I’ve wanted to try making a drum and bass (DnB) track for a long time, but thought that it might be too much production time for a Song-A-Day track. This is nonsense, of course, given that I’ve been able to put together some very complex arrangements and mixes in the past. The difference is the style; I’ve never attempted it and am not entirely sure what I’m in for.
It’s a little hard to describe where DnB sits in my world. When I first heard the genre in the mid-90s, I appreciated it as an extension of the dance, techno, and industrial worlds I was more into at the time, but it was a little less accessible. If I had to retroactively assess my feelings, it would be along the lines of, “this is cool, but it this all it does?”
Well, yeah, that kind of is all it does, but that’s the point. “Maybe you’re not ready for it.” It’s not a style that I actively seek out for purchase, and I could only tell you the name of one artist and one track.1 But as my appreciation for systems music increased and I learned that bands like Tangerine Dream also fit in that world, DnB became a little more common in my music selections on any given day.
- Repurposed Asset Ray Toler 4:20
One of the things I like about it is the meditative quality it can provide. That sounds strange since it’s the opposite of what we typically think of as “meditation music.” It’s frenetic, chaotic, and fast. But like a tribal drum circle, the rhythms and repetition start working their magic as you sink into them. And if that’s not where I am at the moment, it’s nice background music that doesn’t demand attention.
DnB is very much a genre that’s about small details. The tiny drum rolls, the subtle timbral shifts in the bass or synths, the micro edits in samples, all of these combine to reward close listening, just like ambient. This leads to two reasons I don’t think I’ve tried making one before. First, I’m not sure I’m well-versed enough in the form to know what to target for editing and, second, I’m lazy.
Get On With It!
Ok, enough trying to talk myself out of this, let’s make a DnB track. It’s going to be formulaic, but that’s ok. Here are the ingredients for this recipe:
- 140+ bpm
- Sped up drum loop (commonly the Amen break) chopped to hell and reassembled
- An optional second beat, fast, but not pitched up
- A deep bass sound without a lot of high frequencies in it
- Cool vocal sample, probably with a lot of delay or reverb
Simple enough, right? Well, it is now. One of the benefits of attempting a style 25 years after first hearing it is that the tools I have at my disposal make a lot of this work easy if not trivial. In 1995, I would have sampled a beat into a hardware sampler, meticulously gone in and isolated individual hits, assigned each to a key, and then recorded my chopped patterns. Hours of work at the very least.
Actually, there’s another technique that I recently learned about while watching one of Christian Henson’s very useful videos. The way he approached something like the Amen break it to pitch the loop up to the appropriate tempo, then map the entire loop on each key, but moving the starting point of each key to the next hit in the pattern. This way, you can hit random keys and still have the beat do interesting things.
If you’re interested in the history of the Amen break (it really is fascinating how it changed and even created entire genres), or watching a veteran of the genre produce a track, I’ve linked two videos in the references section below the colophon.
Ok, back to cheating with modern tools. I’m kidding about cheating, but software really has made things so much easier. In the 00s, Recycle came out and made loop slicing trivial. That functionality is now pretty common in DAWs. There are still a few things that it’s easier to do on hardware, but fiddly sample editing isn’t one of them. I might argue that the inability to see what you were doing meant that the results might not be as accurate, but were often more aurally pleasing, but I’m sure there are tons of examples showing the opposite.
My first thought was to go into Stylus and do my beat chopping there, but I really wanted something closer to the Amen sound – it’s such an iconic part of the style, even if you don’t use the actual break. Instead, I fired up XO again and started scrolling through the preset patterns.
I had already established 160 bpm as my target tempo, and found a pattern in XO already set there. And it sounded… wow. That’s the sound. The pattern was even close to what I had in mind.
As I’ve touched on earlier this month, XO is cool because you can export individual samples, individual parts, or the entire beat as a stereo file all in a single click. This is such a huge timesaver over the way I’ve had to do it in the past. Click, drag, boom. XO provides A and B sections for each pattern, and you can set it to loop A, B, AB, or AAAB.
I made edits to the pattern, then exported individual parts (kick, snare, open hat, closed hat, etc) in AB form. Then I made another pattern and did it again. And twice more. I then brought them all into Digital Performer (DP) and placed them in appropriate tracks. At this point, I had four two-bar patterns.
And here’s where I was either cheating, lazy, or brilliant: as I worked on each 32 bar section, I randomly copied the various patterns. Kick 1, pattern A might be on bars 2, 7, 12, 13, 18… I have no idea what’s where. I did separately this for each of the drum parts. There’s no repetition of the macro patterns from section to section as far as I know.
In the future, with the luxury of more time, I would be a bit more careful with these. My results on this track were a little too repetitive, especially with the snare. The issue was more with my pattern building in XO than in my arranging technique.
Would it really matter, though? I can’t say that I’ve ever learned the drum patterns in any of the DnB songs in my library, unless it’s a true repeating pattern that is the basis of the track. The really chopped stuff just becomes another texture in the sonic mix. I would put more attention on future tracks to where I put the louder and softer snare patterns to keep them from being too repetitive or distracting, but the rest of it is fine.
Here’s an example of the kind of detail work needed in this genre: there’s a fairly quiet sub-bass / 808 kick bass sound that first appears at 1:20. It was part of the XO kit, but was the wrong pitch. I used a plugin to retune it to match the root note of the track, then had it come in and out in four bar sections. It’s a small thing, but makes a huge difference. If you’re listening on good speakers or headphones, you’ll hear its presence, but it’s more the sudden absence of it that gives the track just a bit more variety. Keep doing that on everything and this potentially monotonous journey becomes much more interesting.
Bait the Hook
Ok. The breakbeat is chopped and placed. Time to find the hook sample. I decided to look through my own tracks and see if I could find something suitably dreamy. The reference tracks I auditioned as I was setting the project up had vocals singing things like “total control” or “find me.” There’s no context, it’s only a phrase. It’s just supposed to sound cool. Maybe with a second sample for contrast.
After scanning the month’s output, In Time was the obvious choice. Those vocals were already pretty dreamy sounding, and “time (time, time, time)” sounds pretty cool to me. I did try using a funny sample from my 2019 track I’m Back (and I’m Backin’ It Up), but it was pretty jarring to hear, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, haaaaa. I am the God of Hard Drives!” I do think that would be a cool sample on another track, though.
One cool bit was retiming the longer part of the vocal sample from my syncopated rhythm to being straight quarter notes. I did this by chopping the phrase into individual words, then stretching each of them to the right length. For the stutter-edit vocals, I loaded that sample into Tactic and let it run for 64 measures, then chopped out the ones that sounded best. The final touch which made those pop was adding a octave-up pitch shift. Isolated, this sounds pretty artificial, but in the mix it almost sounds like a female vocalist, so that was pretty cool.
Arranging, Mixing, and Mastering
I won’t belabor the rest of the composition. The bass sound I used is pretty good. Not perfect – I would have liked to spend some time either finding another or tweaking this one, but it’s squarely in the right territory so, fine. Keep moving.
Hive2 provided the tweaky chord synth you hear first, then I decided to layer another chord underneath it. Hilariously, when I opened SYNTH, I randomly selected a chord sound and found out once again that random isn’t always random. Somehow, I managed to pick the exact same sound that is the hook in Going Under from February 7. I’ll have to pick another sound.
Or do I? I’d already decided on the title, and reusing a sound fit the theme. Perfect! I’ve ret-conned a mistake into a thematic choice. When I got around to adding the bell sound at the end, I’m also pretty sure I nicked a melody from either 2017 or 2018 – Pulse Detonation Engine, maybe? Well, it’s ok if I did. It’s the theme of the piece!
I used subtractive arranging on this one – create a full mix with everything and then judiciously remove things to provide variety and keep things interesting. To do this in the 90s, I would have done it at the mixing console by muting tracks and that’s not a bad way to go. You do get a lot of moments where you mute things at the appropriate time because it feels right. In my case, I was muting things by removing soundbites, but it all amounts to the same thing.
Mixing and mastering was pretty easy. I set base levels on everything, did some EQ and compression in the SSL plug on key channels and, for the most part, everything stayed there. One thing that surprised me is that I really had to crush everything in the final limiter to get up to the same level the rest of the month has been. I’d be interested to see if a more careful mix process would reduce that.
This was a successful experiment, and I’m generally happy with the results. I’d definitely try it again.
- Drums: XO
- Synths: Hive2, Trilian, Pigments, Serum
- SoundToys PanMan, Little AlterBoy, FilterFreak2, and PanMan
- Polyverse Manipulator
- Denise My Crush
- Output Thermal
- Valhalla Delay, VintageVerb
- FabFilter Pro-C 2
- Mixing and Mastering: Brainworx SSL 9000 J, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
1. Circles by Adam F.