24 unmissable breakbeat tips
20th May 2008 | 14:19
Essential advice and techniques
Combining elements of hip-hop, house, funk, reggae and techno, breakbeat has become an extremely popular dance music genre. MusicRadar presents some tricks of the trade…
1. Noodle-friendly synths such as Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ offer multiple LFO sync options. The tempo sync aligns the oscillator to the track regardless of the notes’ timing, meaning it will always peak at the same position no matter where the notes are placed (think Pendulum vs The Freestylers' Fasten Your Seatbelt). This produces a different feel to that created by using the Speed control to find the correct tempo. Try experimenting with these two approaches, as well as the phase and wave shapes.
2. If you’re a hardcore breaks head it’s likely you’ll need a big spanking hoover sound at some point. Though most synth preset designers have caught onto the joys of the hoover, it’s easy enough to create one yourself. Simply detune as many sawtooth waves as you feel comfortable with and apply a low-pass filter. If the mood takes you, add a little tasteful overdrive (try experimenting with the effect’s frequency controls, if any) and you’re good to go.
3. The classic hoover is a versatile sound. With a short release time it makes a handy stab, and with a little glide you can create big, Aquasky-style, trouser-rattling riffs. EQ the bass end up high - as long as it doesn’t interfere with any other bass playing at the same time.
4. As great as they are on their own merits, hoover sounds can be made more individual (they are somewhat ubiquitous, after all) with the addition of different wave shapes and a bit of extra processing – particularly degradation effects such as a good bit crusher plug-in. Apply too much degradation, however, and your sound will turn to mush – although this can actually come in handy when bringing in a breakdown, for example, or at any point in a track where you want to twist things up a little.
5. To get a nice full frequency spread, layer multiple drums of the same type. You’ll want a full kick drum in there (a 909, for example), but not too loud or it’ll overwhelm the track.
6. If your synth's got wave shapes aplenty, try using something more exotic than a sine wave when creating a sub-bass. You’ll need a bit of low-pass filtering to keep it around the fundamental frequency, but with a bit of headroom to let those harmonics through. To add punch, apply some resonance and change the filter slope setting – just watch those bass-bins, though.
7. Once you’ve programmed in your new beat, try changing the pitch – pitching breaks down often makes them sound tougher.
8. If you’re not lucky enough to have the latest knob-encrusted MIDI controller, take solace in the fact that your keyboard’s modulation control makes for a handy substitute, despite the fact that you can only vary one parameter at a time. Try tying it to the filter cutoff frequency in your favourite synthesizer – you'll find that it's much more satisfying than drawing in automation by hand or with your mouse. It's also more conducive to generating new ideas because you can play the keyboard at the same time as making your moves.
9. Most breaks beats are made up from individual drum hits. When chopping up breaks, use your sampler’s end point control to isolate the beats. Add an amplitude envelope with a short release time and you’ve got a drum kit which you can use to create a new rhythm.
10. Drum machine samples are another good source of beats. Some tracks even use the standard 909 kit, albeit in a highly processed form. Heavy compression is the order of the day here: a rough lo-fi effect is possible with one compressor for each drum group, or for a slicker sound, try compressing each sample individually.
11. Though breaks tunes generally hover around 130- 140bpm, some tracks sound a lot faster than others. This is down to the way the beats are programmed. To make a beat sound more relaxed, try cutting out 8th and 16th-note hits and accenting every other beat.
12. Another way to add pace is to use off-beat open hats. Quiet, they work well with a more complex, rolling beat; loud, they complement a 4/4 beat. If the effect is a little too housey, try a little EQ on the high end.
13. One of most important effects in any breaks toolkit is the filter. If your synth or sampler’s filter isn’t up to it, see if better results can be gleaned from your host’s filter plug-in. While flexibility-wise this isn’t as convenient as a synth with a tearing filter, it beats putting up with a weak sound. If your sampler has a particularly pleasing filter, try sampling your synth and running it through that.
14. Adding automated effects to groups or even the whole track is a handy way of easing the transition between the different parts of your song. The classic example is to high-pass filter your sounds before the bassline kicks and then use other effects such as phasers and degraders to create yet more complex fills and bridges. BT’s ESCM album features use of effects like this – he does love showing off.
15. When sampling from vinyl, remember that clicks and pops can be taken out by simply drawing over the wave in your audio editor.
16. Like most genres these days, breaks features liberal use of processing, so try reinvigorating your old sounds with some extreme FX. For example, vocal samples will cut through the mix a lot better when treated with a bit of overdrive and compression. Subtlety, as always, is the key here – unless you’re going for an Alec Empire vibe, keep the drive low and just emphasise the mid or top frequencies.
17. Other tricks to employ when looking to add a little something to vocals include chorus, pitchshifting and extreme delay effects. Try chaining these signals up in different ways, and if the effect is too much and the vocal becomes unintelligible, simply turn up the dry signals. Alternatively, you can always try EQing away some of the extraneous frequencies.
18. While all this digital jiggery pokery is great, breaks in particular can benefit from a little bit of the old analogue touch. Persuade a rock-loving chum to lend you their guitar pedal, and be sure to case his place for vintage delays, talkboxes and vocoders while you’re there. Try running your hi-tech sound through this knackered old kit – you'll be surprised at the resulting dirty basslines and effects.
19. Likewise, if you’ve got access to a pair of decks grab the nearest 12" and nab yourself some tasty spinbacks and deck stop sounds. You’ll notice that these tricks are virtually impossible to cock up, so top notch DJing skills aren’t at all necessary. Try experimenting with any sound effects while you’re at it, too, to add a more abstract flavour to your tracks.
20. When using loops, you may find that a sample doesn’t rhythmically fit your track even when timestretched. This can be corrected with your software’s beat-quantisation tools or, alternatively, by cutting up each hit of the loop as you would a breakbeat. You can then sync these individual samples to your beat – if the original sample is close to your track’s tempo, you may even find that timestretching is unnecessary.
21. Breaks is one of those genres where you can more or less get away with anything as long is it rocks the discotheque. DJ Dee Kline, for example, has sampled bits from such diverse sources as Mr Oizo and TV’s Marcus Brigstocke. Listen to as much music as you can – both old and new – for bits to snatch, and remember, the more obscure the better – you’re less likely to get busted for illicit samples, for a start.
22. Like its forbear, hardcore breakbeat, breaks combines elements of many forms of dance music – particularly hip-hop, house, funk, reggae and techno. As well as being handy sources of samples, these genres will give you a better understanding of where breaks comes from. DJ scratch and old sound effect records are also perfect sampling fodder.
23. Do you have rhythmically complex loops that refuse to sound right despite your best attempts to sync them up? It’s possible that a little shuffle quantisation will get those beats meshing, especially if you’re sampling from such occasionally swing-tastic genres as jazz and house. The shuffle knob in Reason is particularly adept at quickly experimenting with your track’s swing level – non-Reason users will most likely have to get funky with a few menus.
24. If you’re doing a bootleg featuring an a-cappella, you’ll presumably be timestretching or pitchshifting the vocal to fit the pitch and tempo of the track. When timestretching with a view to creating junglistic vocal effects, try using a drum algorithm and experiment with any parameters on offer.