Making the Beat: Afro-Cuban Drums
Afro-Cuban music is one of the two main categorizations of Latin music; the other being Brazilian. The drums are one of the key components in this style of music and knowing which beat to insert is crucial.
If you ever wondered what the difference was between a rumba and son clave, or just want to add some Afro-Cuban flavor, this tutorial will enlighten you in all regards. Since our previous discussion involved how to construct various beats from smaller elements, this tutorial will do so as well; albeit in a slightly different way. So my friends, lets mambo!
1. Setting Up
What You NeedIf you have read my previous tutorial then this section will not be anything new to you. If you have not read it, then by all means do so! It is important to have an initial game plan on how you want to approach programming your drum beats, and this section will outline your options for you.
This tutorial is aimed to be predominantly DAW and plugin independent; you work with what you feel most comfortable using. However, some tools within the DAW or plugin are necessary to have in order to effectively complete this tutorial.
You will need:
- Either a step sequencer or a piano roll in order to place the rhythms.
A well rounded sample library for all drums and cymbals (you can use a
drum synth if you so choose but make sure you can create a lot of
different sounds with it).
- The ability the change the volume of various hits throughout the drum pattern. Make some cymbal hits softer or louder than others, etc. Some may do it via MIDI, other might just change the actual volume of the hit.
What to UseThere can be features of a particular editor that make more advantageous over another when it comes to making drum beats on the computer; but it may have disadvantages as well. Here we will go over the different approaches to constructing drums on the computer and you can decided which methodology is works best for you.
This method involves loading samples into a sampler that can only play one sample at a time. Why use it? Usually these samplers have a lot of tools that allow you to manipulate the sample far beyond other samplers. Usually when using these samplers you either have piano roll access or a step sequencer. The disadvantage to this however is that most likely you will not be able to see the whole rhythm of the kit and will need to know exactly how the different instruments fit together.
Some programs offer pre-built kits and usually have the kit laid out across a piano roll so that you can see the whole kits rhythm. You usually will have finer control over the placement of each hit over a step sequencer. The disadvantage is that you may or may not be able to edit each individual sample to the fullest depending on the program.
These samplers are designed usually with drum sets in mind. They allow for multiple samples to be loaded in and sometimes multiple samples per instrument. Why would you want multiple samples per instrument? So that as you program volume changes the sampler will load different samples. This way you don't need five different hi-hats channels, five different rides, etc. You just program volume changes. Be careful though, sometimes these samplers can be very CPU intensive and can easily bog down your system if you're not careful. In regards to rhythm placement, some use piano rolls and others use step sequencers; it will depend on the plugin.
I personally am an advocate of having the most versatility at my finger tips, but maintaining ease of use. I like the multi-sample drum samplers with piano roll access and mixer track access because I will have the most control over my sound without overloading myself with controls. If you are not looking for a lot of fine tuned control then try for a pre-constructed kit. If you are looking for glitch kit design or a lot of manipulation you might need the utmost intensive control and opt for the individual samplers. The choice is yours, and remember that these are general guidelines; there can easily be other approaches or different combinations of the above.
2. Learn the Dance
What the Steps MeanAfro-Cuban music is at its heart dance music. It's full of life, vigor, and groove. Most of the beats all have a particular dance associated with it and often its roots are in a particular area or town. Many of the basic concepts to Afro-Cuban music started in Africa but were brought to Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. However, do not confuse Afro-Cuban based Latin music with Brazilian based which perpetuates most of the other islands in the Caribbean.
Afro-Cuban on the drum set is not a new concept but it is far from old. Many of the original beats were played by multi-piece ensembles with different players on different drums. Even to this day you can still find traditional ensembles that play this way! Since each beat and drum had their own specific purposes, the individual drums and beats on the drum set do as well. Let's first take a look at the function of the different drums on the drum set and how it relates to the overall Afro-Cuban feel.
The kick drum in Afro-Cuban, unlike in most styles of music that incorporate a drum set, is not the pulse and heartbeat of the music. The kick is more of an ornamental addition and should be treated as such. The kick in Afro-Cuban might seem minimal and sparse by rock or club standards so listen carefully! The kick is usually an addition to the traditional beat and was not originally there; however there are cases where the kick supplements as the bombo drum.
The snare drum actually commands a lot of attention in a Afro-Cuban context. Since we cannot play the claves while playing the drum set, we simulate the clicking of the claves by playing rim clicks on the snare. The two primary clave patterns are the metronome for Latin music and need to be locked in tight. In fact the word clave translates to "key" from its Spanish roots.
The ride cymbal and hi-hat each also have their own special place in Afro-Cuban music. The hi-hat generally acts as a pulse for the syncopation to act against, however there are times when it just adds to the complexity. The ride plays what are known as the "bell patterns" that help differentiate between the various styles of Afro-Cuban. In particular, it mimics the mambo bell that would be found in the center of a timbale players setup. We also use it to give a modern edge on patterns known as palito which traditionally would be played on a hollow piece of wood known as a gua-gua. The ride can also replace playing the side of a timbale drum; these patterns are known as cascara.
The toms serve as the drum sets replacement for conga drums. When played on a drum set it gives us more color to the groove and another layer of syncopation. The palito and cascara patterns mentioned earlier can also be played on the rim or side of the floor tom when we want a slightly more authentic sound.
Pick a Clave any ClaveThe most essential aspect of Afro-Cuban music is the clave. Understanding its patterns and how they are constructed is fundamental to the genre. Lets first take a look at the 3-2 son clave pattern. Remember, for the drum set the clave pattern will be played by stick clicks on the snare.
The format throughout the rest of the tutorial for presenting the actual rhythms will list each instrument and which notes the instrument plays on in a 16 note measure. A 16 note pattern assumes that your smallest note subdivision is 16th notes in a four beat pattern. HOWEVER, unlike our previous tutorial, two 16th note patterns will be used since Afro-Cuban beats are typically two bars long. The bars will be separated via a | and then restart the note count. Each pattern will be listed from top to bottom so that cymbals are on the top and kick are on the bottom just as you would see if reading musical notation. Each will be accompanied with a picture to help visualize the pattern.
3-2 Son Clave
Now let us take a look at the variation on the 3-2 son, the 2-3 clave.
2-3 Son Clave
For those of you may or may not have noticed, the reason we refer to the clave patterns as either 3-2 or 2-3 is to reflect which bar has two notes and which has three. Simple!
Moving on, let's now take a look at the 3-2 rumba clave
3-2 Rumba Clave
Here for your reference is the 2-3 rumba clave pattern. Like before, make sure you can distinct as to which bar in the phrase is first.
2-3 Rumba Clave
ReviewWhile this section might seem pointless, it is very key to understanding Afro-Cuban music. The drum set functions differently in Afro-Cuban music in regards to what is the most important part of the set. Also, where the clave pattern falls in context to the rest of the drum set can greatly change how you might perceive the beat. Also, the clave pattern dictates how the rest of an ensemble will behave depending if it is 3-2 or 2-3 and which style of clave it is, son or rumba.
3. Bell Beat BabyThis next section will revolve around bell beats; essentially what the drummer would play with his other hand. Now not all of these are technically bell beats as some are meant to be played on the rim of the floor tom or perhaps the side of the drum like in the case of the palito and the cascara. However, for the sake of simplicity and giving you a little more freedom to work with the rhythms, I will explain them all here.
I will clearly mark which ones would normally be played on something other than the ride. However, I will give an audio example of the ride or hi-hat to give you some ideas. Also keep in mind Afro-Cuban does not need rhythms for the kick drum and hi-hat. There are times that you will want those however and we will cover those additions later. For now know that the beats presented to you can be used as is without kick.
Palito And CascaraAs I stated earlier, palito patterns are traditionally played on hollow stick like instruments known as gua-guas. As such these patterns normally will be played on the rim of the floor tom but you can place them wherever you feel appropriate. Palito patterns also are usually played with the rumba clave.
With the Cascara, we infact play the same pattern as the palito, but instead on the shell of the floor tom to mimic the side of a timbale. Cascaras are normally played on timbales and during salsas for those of you going for a more authentic flavor. The major difference between the cascara and the palito is that the CASCARA USES SON CLAVE not rumba!
Only the first pattern is considered a cascara and a palito. The rest of the patterns are strictly palito. However, we will greatly expand on the cascara in a later section.
Palito and Cascara #1
Snare Rumba: 1,7,15|5,9
Snare Son: 1,7,13|5,9
MamboThe mambo is a very lively dance with a lot of syncopation. This is traditionally played on a bell known as a mambo bell hence why they are known as bell patterns. Keeping with our references back to the clave pattern, the mambo patterns will use a son clave. These patterns are also played on the timbales but we will worry about adding the timbale sound later. Examine the following beats and get to know them...
SongoThe songo is infact our first beat that was designed for the drum set and is not adapted! There is only one pattern that we will concern ourselves with for the songo. However, this pattern will easily lead us into the more advanced section. The cymbal part is traditionally played on the side of the floor tom. Here is the core songo beat...
Cymbals: 1 and 9|1 and 9
ReviewYou may have noticed that some of our patterns are very similar but just not quite there. That is what can make Afro-Cuban so tricky! If you are going for a more authentic flavor keep to the beats I have presented to you. However, most of us instead will use these varying ideas and beats together to add a nice Latin flair. In this next section we will advance some of our beats with tom and kick drum additions as well as briefly touching on beats that necessitate toms and kick.
This next section assumes you have a working knowledge of these base concepts. If you don't understand the previous concepts read them and test them out until you have a firm grasp over them; that includes the 3-2 vs 2-3 claves! This tutorial builds upon itself and understanding the concepts as we go will render you the best results.
4. Add the FlairWith the rhythmic basics in our minds how about we discuss some ways to create more active and full Afro-Cuban patterns. One of the most important things you can add is the kick, in particular the bombo pattern. You can also add toms, mainly high tom, to fill in the sonic space of a groove. However, Let us start with the elusive bombo note!
BomboThe bombo note at its core is simply a low drum hit on the second eighth note of a bar; usually the bar with the three clave hits, not two. The bombo note comes from an accented beat traditionally played on a bombo drum. This is a very low drum which is why we are able to substitute it with the kick drum. For starters we will look at how the bombo fits into our basic cascara beat...
Cascara with Bombo
Cascara with Bombo #2
Kick: 7 and 9|none
Mambo with Bombo
Kick: none|7 and 9
Cascara with Bombo Alteration
Hi-Hat: 1 and 9|1 and 9
Kick: 7 and 13|7 and 13
TomsThe last essential piece we need to add to really set off our Afro-Cuban beats are the toms. Afro-Cuban traditionally has congas, bongos, and timbales being played along with everything else. To substitute that we will use the toms. Most of the time it will be the high-tom unless otherwise specified. Now keep in mind, we will need to drop the clave pattern in the snare in order to make it fit. Don't worry, we will bring it back soon enough! Here is the cascara pattern with bombo and toms...
Cascara with Bombo and Toms
Mambo with Bombo and Toms
Kick: none|7 and 9
Reinstating the ClaveWith the addition of the tom hits we had to remove the all important clave pattern. But what if you don't want a clave player in your song? You make the hi-hat do it! Instead of a simple four beat hi-hat like you would have in rock music, you can a lot of complexity and groove by using the clave in the hi-hat. Remember, doing this assumes you are not playing your bell beat on the closed hi-hat. Here is the hat put back into the cascara:
Hi-hat: 5 and 9|1,7,13
Kick: none|7 and 9
ReviewAll the additions we have added really help make a full and highly syncopated Afro-Cuban beat. Remember you can use any of the bell variations with these additions; so keep it interesting! Keep this in mind also, you will not need to use these complex beats all the time. Use more or less additions to the basic beats to reflect the music. If you are going to be less on the authentic end, then go ahead and mix and match the different styles of Afro-Cuban; be creative!
5. Sound ColorUp until now we have focused on creating the beats in the Afro-Cuban style. However, we need to make sure we are getting a good sound out of each drum.
If you read my previous tutorial then you know that some people are on a perpetual quest for the perfect drum sound. Once again, if you are one of these people let me tell you that it does not exist. When dealing with programmed drums trying to sound real, you need to have the best samples you can get a hold of; end of story. Process all you want, but good samples are key to good drum sound.
Now, you still will need some processing regardless so do not count yourself out yet if your samples are not godly. What we will focus on is making the kit as a whole sound more live and real and what you need to do in order to achieve that end. As I said in the beginning of this tutorial, you will need a lot of samples in order to get a good feel out of your programmed kit. Now we will go in depth on how to use them.
The KickA good kick is key to the creation of a quality drum sound regardless of genre. With Afro-Cuban you have a few choices to pick from when working with the kick; however not as much the rock genre like last time. You most likely will have kicks that sound natural, full, or cushioned; sometimes crossbreeds between two of them but not very often How do you decide which to use? Think of how you want your kit to sound.
A traditional Jazz/Latin album will have a very natural sound and you
will want to hear the sound of the drum itself, not some processed pop
tone. Keep this mind as well, sometimes this sort of tone will remove
some attack from the kick and give it that cushioned quality. Generally
these are considered more traditional for an Afro-Cuban sound.
If you want a fuller more Hollywood style sound then you will want a
kick that has a nice bottom end with some attack. It should not be
completely pop sounding, but not the natural tone either.
When actually programming of the kick you should probably have two, but definitely no more than three kick sounds. Why so few? Because the kick tonally generally stays the same most of the time when being acoustically played. You will probably want a kick sound for quiet passages and another for louder passages. The bombo tends to have a heavier hit to it thanks to the fact is a quick off-beat hit. (Trust me as a drummer myself I know the tendency to make that hit louder.) Also, the bombo note on the drum set is just the accented note played from a bombo drum; its meant to be heard!
If at any point you use the two note bombo then pick either the first or second note to be more forceful than the other. The change should not be very drastic but at least felt. Well placed accents can really set off your Afro-Cuban beats and draw attention to the syncopation.
In this section I am going to show you a previous beat that we made and then the changes I made to it so you can hear the difference:
Hi-hat: 5 and 9|1,7,13
Kick 1: none|7
Kick 2: none|9
The SnareMore important than the kick, your snare will need a good sound for a good overall kit. The snare is the center of your clave clicks for Afro-Cuban drum set so a clear "knock" sounding click would sound very nice. You can also go with a rim click sound that literally sounds more like a "click" but make sure it has enough body to it. The snare clicks maintain almost a constant volume since getting a good tone requires using the same stroke for a drummer. This in turn gives essentially the same volume.
While we have not yet talked about the actual snare, pick a good rounded hollow tone as if the snares were off. You can have a snare tone with the snares on, but keep in mind it will not be traditional and will add a more modern edge to your sound. Also pick out a good rimshot sound that works with your hollow tone since rimshots are a key part of fills in a Afro-Cuban feel.
I recommend starting with a good snare click that compliments the kick and does not conflict with the hi-hat or cymbals. Whenever you do pick your snare tone, make sure you start with your primary snare sample and build off that. If you have a harmonically rich snare you sometimes can EQ off other parts to create your additional snare sounds instead of sample hunting. Generally the softer hits are slightly higher in pitch/tone than the heavier hits. You should however have more contrast in your snare samples than your kick samples.
Since most of the snare sample variation occurs during fills for Afro-Cuban drums we will look into that later during the fills section.
The CymbalsCymbals tend to fall into two categories when it comes to the cymbals actual timbre; dark or bright. Dark cymbals tend to have a rounder, warmer, and heavy tone to them while the bright cymbals are cutting, sharper, and higher toned than their darker counter parts. Also, you can have a combination of both dark and bright cymbals and get what some call a rich cymbal. This applies not just hi-hats and rides, but crashes as well. While these might be the way we categorize the actual cymbals, we also have to consider how the cymbal is played.
You are going to want a tight set of hi-hats that when closed together will not leave any extra ringing and leave you guessing on the beat. Your ride cymbals for Afro-Cuban should have a little bit of stick noise from the initial impact if you want a slightly more authentic sound.
How do we use cymbal samples? This will by far be the biggest pain in the entire tutorial but one of the most essential. Your cymbal samples should be fairly similar, closer to the way we did the kick. Why? Because most people do not actually sit there and intently listen on the tone of the cymbals. There is always variety but it is usually subtle and so your samples should reflect this.
You usually have to randomly assign your cymbal samples to get that psychoacoustic effect of knowing it is there but not noticing it. However, if you are lucky enough to be using a multi-sample sampler, then see if your plug-in can randomly playback your samples for you in your cymbal channel. (See what I mean when I said I love multi-sample samplers?) You generally will need about 3-4 samples to get the effect. There is no need to show you the programming I used for the cymbals since it is random and the point is for you to listen, not follow random programming. Have a listen, the first example is before and the second is after...
TomsToms are much more important in Afro-Cuban and other Latin feels than most other forms of drum set music. Since they are integral to the beats you need to pick a good set of toms that fit well in your kit. Regular tom hits should be full and round with a clear attack. You will also want a good rim click sound for the floor tom if you wish to continue the authentic route. Also, you will also want a good tom rimshot sound in case you wish to accent a particular tom hit; whether it is in a groove or fill.
I would not worry too much about having different tom samples for contrast as a good drummer usually can keep the tone even on the tom hits. Instead, use the low pass filter trick to fake softer toms by removing some of the higher harmonics when the music gets softer. Take a listen to these accented hits...
Tom Accent: none|13,15
Hi-hat: 5 and 9|1,7,13
Kick 1: none|7
Kick 2: none|9
ReviewAs a hole you will need more samples in this tutorial than in the Rock tut since we have a bigger sound palette. Make sure each sample fits well with the others and if you have to over process to make it fit, get a better sample. If you have the option of being able to randomly assign samples from a multi-sample sampler then by all means go for it; it will make your life a lot easier.
6. Fills, Fills, FillsOnce again we find ourselves in the final section of the tutorial: fills! As a drummer I have told you and will tell you again that fills are your chance to be expressive, and that the possibilities are beyond what you could write in words. Therefore, to me it is probably the least most important section for programming drums; also in my experience most people don't want to be bothered to write out a drum fill so I won't flood you with long winded fills that you would have to painstakingly rewrite. Instead, I believe for Afro-Cuban music, if you follow a few basic concepts you can easily start creating your own fills in the Afro-Cuban style.
The AccentProbably the most important aspect to fills and solos in the Afro-Cuban style is the accented notes. When you look at the grooves, we accent certain aspects (like the clave pattern for example) to draw attention. By carefully placing accents in your fills you can make them more melodic.
As a general rule of thumb with Latin music, off-beat accents are king. The off-beat is where the syncopation comes in and is how your fills can sound less square. However, this does not mean you can abuse off-beat accents all the time. Add some variety between on beat and off-beat accents and do not forget to accent the 16th notes between the big beats and off-beats as well.
Here is a quick fill based around accents to get your creative juices flowing...
Lead InThis section is like the Rock tutorials since the premise is exactly the same. However, if you read the last one, listen to the audio example to get some Afro-Cuban flair ideas for your lead in fills.
Not all fills are long intricate ideas, some are simple a few notes long. These short quick fills usually lead into a big hit by the rest of the band. Most of the time they are not flashy and usually are played on their own without any moving notes from the rest of the band. Essentially the band plays, cuts out, the quick fill is played, and everyone comes back in full board on the last note of the fill. There isn't much more to say about these fills other than look at what I have come up with and get some ideas. You will hear one two bar phrase of groove and the last bar of the second phrase will be the lead in fill...
PatchworkThere is no real trick to creating these other than experimenting. The only methodology you really have is to take one beat fragments and patch work them together until you get a fill you like. Take the cymbal variations from earlier but rearrange the notes amongst different toms and other parts of the kit. This works very well in Afro-Cuban since the cymbal variants have so much syncopation. Again, break your fill ideas down into one beat fragments so that they are easier to manage and vary where your notes land on the different drums.
Another trick is to mimic the melody of the song but in the amongst the tone of the drum set. If you go this route, try adding various rhythmic flourishes to the melody and interject sections that are not the melody and are strictly just drum fill.
Here is a longer fill that encompasses different ideas so that you can hopefully get some ideas yourself...
ReviewThere is not much to say about Afro-Cuban fills other than be creative ad dont be scared to try something new. If you are a more methodical person then try going the melodic mimic route. Either way should expand your mind and be creative; think like a musician!
Afro-Cuban in ReviewOnce again that is an awful lot of material to cover I will admit. Afro-Cuban is not normally something your average person comes across in their daily lives so it can seem somewhat alien. Remember that syncopation and the clave are the key concepts to Afro-Cuban music and you will be able to build anything off from there. The drum set is merely a reduction of a full drum section in Afro-Cuban music so it should sound like a full drum section. Remember also that the off-beat accent is integral to an Afro-Cuban flavor as well.
I hope you have learned a lot from reading this tutorial and now have more musical choices at your disposal. Afro-Cuban is dance, it is rhythm, and it is fun!