Following our interview with author Dennis DeSantis, we can start your weekend with some sage advice from his book Making Music. While published by Ableton, this isn’t an Ableton book. It lies as the boundary of software and music, at the contact points of creativity in the tool.
For a CDM exclusive excerpt, I wanted to highlight two chapters. One deals with the question of how to overcome default settings – this cries out as almost a public service announcement for people making 120 bpm 4/4 tunes because that’s what pops up when you start a new project in Live and many other DAWs. The other looks at programming drums by grounding patterns in the physical – it’s no accident that Dennis is himself a trained percussionist.
Even if you did land a copy of the printed edition already, this seems a perfect “book club” affair for us to share. Thanks to Dennis and Ableton for making them available; I hope it lights a spark for you and people you know. -Ed.
The Tyranny of the Default
Every time you’re inspired to start a new song, you open your DAW and are immediately terrified by the blank project. Maybe you have a simple melody, bass line, or drum part in your head. But in order to hear it, you first have to load the appropriate instruments, set the tempo, maybe connect a MIDI controller, etc. By the time you’ve gotten your DAW to a state where you can actually record, you’ve either lost the motivation or you’ve forgotten your original musical idea.
Because DAWs have to cater to a wide range of users, they are often designed to work out of the box with a collection of default options and a basic screen layout that will be offensive to no one but probably also not optimal for anyone. This inevitably leads to a phenomenon that software developers call “the tyranny of the default”: Since most users will never change their default software options, the seemingly small decisions made by developers may have a profound effect on the way users will experience the software every day.
Here’s how to overcome the tyranny of the default in your own studio.
Rather than allowing your DAW to dictate the environment in which you’ll start each track, take the time to build your own default or template project. People often think of templates as blank slates containing a bare minimum of elements, and most default templates provided by DAWs are exactly that; maybe one or two empty tracks, perhaps a return track containing a single effect. But if you regularly start work in a similar way (and even if you don’t), building a template that’s unique to your musical preferences and working style can save you lots of time when you start a new song, allowing you to more quickly capture an initial musical idea from your head into your DAW.
For example, many DAWs set a default tempo of 120 bpm for new projects. If you tend to work in a genre that is generally in a different range of tempos, save yourself time by saving your template with a more appropriate tempo. Additionally, your DAW’s default project likely makes a lot of assumptions about how many output channels you’ll be using (usually two), as well as more esoteric settings like sample rate, bit depth, and even the interface’s color scheme. If you prefer different settings, don’t change them every time you start a new song. Instead, make these changes once and save them in your own template.
Additionally, if you regularly use a particular collection of instruments and/or effects, try pre-loading them into tracks in your DAW and saving them into your template. If you have a go-to sound that you use for sketching out ideas (maybe a sampled piano or a particular preset), preload that preset in your template and even arm the track for recording. This way you can be ready to play and record as soon as the project is loaded.
Some DAWs even allow you to create templates for different types of tracks. For example, if you regularly use a particular combination of effects on each track (such as a compressor and EQ), you could preload these devices—and even customize their parameters—into your default tracks. Then each time you create a new track in any project, you’ll have these effects in place without needing to search through your library of devices.
If you regularly work in a variety of genres, you should consider making multiple templates, each one customized for the different sounds and working methods you prefer. Even if your DAW doesn’t natively support multiple templates, you can still create your own collection; you’ll just need to remember to Save As as soon as you load one, so you don’t accidentally overwrite it.
Some producers, recognizing the value of a highly customized template project, have even started selling templates containing nearly (or even completely) finished songs, with the stated goal that newer producers can use these to learn the production techniques of the pros. If that’s really how you intend to use them, then these are a potentially valuable learning resource. But be careful to avoid just using these as “construction kits” for your own music. This is potentially worse than working from an empty default and is a grey area between original music and paint-by-numbers copying (or worse, outright plagiarism).
Programming Beats 4: Top, Bottom, Left, Right
From listening to a lot of music, you have a general understanding of how to program beats that sound similar to those in the music that inspires you. But you don’t really have a sense of how the various drums in a drum kit relate to each other or the way human drummers think when they sit down at the drums and play. As a result, you’re concerned that your programmed beats are either too mechanical sounding or are simply the result of your own interpretation and guesswork about what you hear in other music.
Even if you have no intention of writing “human”-sounding drum parts, it can be helpful to understand some of the physical implications of playing a real drum kit. Here are some ways that drummers approach their instrument.
At a philosophical level, a drum kit can be thought of as divided into top and bottom halves. The top half includes all of the cymbals: the hi-hat, ride, crashes, and possibly more esoteric cymbals like splashes, Chinese cymbals, gongs, etc. These are the “top” half for two reasons: They’re both physically higher than the drums, and they also occupy a higher range in the frequency spectrum. In contrast, the bottom half is the drums themselves: the kick, snare, and toms. (The snare is a special case and can be thought of as somewhere in between the top and the bottom in frequency. But for our purposes, let’s consider it part of the bottom group).
Drummers tend to unconsciously approach beat making from either the “top down” or the “bottom up,” depending primarily on genre. Jazz drumming beats, for example, are generally built from the top down, with the ride cymbal pattern being the most important element, followed by the hi-hat (played by the foot). In this context, the kick and snare drum serve to accent or interrupt the pattern which is established by the cymbals. A typical jazz drumming pattern might look like this:
In contrast, rock, pop, or R&B drumming beats are built from the bottom up, with the interplay between the kick and the snare comprising the most important layer and the hi-hat or ride cymbal patterns serving as a secondary element. A typical rock drumming pattern might look like this:
Note that in both jazz and rock beats, the cymbals generally play simple, repeating patterns, while the kick and snare play gestures that are more asymmetrical. But in jazz, those simple cymbal patterns are fundamental signifiers of the genre. In rock, the cymbal patterns are secondary in importance, while the asymmetrical kick and snare gestures are what define the music.
An awareness of these drumming concepts might give you some things to think about when writing your own electronic drum parts. Are you thinking from the top (cymbals) down, or from the bottom (kick and snare) up? Is the genre you’re working in defined by repeating patterns (such as the steady four-on-the-floor kick drum of house and techno) or by asymmetrical gestures (such as the snare rolls used for buildups in trance)?
In addition to the top/bottom dichotomy, drummers also must make decisions along the left/right axis when determining how a particular pattern is divided between the left and right hands. On a drum kit, some of this is determined by the physical location of the instruments. But for an instrument like a hi-hat that can be reached by either hand, there is often a subtle difference in sound depending on how the pattern is played. For example, consider the following beat:
At slow-to-moderate tempos, most drummers would probably play the hi-hat part with one hand, leaving the other free for the snare drum. But once the tempo becomes too fast, it’s no longer possible to play a continuous stream of sixteenth notes with one hand. At this point, many drummers would switch to playing the hi-hat with alternating sticking, each stroke with the opposite hand. But this requires some compromises: Beats two and four require both hands to be playing together, so the player must either move one hand very quickly between the snare and hi-hat or play at least two consecutive hi-hat notes with the same hand. In both cases, there will likely be a slightly different resulting sound. Even the subtle physical differences between two drumsticks can result in a different sound versus when a pattern is played with a single hand.
Of course, none of these physical restrictions apply to the electronic domain by default. There’s no inherent physical speed limit and no need for any notion of “alternating stickings.” At any tempo, consecutive notes can sound completely identical if that’s your intent. But if you’d like to apply some of the sonic characteristics that come about as a result of these human restrictions, you can do so manually. For example, you could try creating a very small change in velocity for every other note in a repeating pattern. Or with a bit more work, you could actually use a slightly different sound for every other note. Some software samplers have a feature called “round robin” that automatically plays a different sample with each key press.
Thinking like a drummer can be a useful exercise when writing beats for any genre—even ones that have no overt relationship to acoustic music at all.