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how to make riddims
The following tutorial offers some tips for users of Fruityloops or other sequencer-based music-making programs. If you missed djvar’s introduction to sequencing and his brief overviews of hip-hop, dancehall, and techno style, check out his previous set of Music Lessons (2003).
Disclaimer: Roots reggae grew out of a strong tradition of live performance. This tutorial describes some stylistic parameters for programming a roots-style riddim, but a programmed beat will inevitably lack the dynamics and “human” feel of a reggae riddim played by accomplished instrumentalists. Nevertheless, reggae producers have been programming roots-style riddims since the 1980s, and you can do quite a lot with music software these days, including, with some work, achieving subtle dynamics and a “humanized” feel. With these caveats in mind, please think of the following recommendations as rough guidelines for getting started on roots riddims. Departing from these conventions, as much as adhering to them, will be important in crafting your own voice as a reggae producer.
The “one-drop” rhythm that distinguishes roots reggae from other styles is largely evoked by the regular “drop” of a kick drum (and often a snare) on beats 2 and 4 of each bar:
Additionally, the snare–which frequently takes the form of a “rimshot” in roots reggae–will often deviate from this pattern, providing syncopated “turnarounds” every few bars or so (especially on the final bar of a 4- or 8-bar section of a verse or chorus–try to use these fills sparingly, which will make them more effective):
The hi-hat cymbal typically provides a pretty steady timeline (note: placing a little bit of delay on the hi-hat can make it sound more active):
Often, roots-reggae riddims also feature additional percussion. You could add, for instance, a shaker to complement the hi-hat line. Making the shaker play a slighly asymmetrical rhythm can help it to stand out and provide some nice rhythmic texture:
Also, a “crash” cymbal, when used sparingly, can provide some effective splash at just the right moment, especially just before a chorus or at a particularly powerful point in the song:
Finally, due to the influence of Rastafari on roots reggae, one often finds hand-drums in roots riddims. One will want to acquaint oneself with the Kumina/Burru traditions in order to create a better informed hand-drum line. Still, some experimentation can yield pleasant results. Try to complement the riddim you’ve already constructed by adding hand-drum “attacks” at various points in the timeline. To make the hand-drums sound more “real” add some delay, perhaps “pitching down” the echoed attacks. As usual, and in line with West African approaches to polyrhythm, 3:2 relationships can provide some effective rhythmic drive.
(You will want to make sure that you are within a tempo range that works for roots reggae. Since roots reggae has many forms, from ballads to rockers, quite a range of tempos will work. Although there are no rules here, there are conventions. Try something between 50-100 bpm and adjust it as you go, depending on whether you want to build a riddim for a slow-, medium-, or up-tempo song. Feel free to depart from this, too, if you think it can work.)
No one-drop riddim will sound complete without an emphasis on the upbeat, usually played by guitar, though a keyboard or organ can also substitute or complement the “skanking” chords on the “and” of each beat. Rhythmically, a “skank” will look like this:
Sometimes, you can double-up on the chord in order to provide a little bit of polyrhythm. This can also be accomplished by putting some slight delay or echo on the chords, especially with timing that creates a 3:2 relationship between the echoes and the underlying pulse.
Beginning with Studio One’s use of the echoplex in the late 60s, delay/echo has been an integral part of the reggae sound, changing the upbeat skank from a “chick” to a “chick-a.”
Another way to achieve this effect is to make the second “attack” lower in volume (or “velocity”), using the button:
Roots riddims often complement this simple skanking with what is referred to as an organ “shuffle,” where an organ accents the 16th notes, or boxes, just before and after (and often along with) the upbeat:
A short word on chords: unlike loop-centered styles such as hip-hop and dancehall, roots riddims often employ chord progressions, outlining a set of harmonic changes over the course of a measure or two, or four, or eight. Sometimes these chord progressions can be quite complicated, though often the simplest two-chord or four-chord vamps can be the most expressive. If you don’t know much about chords, there are a few, simple conventions to be aware of when building a roots riddim.
First off, roots riddims tend to employ a fairly small number of chords, though there are many variations on the chords’ voicings, or the way they are “spelled”–that is, the series of simultaneous pitches that create a chord. (A chord is generally thought of as a set of simultaneous pitches.) Here are several chord-spellings that you could use in a roots riddim–try building these chords for a guitar or keyboard, as is customary. To keep things simple, let’s build these chords in the key of C, which will restrict us to the white keys. You’ll probably want to experiment with key in your own compositions, but that can always be done by pitch-shifting the channel itself, so it may be easier to compose in C and then move things around. For simplicity’s sake, let’s also stay within the range of just over one octave, though you should feel free to reproduce the same pitches above and below this range. (The following chords are displayed in FL’s piano-roll window.)
Roots reggae riddims tend to focus on these chords, often using only a couple at a time. I don’t want to go into much “formal” theory here, but you should know that in a major key (as in many reggae songs) the 1, 4, and 5 chords are major chords and the 2, 3, and 6 are minor. (Note the differences in spaces between each pitch in the major and minor chords above.) This contrast in mode allows for some interesting, affective changes. Try simply moving between 1 and 2 chords, two beats per chord, for a nice alternating progression:
Many songs just stick to the major chords, though. Using combinations of 1, 4, 5 will yield a lot of familiar sounding progressions. Try this one:
Experiment with various combinations until you find a chord progression that works for you. From there, you can easily build a bassline for your riddim.
Reggae is, of course, known for its heavy, bubbling basslines. And it’s not exactly easy to come up with the inventive, melodic, mesmerizing, and yet minimal basslines that define classic roots reggae. Not everyone can live up to the standards set by Leroy Sibbles, Robbie Shakespeare, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, and others. But you can try. And listening to great basslines is a pleasant way to study up.
Typically, reggae basslines follow the song’s chord progression, outlining the chord’s vertical stack of pitches in “horizontal” time. In addition to playing these tones, or some smaller set of them, the bassline usually provides an underlying rhythmic drive. Try landing on the strong beats, the 1s and 2s and such, but also place a note or two on the syncopated boxes around them:
For a “dubby” style bassline, go for repeated notes, especially on the 5 below 1:
Finally, despite what you may program harmonically and rhythmically, the “tone” or timbre of the bass is, of course, crucial. Try to filter out a good amount of the treble and mid-range frequencies if you can, leaving a fat, low bass tone. FL’s BooBass, which emulates the classic Fender P-Bass, a commonly used instrument in much reggae, allows you to do this pretty easily:
A Likkle Spice: Additional Elements
At this point, you should have a decent, if somewhat bare-bones, roots riddim chugging along. But you will probably want to add some additional elements to give it some distinction and to fill it out. These can take all kinds of forms, from additional guitar or keyboard melodies, to synthesizer lines or synthesized orchestral elements (best when mixed low), to additional percussion and various samples (vocals, sirens, field recordings, etc.). Since reggae has become a global music, producers have been adding all kinds of things to roots riddims, from sitars to vinyl hiss. Keep your ears and mind open and decide what sounds good to you.
One rhythmic variation that you might want to be aware of connects roots reggae riddims to dancehall reggae riddims. If you take the one-drop and add kicks on beats 1 and 3 (making it a four-to-the-floor kick pattern) and snares creating a 3+3+2 pattern, you get a rhythm that was rather popular in the late 80s and early 90s, taps into much older Caribbean currents (from calypso to son), and has seen a recent resurgence, as on songs like I-Wayne’s “Can’t Satisfy Her.” Try substituting the following pattern for the one-drop pattern and see how it changes the feel of your riddim:
One More Ting: Check the Architects
Reggae is a rich musical tradition with a vast catalog of classics. For greater guidance on building your own roots riddims, check the artists and producers who built the solid foundation on which your new tracks will rest. You might start with the Studio One and Treasure Isle staples, dig into the dub of King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, move through Channel One’s “Roots Radical” re-versions, check Jammy’s digital revolution, don’t miss Sly and Robbie, Steelie and Cleavie, and Bobby Digital on your way, and catch up with the latest explosion of roots riddims coming from the likes of Donovan “Don Corleone” Bennett. Nuff music lessons out there. Keep your ears peeled. Seen?