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Making Friends With A Drum Machine

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7. Playing Solos

This is really a no-brainer. Once you’ve created your grooves, it’s time to start soloing over the top. You can practice extended solos or perhaps trade twos, fours, and eights between solos and grooves.

8. Polyrhythms

Some polyrhythms are pretty easy to program. To hear how a 3:2 rhythm sounds, program a measure of 6/8 with one sound happening every two eighth-notes, and a different sound happening every three eighth-notes. By listening to how this rhythm “should” sound, it will be easier for you to play it.

Other polyrhythms are not only more complex to play, they are more complex to program. To hear the rhythm of 4:5, program one measure of 5/4 time. Place one sound on each quarter-note and a different sound on every fifth sixteenth-note. The polyrhythm of 6:7 can also be programmed on most drum machines. Create a pattern of 7/4 and, again, place one sound on each quarter-note. The second sound should be programmed on every seventh sixteenth-note triplet.

Even more complex polyrhythms are possible, but they might take a little time and effort to program. For example, if you want to hear the rhythm of 11:9, you’ll need to create a song that has a total of 99 divisions. You can do this several different ways, but one solution might be to program 11 different measures of 9/8 time. Over the course of the 11 measures, you’ll want to have one sound on each downbeat of the bar, and a different sound on every 11th eighth-note. When programming patterns that are this complex, it might be helpful to make a little chart showing what the rhythms would be in each pattern.

9. Speeding Up And Slowing Down

While the most common use of a drum machine is to help us hold a steady pulse, one of the other common features is the ability to program tempo changes within a song. Using this feature, it’s possible to arrange a series of songs that focus your attention on building stronger chops. Let’s say you want to build up your speed of double paradiddles. Create a song that repeats a series of measures in 3/4 and program the song to speed up by 20 bpm over the course of 32 bars. If you want to make the exercise complete, you can then program the next 32 bars to bring the tempos back down to the original speed. Then, whenever you want to practice this exercise, simply call up the song and press “play.” When you feel that a 20-bpm change no longer pushes you hard enough, you can either increase the rate of change or start the entire song at a faster tempo.

If you’re worried that practicing speeding up and slowing down is going to compromise your ability to hold a steady beat, you may (depending on the features of your machine) be able to increase or decrease the tempo in “stair-steps” rather than a constant change. Program eight measures at a steady tempo and then have the song increase in tempo by one or two bpm. Program another eight bars at this new tempo and program another tempo change. At that point, it’s just “lather, rinse, repeat.”

10. Sparking The Creative Mind

Here’s something that’s really fun. Set up a two-bar phrase in 4/4 time, and set the quantize level to sixteenths. Now, turn the master volume down to zero so you can’t hear the metronome or the sound of the instruments. Throw that baby into real-time-record mode and play whatever you want.

Since you won’t be able to hear what you’re doing, you won’t be inclined to play rhythms that are commonplace. In fact, you’re likely to be very surprised by what comes out of the machine once you turn the volume back up. Whenever I do this, I like to create 10–20 different patterns before I give any of them a listen. Sometimes, the resulting patterns are useless, sometimes they are way cool, and sometimes they need an extra note or two to help set and confirm the groove. But it’s always interesting and a fun game that opens up my mind to new ideas.

11. Book Learnin’

If your music-reading skills are very strong, you might not find this useful. But those who might need some help interpreting and applying what they see on the printed page to what they play on the kit can benefit by programming entire beats into their machines. Once you program written rhythms into a drum machine, you can hear how they should sound, and play them back at a very slow tempo if necessary.

12. Sound Design

All drum machines come with a large variety of sounds. Some have bass and synth sounds in addition to drums. Tweaking your sounds is something that a normal metronome just won’t let you do. With most drum machines, you can adjust the pitch, the envelope (attack, sustain, decay), the filters, and even more parameters of the sound. You might also be able to adjust a number of audio effects such as reverb, echoes, distortion, etc. By experimenting with these controls, you’ll gain a more thorough knowledge of how electronic instruments operate and you can transfer that knowledge back to your acoustic drumming. At the very least, it will help you realize that your instruments are capable of producing more than one stagnant sound.

Now that you’ve got some ideas on how you might repurpose a drum machine to become an amazingly useful tool, think about some other ways you might be able to improve your relationship with a metronome or drum machine. After all, you want your musical colleagues to give you top marks in the box that says “plays well with others.”

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