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Programming Latin grooves via MIDI

Listen to where this tutorial can take you!  MP3  

It is amazing when you listen to a fiery latin percussion groove and then get inspired to whip into the studio and program up a similar type of thing, only to emerge four miserable hours later with something that sounds like thirty drummers in a cathedral all doing solos! It is easy to get disillusioned at this stage and think that it is all a mystery that will remained as unsolved as it is impenetrable. Well, these grooves are not nearly as complex as they might sound. They merely follow a number of compositional rules which, when understood can enlighten your path into a whole hoast of interesting and driving percussion grooves.

We need to go back to the source of all latin music and its roots in traditional African percussion. Whether you look at Djembe drumming from the Ivory coast or Sabar drumming from Senegal, one thing becomes immediately apparent, and that is that there are families of drums all of which play interlocking parts. These interlocking parts are slotted together very carefully and with a lot of compositional considerations. The rhythms have underlying skeletal rhythmic frameworks that are marked by metal bells, wooden blocks and gourds with beads strung around them. The group of drums create patterns which weave around these rhythmic frames, often with great syncopated lilts and rhythmically ambiguous phrases. On top of this we would have the solo drum. There is usually only one solo drum playing at once, the Master drummer of the tribe.

Of course, when we listen to it we hear the whole shabang, sometimes just an short excerpt or a loop. It is difficult to understand from this how the larger picture is built up, both in textural layers and in time if you do not know a little about the systems. Latin percussion owes much of it’s heritage to the African systems due to the masses of Africans that were forcibly re-located to Latin America. As an interesting aside, some of the instruments that were developed from this point on were as a direct result of the Africans being forced to not play on drums. The ‘Cahon’ (Wooden box that rattles when you hit it) for example was originally made from old tea chests because that was all they could get hold of.

A lot of the rhythmic systems used in
Cuban Latin American music are very similar in that you get the families of drums and the skeletal rhythmic frameworks marked by wood, bells and shakers. We are going to look at some simple ways this configuration can fit together to build up some ‘Latinesque’ grooves.

The instrument most familiar here due to its usage in pop music is the Congas. More often than not we will see someone with a set of two or more congas, even in modern Latin music. However, these drums were traditionally played one per person, each with a strict pattern, which interlocked with the other two. When a Conga player sets up a pattern on more than one drum he is effectively playing two or three peoples parts, or at least constructing a rhythm which takes all their key points into consideration. The notes most prominent on congas are the open tones and slap strokes. All the in-between notes are subtle touches with finger tips, the flat hand or the underside of the wrist. For the purposes of this article we are more concerned with the open notes and slaps. It is however worth bearing in mind that all the subtle touches and un-emphasised notes which fill up the eigth or sixteenth note pulse really do build into a great ‘group sound' when there are three or more players. Quite often however this is too much for non latin music and fills too much space. I have often been asked on sessions to play only the slaps and open notes. You might draw the accusation of ignorance towards the producer but if it makes the track work than that is the right thing. The tune is always right!

The family of drums would be, Low (Tumba) Mid (Conga) and High (Quinto), with the high drum being the solo drum. Then the rhythmic pulse would be marked with Wooden ‘Clave’ which plays a pattern of two beats in the first bar and three in the second. (or visa-versa depending on the rhythm). It is this clave that is the real bench mark for everyone to follow. Then you would have for example a cowbell pattern, a straight bongo pattern called Martillo and Timbales. The timbales would play mainly on the side of the metal shells with sticks, sometimes moving to a cowbell pattern and a few hits and cymbal crashes. Bongos, Timbales and Congasueros all get a chance to solo in turn. Of course there are dozens of styles of rhythms in Cuba and Puerta rico. ‘SON’ for example uses mainly Bongos, Wooden Clave and Marraccas. (Shakers). It is also worth noting that the percussion from Brazil, although referred to as ‘Latin’ is entirely different in its structure and instrumentation.
 

Making it happen with MIDI

Salsa style groove @ 143bpm
Now lets get down to programming it on the computer. The article is written on a PC using Logic and the Native Instruments software sampler called Battery.  We will have screen shots of each step and a brief description.  The screen shots are clickable so you can look at them full size.  Begin by downloading the Battery kir.rar (620kb) and the MIDI files.rar  If you do not have battery, download the battery .rar and there is a folder with the individual samples in it which you can put into your own software sampler. 

Screen shot 1 Conga 1 (mid) in Battery
We start by putting the set of samples in Battery, or any software sampler you might be using. They have already been topped and tailed in an external editor - in this case, Sound Forge. This minimises the amount of work to be done in the sampler. The three Congas are placed from C1 upwards. Open, Slap, Heel and Tip for each individual Conga should suffice.
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Screen shot 2 Conga 1 (mid) part
We then play in our first Conga part (mid Conga.) The heel and tip are on C and C#, with the slap and open tones on D and D#, allowing you to play the heel and tip with two fingers on your left hand and the slap and open with two fingers on your right hand. These Conga parts are always kept simple so they lock in nicely with the other parts. Because these notes are single shot samples, you can ignore the different lengths – it’s just the way they’ve been played in.

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Screen shot 3 Conga 2 (low) in Battery
We then add the low Conga samples into Battery, next to the first set of mid Conga samples. We are going to build the whole Latin rhythm kit in this one Battery patch, then open it separately on multiple channels. It is nice to keep kit sets intact like this and it saves hunting for hours trying to remember what drums are in which set. The low Conga generally only uses mutes and open tones so we do not have a slap for this drum in the set.

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Screen shot 4 Conga 2 (low) part
We then play in our second Conga part (low Conga), nice and simple. See how they lock together in an un-cluttered way. This pattern spans two bars whilst the first pattern was only one bar long. This adds a more interesting shape to the groove.

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Screen shot 5 Hi Conga (Quinto) in Battery
We then add the high Conga samples into battery, next to the previous Conga samples. Mute tones are similar to heel and tip tones from the first Conga in the way they sound.

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Screen shot 6 Hi Conga slap edit
I have used the same slap for the first Conga and this high Conga but made this one more attacking by adjusting the start time, the shape and the bit rate to 9.1. It is a subtle difference but means that the slaps won't clash if they coincide in the final track.

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Screen shot 7 Hi Conga part
We then play in our high Conga part, nice and simple again. The important concept with these interlocking parts is that all the prominent notes in the patterns come in different places in the bar for each drum, making a combined composite melody between the three drums. (See the explanation in the separate box). It is a concept they use in Africa to solo. Each player has their own part of the bar where they can embellish, knowing that nobody else will be cluttering that space.

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Screen shot 8 multiple Conga score
Here is the score of the three Conga parts together. More often than not, simple parts work really well together at this stage.

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Screen shot 9 Quantized
We have then quantised the parts to 16th notes for that tight feel, and block copied them for the basis of our groove. You could use a groove template to get that funky Latin feel to the groove if you are not happy with a straight sixteenth vibe.

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Screen shot 10 Building the Latin kit in Battery
We then got to work on building up the rest of our Latin kit in battery, adding Bongos from C an octave up from the Congas, Timbales an octave up from that and then Clave and Cowbells the next two octaves up from there. It is a good system for drums to have different instrument sets in each octave, rather than searching over the keyboard range to find things.

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Screen shot 11 Timbale edit
The timbale shell hits needed a bit of editing externally in an audio editor because they were sounding a bit late. Here you can see what we chopped off the front of the hit in sound forge.

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Screen shot 12 Timbale edit 2
It is not always possible to find a 'zero db crossing point' so we zoomed right in and selected a short section at the beginning to fade up with.
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Screen shot 12.5 Timbale edit 3
Here is what it looked like after the fade. This nearly always works but there will always be the exception. Of course, you can't chop too much of the note off or else you lose its attack.

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Screen shot 14 Clave (Not quantized)
Then we added the Clave part. This is the backbone and the skeletal core of the rhythm which gives it its recognizable Latin flavour. This particular pattern is called the 3:2 Clave but you can get it played backwards as the 2:3 Clave. There are also some similar variations with a slightly more syncopated feel. You will also notice there are three different Claves in the Battery Latin kit. The one we have used is the lower pitch, traditional sounding sort. The higher ones can sometimes cut through too much for some sorts of music.

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Screen shot 15 Cowbell edit

Next up is the Cowbell part. First I needed to edit the volume envelope as we see here. When you play a hand cowbell you mute underneath with your fingers so they do not resonate like a bell as they do when mounted on a stand. It is a little detail like this that can ruin the sound and texture of a groove.

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Screen shot 16 Cowbell part (Not quantized)
Here we see the simple Cowbell part. The two sounds are articulated by striking the mouth and body of the instrument. A busy Cowbell part can overpower and ruin a groove as well. This part and some of the later parts seem to sound fine unquantised.
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Screen shot 17 mute groups
Another important point is the use of mute groups with percussion. Even the slightest of overlaps of resonant sounds can make a percussion part sound unnatural. I have used three mute groups on this Latin set. One for the Cowbell and the other two for two of the Conga drums. The open tone on the conga has been left out of the mute group because it sounds more effective in this instance with that millisecond resonance. Experiment with this yourself and see how you get on. Depending on the set of Conga sounds you use, you may need to put different sounds in respective mute groups.

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Screen shot 18 Panning the parts

Panning of the parts is really important when you have lots of percussion parts. It can get really cluttered and unclear otherwise. It is amazing as you pan instruments around how they disappear and then suddenly pop out with great clarity. It is especially important when you have a number of similar sounding frequencies such as a number of congas. I think a great deal of clarity can be obtained from careful panning and is something that should not be rushed. The sends are going off to a reverb.

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Screen shot 19 Maracas in Battery
Next we add the final element to the Battery Latin kit: the Maracas.

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Screen shot 20 Maracas start point
We needed to change the start point within Battery for one of the Maraca hits because there was a bit of silence at the beginning. This could also be done externally but it is so easy with the overview of each sample within Battery that it might as well be done there. Of course, if you edit that sample externally without putting the start time back to zero then you would clip the front end of the sample if you loaded the Battery kit.

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Screen shot 21 Maracas part (Not quantized)
You guessed it, another simple part in the make up of the percussion fabric. It is good to be disciplined when you start to build a fabric like this. It is all too easy to get too busy with the first few tracks and then everything sounds cluttered.

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Screen shot 22 Bongo part (Not quantized)
This is the basic Bongo part. Like the Congas, the Bongos utilise finger tip strokes and touches besides the accents. The subtlety of these touches really helps make a percussion part sound effective.

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Screen shot 23 Five Timbale sounds
We are using five main Timbale sounds: Hi drum, Low drum, Hi drum accent, side of shell one and side of shell two.

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Screen shot 24 Timbale shell part
A lot of the Timbale work is done on the side of the shells. Here is the basic pattern without any hits or accents.

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Screen shot 25 Timbale variation 1
There is room for hits and accents on the low and hi drums as well as some 'pingey' rim shots. Programming actual solos on Timbales with midi does not secure fantastic and authentic results without a LOT of work. Of course, you could use actual samples of phrases, maybe put through Re-Cycle.

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Screen shot 26 Timbale variation 2
Another example of a subtle pick up phrase on the Timbales at the end of the bar.

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Screen shot 27 The final score
Here is the finished result. The important thing to grasp here is the concept of this type of rhythmic composition, rather than the actual patterns I have programmed. This is an example of a fairly common salsa rhythm and although it does have its uses, a more creative direction can easily be achieved by utilising the concepts.

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Playing in your place!

The process of creating interesting multi-layered percussion parts can be easily achieved if you follow these simple steps. The concept comes from groups of drummers playing together wanting to have some freedom in what they play but not to make a big mess. Each drummer has their own part of the bar where they can improvise. We are going to look at this concept applied to two drummers. Take, for example, the first bar of music in Example 1 below. This is the basic pattern on one drum. The notes with crosses on beats one, two and three are the straight section where muted notes will be played whilst beat four is the section where open tones are played. It is in the open tone section where improv is allowed. See variations 1,2 and 3. Notice how the pattern is slightly changed, but only in the same place in the bar each time, sometimes with a sixteenth note pick up into the phrase.

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Now let’s look at bar 1 of music Example 2 for the second drummer on a differently pitched drum. It’s the same concept but with the ‘variations section’ on beat 2 of the bar instead of beat 4. Layer the two together and within the parameters set out, you can create an interesting and flowing drum part very easily when you vary the improv phrases slightly.

 

 

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