It is amazing when you listen to a fiery
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
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example was originally made from old tea chests because that was all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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Screen shot 19 Maracas in Battery
Next we add the final element to the Battery Latin kit: the Maracas.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Screen shot 26 Timbale variation 2
Another example of a subtle pick up phrase on the Timbales at the end of
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.
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
Now let’s look at bar 1 of music Example 2 for the second drummer
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.