When these particular Kiwis fly, they go far and wide! In the six fresh years of The Beths taking center-stage, they’ve racked up a loyal flock of fans, signed with an international label, toured locally and abroad, and created a storming impression within the burgeoning indie rock scene. We spoke to the talented drummer of The Beths, Tristan Deck, about all things music in his world, including two new Melodics lessons for their hits, Jump Rope Gazer and Great No One. Tristan’s eclectic music taste and his fused style of pop-punk and jazz drumming has added to The Beth’s unique alternative and indie sound. We got the inside scoop of what it means to be flying high during turbulent times. Here’s how The Beths remain focused, adaptable, and keep their engines revving despite the odds.
How did you start playing drums with The Beths? What were you doing musically before joining the band?
I knew Liz and Ben through studying Jazz at Auckland University. I knew they’d started a band and the first time I heard The Beths play I fell in love with the music. I knew I wanted to be a part of it but was content to enjoy the band as a die hard fan. I was teaching drums and playing a lot of jazz and improvised music around Auckland. Jazz music remains a great love of mine, I love the drum language and the collaboration and spontaneity. I met Jon properly on tour with Aldous Harding and some touring work with The Beths needed to be filled. A dream come true! During that period in 2019 I became a full time member of the band.
What does it mean to you and the band to see songs by The Beths picked up and taught through a platform like Melodics?
I’m chuffed! The music I was listening to when I started learning drums was half what my parents played around the house and half whatever was on the radio. Back then NZ artists were featured at a higher proportion to overseas music on popular radio stations so I started practicing while listening to lots of music from Aotearoa without even realising it. I’m chuffed because I have a very high opinion of the quality of music being produced here and am stoked to be contributing to a scene I love!
Any pro tips for cracking the drum parts on Great No One and Jump Rope Gazers?
Great No One is so much fun to play. It’s fast and has lots of big anticipated offbeat hits. Listening to lots of pop punk will get your ears in the right place for the drumming language used in the drum part. Think of the drumming on the immortal album American Idiot by Green Day, Love & Disrespect by Elemeno P, or Attack on Memory by Cloud Nothings.
What impact has Covid had on the band’s plans over the last couple of years?
Massive! We’ve had to shift from a large amount of touring and playing to staying in NZ or at home in our bubbles. We’ve done internet live streams for single and album releases and done lots of playing together, learning and workshopping different songs. I miss touring but spending a good bit of time back in NZ is wonderful. Whenever I’m on tour I miss going to watch gigs, which inspires me and makes me want to play more! There are positives and negatives for both situations.
You recently announced a 2022 North America tour, what impact will Covid have on how the shows happen? Are there certain precautions you have to put in place at the shows?
The touring landscape has changed permanently since early 2020. It’s heartbreaking to not be able to travel and play and meet people. In balancing our desire to return to a touring world the overwhelming priority is keeping people safe and healthy. The wellness of gig goers is something we take very seriously and will not put at risk by playing shows before it is prudent to do so!
Do you have any rituals or habits that help keep you on top drumming form? I try to pick up my sticks every day. I’m constantly drumming in my head and tapping ideas out on tables. I like building drum solos in my mind too – thinking about the things that I can play and arranging it in ways that sound interesting to me (and hopefully others!). It’s a great way to practise composition as well as being a memory exercise.
Any final tips for beginners or anyone thinking about playing drums?
Set realistic practice goals and focus on being regular with practice more so than the volume of practice. Make friends with as many other musicians as you can, it’s never too early in your drumming career to start playing music with others!
Ashley Simpson started off using Melodics with virtually no musical experience — yet now she’s realising her musical goals of live performances, producing and recording her own original compositions as the artist Flawed Freedom.
To ice the cake — Flawed Freedom’s debut album ‘Four Thirty’ has just launched.
Reflecting on her childhood in Sierra Vista, Arizona, Ashley Simpson, aka the finger-drummer and music producer Flawed Freedom’s fondest memories revolve around music. “I used to ride in the car with my mother and sister singing along to Deborah Cox, S.W.V or Xscape,” she recalls. “Thinking about music also makes me think about family barbecues; you already know we always had music going at those,” she continues to include NSNYC, Backstreet Boys and Motown Records. “I played sports as a child, and I really wanted to play drums and piano, but my mother couldn’t afford for me to do both, so that was that,” she says.
But years later, in 2018 Flawed Freedom chanced across a video clip that stopped her in her tracks: a short routine from the well-loved hip-hop producer and finger-drummer Beats By J Black.
“He’d flipped a sample from ‘So Gone’ by Monica and he was finger drumming it,” she remembers. “I just fell in love.” Blown away, she showed the video to her boyfriend and said, “I wish I could do this.” He replied with a simple, supportive question, “Why can’t you?”
“Why can’t you?”
By this point, Flawed Freedom was no stranger to Youtube tutorials. She had purchased a midi keyboard and racked up a bit of digital audio workstation experience recording herself improvising in the Logic Pro program, but that was about the extent of it.
“I’d purchased a controller, and I wasn’t even sure how to map it correctly using Logic,” she admits. All of that changed when J Black’s youtube videos led her to an advert for Melodics.
“I was so intrigued by J Black, and the software had lessons from him in it … I wanted to do all of his lessons straight away, and I just clicked with it. I didn’t have to think about what kick to use or what snare … The plug and play functionality made it very easy.”
With no real agenda or clear plan, Flawed Freedom made a point of trying to do something music-related every day. It’s a simple practice, and one that she still follows.
“I don’t think I had a particular goal in mind when I first picked up finger drumming, I just really liked music and wanted to learn how to flip samples. I was intrigued by the pads, triggering these pads, and the live performance aspect. I really would have never thought that I’d have a YouTube page or an Instagram, you know? It’s been such an interesting, unexpected journey.”
Once she was practising in Melodics regularly, Simpson gravitated towards lessons from STLNDRMS, OddKidOut, Jeremy Ellis, DiViNCi, Jeia and, of course, J Black. “I kept trying to be better, and it was really fun for me. It became such a de-stressor. If I was in a bad mood, I would finger drum. If I was happy, I would finger drum. So it just became part of my everyday life.”
“I think maybe the first or second day I practised for two hours or something,” she remembers. “I just could not stop playing. I really pride myself on my quality, and I wanted to get the three-star rating. I was not happy with one star; I wasn’t happy with two stars. I would just come right back to it. I’d be on there until my arms hurt.”
Daily practice taught Flawed Freedom about timing, hand independence and strength. “It all helped me get my fingers and arms to the strength I needed them to have,” she laughs. “I did not have that at first. I was struggling, but it was so fun.”
Session by session, the pure pleasure of that process helped Flawed Freedom unlock skills she’d never even dreamed of having. “I don’t want to overuse the word mind-blowing, but I continue to surprise myself and the people closest to me because I’ve just picked this up so quickly,” she reflects.
Practising those lessons also reinforced her thinking around the sound that she was dreaming up in her head. “I think I have a lo-fi hip-hop sound,” she explains, while also referencing her fandom for the dearly departed Crenshaw rapper/social motivator Nipsey Hussle and North Carolina rapper, producer and Dreamville record label owner J.Cole “I really like old school samples and that soulful sound. I think I’ll start to incorporate vocals into what I do soon, but really it’s hip-hop and trap with a soulful bent.”
“I really respect the fact that she has bars and is such a great vocalist. Her recent album Industry Games was very impactful to me.”
Once she started to feel comfortable in her skills, Flawed Freedom took a few crucial steps. First, she contacted the British Sri Lankan producer, live performer, DJ and educator Gnarly Music for some online music lessons. Gnarly assessed Flawed Freedom’s experience, explained some fundamentals to her, and set her up to play and record on Native Instruments Maschine hardware/software digital audio workstation.”
Reflecting on it now, she realises that she didn’t fully comprehend how much of a foundation Melodics had given her at the time.
“When I started taking lessons with Gnarly, she told me, ‘Wow, you’re picking this up pretty quick,’ there were some advanced hi-hats that she showed me. Gnarly said they took her however long to learn, and I was learning it in our third or fourth session. I’m almost certain that if it hadn’t been for Melodics, getting the basic timing of things down and learning how to work my hands differently, I wouldn’t have advanced so quickly with her.”
Giving practice purpose
After beginning her Maschine journey with Gnarly Beats, Flawed Freedom tackled the nerves that can come with sharing your music in public by opening an Instagram account and a Youtube Channel. She started uploading videos of her routines and improvised jams regularly and was quickly rewarded with warm praise and a sense of purpose.
“In my short experience, I’ve started to really understand the impact of what I’m doing,” she says. “At first, it was all about me, but now it’s about inspiring people. It’s about helping people with anxiety. It’s about showing little girls that it might be a male-dominated industry, but there’s still space for us here; just as much space. I don’t take it lightly.”
From there, Flawed Freedom cut back on her Melodics use while she was honing her recording and live performance skills in the studio. “I got a little gear and software crazy,” she laughs. “Now I use Maschine, Ableton and FL Studio.” Working away, she developed a beat-making practice she describes as a mixture of sampling and music theory. “It just kind of flows,” she continues. “Now it’s about feeling. Do my ears like this? I start a lot of my tracks with piano, and I really like mallets. I try not to overthink it and just do what feels good. If something doesn’t sound great, I’ll save it and come back to it later. I just want people to be moved.”
The future is bright
More recently, however, as she prepares to start releasing her recordings properly, Flawed Freedom has found herself returning to Melodics regularly again. “I’ve recently gone back and stuff that was so difficult back then, months ago, or however long, I can knock out now, no problem,” she enthuses. “I think that’s really cool just to see the progression and know that I really am putting in the time and the work to be better.”
This time around, she’s also found her relationship with the software shifting, reflecting: “At first, when I was doing Melodics, I was just focused on drums and timing”. Now what I take from Melodics is this. If I do a lesson on finger independence and I don’t do that well, I know that’s something I really need to work on. So whether it’s in Melodics, or outside of Melodics, I’m doing things to try and work on my finger independence or my hand independence.”
Moving forward, aside from releasing music, Flawed Freedom has dreams of opening her own online beat store to sell instrumentals to vocalists and rappers. After the pandemic is under control, she hopes to start performing live and pay it forward by teaching finger drumming and production to eager students. And when the time comes, she knows what she’ll say to them:
“Don’t take it too seriously, don’t stress yourself out, and have a good time. Be consistent — and that doesn’t mean you have to set a confined schedule of what you’re going to do — but just consistently work on your craft. Make sure you’re true to yourself. Everyone has opinions. Everybody has feedback, and that’s nice, but do what makes you happy. Make the music that you want to make and be consistent. Be true to yourself, and you can’t go wrong.”
Hopefully, as Flawed Freedom’s profile rises, she’ll continue to communicate these messages to others for years to come.
Four Thirty – Flawed Freedom – the debut EP
Purchasing her first home on 20th April 2021, and with a tumultuous 2020 in hindsight, Flawed Freedom has now entered a transformational period of her life, coinciding with releasing her first EP ‘Four Thirty.’
For her, “April 30th signifies a new beginning” — a fitting symbol of the rapid metamorphosis from the musically-untrained Ashley Simpson, to the finger drummer and producer Flawed Freedom.
With that beginning, I’ve released fear and doubt and shared my very first EP. Four Thirty is a blend of soul, funk, and hip-hop and it’s my hope that it relaxes folks as well as makes you want to move.
From being sung to in the womb by his mother and learning to drum as a young kid to joining an orchestra and studying trombone as a teenager, Melbourne-based musician and educator Matt Ridgway’s life has been a journey of sound from the very start. “Music has always been there,” says Matt. “It’s part of my identity.”
Currently releasing electronic music under the moniker Winterpark, Matt found a new musical path presenting itself to him several years ago via the unlikely medium of a cartoon show. “A pivotal moment was when I was offered to do some music for an animated TV series on SBS,” he explains. “I got paid a grand for that, which was more money than I’d made from being in a punk rock band for four years!”
Since then Matt’s done a whole bunch of music for film and TV as well as game soundtracks. “It’s the many hats of the musician!” he says. “Sometimes I’m a teacher and sometimes I’m a performing musician and sometimes I’m a producer or a composer – it’s all of those things.”
I sat down with Matt to learn more about his musical exploits, as well as hear about his Melodics course Cinematic Rhythms, which teaches musicians how to use pads to create compelling sounds for screens both big and small.
Melodics: When did you start writing your own music?
Matt Ridgway: After university I was playing in a punk rock band and I’d written a few things and had recorded them to four-track. I then got a second-hand computer from a friend and began recording and composing onto that. I started getting obsessed with sample-based music – it was around the time The Avalanches first arrived. A bunch of my friends were into electronic music so it just seemed like the natural extension of the band finishing and me continuing on. It was born out of necessity in some ways and I just followed my nose. I started Winterpark as a solo project which then became a band, and now it’s back to being a solo project again.
Melodics: You’ve had a lot of syncs on TV shows and ads. Are those existing pieces of music or do you compose to a brief?
MR: It’s a bit of both. A lot of the songs weren’t written to purpose. Some of the sync stuff I’ve done you get a very precise brief and you write to that, but a lot of other ones like the TV series Underbelly, they just picked an existing song because they liked it.
I love those kind of cinematic, expansive soundscapes. It’s my cup of tea. I like that texture and tone and in some ways the simplicity of it. It can just be a single note with a bit of reverb on it with a tone and texture that makes you feel something. I’ve always prescribed to the kind of music that evokes mood rather than technical skill or chops.
Melodics: How did you decide what to cover in your Cinematic Rhythms course, which follows up your previous Cinematic Chords course?
MR: The idea was to experiment with a few different types of cinema-style music. Sonically, I wanted to compose music in a variety of different styles. The idea was, “What sort of music would suit a big Hollywood film trailer?”, “What sort of music would fit a chase scene?”, “What may fit a quiet atmospheric moment?” But also, as I have experience in teaching young people drums, the teacher in me was always thinking, “How is this part going to work with what their hands are meant to be doing?” and, “What is a way in which I can make this more challenging to play?”
Most of the Cinematic Rhythm lessons have syncopated patterns that require the player to do different things with each hand. Patterns are often cyclic in cinematic music, and the sounds move in and out of step with each other over time.
Playing these lessons feels a little bit like you’re on a roller-coaster, there is always a feeling of forward movement as opposed to the laid-back swing of say a dub or a hip hop track. This is in part due to the sound design with some of the sounds being a bit larger than life, but perhaps also it is due to the syncopation and repetitive pulse of the rhythms themselves.
Melodics: Tell us a little more about your work as a music teacher…
I teach music at high school but I’m also an Abelton Certified Trainer so I’m able to teach and run Abelton workshops. I’m really interested with how music fits with young people and how they can feel connected to culture and to themselves and to others through it. It’s a really powerful, beautiful thing.
Melodics: How important is keeping up a regular practice routine?
MR: The more regularly you practice the better you get at anything, period. That can be practicing the guitar or a pad controller or keys. There’s something about the repetition of doing something over and over again that means you’re getting the muscle memory in your fingers to do it. I think it’s really important to regularly practice in whatever form it is.
Melodics: Any hot tips for those getting into finger drumming?
MR: I like the idea of trying it with different hands and in different positions. Whenever I’m practicing I’ll try it one way then will try it again with a different hand position. On the really simple beginner stuff on Melodics I like to use one hand and then swap my hands over to try and extend myself and just try things differently. It’s challenging your brain and your muscle memory.
I also do quite a few of the hip hop lessons and I like to see at what point I can push the swing of it. [laughs] Particularly the hi-hats. I see how far I can make it swing before I get off before where Melodics tells you should. It’s like you’re trying to trick it!
Much like Gadson, talented New Zealand musician Jeremy Toy has long been a chameleon whose impressive work covers multiple genres, including punk, jazz, soul and hip-hop. Who better to distill Gadson’s work into a Melodics Course
Toy’s detailed understanding of what makes a James Gadson beat so unique was the starting point for creating the lessons in the course. In order to condense something as subtle as Gadson’s playing style into easily digestible lessons, Toy decided to deconstruct some of the classic tracks he played on in order to understand them. First he broke them down into separate pieces before putting them back together in his own way.
Toy took a methodical approach of converting Gadson’s drum loops into MIDI in Ableton, and then triggering his own drum sounds with that MIDI. Reprogramming his drums as best as he could, Toy essentially created his own virtual James Gadson. Converting these loops into a visual format on a grid allowed Toy to better analyse Gadson’s style and extract the groove from each clip.
“To me the number one thing with James Gadson is the feel,” Toy tells Melodics. Creating a more tactile version of this vague idea meant Toy could find common themes in Gadson’s playing to incorporate into the lessons
Although groove and feel by nature involves tempo being inconsistent or wavering, Toy began to notice exactly how Gadson manipulates his timing – specifically by keeping the swing of his hi-hats consistent, while the kick drum stays solid and on beat. “That actually happened quite a lot,” says Toy. “The more I analysed it I thought ‘this is actually a thing.’” After confirming in a scientific way that groove and feel is Gadson’s secret sauce, Toy went about making it a core part of the lessons.
While the starting point for understanding Gadson’s drumming at a molecular level is based on a sort of science, make no mistake these lessons are made by real musicians with aspiring musicians in mind. With the analysis done Toy, who helped write this, this and this, wrote and recorded the backing tracks you hear in the lesson. These backing tracks were then performed on by Gadson himself at Stones Throw studios, the recordings then condensed into the final product which is the lesson.
Teaching groove is a challenging prospect as it’s fundamentally based on playing something not quite right – but still in a way that sounds good. It’s a skill generally seen as something that you just haveor something that you very slowly build up over time without intending to. With the Gadson lessons Melodics are making this skill something that users can actually learn and track their progress on, which is rare for feel.
Transferring Gadson’s groove into the visual and dynamic Melodics format, Toy landed on a kind of galaxy brain idea of averaging out or condensing Gadson’s groove from each recorded track into a short loop which is then duplicated for the duration of each lesson. If the lesson was to try replicate Gadson’s moving groove exactly across an entire track not looped, it would be too hard for anyone including Gadson himself to consistently achieve and build on. With a shorter looped groove there is some consistency to the inconsistency, providing attainable learning outcomes. When users play along and attempt to hit the drums in time with the lesson, they are essentially playing with Gadson’s groove which is a little out of time, yet still playing in time with the lesson.
“It needs to be quantised in some way, to make it performable and gradable and markable and achievable,” says Toy, “so you end up quantising with feel, James Gadson’s lessons’ which is almost a no no”. In this case it’s not a no no, it’s very deep and the reason you can be funky.
The other core aspect of Gadson’s playing that Toy tried to incorporate into the lesson was again a fairly subjective idea of how Gadson’s style is essentially fun, or more that playing in his style is about playing with people. Toy remembers the story he heard from percussionist Lucky Paul who has worked with Gadson. “He jammed with James Gadson a few times and he said it’s not what he plays but it’s how he makes you feel when you jam with him. As a drummer, he backs you up. He makes you feel like a million bucks.”
With this in mind, Toy tried to make the backing tracks and the lesson in a way where the drums feel “like you’re playing in the track”. At times the drum rhythms mirror the other instruments on the track, while other moments are juxtaposed to give the feel of jamming with a band rather than playing a repetitive beat. The drums are intertwined with the backing track as much as possible to make the user feel more like they are immersed in the track than practising a beat.
Another aspect of Gadson’s style that Toy appreciates is his touch and how he’s able to vary the way he hits each drum – something that is perhaps a challenge for another day for Toy and Melodics. “You can’t represent everything in his playing, but we have to represent what we could which is the feel of the rhythm. There’s the foundation.”
When drummers become somebody that everyone knows the name of, it tends to be because of one dominant aspect of their playing style that is so in your face you just can’t miss it. Keith Moon played in such a maniacal way that entire songs were often one big fill that never ended. Meg White has power that makes a two piece sound gigantic somehow. There’s always a thing.
James Gadson doesn’t really have one ‘thing’ like those guys above. Yet he’s played on more hits than them and any other drummer you can name combined.
Gadson’s drumming style is both the reason why he may not be a household name and the reason he has likely been played in your household regularly for six decades. His approach is grounded in groove, restraint and a pure focus on making the song the best it can possibly be rather than making his part of it the most impressive it can be.
A key aspect of Gadson’s style is his use of groove, a nebulous idea of playing certain beats in a pattern very slightly off of the quantised beat. He’s able to drift in front and behind the beat in a way that makes it sound more natural– and in turn more fun to move to. It’s a subtle way to bring a song to life, and an idea that would eventually be adopted by groundbreaking artists like J Dilla and Flying Lotus.
“I can’t make you move if I’m not in control of what I’m doing,” Gadson tells Melodics. “I have to figure out how to make it human.”
In Bill Withers’ Use Me (above), Gadson’s kick drum is unwavering while his hi-hats and rimclicks are often fractionally behind or ahead of the beat.
In Grandma’s Hands, he dances around the beat constantly, giving the song a bounce that alters every other aspect of it. Not bad considering it would later be the key sample and inspiration for the greatest song ever written (see below).
Withers wrote some of the most depressing lyrics of the ‘60s but was still a gigantic popstar known for his catchy tunes. It’s all because of the groove,mannnnn.
Gadson might focus on subtlety over flashiness, but make no mistake – he has chops. He just uses them to make a song the best it can be, something which sets him apart from his peers during a period of excess in music.
To achieve longevity and consistently be the driving force behind artists from every era to achieve both pop stardom and critical acclaim, you must choose your spots with musicality in mind. With Dyke & the Blazers, we hear some of Gadson’s busiest ‘look at me’ drumming (see video below). There are the Keith Moon-like long fills and rapid-fire ghost notes but they are always the bookend to periods of minimal groove rather than the main course.
Gadson doesn’t even use his snare drum for the first quarter of Marvin Gaye’s classic I Want You (below). Instead, he adds aspects to his drum pattern only as the song builds momentum. He also adds subtle fills to help the transition between vocal phrases, while his hi-hat accents emphasise Gaye’s embellishments.
This approach to drumming and music in general as a holistic experience is what makes his style and the records he has been involved with so timeless. The influence of it can be heard everywhere from hip-hop, to jazz and even post-punk.
As Gadson himself says: “It’s not magic like a lot of people think it is. You can learn that.”
It’s attainable, based on shared experience and community. It’s also relevant in a time where groove is at the forefront of a lot of music once again and the perfect starting point for anyone learning the drums in 2020.
Has this inspired you? Check out the Melodics E-Drums course Gadson Groove creative in collaboration with James Gadson:
– Already have a Melodics account – click here
– New to Melodics? Click here to download the app first.
Hi there! I’m Spinscott, and I am a lifelong drummer, DJ, and music fanatic that has been obsessed with Jungle & Drum n Bass (DnB) music for over 20 years. During this time, I’ve always thought of DnB as a “Producers Genre”. What I mean by this phrase is that while every style of music involves levels of creativity and updates/changes to the sound, DnB just seems to evolve and push limits at an accelerated rate. In my opinion, it would be challenging to identify another genre of music that has more sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, spinoffs, clones, and variations to its sound while simultaneously retaining a listener base for just about all of its prior forms. Even with the common appearance of elements such as classic breaks like Amens (nod to my favorite genre, JUNGLE!), Think, Apache, bass (808, Reese, reverse, etc), and wonderfully recycled pads & vocal clips…, there is always an inherent drive to push limits and experiment with new applications of rhythm and sound.
In addition to the music itself, many forms of DnB are about creating and manipulating energy for the listeners and people’s moves on the dance floor. Relying on much more than just a “drop”, many producers strive to maintain a flow of energy and impact at the track level, and throughout an entire set or performance. Certainly these elements exist in other DJ related music genres, but they are quite prominent in DnB. As a “producer’s genre”, there is often a competitive and perfectionist nature that comes with making the music, with intense focus on not just the finished product, but on precision of rhythms, varying dominance in the mix, high sound quality and fidelity (sometimes lo-fi is preferred of course!), and endless new ways of using samples and new or classic effects.
While there are countless rhythms utilized in the production of DnB , with new ones evolving and emerging constantly, there are certain primary rhythms that lay a foundation for the genre as a whole. To be clear, I’m speaking of the rhythms themselves, not the sounds, because in production there is an unlimited array of drum sounds that can be substituted or layered into the same rhythms. Bringing things back to a fundamental level, I’ve broken down three essential rhythm variations into steps that will enable people to play them live as real-time performances, while learning how to differentiate between the beats. The nature of these beats originates from the methodology of splitting up a break phrase and using various start points, as has traditionally been done using sequences or partial sequences. As a drummer, I’ve always programmed the sampler using single notes, or “one shots”, and play them like one would play bongos or other hand drums. This enables real-time variations and freestyling that breaks the boundaries of using pre-defined sequences of notes.
The DnB Quads course that I have created with Melodics, focuses on three rhythms (or beats) containing Kick+Snare+Hat+Bass sounds. These beats likely have a variety of names in the industry, but I have always referred to them as “The Forward“, “The Step Back“, and “The Stomper“, so those are the names I’ve chosen to accompany the DnB Quads lessons.
Utilizing 16 pads on the standard sampler/drum machine layout split into four quadrants, the beats are played sequentially through each quadrant, with bar one in Quad 1, bar two in Quad 2, and so forth, repeating the cycle. One of the reasons I constructed the lessons in this manner is so that the player can concentrate on the rhythm, while the base notes change during each run.
Unless you’re the type of crate digger that actually reads the back of records, or like me had a subscription to Modern Drummer magazine during your teens, you might not know the name James Gadson. But you will definitely know his music.
That’s because Gadson has been making people move since the ‘60s as a drummer on upwards of 300 gold records. He’s played for everyone from Bill Withers to Paul McCartney to Herbie Hancock to Roy Ayers to freakin’ Jimmy Barnes (!). He also played on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and on a rare Pharoah Sanders album where every song is surprisingly less than ten minutes long. The number, variety and importance of the releases Gadson has been involved in is just staggering.
Gadson’s path to becoming one of the most vital session drummers in the history of pop music is a serendipitous one rather than a master plan. Born and raised in Kansas City, despite his musician father’s hopes that he wouldn’t follow in his footsteps, Gadson’s first involvement in music was forming doo wop band The Carpets with his brother. As lead singer and songwriter, Gadson’s first focus in music was on songcraft holistically, an ethos which would go on to influence his drumming in later years.
After releasing a few songs and auditioning for some key RnB labels, The Carpets’ success was ultimately stifled by their location (not LA), so Gadson up and left for a stint in the Air Force. When he returned to Kansas, he started playing the drums purely out of necessity, joining his brother’s jazz band as the drummer simply because it was the only position available.
Despite never before playing behind a kit, and playing left handed on a right handed setup, it all came pretty naturally. “I didn’t have any knowledge of left handed guys moving stuff over,” he tells Melodics. “So I’d just sit down and play it the way it was and learn.”
Gadson saw himself merely as “a jazz guy” when he eventually made the move to LA in 1966, but his thirst to play would land him drumming behind RnB guitarist Charles Wright. It was somewhat of a challenge considering he didn’t even know how to play RnB, or how to stay locked in a groove rhythmically and, at first, it didn’t go well. “He fired me 5 times!” Gadson remembers. His response was to simply keep at it. “You got to practice basics, 1 2 3 4, timing, so you can be in control of it.”
Mastering timing with intent on playing around with it, rather than just presenting it like a metronome, would define his playing style and not coincidentally a lot of pop music from then on.
Wright Sounds became the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and one of the most in demand funk/soul bands in LA during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many years later, the band would be sampled by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, N.W.A. and Madlib. From here Gadson became Bill Withers’ drummer during his most commercially successful period and performed the title track on Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, my favourite Marvin track and low-key a proto-house track when you look at it from a certain point of view.
The ‘70s and ‘80s were a lock for Gadson, when any genre with the dancefloor or groove in mind found him. There was disco with Diana Ross, boogie with Cheryl Lynn and slow jams with Patrice Rushen. He’s stayed busy in these genres while never being restricted to them. He played on a bunch of Beck albums (even the sad one), a Jaime Liddell album and also produced a UB40 album, which is pretty buzzy.
In the 21st century he has been tapped for albums by shiny pop stars like Justin Timberlake (FutureLoveSexSounds) and Lana Del Rey (Paradise / Born To Die), while collaborating with more classic RnB leaning artists like D’Angelo.
The story of Gadson’s involvement in D’Angelo’s Sugah Daddy is a kind of metaphor for his career and playing style. Unaware he was being recorded, Gadson was drumming and clapping with his hands on his knees – a habit that many drummers have without realising. D’Angelo immediately asked to use the recording of these clapping sounds and they became the basis for a highlight on an album we’d been waiting 15 years for from soul and RnB’s most important figure since Marvin Gaye himself. “I just started playing something… whatever I did, I don’t know what I did… (D’Angelo asked) ‘Mr Gadson, can I use that?’”
James Gadson is not bothered with what he plays, how he plays it or the level of recognition he gets for it. His discography is proof that all he really wants is to make people move and have fun.
“Hybrid Drumming is basically using half an acoustic drum kit and half electronic drums at the same time.” explains drummer Ben Barter. A Los Angeles-based New Zealander, Barter is the tour drummer for Lorde and has performed with acts such as Broods, Jarryd James, Passion Pit, and Katelyn Tarver. He’s also worked as a session drummer, most notably with producers Tommy English and Joel Little (a Grammy Award winner), playing on songs by artists including K.flay and Kacey Musgraves in the process. Recently, Barter created a set of virtual lessons for Melodics based around the “Hybrid Drumming” concept, an approach which is fast becoming the norm.
“You can put triggers onto your acoustic drums so that when you hit them, they trigger an electronic sample,” Barter continues. “The idea is to make the live drums stay true to the original production of the record, especially if it’s a more programmed song with sample elements and drum machine parts. Then the acoustic drums add the excitement and punch under the electronic elements.” Given how common a heavily produced recording sound has become within contemporary pop, R&B, dance, and rap, and the ravenous audience demand for live performances by artists from within these genres, Barter’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, it’s not without its rigours.
“Some of the challenges are playing parts that aren’t written for a traditional drummer to play,” he explains. It can be a bit of a mind-bender working then out. The other big one is the technical side to having a bunch of electronic pads that are triggered by vibrations. They can often misfire, causing all sorts of chaos. I have to make lots of little adjustments to the settings to stop that from happening.”
The virtual drums course Barter created for Melodics is divided into six lessons. On a collective level, they are designed to teach you how samples can be incorporated into a Hybrid Drumming setup, before continuing to develop your hand independence as a drummer, and teaching you how to find creative solutions to shifting samples from their traditional positions. Helpfully, Barter has provided a few notes for us each of the lessons.
Drumline: I was looking at locking in with a complex backing track, so playing a simple beat with a few off notes over the top of a drumline style beat on the track. Getting your stuff locked in with everything else going on is vital to making the whole show sound tight and punchy. It’s easy to be in your own world during a show thinking you sound great, but when there is other percussion on backing tracks, you’ll sometimes need to adjust your feel to match what else is going on.
Rollers: This one is about helping your kick foot really lock in with your hi-hat rhythm. It’s about playing quicker straight 16ths on the hi-hat, with a slightly complex locked pattern underneath. We also practice switching back and forth with a slower section to help you make those transitions smoothly. Practising the switch between fast to slow parts is important as it’s easy to get carried away in the energy of a big part, but you need to be able to control that quickly so that energy doesn’t run over into a quieter chill part if need be.
Discuss: I was looking at playing a faster 16th note hi-hat in a disco type rhythm, then a section with an open/closed hi-hat pattern. I find that when I play live, it can be handy in bringing extra energy to a chorus, etc. Playing hh patterns which open and close in electronic music can have a human touch which is nice but sometimes you need them to be really tight and consistent. So working out how much to open the hats is vital, you often don’t need to open them a lot for a tight, controlled hi-hat pattern.
Left Over: Here, we’re playing extra rhythm parts with your left hand. I always have a bunch of samples to my left, which I’ll play as I’m holding down the main pattern with my right hand and the kick drum. This is basically just independence; being able to separate your limbs to do different parts is a key to hybrid drumming. Being able to cover more parts and take elements of the tracks will make you a valuable asset for artists.
Diving Bells: This is a slow, simple beat. You really have to listen to the rest of the track to properly sit back and get it feeling nice. There are also some basic offbeat elements, which need to fit in smoothly with the slower tempo. Everyone has got a different feel, it’s really the beauty of summers, but often you need to be able to match what’s on the record. Playing along to different genres of music helps this a lot. And really listening to where top drummers place their notes has helped me a lot, being able to play the simplest beat and make it feel really good to me is one of the most important but underrated attributes a drummer can have.
Poppin’: Poppin’ is a kick pattern I find myself using on about 30% of the songs I play. It can be tricky to get it sounding smooth. It can often sound quite robotic, so it needs a very slight swing. In the lesson, you learn to play it over two different hi-hat patterns, which will help you with independence and tightness. Try experimenting placing the off note beat before the snare just slightly before and after the beat. You can get a feel of what suits the song and can get a little bounce going which people will respond to. I think one of my main roles as a drummer is to get the crowd moving; it’s amazing how easy a well-executed simple beat can do this.
Alongside developing our Hybrid Drumming course, Barter has been working with Germany electronic drum company Gewa to develop a new drum kit and module called the G9. He’s also been recording an EP of kooky disco songs inspired by ORM and Patrick Cowley under the alias BB Normal.
Rachel K Collier is a vocalist, electronic music producer and performer from Swansea in Wales. Coming from a background working in songwriting as a topliner (writing vocal parts over instrumentation), she is a die-hard Ableton enthusiast who loves finding fresh ways to perform her original tracks in a live setting. Whether performing solo or with live percussionists and interactive visuals, Rachel’s expressive, high energy performances are rooted in a multi-instrument based technical setup while allows her to bring the studio to the stage.
At the end of October, Rachel released her debut album RKC, and has just had her first Melodics lesson set ‘And I Breathe’ released on keys, drums and pads. On Tuesday 19 November, she’s playing a special headline show at The Grace in London. You can purchase tickets over on her website here.
Melodics: Is live performance the most important part of music for you?
Rachel K Collier: I’d say I’m 50/50 between producer and live performer. I feel like as an electronic performer, you’re either recreating parts you wrote in the studio in a live setting or stem DJing them. I feel like since you spend so much time in the studio crafting those parts, the most rewarding way to play it live is to actually play them live, rather than just having a band play those parts, or having everything set up as tracks. When you play live, you really get to show off your studio productions in the best way, and it’s kind of like taking the studio to the stage, but obviously with some compromises.
Melodics:Do you enjoy how recreating your songs live can add an element of danger to the performance?
RKC: 100%. There is room for human error, things are going to go wrong, and you have freedom. You can have big breakdown sections and be doing all these live effects, live manipulations, and it’s different every single time.
Melodics: How important is improvisation to you?
RKC: My productions actually start from improvisation, and when I perform without any pre-made stems or clips, which I do, I’ll just be starting there with eight empty channels. I’m basically creating a whole track from scratch, and there is something so liberating and amazing about that. I get to record myself playing percussion, vocal loops, key loops, trigger them, and I can change them up into any shape or form that I want to.
Melodics: It’s very rewarding when you get into a flow with this sort of thing, isn’t it?
RKC: Exactly. You get into a flow, and you might just do one extra note on a loop, but it’s really sick, so you decide to do it again next time. I feel like it is really important to leave a bit of it up to chance. I’m the type of person who gets bored really quickly. With this live set-up, I can constantly evolve things, which means it never gets boring.
Melodics: Would you like to tell us anything about your debut album, RKC?
RKC: When I was in the topliner world, I got very bored of writing generic pop lyrics, so every song on the record is a personal experience for me. If you’re a songwriter and you want to produce your own music, you should just go for it. Even if it takes time, you can do it, because I did it. I hope everyone enjoys it and gives it a chance because all the tracks are quite different.
Melodics: Could you talk about your live performance set-up?
RKC: I have two live set-ups. One where I’m alone, and I create everything from scratch, and one with percussionists and visuals. I use two little Yamaha Refaces. I’ve got the Arturia MiniBrute, Ableton Push 2, two additional midi controllers, a DJ TechTools Midi Fighter, an Akai LPD8. So I have three midi controllers and several synths. When I add my percussionists to my show, I have a KingKord synth on stage as well. Everything runs through Ableton on my laptop.
Melodics: How much time do you spend practising your live show?
RKC: I practice a lot. When you are practising for a technology-based set, as well as actually singing or playing, getting the notes right, there are always little tech amendments you need to be doing. I’ll do a little vocal warm-up, then I’ll try to do my set, but instead of programming and rehearsing at the same time, I’ll make notes about the programming changes, before having a break, and then practising again, but the next practice session will be a programming session. I separate out the technology rehearsals and the actual physical performance rehearsals. Sometimes I play Tetris in-between sessions because when you concentrate that hard, you need to take breaks. I can’t really have anything else going on that day. I have to devote days to practice. If I have to make a video or finish producing a track, I can’t practice as well.
Melodics: What can you tell us about your Melodics lesson ‘And I Breathe’?
RKC: It isn’t really a typical song type of thing; actually, it’s really odd. I’ll never forget how happy writing it made me feel because it represents a turning point where I realised I was becoming a really good producer. When we play it live, no matter the show, it’s always my favourite. There is a big synth solo at the end, a big percussion solo, and the song is about when everything gets too much, and the world feels crazy. It’s about the feeling of release you can get from music.
Melodics: How do you feel about having your song converted into a lesson people can play?
RKC: I think it’s really cool. Melodics can really enhance your production. It’s about more than just playing in time. Learning those grooves, chords and keys, that’s the type of stuff that can actually inspire you when you are creating music. It’s a lesson for you to get tighter at your finger drumming, and you can use that when you perform live, but for me, Melodics inspires me to create with different grooves. I like to go on Melodics for fifteen minutes before I start producing because it just warms me up and really gets me into the groove. Instead of just looking at the plug-ins on a song in a production tutorial, you can actually have a go at playing those rhythms. I think it is amazing and I am looking forward to sharing my lesson with everyone.
Tony Dofat is a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated producer, global DJ, audio engineer, music professor and author of four books about the business of music. He was one of the original hitmen, from the legendary squad of producers inside Bad Boy Records, working alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs and artists like Mary J. Blige.
Also known as the godfather of the remix, Tony is best known for his work on Mary’s “You Remind Me” and the insanely popular rework of that track. He was also nominated for a Grammy for his work with his longtime friend and collaborator Heavy D, on his reggae album, Vibes. He’s also worked with a range of artists including Will Smith, Tina Turner and the Notorious BIG. We caught up with Tony to learn the art of the game and the difference between making music back-in-the-day and now.
This is an edited version of the interview, for the full interview, listen to our podcast below.
Melodics Magazine: So how do you compare your background of learning to read and write music with today’s producers who are just laying everything down on computers?
Tony Dofat: Reading and writing music is definitely helpful because it helps you understand and speak the language and speak to fellow musicians or someone else who’s musically inclined. It’s great to have the terminology and understand how to count measures and what an E or A scale is.
Now I’m teaching students the essentials and why it’s important to learn and understand theory. You don’t have to become an educator or have a Master’s in music to make records, but you have to learn the fundamentals.
MM: If I walked into your classroom today what would be one of the first things I’d learn?
TD: Before you start making songs you have to understand what genre you’re working in, so I teach music genre and what makes genres different. Like the differences in why this is called funk and why this is called disco and why this is jazz. This knowledge will help you determine the type of artist you want to be.
Then I explain how one genre led to another—how funk birthed hip-hop and then how that turned into the remix. Then we talk about the timing of each genre.
Some students think theory is boring, but I try to keep it interesting and choose songs that are relevant—that everyone is listening to—and I point out different beats and rhythms of structure. I teach them the difference between a beat and a rhythm. A lot of people don’t know the difference. These are the essential things that a producer really needs to understand and that will help your career drastically.
MM:At the time you came up, early hip-hop music production used live studio bands, right?
TD: From my era, growing up, everything was live. Everything was acoustic. There were no drum machines. There were no computers. We didn’t even have internet. So it was all acoustic and analog music— the most they had was maybe a four-track and an eight-track and you would have to get the performance just right.
So, there were a lot of mistakes but those mistakes are what make the songs what they are and what made people like the songs. That’s one of the things that I really love about older music—you had one shot to get it right. That’s the same method I applied to my records when I first started. When you listen to all of Mary’s early records there were mistakes in every song and even vocally and we just let it go out and people loved it.
MM:What kind of tools did you use back then?
TD: Just one keyboard and one drum machine. The Korg M1 was a standard, the Triton, the Roland D 550 or the D 50 and the Akai MPC 60 or the MPC62. And then there’s an MPC3000, or the MPC2000 or MPC2000XL and the E-MU SP1200. I’ve owned all of those machines, but right now I just own two MPC2000XLs. I don’t use them, but If a client asks for that particular sound, I still have my sound cards built on those ready to go.
MM:What’s the importance of samples in hip-hop production?
TD: A lot of people used to get on us about sampling, but hip-hop is based on sampling. Hip-hop is based on the DJ playing someone else’s records. If we didn’t play it then it would just be funk. We make it hip hop because we take the best parts of the song—the break—to make people act the fool. We take that and we loop it.
MM:What are you looking for in a sample when you remix a song like Mary J. Blige’s, “You Remind Me?”
TD: Great musicians who made funk only had a little break that was maybe a minute-and-a-half. With the creativity of hip-hop, we turned that one little break into another full song. Our little secret back in the 90s for finding the right songs was to look at people’s reactions when you play music. If they’re not acting crazy then you’re not doing a good job.
It’s all based on two-and-four bar loops and just keep looping it back. Once you have that skeleton it’s gonna be hot and everyone will love it. If you just keep adding elements that don’t fit, you’re gonna mess it up and end up overproducing. That’s why the biggest hit records are the ones that are simple and contain the least amount of instrumentation.
MM:Has your sound changed over the years?
TD: My ear is the same. I can use today’s technology, but I won’t let it hurt my sound. It’s hard for people starting out today because they have no knowledge of the past. They haven’t developed a sound yet-they have a sound that’s given to them. In my era, we had to make our sound. In my masterclasses, I teach students how to develop their own sound kits and not rely on downloaded sound kits.
As a producer, your sound is your identity. If you have the same sound kit as everyone in the room then you’re not differentiating yourself. I sculpted my own sounds. Yeah, I sampled but that process is different. A lot of new producers are talented, but they can reach higher if they just stop being lazy.
MM:Overall, how has production changed over the years, like triplets are big now?
TD: I think music has been the same for the past 10 years. The only thing that changed are songs and artists. I think if a producer today played a track from 10 years ago it would still sell. The tracks are pretty similar and the sound has been recycled from 10 years ago. Possibly the only things that change are a pattern, but the triplet high hats have been going on for six or seven years.
We didn’t really use a lot of 808s or low frequencies like 50 or 60 Hz, but today a lot more of that is being used. They use a different layering, but it’s still pretty much the same style.
MM:You’re also a sound engineer. Is that an important skill for a producer to learn?
TD: It’s very beneficial for a producer to learn frequencies, learn dynamic processing, and learn everything about the tonality of a sound because it’ll make your job a lot easier when you’re sculpting and creating sounds. I learned just from working with some of the greatest engineers, but they couldn’t give me the sound that I was still looking for.
I was looking for a specific sound, so I had to learn software from all of the consoles and I had to learn every button on the console to operate it myself.
MM:I want you to solve a debate for us—MPC vs. MIDI keyboard with drum pads.
TD: There are some differences because with MIDI there is a delay, it’s minimal but there is latency. The feel of the pad is also different and having everything self-contained in the MPC is a lot easier. You can just click on a pad and develop a tune in just a matter of seconds and you don’t have to learn all of these VST plugins. You can edit it, and truncate the beginning and the decay at the end. You can do all of that instantly and add filters and just program your beat right in the machine as opposed to using your controller and your software.
Essentially it does the same thing and software like Ableton does make it easier because you can automatically cut your loops and sounds. But would you rather rely on a computer to do it or would you want to do it by ear? That’s the difference because every producer has their own style of truncating sounds.