Making Beats in a Sea of Tweed

I recently got into a Twitter conversation with Matt Blick. The conversation reminded me that I have a little bit of an advantage, one that seemed like a disadvantage for some time. You see, I hang out with musicologists. Musicologists spend their time abroad in monasteries and libraries. They wear cotton gloves while they carefully inspect documents and pieces of music from hundreds of years ago. While others are waiting in line at Euro Disney, these people are straining their eyes, trying to figure out what a cleric from another age meant by a squiggle. I am not one of these people. I don’t have that kind of a brain. I do, however, sing the music that has been found in these catacombs. Their Indiana Jones discoveries become my favorite pieces to sing. Note, none of my friends look like Harrison Ford, especially the women.

So, when I saw Matt’s tweet:

my immediate thought was Isorhythmic Motet! My second thought was, “Crap! I just let my geek show!” But, the truth is, I just had an aha moment about a very old compositional technique that is all over the dance charts. Basically, the monks who were writing motets like the one above, were doing the same thing producers do now. They were taking ideas and repeating them, like medieval loops. Each idea was a different length and sometimes in a different meter. That is what made them isorhythmic. Producers, the really good ones, are doing the same thing in Reason and Ableton, they just aren’t using the same term, and they aren’t singing.

There are a lot of tutorials out there to show you how to use the software. But the art comes in finding the right mixture. That takes ears and creativity. What I would suggest you do is start with about 5 different loops. You probably won’t use all of them in the same groove, but having some variety will give you enough options without feeling overwhelmed. Start with the blandest loop you have (in 4/4 time) as the base. Duplicate it and create a new track. Choose a 3/4 loop (like a waltz) to go over the top. Line up the first beat of the two tracks and make sure they are the same tempo (bpm). Listen to the two together. The downbeat of the two loops will line up about every 12 beats. If you don’t like the combination, try something else until you find something that makes you want to move. You might want to use this as a dash of spice in the bridge, or you’ll want to mix it up in the sections of your song.

You can always trash whatever you don’t like. It’s also a good idea to keep other parts of the track simple. Complexity loses its punch when it’s adrift in a sea of more complexity.

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