A Guide to Programming Odd Rhythms
When I first started exploring odd rhythms while coming up, the tools available to help were virtually nonexistent. You had metronomes that were limited to quarter notes, 8ths, 16ths, and if you were lucky, triplets. If what you were working on didn’t fit within that narrow framework, all you were able to do was count meticulously to work out other odd subdivisions and polyrhythms. Or, if you were technologically savvy enough, you could program something more complicated into a DAW.
These days technology has come a long way. Now there are incredibly powerful metronomes and music sequencers available on your smartphone or tablet. Synkd is an excellent example of a highly programmable metronome and sequencer. It’s powerful enough that every single wacky rhythm in my book, Progressive Drumming Essentials, is meticulously laid out in an add-on pack that corresponds with the chapters. There are of course some limitations to the app, but you’d need to be exploring the very edges of rhythmic theory for those to come into play.
One of the best things you can do when shedding anything—odd rhythms being no exception—is to practice within the context of musical phrases. Something as simple as being able to hear the beats you’re working on with bass or synth lines can do wonders for your perception of the exercise. It’s a common issue when isolating unique rhythmic ideas to lose sight of how they work in context. Without music, they can become virtually useless rhythmic tricks with no application.
In our age of smart mobile electronics, there’s a vast array of powerful sequencer, synth, and drum-machine apps available. While most of them are incapable of phrasing eleven-note tuplets or certain advanced time signatures, many of them can be “tricked” into simulating these ideas musically. The remainder of this lesson explores a handful of my favorite apps, their functionalities, and how to use them.
In iDS-10, you can easily program patterns based in quintuplets to practice in and out of 16th- and triplet-based ideas. You can also manipulate time signatures fairly thoroughly, even into phrases of partial quintuplet- or triplet-based meters. And in this app you can create multiple synth
and simulated voice lines or program drums to use either as a click or as a pattern to jam with.
The default setting is 4/4 with a 16th-note subdivision. To adjust this, click Main on the top bar and navigate to Set to bring up options for BPM Ratio and Last Step for each pattern in the sequencer. BPM Ratio has a lot of different options—my favorite being 1.25, which equals quintuplets relative to the default settings. Clicking that and adjusting the Last Step to 20 will give you a bar of quintuplets in 4/4. Alternatively, a BPM Ratio of 0.66 and a Last Step of 12 would equal 8th-note triplets in 4/4. You can tailor the Last Step to anything you want between 1 and 64. With quintuplets, any multiple of five will give you a quarter-note-based meter in which quintuplet rhythms make the most sense. However, you can choose any subdivision or meter that you want. For example, a Last Step of 23 would give you four full quintuplets with three additional quintuplet partials as your bar length.
Rhythmic manipulation in this app is quite advanced. To start, tap Length at the top of the screen in the middle, then Advanced. Here there are two values: the Number of Steps and the Steps per Beat. Each value is adjustable from 1 to 32. Staying with our quintuplet theme, change the Steps per Beat value to 5 and the Number of Steps value to 20 for a bar of quintuplets in 4/4.
This app is especially cool when you explore its randomizer function. But before we get there, in the sequencer put a kick (Sound 1) at the beginning of each beat and a snare (Sound 2) on beats 2 and 4. Once you’ve got that set, add a handful of notes wherever you feel like it between them using Sounds 3–8. On the right side of the screen, touch Rand to open the randomizer. Drag the blue All box right up to the top, and your notes will start to warp into crazy synth and electronic sounds. I find these incredibly fun contexts with which to practice drum ideas. You can always drag your kick and snares individually back to normal to give you a solid groove instead of a click for practice.
This simple yet powerful sequencer app is fantastic for practicing odd time signatures that are shorter than 4/4. The simplest place to start is 15/16. To do this, click Settings, which is to the left of the knob in the center of the app, and change Last Step from its default of 16 to 15. You can adjust the Length value to be anywhere from one to four bars. I usually like to write a drum pattern initially before exploring some of the synths and other sounds in this app on top of it. Once you have a pattern you dig, you can either mute the drums and jam with it yourself or counter the rhythms with your own patterns. Even keeping the drums in, you can play with the various effects and settings until they sound completely alien for a crazy backing track to jam with.
There’s a vast array of mobile music apps that are capable of these types of adjustments. It’s not always obvious within a particular app’s features that you can manipulate them in this way. Look for apps that have flexible time signature functionality at the very least.