lidell) to automate their beats, or use the piano roll on programs like Ableton Live and Fruity Loops to quickly add percussion sounds and notes to their work.
In the sections below, we explore some ways to make beats more variable and complex. The goal here is to break out of the four-to-the-floor or even basic hip-hop beats often heard in mainstream dance and rap.
Obviously, there are many different ways of programming complex beats. The techniques below aren’t exhaustive, and they probably won’t surprise the most seasoned electronic instrument hardware and software users. But, for novices looking to expand their beatmaking palette, the aim is to give you a little toolbox for breaking out of typical percussion frameworks.
1. Sequence Beats with Flow Motion Synth
For this first experiment, we used Flow Motion Synth. Not just to exploit the sonic characteristics of this FM synthesizer, but to play around with its Snapshot and Note sequencers. Although these two sequencers weren’t exactly designed for drum sequencing, Flow Motion comes with some awesome beat presets, and with a little experimentation, you can create a beat that’s atypical and fun.
To start, we loaded Flow Motion onto a MIDI track in Ableton. Within Flow Motion, we placed the “808 Short Kick” on the first snapshot of the Snapshot sequencer in the A preset menu.
Oscillators 1 and 3 both are set to Noise waveforms, while Oscillators 2 and 4 are Sine and Saw waves, respectively. Both Oscillators 2 and 4 are detuned to give the 808 Short Kick more of a low-end thud than you hear in electronic music. We also gave it some Drive and Distortion to dirty up the sound, and a little reverb just for fun.
Using the B preset setting to demo “DR Long Clap”, we copied and pasted the clap sound to the second snapshot in the A preset setting. (At the top of Flow Motion, you can toggle between A and B preset settings. If you’re designing sounds and sequencing in A, it’s useful to toggle over to B to demo sounds without changing anything in A.) Oscillators 1 and 2 are both square waves, and by making 3 and 4 Noise waveforms, the handclap becomes harsher, more industrial—and a little like static.
The only two active snapshots are these two—the Kick and Handclap. To trigger the notes, we used Note Sequencer—with all of its 16 steps activated—set to a 1/16th tempo. Below, you can hear the result. It’s already kind of unique, like something you might hear Autechre do.
To add some more complexity to the beat, we placed a new instance of Flow Motion on another MIDI track. For our sound source, we used the DR Hihat Line, which has a number of highly tweaked hi-hat sounds across the 16 snapshots of the Snapshot Sequencers. But, once again, we only used snapshots 1 and 2 in the Snapshot Sequencer.
All four oscillators are active in Snapshot 1. Oscillators 1 and 4 are both Noise waveforms, while Oscillators 2 and 3 are Square and Sawtooth waves, respectively. For Oscillator 3, we pitched it up, so it had more of a metallic quality.
In Snapshot 2, Oscillators 1, 2, and 4 are active—they are Saw, Square, and Noise waveforms, respectively. Snapshot 2 is more industrial sounding than Snapshot 1. But, to set them more sonically apart, we pitched Oscillators 1 and 2 down.
In the Note Sequencer, we set it to 1/16th tempo like Flow Motion Track 1. But not all steps are active, as we muted steps 3, 7, 9, and 16. This gives our sequence a more syncopated, irregular sound when compared to Flow Motion Track 1.
You can hear Flow Motion Track 2 in the first audio clip below. In the second clip, you can hear them both together.
Together, the two instances of Flow Motion create a pretty sequenced beat. It’s experimental but not too abstract. It’s on the IDM side of things—again, like Autechre—but it also has a hint of the forward momentum you’d expect from the Kosmische Musik of the 1970s and 1980s.
To add a little something to it, we sequenced an ambient pad using Flow Motion. Instead of sequencing an equally abstracted pad, we opted for something melodic—a little nod to bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Cluster.
2. Edit Step Lengths for Each Beat Element
Another good technique for adding some complexity to beats is by getting creative with a sequencer’s step lengths. Kick drums, for instance, could be programmed in semi-random fashion over a 48-step (or three bar) sequence, while snare drums could hit more consistently on the 5th and 13th steps in a 16-step sequence (typical of a 4-to-the-floor dance beat). Hi-hats and handclaps could also have different step lengths, so that when played all at once the overall beat wouldn’t sound very typical.
In the beat below, we do something similar to what we described above. Using a Teenage Engineering OP-Z, we input some kicks on a 5-bar (80-step) sequence. To do this on an OP-Z, the user gets additional bars of 16-steps by slowing the playback speed down, but they have to input the steps in live recording mode. Listen to the kick sequence in the audio clip below.
*Other drum machines with powerful sequencers don’t typically work this way. They usually have something like a 64-step sequencer, and then the patterns can be expanded by pattern chaining.
After recording a 5-bar kick on the OP-Z, we move to the snare. For the snare, we create a standard 48-step sequence (3 bars), with hits falling on the 2nd, 5th, 10th, 13th, and 16th steps. In a pretty standard 4-to-the floor beat, the snare would hit on the 5th and 13th steps, so we’ve already added some more variety. And because the sequence loops back to the beginning after three bars, it starts creating some variation with the 5-bar kick. (*Note: there are also two different snare sounds—one sound can be heard on the 2nd, 9th, and 16th steps, and the other on the 5th and 13th, which creates some variation in sound. There is also some delay and reverb on the snare.)
In the first audio clip below, you can hear the 48-step snare sequence. In the second audio recording, you can hear the kick and snare together. Note how they fall in and out of sync because of their different step lengths, giving the overall beat a more random quality.
While you can hear the variation, it still doesn’t sound complete. And it might need a bit of rhythmic grounding. So, for the hi-hat sequence we’ve opted for a 64-step (4-bar) sequence to provide a beat element that stabilizes it.
And for just a little more variation, we added a 64-step sequence track with some samples. The samples aren’t anything special—just some different types of noise. But this sequence gives it atmosphere and slightly more rhythmic variation.
For some melodic contrast, we played a four-chord melody using PD Noon Pad in Flow Motion, with some H-Reverb for more atmosphere. Like the hi-hat sequence, the melody also serves to ground the various beat elements that are out of phase.
This irregular beat, along with the basic but spacious melody, is something you might hear on a Plaid or Björk track. It’s kind of experimental but still has a grounding in pop music song structure.
3. Randomize Drum Sequences
Many drum machines have functions for randomizing sequences. The Arturia DrumBrute, for instance, has a Random function, and the Elektron Digitakt has what are called “Trig Conditions,” which allow users to dial in the probability of when a step in a particular drum track (a kick, snare, hi hat, etc.) will be triggered or even muted.
A number of other drum machines and sequencers, both hardware and software, allow this kind of random, probabilistic type of sequencing. For our recordings below, we used an Elektron Digitakt. But again, you can do something similar in DAWs like Ableton, Logic and others.
In our first track, the 64-step Kick drum sequence, the active steps are 1, 3, 13, 14 in the first 16-step sequence. The same steps are active for the next three 16-step sequences in our loop. So, for instance, in the second 16-step sequence, steps 17, 19, 29, and 30 are active and so on for the next two bars. On the Digitakt, the step sequencer’s numbers only go from 1 to 16, so those are the active numbers in the second, third and fourth bars.
Next, we programmed these active steps (across the 64-step sequence) to trigger according to probability percentages. Some are very low, like 18%, meaning there is a low probability that the kick will get triggered. Others are set to 87%, meaning there is a higher probability that the sequencer will trigger the kick. You can hear this below. Even though steps are active across the 64 steps, nothing is regular about the kick sequence because they are being triggered according to the probability we programmed.
*Note: Obviously, not all drum machines and samplers function like the Digitakt. So, you’ll have to explore probability on other machines like, say, the Roland MC-707 or within your DAW’s sequencing capabilities.
Similarly, we randomized some snare sequences. You can hear the first randomized snare sequence in the first audio clip below. Steps 1, 4, 8, 9, 11, 12, and 14 are active across the 64-step sequence, with different probabilities for each. In the second recording, you can hear the second randomized snare sequence. Steps 6, 11, and 16 are active across the 64-step sequence, each given a different probability of being triggered by the sequencer. (Note: Each of these snare sequences has a 64-step sequence to give the Digitakt’s sequencer lots of time to create variation.) And for our hi hat, we activated steps 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 14 on a 16-step, and gave all but the first two steps a mix of various probabilities.
Now, we will play all three beat sequences together. To give it a more musical quality, we created a melodic synth sequence.
The melody, which isn’t random, grounds the random beat elements. As a result, there is some complexity to the beat, without fully spilling over into pure abstraction.
Some Final Thoughts
As we said in the intro, there are a number of ways to create more complex beats. By practicing over weeks, months and years, you will undoubtedly learn some intuitively by experimentation, or by studying what works for others.
Again, if you’re looking for a few places to start, try the techniques detailed above. Play around with Flow Motion’s drum sounds, or sculpt your own using the FM synth, and then experiment with the Snapshot and Note sequencers. And if you’re using other drum machines and sequencers, like the OP-Z, Digitakt, or even Ableton Live or Logic, mess around with different step lengths and randomized sequences.
Ideally, these three different techniques will get you thinking outside the box of typical drum programming.
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