Beginners Production Guide to Rhythm

When it comes to producing music whether that be; hip hop, Drum and Bass, techno, house or most other genres – there’s one thing you need to learn.

Society would have you believe you either ‘have it’ or you don’t.

This simply isn’t true. I mean, you if you can learn, then you can this too.

What am I talking about?

Rhythm.

Without some sort of rhythm in most tracks we wouldn’t have anything to follow. Our tracks would be flat, dull and boring pieces of music that no-one will ever listen too.

It doesn’t matter what modern-genre you’re producing in, there’s a very good chance that the rhythm of your track will either make it or break it.

Fortunately for us, as producers, we have a few techniques up our sleeves that we can use to not only make a rhythm in the first place, but to actually make unique rhythms that keep the listener engaged.

But before we go into those techniques….

To really understand the concept, we need to look at this from a bird’s eye view – starting with…

Tempo

In short tempo is the amount of times the beat occurs in a minute. This will often be shown as bpm – or beats per minute. Different genres use various bpm’s.

Here’s a quick guide of the sorts of bpm to ‘expect’ from some genres;

  • Hip Hop: 60-100 bpm
  • R&B: 65 – 100 bpm
  • Reggae 60 – 90 bpm
  • House: 115 – 145 bpm
  • Techno: 120 – 140 bpm
  • UK Grime: 130 – 145 bpm
  • Dubstep: 130 – 145 bpm
  • Drum and Bass: 160 – 180 bpm

Now of course, these numbers are guides only, and musicians and producers have, and often do, go outside the realms of these bpm ranges.

When I open a new project in FL Studio – the only variable that really dictates where my track is going – is the tracks tempo.

Time Signatures: What are Time Signatures?

Time signatures are displayed as two numbers. So the most common one you’ll probably see the 4/4 time signature I went into detail on above.

You’ll usually see this number represented in 1 of 2 ways; side-by-side (the way I’m presenting it to you now) or one number on top of the other (More commonly seen in sheet music)

The top number – or the first number = Tells us how many beats are in a bar

The bottom number – or the second number = Tells us the type or the length of the beat.

Downbeats and Upbeats : And The Difference Between Them

I’m sitting here just watching a series of Youtube videos on making a techno groove. And one concept that keeps popping up (no matter what genre your producing) is the idea of ‘downbeats’ and upbeats’ – and of course ‘off beats’

For some time now, I’ve ignored it and got on with the practical demonstration of the videos – after all if I just copy the same drum pattern I’m being shown, use a different selection of samples and change the notes and patterns around a little, everything should be good…

Right? Well – kind of.

I mean you can do that. And for the most part it would work. (I’ve built a tonne of drum patterns that sound pleasing to the ear and make me want to get up and start shuffling round the house).

But, to really get a grasp of what and why you doing something – it’s far more beneficial to understand it on a deeper level.

This is a classic case of understanding the rules first so that you can break them later.  Instead of chasing your tail all the time when you open your DAW, you’ll have the confidence to make whatever groove you want – and confidence (not arrogance), especially in music industry is vital to your long term success.

So following my own advice here’s where my research has brought me…

In a 4 beat bar (4/4) which the most widely used time signature (found in genres such as hip hop, rock, pop, house and other dance sub-genres) the downbeat is the first beat.

The last beat in a 4/4 time signature would the upbeat.

Finally, it’s also worth mentioning the off-beat too. Anything that deviates away from the first and third beats is known as an off-beat. So, for example;

One and two and three and four

The above example shows a typical 4/4 time signature. The numbers are the beats (4 beats) and the italics ‘and’ represent anything else in-between each beat. The off-beats are the; two, four and all the ‘and’

Here’s an illustration using FL Studio and some drum hits

4 Techniques to Create a Better Rhythms

  • Give you track some life back
  • Stops throttling it

Rhythm Tip: Use Syncopation

Listeners in all genres of music have become accustomed to listening to the same structure of beats – but sometimes as producers we might want to add a little more ‘fun’ to the rhythm  to keep them engaged.

A great way to do this is by using a technique called Syncopation.

Syncopation is accenting or ‘stressing’ what would normally be a weak off beat. Producers use this as a technique to disrupt the flow and regularity of a track. You’ll usually find this technique used in a lot of dance tracks. Here’s a great, simple video explaining this technique:

Video Notes:

  • Syncopation:
    • Shifts the note before or behind the beat
    • Plays with our expectations of where the beat should occur
    • It can help loosen up the rhythm and breathe some life into your track

Rhythm Tip: Use Polyrhythms

Poly = Many

Polyrythem = many rythms.

By combining different instruments and sounds, we can program them into our DAW to play multiple rhythms at the same time.

So for example; you could you have your kick and snare playing a standard 4/4 while your baseline line could play a different time signature.

Try playing round with different instruments using different time signatures to see what works best for your track.

For example; you could use;

  • Claps, snares and hi hats
  • Baselines
  • Chord progressions

…to contrast the 4/4 kick drum of your track.

If you’re going to use this technique, start simple to get a good grasp of what you’re doing then build from there.

Rhythm Tip: Use Swing

Another popular technique is to add a little ‘swing’ to our tracks. Swing allows us to create a more natural sounding drum loop or pattern. It can also be referred to as the ‘shuffle’ or the ‘groove’ of the track.

If you track is sounding  far too robotic or rigid like it’s been made from a computer or laptop (duh) and you want it to sound more natural like it’s been played by a human then using swing can loosen the beats up a little and achieve this.

There’s a couple of ways to achieve swing in your DAW;

  • Manually: First you can use your MIDI Controller or to program the beats in yourself which apart from purchasing a nice expensive set of drums is probably the closest you’re going to get to ‘natural’ as possible. Make sure your quantize features are on zero – Warning: You might actually be surprised at how ‘off-beat’ you really are, but none the less it’s good fun and great practice for beginner music producers. Also expect to edit individual beats a little to bring them ‘back in line’ with the groove
  • Using Your DAW Swing Meter: Most top level DAW’s allow you to add swing to your beats after your programmed them in.

Layer Your Swing Patterns

This involves taking your normal robotic type drum pattern and layering it over the top of your swing version drum pattern to come up with something unique that mirrors both ‘worlds’

Now depending on how complex your drum pattern is this might now always work. What you might need to do is add or delete some drum hits until you have a beat that your happy with for your next project.