After the kick drum, in dance music the most important part of your beat is arguably the ‘backbeat’. This is what falls on beats two and four of the bar (while beat one is called the ‘downbeat’) and usually features a snare, clap or similar. Getting the backbeat right can really enhance the character and groove of a good beat, but so many people fail to maximise the potential, opting for a dull, or rigidly quantised sound. So let’s consider some of the options you can use to make sure your beat really shines…
First though, there’s the issue of what you need your backbeat to do. In general, the bigger your tune sounds, the less room for manoeuvre you have in this area. A raging DnB or dubstep tune will need something correspondingly massive to cut through the mix, and thus often make use of what is known to many as the ‘Pendulum Snare’. This is basically a rock-sounding snare with loads of weight, a big EQ boost around 200Hz, next to nothing in the way of transients and perhaps a gated reverb to boot. It’s not particularly interesting, or original, but it certainly will dominate a busy mixdown.
If you can afford more space in your mix then you’ll have a lot more options. Claps are a lot of fun; get hold of a good sample pack (or even take a mic and record some yourself) and get them into a sampler. Make sure they’re not just the standard drum machine jobs – organic, live sounding claps are the way forward here. Now stack up three or four or more to all play at the same time, and start to tweak the timing – pull a couple of them early, before the beat, and have a couple starting a touch later. Combine this with some tight reverb and subtle panning (or a slight stereo-spread plugin effect) and you’ll have a clap that really catches the ear, with a fresh live sound, ideal for hip hop, funk, deep house and more. Check some early 2000′s era Timbaland beats if you want to hear how this technique can really be used effectively.
Rimshots are another essential tool. The classic Roland 505 rimshot sound is a staple of garage records, but the rimshot has many other uses in dance music. For instance, it can be pitched down and used atop a kick drum, to give a crisp, woody sound that emphasises the beat without jumping out of the mix – as DJ Sneak shows on many of his house tracks. The short duration of a rimshot means it’s great for adding dynamics to a lifeless sound – if a snare sounds overly crunchy and flat, try high-passing a rimshot and layering it on top to get a transient on the snare without altering the character too much.
Another way of making the backbeat stand out, especially in a crowded mix, is to layer some finger snaps on top. These can be high-passed at a fairly high frequency so that they don’t clash with the main character of the snare or clap, for instance 3kHz, and when combined with some careful reverb can give an impression of space and definition. Layer up two or three such samples to add interest, and again, adjust the timing of each so that they spread out across the beat and give a looser, funkier feel.
Of course, there are plenty of other sounds you can use to make your backbeat distinctive in a busy drumbeat; a vocal sound (just a syllable, like an ‘uh’ sound for instance), a metallic hit with a slapback delay, the sound of breaking glass – the world is your oyster. The more unusual you can make the sound, the easier it will be to make the mixdown work too – as the texture will stand out naturally, without having to compete for volume.
In all of these examples, playing with the timing and pulling your samples off the quantise grid is essential. It can totally change the feel of a beat, and you’ll be surprised how far off the grid you can come before it sounds wrong – pull a sound a long way forwards and it will become what drummers know as a ‘flam’, while pushing it later will give a lazy, languid feel, ideal for disco and funk. It also helps with maintaining a solid, loud mixdown – something that plays fractionally before the beat will be audible at a much lower level than something that has to compete with the kick and everything else that’s playing exactly on that beat. So it makes good engineering sense too!
All in all, the backbeat is an integral part of dance music, and one that can fundamentally influence the feel and groove of your track – so it’s worth spending some time and exploring all available options to make sure it’s really right. Hopefully these words will have given you a few new ideas, so fire up that beat and make some noise!