Dubstep is a genre of electronic dance music known for its head-nodding beats, dark atmosphere, and ear-shaking bass. It draws on many other genres, including Jamaican dub, hip-hop, jungle, drum ’n’ bass, and 2-step, while fusing them into a unique blend. Dubstep originated in the U.K. and has become a popular form of production for mainstream radio, TV spots, and club mixes. Its main drumming hallmarks are rigid half-time beats, straight 16th to sextuplet hi-hat permutations, and wobble bass, all of which play off hardedged synth melodies.
Many drummers are now being asked to create dubstep grooves live, whether on an acoustic kit or on a hybrid setup incorporating acoustic drums and electronics. This two-part article will help you understand what’s expected of you when someone asks you to play dubstep, including the standard grooves, winding hi-hat patterns, and DJ-style delay effects.
Dubstep rhythms range between 138 and 142 beats per minute. They are syncopated and often make great use of glitchy stuttering patterns. In its early stages, dubstep was more percussive, with influences from 2-step drum patterns, which typically feature a kick on the first and third beats and syncopated rhythms applied to other elements of the kit, including the hi-hat, snare, woodblocks, and tambourine. These rhythms can be phrased as either straight or swung. Tracks with half-note kicks are perceived as being slower than the traditional four-on-the-floor beat used in house and techno music. This example is the basis for all 2-step patterns.
Placing the kick drum on the “&” of beat 3 is a common variation.
THE DUBSTEP BEAT
Unlike the 2-step, which emphasizes beats 1 and 3 on the kick, a dubstep pattern emphasizes only the 1. This gives the impression of an even slower tempo, and it’s paired with a snare or handclap on beat 3 to form a half-time groove. The remaining elements (hi-hat, shakers, etc.) stay in the normal meter, which creates a double-time feel. This 8th-note example is the basis for all dubstep patterns.
To create a syncopated thump, 16th-note kick drum patterns can be added.
This can be augmented with accents on the hi-hat. Here’s the original pattern with some accents added.
Here’s the same accent pattern over the 16th-note kick drum phrasing.
You can also play 16th notes (with or without accents) on the hi-hat.
For a rhythmic departure, quarter-note triplets can be employed. Here’s that with the kick on beat 1 and the snare on beat 3.
Here’s a variation with an additional kick placed in the triplet.
The most common melodic characteristic of dubstep is the wobble bass line. This extended bass note is manipulated digitally with a low-frequency oscillator that controls additional parameters of a synthesizer, including volume, distortion, and filters. These permutations are then altered to create combinations of quarter-, 8th-, 16th-, and 32nd-note rhythms in straight and triplet subdivisions.
Dubstep usually features an intro, which establishes the sonic textures and motif. Characteristics often include a sparse or incrementally built drum groove, an arpeggiated synth pattern or textural pad, and a vocal breakdown.
The second section is the bass drop. This is what made dubstep popular, and it’s where the wobble bass is most prevalent. Typically, the drum groove will drop out, or the existing intro track will start to fade into the background. After a brief pause, the bass drop overwhelming the track continues throughout the rest of the section. The drop is also often placed alongside a sonically heavier drum groove.
The third section, called the riff, often features a repeating modulated bass part. Whereas most bass drops will include at least three different musical notes, the riff section relies on repeating the intro motif, alongside new elements. Rather than the bass drops’ “wub, wub” sound, bass in the riff will sound more like “yob, yob.”
The final section, the outro, is usually a repetitive vamp where the tune either fades out or comes to a crashing halt. Many dubstep artists also return to a normal 2-and-4 backbeat, which implies a double-time feel over the original half-time melodies and motifs.
This is a standard technique often used by DJs when a song seems to be especially popular on the dance floor. The DJ will spin back the record, by hand without lifting the stylus, in order to play the track again from the bass drop.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Using all of the elements discussed, I’ve created a basic dubstep tune for you to download and use for play-along practice (available at moderndrummer.com). Note that a D.S. al coda is used to repeat the bass drop and riff, which then leads into the last intro reprise and outro.
Donny Gruendler is vice president of curricular development at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. He has performed with DJ Logic, Rick Holmstrom, John Medeski, and Rhett Frazier Inc. For more info, visit donnygruendler.com.