How To Build A Groove
Steps to take the ideas rattling around in your brain and build them into the perfect drum groove, in any genre you like.
JUNE 27TH, 2020
Melodies are the first thing that comes to mind for most listeners when remembering or identifying songs, with harmony coming in at a distant second. But what about the heartbeat, the core of a song--the groove? It comes in many different forms, whether through drum machines, live kits or hand percussion, but rhythm often goes unappreciated. Without it, however, most songs would completely fall apart--and so you want to pay close attention when the time comes to lay one down. If you want to dive deeper into creating the right groove, this will serve as a primer in producing music for beginners who still haven’t gotten their feet wet.
- Working With Time
- Creating the Feel
- Adding Variety
- Going From Your Head To The DAW
- Putting It All Together
Working With Time
Many drummers will insist you work to a click (or metronome), and for good reason--the first step to creating a strong groove is to establish the tempo and stay consistent with it. Before you start switching up beats and adding in creative drum fills, honor your commitment to the click track!
Because without a core beat driving the groove--and this goes for any genre--the entire track will fall apart. The band gets its rhythm from the drummer, but drummers get their rhythm from a click track. Experienced drummers can internalize the beat, but it’s typically best to reference a click track regardless--besides, with a DAW you always have a metronome at arm’s length!
But here’s where things often fall apart--any groove you create must work equally well with and without a click track. That is to say even when there’s no constant quarter note pulse, it must be implied. And implied rhythm is powerful--it liberates you from depending solely on a 4-to-the-floor beat. In any case, there are two primary points of focus in most beats.
Creating the Feel
While each genre has its own nuances, there are certain generalities that tend to hold true for nearly all grooves. Namely, that the kick stabilizes the groove, and that the snare drives it forward. Let’s sample some of the most common grooves in a few genres to see the role that each of them predominantly plays:
- Drum & Bass: kick on beats 1 & 3½; snare on beats 2 and 4
- Dubstep: kick on beats 1 & 3; snare on beats 2 and 4
- Funk (Swing): kick on beats 1, 1½, 2½, and 3½; snare on beats 2 and 4
- Soul: kick on 1; snare on beats 2 and 4
- Reggae: kick and snare both on beats 2 and 4
As a general rule, the more “laid back” the genre, the less interchange there is between the kick and snare. There are certainly exceptions to this, as some of the greatest funk drummers have mastered a style that is incredibly laid back while still full of energy. The key piece to focus on in any genre is the relationship between the kick and snare--even without adding other percussion like hi hats and hand percussion, these two elements hold the most clout in the drum section as a whole.
Here’s the cool part--you can create an entirely different beat without ever changing the kick and snare, and you don’t have to look further than your hi hat. The level of activity in your hi hat can mean the difference between a laid back groove and a driving rhythm.
If you play drums, you’ve probably allowed your hi hat performance to get joyfully out of hand a few times--and that’s great! With one major caveat--you should save your most passionate moments for the climactic parts of a song. The less activity there is in the low-key parts, the more impact you’ll be able to be able to generate in the most intense moments. (more 16th notes, varied rhythms, double timing, etc.) The most creative variations on a groove often come from the auxiliary percussion or hats, while the core of the groove largely tends to stay the same. The kick and snare will likely be struck harder on a physical drum set, while in EDM the producer might switch to harder-hitting or “bigger” sounding samples during the drop or chorus. A tried and true tactic across genres is to go from a snare cross-stick to a mid-membrane hit or rim shot, and most drum sequencers will offer you a way to do this with electronic music production as well.
Going From Your Head To The DAW
Typically, the groove you have in your head is mainly the product of a particular genre; it can be multiple genres spliced together, but most everything you hear in your head has its roots in something that’s come before. After all, most of us have been listening to music our entire lives!
So how does this help you?
The deceptively simple way to transfer a groove from your brain into the DAW is to determine which genre you’re primarily writing in by listening to the drum grooves of multiple different genres (for example, you might play with metal, funk, and rock). Then compare your groove to a song you’d like to emulate and tweak your version until it matches up to the genre you decide to lean into. It’s completely acceptable to deviate a bit from the song you reference--in fact, it’s encouraged!--but when you’re struggling, this starting point will likely save you a lot of time and frustration.
But the topic of grooves becomes relevant long before you decide to create a new track. Every idea you have is a direct or indirect result of recorded music you already have swimming around in your head, and the more varieties you listen to, the more naturally your grooves will flow from your head to your fingers, and ultimately into your DAW.
Putting It All Together
If you listen to drum grooves from many different genres, emulate the ones you love and still don’t quite get the result you want, don’t get discouraged! As with every aspect of music production, perfecting a drum groove takes practice.
If you want a leg up, try one of ujam’s Virtual Drummers (acoustic) or Beatmakers (electronic) and select a preset you enjoy--you can adjust the drum grooves to your liking with very little effort by following the MIDI Drag & Drop steps in our Play the Virtual Band article. Think of this as a jumpstart to get your creative juices flowing and get a groove you enjoy into your DAW, using the best drum VST for the job. Once you’re happy with it, you can take it in whatever direction you choose and even add subtle changes to aux percussion and hi hats, however granular you want to get! By using the Micro Timing Bar, you can make subtle changes to the rhythmic feel, instantly adding as much or as little energy to the drum part as you like. This is especially useful when you want to switch between regular, half, and double time feels to see which fits into your song the best.
Keep practicing your grooves, and genre-splice to your heart’s content--the only guide you need to follow is: ‘Does it sound good?’ If so, then you’re good to go!
If you’d like a more detailed virtual drum tutorial, watch this video for a more detailed guide. There’s much more to cover, but this should get you up and running quickly!
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