Welcome to the first blog post of 2019! This is part one of a four part series that I’m calling, Groove Theory. Over the past year I’ve received a lot of questions from people regarding my production process, and by far the most common question goes something like… “how do you get your beats to swing?” or “how do I get my drums to sound human?”. In a time where music production is so accessible, I think a lot of us can find ourselves trapped in rigid grid structure of modern DAWs. Now this isn’t to say we shouldn’t celebrate the positives that DAW’s bring into our lives. For one, it offers a safety net for all of those misplaced and mistimed notes. It allows for us not so musically inclined individuals to prosper and create music. It also allows us to program and play things our fingers otherwise couldn’t. However, underneath all that lies a trait that can plague our beats if we let it… that’s right. you guessed it…. sterile, overly quantized, non human music. Now this isn’t to say quantized music is inferior or NOT human. In fact I believe the opposite. Music should be whatever fits the mood, but sometimes you want things to swing. If you are sticking to the grid, or playing parts live and then hitting full quantize, your going to have some rigid beats. And I know what you might be thinking…. “but trap beats are on the grid and they are dope???!!!!” While this is true to some degree, trust me when I say, the producers who are really making the fly trap instrumentals are sprinkling in little tricks that add subtle nuance. This nuance translates into that oh so coveted human feel. With that said, the question may arise: How does one make their drums and beats swing and groove? Well over the next few weeks we are going to explore a few methods to do just that. Some will be obvious and some not so obvious but hopefully beginner and more advanced producers a like will find some nuggets of info that worth implementing. So with out further adieu, lets get into our first groove theory topic, How to use ASMR, and other textures to create groove.
What is ASMR?
Some of you might be asking yourself, what exactly is ASMR? This is a totally fair question, and something that I only just recently became hip to thanks for my good friend Catman. ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response which is essentially a static like tingling sensation on the skin that is often subjectively characterized as minimal grade euphoria. This part doesn’t matter too much, but the important take away here is how it is precipitated. People experience ASMR through specific stimuli, called triggers and the most common trigger is auditory. Common auditory triggers include whispering, long loops of people turning pages of a book, fingers rubbing a sponge, and yes, even slurping and chewing food. All you have to do is hop on youtube and type in ASMR and you will soon be bombarded with page after page of user submitted videos of auditory triggers like the ones listed above (and others) and yes…. it gets weird. You’ve been warned! So why does this matter to a producer like you and me? Well with the over saturation and endless uploads of ASMR auditory triggers on the internet, we have a never ending supply of one of my favorite tools in my music production arsenal, TEXTURES! If processed and approached the right way, ASMR triggers (I will be calling them ASMR throughout the article by the way) and textures offer a great blueprint for swingy, neck braking grooves. Simultaneously, these textures act as excellent undertones to your beat, making them unique and giving them a little special something something that no one can quite put their finger on.
Letting Textures Dictate Groove:
So before we lose track of the ultimate goal of this article let me get myself back and track here. So we want our beats to swing and bop. Aside from the traditional playing your beats live, not quantizing yada yada yada, an often overlooked method is letting something seemingly arhythmic dictate your groove. This could be ASMR as we were talking about earlier, or even recordings of a forest, or maybe an ocean, or a city road. The idea is that our brains have an innate ability to pick up patterns. Even when it seems like there are none, our brain will pick em out. This isn’t to say our brains will find these patterns instantaneously and without effort; sometimes we have to give it the nudge in the right direction, but with the right approach you can make a groove out of anything, even textures, and ASMR triggers!
Needle In Haystack
First off whats the best way to find a texture? Well for staters, we can use our good friend youtube as a never ending source for all things ASMR and foley. One quick search will render literally thousands of results of usable (and probably weird) textures that you can put your brain to work on finding a nice little groove. Throughout this article we are going to be using one of my tracks featuring my good friend RVRSR, called “Free Tacos”. I started this beat from this ASMR clip, compliments of Catman,
This specific texture is an up close recording of someone running their nails over a Konjac. The result is a weird sloppy texture with random subtle transients sprinkled through out with a variety of timbres and a tonal pitches. Try throwing this clip into a session set to 90 BPM and hit play and let it loop for a a few repetitions., Not really hearing much of a rhythm? Now keep letting it loop, but this time turn on your metronome. You hearing that rhythm, yet? It’s subtle, but it’s there. Try nodding your head a bit and envisioning the kick and the snare. There is definitely a groove in there, and what’s wild is that groove is totally random. You took a random clip of a person rubbing their fingers on a damn plant and somehow it has a bop to it. I like to call this the “needle in a haystack method”. It’s easy for our inner monologue to get caught up in not knowing where to take our grooves, but there is so much inspiration floating around us everyday and often in inconspicuous forms. You just have to know where to look. So instead of sitting around getting stumped about a groove, or feeling, dive into the haystack and pull out that damn needle.
Drums on the Konjac
So we’ve established a little groove all thanks to our plant rubbing friend. The next move is to reinforce that groove and swing with some drums. Now this is when your creativity starts to come into play. In the context of this beat, I started getting busy with some hi hats. I filled in the spaces and played almost a call and response part with the Konjac rhythm, which gave me this syncopated groove. I played this by hand with some minor nudging to get it a little more locked in with the ASMR clip, but this can be done with your mouse if need be. The key is to really pay attention to the groove of the texture and try and lock in with it. It’s OKAY to get out of sync from time to time, and that’s actually the point. You should just use the texture as a framework to get your ideas flowing. Once I felt like I had a nice hat pattern, I added my kick and snare, also played by hand with some post nudging and quantizing to make sure it was sitting where i wanted (I’ll get into further detail about nudging and quantization later in this series so don’t worry). The result is this little swinging groove right here:
The first half is with just the hi hats and the second half has hats and both the kick and snare. Notice how there’s not only a dope underlying texture, but also this very human groove element connecting all of the parts? And once again, that came from random texture. Now I aded a few more little foley elements into the mix and called it a day with my drum additions.
Not a bad groove if I do say so myself. Now lets dive into a few more little tips and tricks on how to really make these textures reinforce the swing and groove.
By nature of these sounds and how they are recorded, they can be a little unruly in the mix due tp low frequency content and unpleasant resonant tones. You have to eq these things… For this Konjac texture I did some basic hi pass filtering, with a slight dip in the 280 Hertz range to remove some mud and a little bump around 6kHz to add some presence. These eq settings are all contextual, so what works for one beat wont necessarily work for another, so don’t pay too much attention to what i attenuated and what i boosted. Instead, just remember that I had to tame this muddy lows, and wanted to give it some presence in the mix.
Another little trick is adding some OTT compression to really bring out the nuances in sound. I would tread lightly here, but it can render some phenomenal results. I didn’t use OTT for this track, but here’s what It would have sounded like if you added it. I also I threw that EQ from above AFTER the OTT to tame it a little bit.
You can hear how much that OTT brings out in the texture. Oh and by the way! If you don’t have ableton but want to get your hands on some OTT you can download it for free! Shouts Duda of Xfer. The dry /wet and time knobs alone will render some pretty awesome and transformative results, and the other parameters will follow suite. For me this was a little too much for this particular beat, HOWEVER, lets say I had to work with this ASMR texture with OTT printed on… what would I do? Well I would side chain this thing! Listen to what happens when I tweak the OTT amount and time knobs and add three compressors all acting as sidechains to my various drum elements. directly on the texture track. The first half of this clip is with the OTT and sidechain, and the second half is with all processing disabled and the texture raw.
You can really hear a drastic difference between the two. It all comes down to what type of sound you are going for. Do you really want the texture to be up front and in your face, pumping in and out throughout your track? Then add that OTT and side chain…. Want your texture to be more subtle? Then forgo the extra processing and just stick with the eq.
Another important part of utilizing texture is making sure it plays a cohesive part in your song. Your goal should be to make these textures blend with all of the other elements to help support the feel of your track. There are a few ways of doing this. One approach is sidechaining, which we already went over. This is a great method, and you can even try sidechaining on a gate. I wont go into that in this article, but it’s a great little trick. The other thing that you can try and implement is incorporating your texture directly into your drum bus. Your drum bus processing, if done right, will glue your various drum elements together, making them sit nicely, punching and slapping you in the face every chance they get. Add your textures into this bus and suddenly they are even MORE locked in with you drum groove. Here is what the texture sounds like after I ran it through my drum bus along with the rest of my drum elements,
While it is a subtle change, the elements are sticking together. Now the final trick of the day! And I’m not going to go into too much detail because i have another article coming in this series about this exact topic goddamit! (N.O.R.E voice)
but here is it in one sentence: Extract your groove from your drums and past it on your ASMR. “But I thought you said the point is to let your ASMR dictate your groove???” Yes…. yes… that’s true, but the real point was to have your ASMR help you FIND a groove. AS mentioned earlier, think of it more as a blueprint than the final end all pattern.
So your drums now have a special unique groove. birthed by your ASMR clip, that you can now extract from and slap on your ASMR giving you even MORE glue. This extra glue might not be what you want per say… I personally like to have the difference in groove elements, It adds to that sloppiness and human quality, But sometimes you want things locked in… maybe you have a rapper or a singer who you want to work with but they can’t handle all of the slop… so throw that groove on the ASMR and lock in a little more so you can keep your artist friend happy and create tunes until the end of time….
Give a man a Konjac, let him scrape his fingernails on it, and then throw it to the producer wolves…. what do you get? Groovy swang that will get your head bobbin and snapping. One mans ASMR is another mans groove pool after all. There is inspiration all around us, and we are lucky to have a brain that is working overtime to try and recognize patterns and make things fit. Why not put it to good use in coming up with some grooves? So next time you are watching a mukbang clip on instagram seeing a dude slurp and moan while he eats his super sized bowl of flaming hot Cheetos ramen, ask yourself… Does this swang?
Thanks for tuning into the first article of Groove Theory! Three more topics to go yall! Hope you guys enjoyed this post. If you dig it let me know! If you hated it let me know! If you have any ideas or things you want me to cover in a future blog post, let me know!
Thanks for tuning in !