Software development is extraordinarily time-consuming and labor intensive. As of this writing, development of the Drum Loop is still underway. There are a great many additional features we would like to include in the future that will make the app a dramatically more robust and versatile tool.
The pattern sequencer
Sequencing multiple patterns remains something of an unsolved problem. There is space across the bottom of the screen to store patterns in miniature form. Patterns stored there will simply play in order from left to right.
The unresolved questions are: how should patterns be stored and retrieved? Must they be played back in sequence, or should the user be able to jump among them at will, as in Ableton Live’s Session View and Loopseque? The number of loops in the sequencer row is perfectly arbitrary, a function of the screen real estate available. Is ten the optimum number? Should it be more or fewer? If more, should the sequencer then occupy a screen view of its own? But in that case, how will the user see the current pattern and the larger sequence simultaneously? Considerable additional design, development and testing will be necessary to resolve these questions.
Two breakbeats of major historical significance had to be omitted from the Drum Loop’s exercises because they are sixty-four steps long: the Amen break and the Apache break. Manipulating these breaks in the Drum Loop would require the ability to string at least four sixteen-step patterns together, and to able to effortlessly jump back and forth from one to another.
The Amen Break
Gregory Cylvester Coleman is simultaneously one of the most influential and least known drummers in contemporary music. He was the drummer in a 1960s soul band, The Winstons. His claim to fame is a five and a half second break in an obscure song called “Amen, Brother,” the B-side to the minor Winstons hit “Color Him Father.” This short drum break rivals “Impeach The President” as the most-sampled breakbeat in history.
Ironically, it took several decades for “Amen, Brother” to come into any sort of prominence. Hip-hop producers started sampling the drum break in the 1980s after a pitched-down version was included on the first volume of Ultimate Breaks and Beats (Flores, 1986). Since then, the break has become ubiquitous not just in hip-hop, but in every style of dance music. It almost single-handedly spawned entire genres of electronica, particularly especially drum n bass and its various offshoots. It appears in TV theme songs and commercials. Casual music listeners have probably heard it in dozens, if not hundreds, of recordings. Given the ubiquity of the Amen break, its inclusion in the exercises would significantly enrich the Drum Loop’s ability to put the genuine artifacts of our culture into the hands of students.
“Apache” was first written as ersatz Native American music by Jerry Lordan in the late 1950s, inspired by a cowboys-and-Indians movie. A group of studio musicians, Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, recorded a funk version with an energetic drum and percussion break. This break was so ubiquitous in urban dance music of the 1980s that DJ Kool Herc describes it as “the national anthem of hip-hop” (Matos, 2005). As with the Amen break, Apache deserves a place in the list of classic breakbeats offered by the Drum Loop.
Exclusive open/closed hi-hat
On a real drum kit, it is not possible to play the hi-hat in open and closed positions simultaneously. Drum machines usually allow you to play both open and closed hi-hats simultaneously if you would like, though the resulting sound is quite awkward. I would like the Drum Loop to observe the real-life constraint, both to give users a sense of what is physically possible to play on a drum kit, and to constrain them into more aesthetically satisfying outcomes.
Durations greater than one rhythmic unit
Some sounds spill across the grid lines because of their long decay times, particularly ride and crash cymbals. Drum machines conventionally do not represent these sounds any differently than transient hits. Drum hit durations are most often controlled globally, for example with a single knob controlling the duration of all snare hits. MIDI sequencers will often enable control of duration by making the bars longer or shorter—if the drum sample is long enough, it simply cuts off when the MIDI event ends.
How might the Drum Loop give more control over duration? One possibility would be to have events able to occupy more than one grid cell. That would preclude other events occupying those cells, but it would mirror physical reality, since playing a drum usually terminates the previous hit’s decay. For the time being, however, the present system is adequate. Having the duration of a sound be an inflexible parameter of that sound is just one of many constraints that force “drum machine thinking.”
The Drum Loop is more like a hardware drum machine than a MIDI sequencer in that rhythmic events can only occur precisely on the grid lines. There is no possibility of introducing “humanized” imperfections, aside from the conspicuously artificial-sounding swing function.
Butterfield (2010) argues that repetitive music does not bore us because we do not hear each repetition as an instance of mechanical reproduction. Instead, we experience the groove as a process, with each iteration creating suspense. Will this time through the pattern lead to another repetition or a break in the pattern? Butterfield describes a groove as a present that is “continually being created anew.” Each repetition gains particularity from our memory of the immediate past and our expectations for the future. The groove becomes more suspenseful if each iteration of the loop is slightly different due to participatory discrepancies. There is tension between the expected identical repetition and the imperfections of the actual performance. While the purely mechanical sound of quantized beats holds its own hypnotic charms, it would be wonderful to give Drum Loop users the option of using imperfectly quantized beats as well.
Some production software like Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason enable the user to extract grooves from audio recordings. It is then possible to quantize MIDI events to the “live” groove, rather than the strict grid. Adding such “groove templates” to the Drum Loop would enrich its expressive possibilities significantly. There would be tremendous additional pedagogical value to visualizing the participatory discrepancies through slight resizing of the wedges, in a more complex version of the swing functionality.
Arbitrary time signatures
Because nearly all contemporary western dance music is in 4/4, there is no need to support other time signatures for the Drum Loop’s pedagogical goals. Nevertheless, there is no technical reason why this must be so; in theory the Drum Loop could support any arbitrary number of beats per cycle. An early version of the Max prototype had a pulldown menu allowing the user to choose from a variety of meters. A future version of the iOS app might well support triple meter. Afro-Cuban tradition has a variety of patterns in 6/8 and 12/8 time that would make the basis for highly satisfying drum programming exercises. For example, to the right, Toussaint (2003) lists ten bell patterns in 12/8.
Similarly, there a variety of folk rhythms from eastern Europe and the middle east that can form the basis for exercises in 5/4, 7/4, 11/8 and other more complex time signatures. A more advanced version of the Drum Loop could include these rhythms as well.
The Drum Loop in the browser
Once the iPad version is complete and on the market, the next step will be to create a browser-based version. There are a number of advantages to software in the browser.
- Web-based apps are highly platform-agnostic.
- The user is not tied to a specific computer.
- Sharing and collaborating on work becomes effortless. This is especially valuable for classroom teachers who wish to use the software for assignments.
- It is easier to integrate a web-based app with an active user community.
- Web-based apps can connect together, in the same way that iOS apps can.
Specifically, I would like to be able to integrate the Drum Loop with the online notation tool Noteflight. Students struggling to learn the rhythmic aspects of notation would benefit greatly from being able to jump back and forth between Noteflight’s formal representation and the Drum Loop’s friendlier one. The two representations would reinforce one another, strengthening both. Furthermore, Noteflight itself integrates with a variety of other web services, most intriguingly YouTube. It is possible to use Noteflight to create a synchronized score or transcription to any YouTube video. I am quite attracted to the idea of finding a classic drum performance and scoring it with Noteflight, the Drum Loop or both.