Kim Lajoie's blog

Drum programming – Expectation and Excitement

by Kim Lajoie on July 9, 2009

This post is about drum programming, but these prinicpals apply to all aspects of rhythmic composition (including basslines, melody, etc). Additionally, these principals are applicable to drum patterns of arbitrary (any) complexity, but for simplicity we will be primarily concerning ourselves with the four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern often heard in popular club music.

A little more on drum patterns of arbitrary complexity. The important thing to remember here is that everything is relative to the normal. That may sound somewhat obvious, but I’ll explain further. A static (looped) drum pattern can only be interesting for a limited amount of time. After hearing the repetition several times, we (the listener) know what to expect. However complex this drum pattern is, repetition makes it the normal. If, after a few iterations, we change the loop, we (the listener) will be surprised in some way… but if this variation is then looped, it becomes the new pattern – it becomes the new normal upon which we build our new expectations.

So basically, we will discuss two patterns – the normal, and the variation. The normal is what has been repeated, and what the listener expects. The variation is a new loop that is very similar to the normal, but different enough to surprise the listener.

Expectation

We can create expectation by removing notes from our variation. The sense of expectation is created because the listener expects (from the normal) a certain note to exist, but it does not. You might say the listener “wants” something to be there, but it is not, so the listener is kept “wanting”.

For example:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,_ * * *

or:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,* _ * *

If these examples don’t make immediate sense, imagine that the first four beats (“normal”) are repeated several times before the next four beats (“variation”) are played. If it still doesn’t work, turn up the volume.

We can take this idea further if we look at the concept that rhythmic patterns usually have a hierarchy of “strong” and “weak” beats. Beats 1 and 3 are usually the strongest (at least in modern popular music), then 2 and 4 are weaker. The rhythmic positions “between” the beats are weaker still, etc.

Coming back to our discussion of expectation, we might observe that removing notes on strong beats tends to (comparatively) emphasise the weaker beats. This enhances the expectation because it creates more tension – the pattern wants to “resolve”. Some examples:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,_ * * *

or:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,* * _ *

Or deviating from four-on-the-floor:

Code:
normal   variation
1 2 3 4 ,1 2 3 4
*  ** **,*  *_ **

Again, imagine that the “normal” pattern is repeated several times before the “variation” is played.

Alternatively, we could remove notes on weak beats. Comparatively, this tends to emphasise the strong beats, and thus doesn’t create as much tension, and doesn’t reinforce the expectation. Examples:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,* _ * *

or:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,* * * _

You’ll observe that creating expectation by removing weak beats is generally not as effective as removing strong beats. In fact, removing weak beats is more effective at thinning the texture, and this is what is more likely to be percieved.

Excitement

The flip side of expectation is excitement. Excitement in rhythmic patterns can be created by adding notes in. Example:

normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,* * ***
normal  variation
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
* * * *,* * * **

The reason this creates excitement is that the listener is (from the “normal”) expecting nothing, and in it’s place they get something. Onother way of looking at it is that the listener hears something before they expect it. We can extend this technique by observing that when an added note is close to an existing note, the added note can associate with its neighbour.

To show an example of this, we’ll need to double our resolution:

normal         variation
1   2   3   4  1   2   3   4
*   *   *   * ,*  **   *   **

When an added note associates with an existing one, it can have an effect of reinforcing the existing note. Additionally, the position of the added note (whether it comes before or after the existing note) can also have an effect on how the existing note is reinforced.

If the added note comes before the existing note that it associates with (variation, beat 2), then it tends to create the illusion that the existing note comes earlier than expected. This creates excitement for precisely that reason – the note comes earlier than the listener expects.

If the added note comes after the existing note that it associates with (variation, beat 4), the effect is that of strengthening the existing note, or elongating it (making it longer).

-Kim.

6 thoughts on “Drum programming – Expectation and Excitement

  1. Mark Maxwell says:

    Hey Kim, Fantastic post.

    It is really great when someone can clearly and concisely explain a concept that many of us use but don’t know why or how it works.

    It has really sparked the passion to experiment more with the drum (and rhythm) patterns in my own music. Thank you.

    Mark

    ps. I’ve added your blog to my “Must read blogs” on my blog so hopefully you get a few more readers coming your way. I have enjoyed what you have been writing. Keep it up.

  2. fab says:

    kim, i have been a little obsessed with small variations in drum sounds like analog synths are said to produce or intentionally modulated synths or using similar but slightly different samples in round robin fashion.

    on recently i found that many of the grooves i really like are made with machines that did not even permit much variations – still they seem to work. so maybe it’s more about good rhythmic programming and sample choice than maxing out sound/timbre variations?

    (i have not yet much experience in sampling and programming, i am more of an instrument player. i love tracks of the likes of jazzanova, prefuse73, j.dilla and am not interested in static techno stuff.)

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    @fab
    Two ideas come to mind for me –
    1) This is definitely a matter of personal preference. You are on a journey to identify what aspects of programmed rhythms you like, and *why* you like them.
    2) I’m curious as to why you’ve become a little obsessed with something that seems unrelated to what you like about programmed drums.

    -Kim.

  4. fab says:

    well, thing is, i like jazz and electronic stuff, but i don’t like mechanically repetitive, loopy “lounge” music where samples are obviously repeated in a boring way.

    i read some good stuff about analog synths – and came about peole raving a lot about the small deviations that purportedly make for a live, organic sound.

    so my conclusion was that i need to have this micro-variation in sound to make stuff interesting. which makes for very complicated/convoluted drum programming (so it’s difficult to finish a song as a result). e.g. using guru to send stuff to konktakt with multisamples in it and so on, instead of having some one shots in guru and just work on the patterns and groove.

    so maybe i should focus more on rhythm, timing and using some interesting percussive sounds.

  5. fab says:

    (and kim, thanks so much for your sound musical advice.

    it’s refreshing and almost surprising to read something on the internet that does NOT add up to: get this vintage machine and that rare, obscure and expensive other thing, and THEN you’ll make good music…)

  6. Kim Lajoie says:

    @fab
    I think your suspicions are correct – you need to focus more on rhythms and interesting sounds. Minor subtle variations might be interesting to drum machine connoisseurs, but usually don’t make much difference in the context of a finished piece of music.

    -Kim.

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