recording blog #2: beat selection
Q: What’s your favorite beat?
When I first started making music as BEDM, I composed beats on an MPC 2000. My main objective was to make them sound like ‘real’ drums. Then I discovered the turntable, and all it took was a decent breaks record before I realized my love of the drum kit as a whole instrument rather than just a collection of different drum sounds. That was when I recorded ‘Pleasure’, and I prefer working with ‘real’ drum performances to this day.
Every BEDM song starts off with a general idea of key and tempo, and some very specific syncopated parts in mind. Syncopated just means things match up—they’re accented—like a bass, guitar or sax line where the drums will definitely be playing something very specific. So I drop the needle into one of the grooves of a breaks record looking for a drum performance that matches the general tempo of one of songs I’m working on. My turntable, a standard Technics 1200, seems to be able to shift the pitch one ‘step’ in each direction, as well as change 33 rpm to 45 rpm (I use this method a couple times on the new disc). Changing the pitch of a sound changes it’s ‘tempo’ too, so I have a bit of ‘wiggle room’ with beats in finding something that ‘fits’. Sometimes I find a beat that has elements in it which are EXACTLY what I am looking for, but usually I need to manipulate the turntable a bit to ‘tweak’ it and make it accent appropriately. Once the break or series of drum ‘performances’ is recorded into the computer, I start chopping it/them into useful pieces. On the song ‘!!!’, that sounds like this:
As you can see, I found a (disco) beat that matches the general tempo I was looking for and chopped it up so that it syncopates with the bass and sax, which I will be recording over the top of the beat in the future. In time, the syncopations in the latter half of the beat will be reinforced by a tom tom drum, a low synth ‘hit’, and the sound of a cassette deck opening and snapping shut.
This week is really a combination of two totally different steps in the recording: beat selection and drum editing. I could go on for hours about beat selection, and I DO go on for hours while editing drums. So I’ll do my best to be brief about the former, while sparing you the boring details of the latter (imagine hours and hours of a dude slumped forward in a chair staring at a screen and sipping coffee every 5 minutes—I think that covers it…).
Basically, I hope each BEDM song takes the listener somewhere new, so I look for beats that don’t convey any sort of ‘cultural baggage’. That’s not to say ‘cultural baggage’ is a bad thing. In fact, it’s an incredibly useful ingredient in the right context. Part of what makes hip hop so fun is it’s constant references to past works. The ‘thief’ part of sampling isn’t just finding effective musical sounds, it also makes a statement about the artist, what they like, and what/who they associate with. When I listen to Paul’s Boutique, I get pretty stoked about all of the Beastie Boys’ samples. It’s not just a proclamation of the Beastie Boys’ rhymes and philosophies, it’s a celebration of all kinds of great music and, coupled with some awesome moog lines and turntable textures, Paul’s Boutique comes off as a unique work which stands on it’s own. It’s a ‘new’ thing, even some 20 years later.
On the furthest end of the ‘cultural baggage’ spectrum stand the clever ‘mashups’ of Girl Talk. His songs aren’t just skillful conglomerations of sound, they’re collisions of successful brands. It’s your favorite Starbucks caramel mixed into your favorite melted Snickers bar dumped liberally over the top of your favorite Voodoo Donut. It’s a barrage of familiar flavors, expertly concocted, and easily digested. But the effect isn’t just musical, each sample in a GT song is likely to bring forth a memory and/or cultural association in the listener’s mind. Every memory triggered—every moment that particular song was the soundtrack for—every memory comes washing back and into a new light. The associations linked to the original work, be they West coast rap or classic rock samples—each association is now digestible and chopped into a convenient sample sized cup anyone can choke down—while profusely shaking ass. That’s a potent recording technique indeed.
So I enjoy the various examples of sample based music. As a songwriter, however, I really want the listener to go somewhere completely ‘new’. So I look for beats and samples I think work toward that end. I’ll write more about that in a couple weeks when I talk more specifically about sampling from vinyl. For now, the beat is selected, tweaked, and edited. The ‘table’ has been set, and we’re ready start adding more goodies.
Next time: bass synth.