Reveal your secrets

July 10, 2008 11:51 AM

What makes a good rhythm section groove?

When you're writing a song, what is your secret to putting together the parts in the rhythm section so that they hang together right?

I've been thinking about this regarding both live instruments and drum machines/electronic instruments.
posted by umbú (20 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

I'm boring; I try to keep bass notes and noteworthy percussion hits in sync, to give the bass more punch and keep things cohesive. I don't know if I'd call that a secret...more like rhythm section 101.
posted by davejay at 1:31 PM on July 10, 2008

This is maybe a little counter-intuitive, but one thing I've learned is relying too much on click tracks doesn't help me. I prefer to let tempos drift a little bit, so long as it's not annoyingly so.
posted by kingbenny at 2:24 PM on July 10, 2008

Agreed... sometimes to get a good groove you need to break free from the grid just a tiny bit. A tip: Some people like to do a subtle tempo change as they go into the chorus. Just upping the tempo by 1-3bpm or something. It can give a sense of urgency and almost a "diving in" feeling as you enter a new section of a song. A good bass riff in that transition helps.
posted by edlundart at 3:53 PM on July 10, 2008

If I have any secret at all I guess it'd be that I remain steadfastly inconsistent in how I approach recording rhythm parts. Sometimes I'll start with a click, sometimes I won't use one at all. Sometimes I'll start by laying down a bass drum (or some other low-ish drum) and sometimes I'll start by putting down a track of bongos or darabukka. Or sandpaper, or finger snaps.

Sometimes I play parts with certain little percussion instruments I have, like little bells (with clappers inside), or little wooden bells (also with clappers), or very loose rattle-y toys (like baby rattles) that are impossible to be precise with. I play the part precisely, as if I were playing maracas or caxixi or tambourine, but the nature of these little instruments is that there's always some kind of randomization sort of built-in. This results in a certain sort of "precise imprecision" of which I am somehow quite fond. Gives things that certain "untamed sense of control", to borrow a phrase.

Since most folks here are using some sort of computer software for their tracking, here's a suggestion: experiment with moving entire tracks, by the tiniest increments. Two or three clicks maybe, or maybe a little more, in one direction or the other. Sometimes, if you've rushed a part a little, or dragged a little, you can actually slide things into a more comfortable pocket. I used to do that more than I do lately, as I've gradually gotten better at laying down parts where I really want 'em, but I still do that from time to time. It can be interesting to see how doing that with just one part can change the feel of a song.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:10 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes. Yes. I think everyone is getting at something interesting: the way that sometimes (most times) you have to be a little off to be on. I remember fooling around with a delay plug-in on a samba loop and the triplet delay of 33.3% exactly sounded stiff and wrong, but 39% had swing.

What else?
posted by umbú at 8:40 PM on July 10, 2008

flapjax, your last idea of taking a recorded track and moving it over reminds me of the masterful metric displacement that people like Bill Evans or bebop artists do (salt-PEAnuts-SALT-peaNUTS with the same pitches each time). But when you said move it over two or three clicks, were you considering a click to be an eight note, or whatever subdivision you are using with a click track, or just a few samples in a DAW? Either could be interesting, because the little tiny displacement could add friction without changing what's notatable about the song.
posted by umbú at 8:46 PM on July 10, 2008

No no, I'm talking frames or samples or whatever... I don't really know what to call 'em, tell the truth. But I'm not talking musical rhythmic values like 8th or 16th notes or whatever. I mean, just, well, what I'd call infinitesimal movements.

On the other hand, now that you mention it, I have in the past, made dramatic moves of entire tracks on the order of what you've mentioned: back or forward by an 8th note or some such. I can't remember exactly when and on what song I might've done that on, but I've definitely done it, at least once or twice.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:33 PM on July 10, 2008

...the way that sometimes (most times) you have to be a little off to be on.

Or like Nick Lowe said, you got to be cruel to be kind.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:35 PM on July 10, 2008

No doubt about it: As others have said above, rhythm section performances absolutely benefit from leaving in at least a little bit of breathing room, a little subtle swing in the tempo here and there. When every note falls dead-on in a mathematically precise position, you get cheesy 80s video game soundtrack music. Cool if you want to leave listeners feeling like your music might try to assimilate them, but otherwise a little cold and emotionally distancing. That's why anytime I use fake drums (with one recent exception), I always sequence them using a real-time pattern record function on a drum machine with the quantization turned off. This approach let's the tempo drift here and there a bit within the pattern, which makes the end result feel less rigid. (There are probably other ways to achieve the same result, but that's the easiest method to me.)

In terms of the actual construction of the rhythm section, I usually start with the drums (if I'm not recording a song that already has well-developed melodic and rhythmic structures that create practical constraints on the production and composition process). Then I build from the ground up, usually starting with the bass (a useful technique here can be to vary in different degrees between playing parts of the bass line in unison with and as a rhythmic counterpoint to the drums) and then adding layers as needed, until that particular subsection of the rhythm arrangement feels done. Then I treat that whole subsection of the arrangement as if it's a loop and take a sort of loop-based view of building the rest of the arrangement, repeating the subsection as many times as seems to fit the composition and introducing occasional variations if I need to keep things fresh without introducing a completely new subsection. Then this process of building subsections and arranging them repeats as many times as needed until the rhythm section feels done.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:20 AM on July 11, 2008

My secret is booze.

Aside from that, most of the stuff I play without drums is done to a click track for the first track I lay down (usually the uke). After that I base the rhythm of the rest of the tracks on that one, including any sort of rhythm instruments I play afterwards (like the egg or beatboxing or whatever). Otherwise, I record the drums first, without worrying about a click track at all.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 2:02 PM on July 11, 2008

Since others have covered placement, I'll focus on sonic range and this song illustrates perfectly what I'm going to say here.

I think that something that really helps the groove of a song is having the percussion cover the whole spectrum of sound. This is easily done if you are using a regular drumkit (because it has a bass drum, a snare, other drums and the hi-hat) but often neglected when people use minor percussion.

If you are going to use a percussion set different from a drumkit, I think it's very important to always use one instrument at each point of the spectrum (a very bass drum, a medium pitched drum -say, bongoes- a high pitched percussion thing -say, a wooden clave-, and shakers or cabasa to keep it all together). If you use two different shaker thingies (say, a cabasa and shakers, or a güiro and shakers), and you pan each one of them at one end of the mix, you'll get a great groove, and most people won't even notice those instruments are there.

This suggestion might sound like it involves too many instruments -and this is just percussion-, but you can be playing very, very simple things with each one of them (even just accenting things) and the effect will be the same. However simple their part might be, it's better to have all those than not to have them.

In the song I linked to you can hear each of them being introduced at the beginning, and by the time that the rest of the instruments come in, the rhythm is unbeatable.
posted by micayetoca at 7:14 AM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just listened to the samba you graciously uploaded to YouSendIt for us, mica, that was totally cool. Big thanks.

You wrote:

If you use two different shaker thingies (say, a cabasa and shakers, or a güiro and shakers), and you pan each one of them at one end of the mix, you'll get a great groove, and most people won't even notice those instruments are there.

Now, there's one thing about this point that I think bears mentioning: hard panned percussion parts have got to be REALLY solidly played (as they most certainly were in this samba tune), cause if they're not, that hard panning is going to be VERY unforgiving of their imprecision. If you've got parts that aren't as locked and superbly grooving as this samba example, better not to hard pan them, but to blend them tighter into the stereo field. As opposed to 5 o'clock/7 o'clock, more like 2 o'clock/10 o'clock. They'll blend better that way and you'll probably, therefore, wind up with a more pleasing result: a better groove that doesn't shout out glaring deficiencies in the locked-ness* of individual parts.

*as in, the locked-ness monster...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:29 AM on July 12, 2008

Um, Alantl - will you make us a mix tape? You keep uploading the coolest things.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:45 AM on July 12, 2008

if they're not, that hard panning is going to be VERY unforgiving of their imprecision.

I couldn't agree more. And I would like to add that, while the songs I've posted here don't support what I said above (mostly because I'm sloppy when recording and I do most things as demos and not as finished songs), the point should stand on its own -and flapjax is very, very right about precision.

Um, Alantl - will you make us a mix tape? You keep uploading the coolest things.

Gladly. Now, how could we go about it? I kinda feel it would be against the unspoken rules of Music Talk and I wouldn't feel comfortable posting it here, any ideas?
posted by micayetoca at 10:32 AM on July 12, 2008

You could throw together a muxtape and link it in a comment here. That'd be unimpeachable behavior, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by cortex at 11:34 AM on July 12, 2008

Well, since I like to behave unimpeachably, here it is. A tour of Latin America riding chicken buses.
posted by micayetoca at 12:35 PM on July 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

mica, your muxtape playlist is wonderful.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:18 PM on July 12, 2008

Awesome mix! I'm a huge fan of both Cafe Tacvba and El Gran Silencio. I even made it to the Austin City Limits filming of the Cafe Tacvba episode. Those guys are geniuses.
posted by umbú at 9:39 PM on July 12, 2008

Whoa, that was quick! And an absolute delight. Thank you so much, mica.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:37 AM on July 13, 2008

I didn't know what a chicken bus was.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:38 AM on July 13, 2008

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