22 pro grime production tricks
It may have its roots in East London, but grime is now a truly international sound. MusicRadar celebrates its success by offering 22 tips for anyone who wants to produce in the genre.
1. Although grime draws its influences from both UK garage and US hip-hop, it's got a sound that's far removed from either of these genres. Grime beats, as popularised by the likes of Roll Deep Crew's Wiley, stay away from the conventions of four to the floor and two-step garage. Try starting with a regular two-step rhythm, then add more kicks and change the position of the second snare – this gives grime its characteristic disjointed feel.
2. Most UK dance music relies on multiple layers of percussion to create a wall of sound. Grime is much closer to something like dancehall, however, eschewing layers for very clear individual beats. Avoid overly complex arrangements, and concentrate on getting each percussion element sounding right in the mix. You may find compressing and gating each percussion track individually works better than using a percussion group, though when you mix down you might find the rhythm track as a whole benefits from subtle compression.
3. Try taking the Dizzee Rascal approach and use the rawest sounds you can find. If you've got a synth with pleasingly gritty oscillators, use them with minimal processing for that nasty sound. If they're too much, try using a notch EQ to take the edge off, or turn the sound down in the mix and boost the low end.
4. Although layering multiple rhythms can take away from the grimey feel, the stacking of individual percussive hits can make a beat sound much heavier – if you layer a muddy kick with a more bassy one, for example. Another trick is to layer simple sound effects with the beats, using them as another percussive element. The shorter the effect sample the better – you may find altering the sample's amp envelope can help you mould it to the beat.
5. Like two-step garage, grime's beats are generally of the clipped variety – note, that's clipped in the sense of being abrupt rather than excessively overdriven. To get that sound, you can experiment with your percussive sample's amplitude envelope – short decay and release times along with a low sustain level will give you that snap you desire. If you're using audio to sequence your beats, you may find editing your percussion sounds in a sample editor first is a handy way to achieve this effect.
"Avoid overly complex arrangements, and concentrate on getting each percussion element sounding right in the mix."
6. As with dancehall, there's no need to have percussion and bass constantly erupting all over the place – indeed, the silence between the beats is an important ingredient that gives grime its distinctive dynamic. If you find your beats are too rolling, try cutting out excess hi-hats or rides before any accented kicks or snares – this will provide more punch. Avoid using excessive gating as this may mask any quieter yet rhythmically important percussion elements, such as shakers or hi-hats.
7. You can change the feel of a beat by playing with individual hits' velocity values. This can create more human sounding snares and hi-hats.
8. More individualistic sounding beats can be developed via the use of unusual percussion. Eastern sounds work particularly well, but any quirky percussion (used tastefully) can help liven up a rhythm.
9. Because of grime's lopsided rhythms, you may find that percussive loops, or indeed any looped samples, are tricky to get sounding right alongside your beats. Consider chopping up such loops and mapping them up the keyboard so you can trigger them in a manner that fits your track's overall rhythm. Remember to cut each sample accurately or you may find that the release portion of certain hits clash with the rest of the track's flow, especially if using samples of loose live playing.
10. Rather than the warbling, warped bass of what was once known as speed garage, grime's basslines are generally less obvious. By sending pulse waves through a low-pass filter tied to an envelope, you can create the sort of round bass employed by Lethal Bizzle's chums More Fire Crew. By experimenting with different decay times and envelope amounts, a wide variety of tones can be created, and by turning up the attack time, an old-school reverse bass (a la Double 99's RIP Groove) can be fashioned.
11. If you want to experiment further with filter envelopes, try using different slope types if your synth supports them. If it doesn't, you may be able to force it to if it has a capable modulation matrix. This can be done by using the filter envelope amount to modulate the attack or decay time – positive modulation creates a convex slope, negative modulation a concave one. This will give the filter sweep a different sound, so try experimenting and see what happens.
"Chop up loops and map them up the keyboard so you can trigger them in a manner that fits your track's overall rhythm."
12. If you're after that old-school hardcore-esque buzzy bass sound, as rocked by MIA on Bucky Done Gun, route a simple sine synth sound through a degrader plug-in – a setting of 8 bits will give you a none-too subtle effect. Set your synth's pitchbend range to plus/minus an octave and get busy with your keyboard's bend wheel for that idiosyncratic lo-fi bass ride.
13. Does your bass sound a little lacklustre? Don't worry, there are plenty of ways to spice it up. If your synth has multiple filters, try routing individual oscillators through each, using different envelope times to create yet more complex bass sounds. By running your basslines through a little tube simulation or subtle overdrive you wan warm them up a bit, but try to avoid applying too much distortion – start small and gradually increase the levels to find the sweet spot.
14. When working with a lot of low frequency sounds, such as thumping kicks and sub-bass, it's important to be able to hear what's going on down there. If your speakers aren't up to the job, you may find it helps to use headphones occasionally – all but the cheapest 'phones should go low enough to let you know whether your sub-bass frequencies are clashing. It's best to check this during the composition stage, as attempting to fix it during mixdown can be a headache.
15. Using a step sequencer is a great way to quickly come up with new rhythms. And if you're stuck for inspiration, try taking advantage of any randomise tools you have available to you.
16. When using instrumental samples, try cutting them up and repeating them using different rhythms until you get something that works well with your track's rhythm. You may find you need to timestretch certain parts of the sample to make it fit, though this can be achieved in most soft samplers without having to resort to using audio or heading back to your sample editor. Reversing some of your cuts can make for an unusual feel, too.
17. Another effect that's trendier than it ever was back in the day is the chipmunk vocal. That's right, why bother timestretching those vocal samples when you can simply pitch them up? The higher pitched and more indecipherable, the better – extra old-school points are awarded for combining this with stuttered effects, a la Kray Twinz' What We Do.
18. Vocal hooks are popular in grime tracks, so if you're working with a vocalist try cutting up a few lines of a take. These can then be triggered with your MIDI keyboard to create a hook. Don't shy away from n-n-n-nineteen effects – if you've no idea what this means, try asking your dad
19. When using synthesized acoustic instrument sounds, good programming is a must unless you're going for the blatant cheesy riff factor – ie, the steel drum patch in 50 Cent's P.I.M.P. If you're struggling, search the net for MIDI files of classical music – note the similarities between Rondo Veneziano's La Serenissima and Dr Dre's Still Dre.
20. If your synth hooks sound lifeless, try adding a little modulation with a pitch envelope or LFO. Used delicately, these can take the robotic edge off a synth riff and make it sound more human. Similarly, try experimenting with each note's velocity level for added expression. This can be especially effective when tied to the sound's filter cutoff level.
21. Go easy on the reverb – a big part of the grime sound is its 'straight from the bedroom' chic, which puts the sound right by your ear, rather than in a stadium. A handy lo-fi technique is to simply increase the track's volume in your sample editor rather than using compression. This can give everything a rawer, tougher edge.
22. If you're stuck for synth sounds, root through any old speed garage, DnB or old-school hardcore vinyl you've got lying around. With a little cutting up and processing you can fashion new dark noises from riffs found in older tracks, like Mark One's use of the classic Planet Dust hoover on Stargate 92.