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Drumming with Loops -- some Methods

by Eric Cook

Ok, this is an overview of some of the techniques/methods that I use as a drummer to play with looping material. (And for the record, I use some of these same kind of techniques in non-looping contexts as well, and they also work there.) Note, too, that these are things that have worked for me, working in improv and improv/rock settings -- YMMV in other contexts, It's been educational for me to sit down and try to spell out some of these things; hopefully they may be of some use for those of you that have had problems with drummers/percussionists being uncertain of how to approach playing with your loops.

 I'm uncertain of how well some of this translates into English -- when I'm doing it, I'm thinking in terms of the sound, not in terms of "Ok, so let's see, what next..hmm.." They make sense to me, but may be gibberish to someone else. If so, let me know, and I'll try to clear up those points (or provide audio examples). Also, I'd love to hear other suggestions on things to try, so shout 'em out!

Playing Drums/Percussion with loops
(in-sync and out-sync)

Basically, you can break it down into three general concepts; You can either play:

  1. With the loop,
  2. Across the loop, or
  3. Against the loop.

    With the loop

    • If the loop is the same rhythm as the theme/riff (say the guitarist locks in a loop of the riff, and then moves into a solo), this is a fairly trivial case -- you can keep playing to the theme as you have been, varying it as much or as little as you normally would.


    • If the loop is different from what you had been playing, you have several options.


      • The first is to just keep playing what you have been playing. [see "2. Playing across the loop"]


      • Next is to just listen carefully, and as you hear the loop hit a repeat point (or a "functional downbeat"), truncate or extend the rhythm that you have been playing to match with the loop. This is somewhat easier said than done, but is not really all difficult. Just listen to what is going on around you very carefully, and for truncation, be ready to start the beat over when the repeat point hits (be ready to do it at the drop of a hat, basically).


      You may not hit the loop the first time around, or even the 2nd or 3rd. No big deal -- just keep listening, and if you are making "mistakes" (in the sense that you are way off-time with the loop), make them very purposively and assertively. If the rhythm you are playing is saying to the audience and musicians around you "Yeah, I'm off-beat, so what?", it will blend much more smoothly, and no one will question it.

       For extending the rhythm to match a loop that is longer than what you had been playing, you can either do it all at once or transitionally. All at once (in the sense that you are just going to jump to new, more or less different rhythm that fits the loop is harder -- you need to be really on the ball, and have a strong intuitive feel of where the loop is going to repeat.

       Transitionally extending the rhythm is easier, though it can be a little different from the standard "keep the beat, keep the beat" concepts of drumming that you are used to. The two ways I approach this are to slowly increment the length of rhythm, playing the same basic thing, but adding another beat or two onto the end of it at each iteration of the measure (which, you'll notice, is slowly getting longer each time). Again, listen carefully to the loop to see when you are in sync.

       Another related method is what I've thought of as "stretching" part of the rhythm out. That is, you play the rhythm that you have been playing, and "stretch" the end of it out until the point where you hear the loop repeat. The most straightforward ways I've found of doing this have been to do a fairly constant/simple snare fill, or cymbal swell. Once again, listen carefully, and be ready to jump the instant you hear the loop point. You can use this either as a new component of the rhythm, repeating it during each further iteration, or you can use it as a "resting spot", to stop and think about what you are going to do with this loop on further variations.


    At this point, I can hear some of your drummer friends saying "Increment the beat? But I don't know how to play in 7/8 (or whatever)!". Easy -- you don't necessarily need to know how to do it to actually be able to do it. Don't count the beats -- if you aren't comfortable with the time signature you wind up in, you are just making it more difficult for yourself than it needs to be. After all, who cares what signature you are playing in? What counts is how it sounds -- "Listen carefully" is the single biggest tip I can give you in trying to pull all this off, right in front of "act very quickly". I find that "singing" the drum beat to myself in my head helps me do all this (and other things) that I am completely unable to do if I'm actually trying to "left-brain" my way through it. Worry about how it sounds, not what notes are being played. If it sounds good, the notes will take care of themselves.

     Also, despite all the "rules" of drumming, metronomic time is not always appropriate -- don't be afraid to speed up or slow down to match the loop if that's what sounds good.

     Ok, onward...


    Playing across the loop

    • if the loop is an "out-sync" one, another option is to play "across" it; that is, to keep doing what you are doing, and disregard the fact that the loop is now doing something different. In essence, you are pretending that the theme that you were playing with is still present. This may sound strange, but it works surprisingly well, both conceptually and pragmatically. Conceptually, you are providing a sense of continuity with a (potentially) disassociated loop and the rest of the piece prior to that disassociation. Pragmatically, this can be sometimes be easier than varying the beat to fit the loop, and it can make for some nice polyrhythmic effects. Also, you are providing a strong foundation for your "looper" to jump back onto the beat when they see fit (for instance, after a loop-heavy, "textural" solo of the guitar).

       This is also a somewhat problematic technique for some drummers, in that they are all alone in keeping the beat. Too bad; learn how to do it -- they are the drummer after all; they shouldn't need to have someone else there "hand holding" their way through the beat. Other drummers will have no problem whatsoever in doing this; again, "singing" the theme/riff to myself always helps me in not falling too far off. So does just "tuning out" the loop, if needed (though not completely; you need to find the inbetween point of "listening while not listening".)

       This general technique is also useful to provide continuity between related loops that are cross-fading. I do something like this on "If's it wrong to be right.." and "Why is it so hard?" on the 2nd Gravitar CD.


    • Related to playing across the loop, as well as to the stretching technique mentioned above, is the technique of "fragmenting" the rhythm. That is, taking a fragment of the rhythm, and repeating that. For me, this generally boils down to turning a more complex pattern (say of 8 or 16 beats), and grabbing a hold of 2 or 3 beats of it, and repeating them. In some ways, it can be thought of as an extended "fill", though it quickly sounds less like a fill than a separate rhythm. In some ways, it is a live way of "echoing" the looping that is going on around you -- it can sound very much like a drum loop that is suddenly caught in a lock-step. Also, you use this as another transitional technique (as mentioned in the segment on stretching above), either to go into a new rhythm, or while waiting to jump back into the beat when your "looper" is ready. (The latter is a fairly easy way to build some dramatic tension, I've found, providing the looping section remains fairly short in overall duration.)


    Last, playing against the loop:

    • In some ways, this points out the arbitrary nature of the some of the distinctions that I've made here -- after all, when you are playing "across" the loop, as outlined above, aren't you playing "against" it in some ways? The difference, I guess, is that playing against the loop would have no direct rhythmic connection with either the musical events in the loop, or the rhythm being playing prior to the loop. In essense, this is the time where you say -- "Ok, the loop is keeping the beat (or a beat, at least); I'm free to do whatever I choose." Good time for a solo, or to slip into a more "free" oriented mode of drumming.


    • Another potential approach (again, not all that different necessarily from some of the prior techniques), is to establish a rhythm that allow you to shift the accents in it around fairly freely, without a direct one-to-one relationship with the musical events in the loop.

       I also use this one on Gravitar's 2nd CD, on the song "Automaton". The basic guitar theme is a simple triplet-based group of 4 or so notes, repeating in a self-similar, but fairly constantly shifting pattern. When recording it, I knew that the guitar player would be going into a heavy textural section for most of the middle of the song, and would leave some part of the the triplet pattern looping in the background. Rather than worrying about what configuration of this pattern he would come up with this time in the loop, I instead made the whole rhythm of the drums a somewhat simple tripet-based pattern, allowing me to fairly freely shift accents back and forth at will -- this suggested the triplet pattern of the guitar riff, but didn't tie me directly to it, allowing me to play against whatever loop pattern would come up on this particular occasion.

And that's the overview. As stated in section 3, these distinctions are fairly arbitrary, and more for the sake of clarity in the explanation than anything. In practice, any combination of techniques could be used, in the same piece, or same loop. Any of the connective devices could be used by themselves entirely (to create a new rhythm), or to connect any given technique to any other given technique. None of this is absolute either -- what it all boils down to is listening, reacting, and choosing whatever is appropriate for the song and situation in question. A lot of it is pretty self-evident, really, once you do it at least once.

 Also note that when I do these things in the context of Gravitar, we don't have a bass player; this frees me up considerably as a drummer, both in terms of my freedom to react quickly without worrying so much about bass player following what I'm doing, as well as, in essence, making the drums the entirety of the "rhythm section". I'm not necessarily advocating kicking the bass player out...but it's helped me in some ways.

 Hope this is of interest/use to somebody -- I'd love to hear any comments, questions, etc.


Eric Cook ecook@mail.msen.com
Gravitar-Guy http://www.msen.com/~ecook/gravitar.html
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