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Is the drum loop still current, or should you now drum it out of your work?

Drum loops have been popular since the 1980s, but that was three decades ago. Isn't it time for something new?

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Here's a drum loop...

Clearly there is inspiration from the most famous drum loop of all time, from James Brown's track Funky Drummer performed by Clyde Stubblefield...

But where did the idea of drum loops come from, and why do we use them?

Origins

The use of drum loops stems from the use of tape loops in electroacoustic music such as that of Pierre Henry, Edgard Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen. But they weren't thinking of drum loops as we know them now.

Closer to today's drum loops is the work of Jamaican dub producer King Tubby and Japanese band the Yellow Magic Orchestra, both of whom are well worth checking out as part of the history of modern popular music.

But the drum loop as we now know it really took off when equipment such as this became available at reasonably affordable prices...

Akai S900 sampler

This is the Akai S900 sampler, which when it was introduced in 1986 was a sensation. Everyone wanted one, or something like it. It wasn't the first sampler, but it is probably fair to say that it brought together everything that a practical musician needed, at a price they could stretch to.

And it came with a whole twelve second's worth of memory!

The thing was that samplers like the S900 made it easy to sample drum breaks from vinyl or CD. And whatever is easy, people will do. And creative people will take things to the next level and invent new musical art.

Three decades of drum loops

Over the three decades since drum loops first became popular some things have changed.

Even in the 1980s, it was realized that it was a fun thing to do to combine two loops together in layers.

Old timers will remember the technique of adjusting the pitch of one loop so that it would match the duration of the other, so that both would loop in sync.

Old timers will also remember very well that although it was possible to loop the sample in the sampler itself, it was much more practical to loop it through multiple note-on messages in the MIDI sequencer (which in those days did not record audio).

Layering loops was fun. Also fun was the possibility of adding single drum hits, to make it possible to add fills or breaks to the drum track to alleviate what could easily become the monotony of an endlessly repeating loop.

The next twist was adding real drums to a drum loop, which is kind of a 'best of both worlds' that can work well.

And now?

Well I'll come back to my original question - Is the drum loop still current or should you eliminate it from your work?

One thing is for sure - these days you can't just loop the Funky Drummer break in your DAW and expect that to be satisfactory as the whole of the drum track. That is not a texture for the second and subsequent decades of the twenty-first century. If you want a 1980s vibe, then fine, but otherwise it's going to sound old fashioned. And by the way, James Brown's publisher will still sue you for copyright - apparently they had a whole office to handle this in the 1980s and 1990s.

What you can do however is use drum loops in unexpected ways...

  • Change the pitch drastically and blend with real drums or a drum virtual instrument.
  • Cut up the loop and rearrange the beats. Actually that's an old technique, but it's still good now.
  • Use a powerful editing software such as Melodyne to cut up the loop, re-time it, and/or re-pitch elements.
  • Combine a variety of processes to come up with something new and original.

So here is the Funky Drummer loop messed around with a little in Melodyne, with EQ and reverb...

That sounds a little sparse by itself, but we can add extra percussive elements...

I'm sure you get the idea. Drum loops used just by themselves are old hat. But there is a bright future ahead when loops are combined with modern creativity.

Get looping!

By David Mellor Thursday November 1, 2018
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