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In pop music, the beat is the foundation on which everything else is built. And one of the fastest, easiest ways to build a beat is with a drum loop. Apple GarageBand, which is included in all new Macintoshes, supplies a good set of beats to get you started. (And be sure to download the free additional content Apple provides with GarageBand '08; it's a hefty bonus.)

But your music is original. Why should you be satisfied with a stock beat? In this tutorial I'll show you a variety of ways to customize GarageBand's beats. Many of the techniques I'll cover will work with other drag-and-drop music programs as well, such as Sony Acid, Steinberg Sequel, Cakewalk Music Creator, and Ableton Live.


Layering

Open GarageBand's Loop Browser and click on Beats. Here you'll find a variety of useful electronic drum loops. I was partial to the big, meaty kick drum in Club Dance Beat 009, so I dragged it into a track. (See Figure 1.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 1
Fig. 1: I started by selecting a drum loop from the browser. (Click to enlarge.)

Another appealing loop, Effected Drum Kit 07, consists mostly of aggressive, distorted highs with no kick drum to speak of, so I decided to try layering it with the Dance Beat:

I liked the combined beat, but it seemed a little busy. So I applied EQ (tone control) so as to isolate the kick in the Dance Beat and emphasize the upper overtones in the Effected Kit. (In electronic music parlance, "effected" means processed with signal-altering effects.)

After selecting my Mostly Kick track, I clicked the Track Info button. GarageBand doesn't include anything like a decent EQ, but it has Treble Reduction and Bass Reduction plugins. In the Effects panel, I selected Treble Reduction for what I was now calling the Mostly Kick track and Bass Reduction for the "High & Nasty" track. (See Figure 2.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 2
Fig. 2: Reducing problem frequencies with EQ can make drum loops blend better.

You open control panels for GB plugins by clicking on the pencil button. A little fiddling with the slider in each plugin gave me a respectable mix:

Grooving

My goal was to come up with an actual tune, not just some drum tracks. So I paused to add a bass line that seemed to fit with the beat — notice how some of the bass notes align with the kick drum rhythm. Next I needed a midrange keyboard comping (rhythmic accompaniment) sound of some sort. The beat was so tight that I felt a sustained keyboard tone was called for. I grabbed GB's Classic Rock Organ and came up with a riff. But it needed some reverb to fill in, so I applied GB's Track Reverb effect. (See Figure 3.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 3
Fig. 3: Adding reverb to fill out the organ track. You can now see the MIDI bass line as well.

When I listened to the mix with these two new tracks, it was obvious the drums needed different EQ: the mix was sounding a bit busy and muddy. So I pulled the High & Nasty track further back into the treble zone and increased the midrange on the Mostly Kick track:

While exporting the examples of my work in progress so as to include them in this article, I discovered an annoying GarageBand limitation: it doesn't let you rename the song as it's being exported to iTunes. All of my examples show up in iTunes as "Life of O'Reilly," irrespective of the filename.

Filling

Quite often in pop music, you'll hear a drum fill at the end of an eight-bar phrase. This temporary change in the groove alerts the listener that a new statement is coming and adds interest. Grooves that never change work well in some styles, such as hip-hop, but in other styles they'll quickly become boring. They'll sound unnatural, like a singer who never breathes.

The number of fills you may be able to come up with is truly infinite, so you may or may not like my effort, but a few simple techniques can provide lots of different musical results. Basically, we want to stop the drum loop (or in this case both loops, since we're layering two of them) at the beginning of bar 8 and use truncation and drag-copying to repeat short pieces of the loops.

I've repeated each loop for eight bars using the little curly arrow mouse tool. I can use this same tool to shorten the loop back to seven bars. I then Option-drag the whole loop to the right. This creates two segments, each seven bars long, which is not what I want, so I need to shorten the second one. (See Figure 4.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 4
Fig. 4: Shortening the loop to create space for a fill.

The curly arrow tool will shorten a repeating loop only down to a minimum of one complete repetition. To get a shorter segment, move the mouse down to the lower right corner of the loop. That changes the mouse cursor into a bracket-shaped tool, with which you can shorten the segment until it's two or three eighth-notes long. Here's the resulting sound:

Fixing

By now the little ringing noise in Effected Drum Kit 07 was starting to annoy the heck out of me, so I used a similar technique to get rid of it. First I located it in the Track Editor (Figure 5).

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 5
Fig. 5: Zooming in on the annoying ringing noise in preparation for deleting it.

A tap of the Delete key banished the noise (Figure 6).

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 6
Fig. 6: The noise is history.

Now I needed to fill the gap. But when I Option-dragged the first part of the loop to the right, GarageBand "obligingly" shortened the segment following it, because the first part of the loop was longer than the gap. That wasn't what I wanted, so I had to use the bracket tool twice more to adjust the lengths of the filler material and the segment that followed it. (See Figure 7.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 7
Fig. 7: More surgery: extending the filler material with the bracket tool.

I cut the ringing sound from every other repetition, which seemed about right. Then I copied my whole eight-bar phrase so that I had 16 bars of music:

Adding Punch

For the B section of my tune, I wanted to use the same basic beat (Club Dance Beat 009), but change it sonically. Why not layer it with a MIDI drum kit to add snap and crackle to the drum sounds? This technique works better with some loops than others: if the loop has a loose rhythmic feel, you may have trouble getting the MIDI notes to line up with the drum hits in the loop. But with the loop I was using, that wasn't an issue. Even so, adding a MIDI layer turned out to be a more interesting challenge than I expected.

I dragged the beat from the Loop Browser into a new track, so that it wouldn't be affected by the EQ I had applied to the first part of the song. (I could have accomplished the same thing by automating the Treble Reduction effect.) Then I created a Software Instrument, chose the Hip Hop Kit for it, and recorded two bars of kick and snare notes from my MIDI keyboard. To fix my sloppy keyboard playing, I quantized (time-corrected) the notes to an eighth-note grid. (See Figure 8.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 8
Fig. 8: Quantizing MIDI notes to the correct timing.

After copying and editing the notes to make a four-bar pattern that was the same as the notes in the Real Instrument loop, I wanted to add a hi-hat to my MIDI drums. But I was unable to find a way to overdub the hi-hat into the same MIDI part. (Searching for the word "overdub" in the Help file yielded no results.) GarageBand recorded the hi-hat part I played on the keyboard, but assumed I was trying out an alternate take for the Hip Hop Kit instrument. I could listen to either my hi-hat or my kick and snare, but not both at once.

I could have created the hi-hat part by hand-editing the MIDI notes in the kick/snare MIDI part, but how much fun would that be? Instead, I created a second Hip Hop Kit instrument. I then Option-dragged the part (which contained the two takes) into the new track and selected a different take for each track. (See Figure 9.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 9
Fig. 9: Alternating MIDI takes for variety.

Adding Echoes

As a final touch, I dragged Club Dance Beat 009 into yet another track and shortened it so that only the first kick was sounding. I dragged the left end of the main loop to the right, so that now the first kick was coming from one track and the rest of the loop from another.

I used GB's Pitch slider to transpose the first kick up 11 half-steps, which seriously messed with its tone color. Then I applied the Track Echo effect, set to quarter-notes (1/4), and moved the Repeat Color slider somewhat to the right so that the low frequencies would gradually be filtered out of the echoes.

I liked this so much that I did it with the snare sound from the same loop, transposing the pitch up by only three half-steps and using a dotted eighth-note delay time (represented in the GB interface as "1/4 ." — very misleading). That created the kind of echo pattern heard in reggae/dub music. (See Figure 10.)

Drum Loops QuickStart Fig. 10
Fig. 10: Enhancing the groove with a dotted-eighth echo.

A little lead synth (courtesy of GB's Arena Run preset) and I had a good solid sketch that I can turn into a finished tune:

A professional-oriented program like Apple Logic or Ableton Live will give you additional tools beyond those described in this article — but if you roll up your sleeves and master these techniques, you'll be amazed at how much you can do with GarageBand.