The Ultimate Guide to Breakbeat
A brief history of the breakbeat genre, and how you can creatively add it to your modern drum & bass, dubstep, and drumstep tracks.
Origins of breakbeat
The core idea behind breakbeat is sampling the break of another song, typically from funk, jazz, or R&B. In this case, a break is a typically a drum set or percussion solo meant to build anticipation or act as a transition. They’re often erratic and surprising, and DJs begin layering breaks into their music to add some additional character to their tracks. As tape machines became more accessible, some companies began sampling a ton of different breaks and selling them in “breakbeat packages” (often illegally).
A culture began to evolve with different DJs cutting different breaks into their songs. If you spend enough time in online breakbeat culture, you’ll eventually begin to notice the same samples reappear in multiple songs. This is one case in which it pays to do what everyone else is doing — if you use the same breaks as your fellow producers in a different style with a unique twist … well, that’s just how this genre evolves! In fact, there’s one sample in particular that you’ll probably encounter quite frequently.
When you dive into breakbeat, one of the first things you’ll hear about is the “Amen break,” which is a nod to The Winstons’ song Amen, Brother (from which it was stolen). Unfortunately The Winstons never received any royalties despite this break appearing in thousands of tracks, but nonetheless it has become an essential part of breakbeat history. It’s become something of a meme in the genre — when you use it, you become part of the ‘in’ group!
That said, you can use any break that fits the song you’re writing — the sample selection is important, but nowhere near as important as what you do with it. At some point, DJs decided it wasn’t enough to simply layer these breaks into their songs — so they decided to start cutting up the breaks, speeding them, slowing them down, and adding all manner of distortion and other effects. This grew into the frenetic pace of drum & bass, which sort of represented a contest to make the craziest, un-danceable beats possible while still being fun and upbeat.
Drum & bass took on a life of its own, diminishing the popularity of classic breakbeat in favor of its child genres that quickly grew in popularity. As more music producers came onto the scene, dnb diverged to use drumstep, riddim, and dubstep production techniques, along with countless fringe subgenres that each possess their own unique quality.
How to make a broken beat
Here’s the fun part: actually cutting up a breakbeat and frankensteining it back into something new! Once you have your samples, load them into your DAW and make sure they’re synced to the host tempo. Feel free to play with stretching the audio, too — listen to what happens when you drag the audio to twice its original length, even 3 or 4 times. You’ll start to hear ‘artifacts,’ which are mechanical, robotic sounds that start appearing when you slow an audio file way down while retaining its pitch. This normally ugly sound is actually perfect here, because your entire goal is to make the original breakbeat almost unrecognizable!
There are an infinite variety of ways to manipulate breakbeats, but let’s touch on the easiest ones to get started with:
- Cut the audio file into quarter note-length slices, then rearrange them however you want; feel free to cut some slices out completely and copy or even double copy others — if it sounds like a machine generated your new beat, you’re on the right track!
- Crush it with distortion — but not just any distortion. To truly transform a breakbeat through distortion, you need an extreme plugin like Ohm Force’s Ohmicide. You’ll understand when you listen to the effect!
- Reverse certain parts of the audio, a quarter or half note at a time; used sparingly, you can use this to shake up your listeners at just the right time and make things more interesting.
- Turn multiple breakbeats into slices, then slot slices from different beats next to one another. Use your ear to determine what fits and what doesn’t, and this will likely require a bit of trial and error. It’s great editing practice though, and adding some compression and distortion to your edit will help it sound like it belongs as a single unit.
The next evolution
While chopping up audio is fun, you can take it to the next level — making your own from scratch! You can do this through a breakbeat drum machine of course, but a disadvantage here is that you need to do all the processing from scratch. You won’t have any of the vinyl fuzz or natural swing right off the bat, but there are a variety of retro analog-modelled plugins that can get you pretty close to the effect you’re looking for. When in doubt, RC-20 Retro Color is a great choice as it allows you to create realistic analog effects that emulate vinyl records and old tape machines, among many other things.
The actual structure of a breakbeat is pretty simple: kick on beat 1, snare on beats 2 and 4. Very rarely will you want to stray from that, unless you’re working at a very fast tempo like liquid dnb — in that case, the kick might only fall on beat 1 every 2 measures. Other than that, feel free to add as many kicks, hi hats, snare cross sticks, bongos, or any other percussion you see fit. Let your ear guide you when trying to figure out how much is too much. Remember: in general, the more syncopation, the better, so that the beat is constantly anticipating the next note. This is part of the reason breakbeats have so much energy!
You can also combine the flexibility of a drum machine with the production quality of a break sample — with UJAM’s new, cinematic Beatmaker NEMESIS! Instead of hunting down the right sample and spending the time to make individual cuts, chops, and slices, you can select a single preset and test out different loops with their own effects built in. If you need to make changes to the timing or completely restructure a breakbeat while still preserving the basic feel, you’ll find everything you need in NEMESIS.
Here’s a quick video showing you how to create your own breakbeats in seconds:
Keep it legal!
One final note: while it’s a ton of fun to rip breaks from your favorite songs, keep in mind that unless you clear its use in your song, it’s technically copyright infringement! If you’re working with a label, sometimes they’ll be willing to handle the logistics for you and make sure the original creator gets paid. If you’re releasing the track on your own, either use a royalty-free break sample or simply release the song for free. Typically, as long as you’re not making money from the track, you don’t have to worry about copyright infringement. If you’re ever unsure, don’t take chances and you’ll be fine — you’re still getting practice by creating it!
The crazier you make your breakbeats, the more fun you’ll have. Opt for using breaks that don’t have a copyright on them; you’ll find plenty! Change something up every time you create a new track, push the boundaries, make the break unrecognizable — and most importantly, have fun!