Rhythm structure basics

Hi Daniel! Please tell something about structure of rhythm. I’m just getting started into music production and learning how to build up rhythms, in psy trance music in particular. Do you use some techniques to set drums properly? Or leads? Can you give some tips?

Sebastian Howard

Sebastian, the best advice I can give is to listen to a lot of music, listen closely how other artists do this job. Don’t stick to only one genre you like, in fact, you can learn a lot from other genres too. By the way, there is no big difference between rhythm structure of Psytrance and other genres, like House, for instance, you’ll see why in examples down below.

Answering straight to your question, yes, I use some methods (or concepts) to build a rhythmic structure of the tracks. Here they are:

  • Fill the gaps
  • Diversify patterns
  • Let it breath

Let’s go through each of them.

Fill the gaps

In electronic dance music, all descendant genres that came out of House use four on the floor rhythm pattern, which is four kick drums per bar. So let’s start with the kicks.

Okay, we’ve got the foundation of the rhythm. To build up the rest, I use a method which I call “fill the gaps”. The biggest and obvious gaps are in between of every kick drum, the offbeats. Typically offbeat is a place for open high hats. I gonna put shakers instead, they occupied nearly the same high-end frequencies and sounds thinner, I like it.

Usually I don’t do this, but for this particular example I gonna use a Drum machine in Ableton rather than separate Simplers, so you could see all MIDI notes into single clip:

Still a plenty of room. Now I gonna put closed hi-hats on every sixteenths note for driving feelings, and then I’ll add the classic backbeat — the 2nd and the 4th beats that typically played by a snare drum. This is how it looks and sounds so far:

We’re doing fine, but this loop doesn’t have any time indicators, it’s easy to get lost if you play it on repeat. Let’s add a crash cymbal at the begging as a time stamp. In live music crash cymbal used to indicate the beginning of the new section, chorus, and verse, while in electronic music it often placed every 16 bars.

Also, I gonna extend this loop up to four bars, so we will have more space to play with. And to bring extra diversity, I’ll add low tom by the end of the first bar, and then extra snare hit by the end of the second bar.

Now I really want to put something in the first half of every bar, probably a mid-range tom. And we need to emphasize the backbeat since I used pretty short clap instead of a snare drum, so I think I’ll put an extra layer on claps on top of that.

This already sounds like a solid groove. But for the peak climax moments, we can go even further and add congo-bongo drums, and ride cymbals to emphasize the offbeat.

Finally, let’s put this groove into context of quick arrangement, so we could get feelings of real-world scenario of usage:

Diversify patterns

Does only drums defines rhythm pattern of the track? The answer is no. In fact, pretty much every sound can add a groove to you track. Rhythm can be made of stabs, leads, vocal, or effects, and all these elements can bring a nice diversity to your track.

Below is an example of rhythm driven by a melodic pattern. Watch closely how later another melodic layer pops in, and it changes perception of rhythmic pattern of the track:

One more similar example. In this case, groove totally made of melody and bassline synergy. And again, later on, another melodic layer comes into play, which “fills the gaps”. Surprisingly, such description can match two tracks in very different genres:

Next track I’d like to show a pretty typical groove made of bass and drums, but what’s cool here is an accent on the backbeat in a form of vocal on top of the snare drum. Yet again, you can find such pattern from Techno to Psytrance:

Talking about vocals, in Genesis I used gate effect on vocal sample to give extra driving rhythm after breakdown, keep in mind that trick:

In Ignition, I used a bunch of stabs, effects, and rolling texture — this is the core of rhythmic structure in that track. It might be not so easy to actually recognize these sounds separately, so I’ll show two versions: the first is final mix which has been released, and the second one is a sort of “behind the scenes” with muted leads and percussions, so you could clearly hear the rest:

At these tracks, the groove is driven by offbeat sound, which repeats half less times — only between 1st—2nd, and 3rd—4th beats:

In uptempo Psytrance music, rhythm often is based on a “dialogue” of stabs, leads, and effects:

Let it breath

Having empty space is no less important than anything else. The first principle I explained above doesn’t mean you have to fill all possible gaps, let it breathe.

This one is probably the most difficult part because the balance is very thin: if you make track too empty it will be monotonous and boring, if too dense — oversaturated and flat.

Think about it as a pulse, or yin-yang, or swing back and forth, or Tom and Jerry — they are antagonists, but supplement with each other to become one.

Speaking the truth, I had an issue with this — some of my tracks are kinda oversaturated. This is something that I should work on. Let’s take a listen how other good guys do this pulse:

I hope it helps.

P.S. This post is a part of the weekly “Advice” series. I’m happy to advise on such topics as production, performance, management, marketing, and design in the music industry and beyond. Send me your questions, too.

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