Beats, Windows 98-Style

It’s been a while since I blogged here. In the meantime I’ve been working a lot on my rock band Mescalito… but some blog ideas have been simmering in the back of my mind.

Today’s post is a quick chat about a creativity-boosting project I thought of. I’ll be making a drumloop a day, every day of December 2016 and uploading them to my Soundcloud.

I was recently producing beats for my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska. I enjoyed trying to imitate the likes of Madlib, using compressor and EQ plugins etc. to make our live performances as fat as possible. For this month’s project, though, I’ll just focus on drum programming. I’m inspired by another bandmate, Ben Prevo’s, song-a-day project where he used whatever was at hand to make a more-or-less finished product each day.

To avoid the rabbit hole of tweaking FX plugins, and for a healthy dose of nostalgia, I’ll only use software available in the year 2000!

Hammerhead.png
Hammerhead Rhythm Station (Bram Bos, 2000)
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Drumsynth 2.0 (Paul Kellett, 2000)

To me, these programs evoke a different world. I imagine bedroom tinkerers sharing coding techniques, knowledge of analog and digital hardware, and a love of dance music. Bram Bos’ program even displays his student email address, from a Dutch university. The last days of a smaller, less consolidated internet.

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The intro screen for Hammerhead

If you had a PC back then, your music-making options were limited to MIDI sequencing, basic layering of samples, trackers – or free programs like these.

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This screenshot took a bit of effort to find – it’s easy for the history of a scene like PC music software to disappear into the ether … Massiva, another program I was messing around with around the year 2000

The nicest thing about (my fantasy of) the 90s is the DIY mentality. The tools are by amateurs and rely on no-one else’s file formats or software. These guys saw a problem, coded up a solution and gave it to the world. That still happens today but you are far less likely to hear of it in the hyped and moneyed tech/startup landscape of today.

Admittedly, some of those pioneers monetised their work. Drumsynth 2 is now bundled with FL Studio.

I say “pioneers”, but the reason there was a space for pioneering, is that the professional music world had little time for PCs. PC music was a nerdy little field, obsessed with emulating “realer”, cooler sounds – a vibe you can pick up by browsing old magazines.

The presets in Drumsynth 2 do try to emulate iconic drum machines – but the little synth can’t really hack it and the noises are crude. I kind of like that though. To recap, I’m using 20-year-old free software to get a sound roughly (but not convincingly) like 40-year-old drum machines.

Having a small number of samples (20 preset, 6 custom, only 6 channels) in Hammerhead, my drum machine, forces me to listen closely to how sounds work together. No delay or reverb makes me strive for other ways of creating depth: volume differences, layered and interlocking syncopations, and expressive, varied timbres.

I’ll be pushing the software past what it was designed to do. Hammerhead does 4/4 beats in 16th notes only. By using odd numbers of bars, though, this can be got around (e.g. 5 bars of 4/4 can be 4 bars of 5/4). Similarly, the shuffle control can be abused for some beat-bending tricks, if the given 4/4 grid is disregarded.

So in a humble way this project might represent some DIY values from the hacker and demo-scenes of my idealised 90s – which were all about overcoming computational limitations.

By the way, those 4/4 grids are how I first learned rhythm, at the age of 12 or so (first in a MIDI sequencer, then in Hammerhead). Here is my first ever beat, from 2001:

And here is the first drumline of my month of beats, Windows 98-style. (Try this direct link if the soundcloud embedding doesn’t display below.)

Loop The Loop

Making loops is a useful skill for musicians, whether for practising, making demos or producing. The basics are easy, but here are some handy extra techniques I’ve picked up.

Zoom Button
Zoom in!

Often, I’m sampling a repeated riff from a live performance. As it’s repetitive, I can usually see a resemblance between the start and end points. In this example, I visually identify the equivalent point (before the three large oscillations) on the kick drum hits at the start and end.

Matching
This amount of zoom is nice for identifying the waveform of a single hit

Sometimes I can get a nicer loop by not matching equivalent hits. In this example, the beat has a heavy laid-back feel.

I can add to that by ending of my loop some milliseconds later (I could also put the start point early). This delays the start of the loop every time it cycles around, adding to the drama the drummer creates there.

Laid Back 2
Original & delayed end point

 

 

There are no rules about whether to add or remove time, it’s personal taste. Here, the expressive grooving/microtiming allows space for interpretations.

There’s one technique that gives a lot of extra options: sample a segment but start and end on a different beat than beat 1. (Even though the finished loop will start on beat 1). This is useful e.g. when an unwanted noise from the bar before spills over beat 1 of the groove.

In this example, I played a wrong note at the very end of the two-bar pattern.

The answer is to shift my loop points a half-beat earlier, so I miss out on the mistake and replace it with the equivalent half-beat of material from before my original loop.

8th Note Back
Shifting back by half a beat

The final step would be to cut and paste so that what should be beat 1 comes at the start of the loop.

In the example above, I was careless and left a click at the end of the loop. After checking back, I saw that I had caught the start of a snare hit by accident – fixable by shifting my end point. But these glitches can also come from mismatches in sound pressure level – where the loop ends at a different volume to its beginning.

The solution is to fade in the first few milliseconds and fade out the last few milliseconds.

Zero Point
After a fade-out and a fade-in, the loop now ends and starts at zero

Any techniques of your own? Problems you’re trying to solve? Or better ways to do what I’m doing? Please comment!

[All music examples by permission of Dylan Lynch and Max Zaska, with whom I’ve been jamming to brainstorm a brand-new recording project.]