How to program an Amen-style break

Gregory C Coleman's brilliant four-bar break from The Winston's 1969 cut Amen Brother is one of the most sampled loops of all time, appearing in countless jungle, drum 'n' bass and hip-hop tracks since the early 90s.

Here, we'll show you how to program your own Amen-style groove from scratch.

Download the accompanying MIDI file.

Step 1: The Amen break rolls along at a speedy 137bpm, so we start by setting the project tempo in our DAW thus. Now let's program our own custom Amen-alike by mimicking the beat itself.

Step 2: Although we'll divide the Amen's four bars into two distinct sections for analysis of the kick and snare, the right-hand riding pattern is played on the ride cymbal all the way through to almost the very end, where it's broken briefly by the insertion of a crash cymbal. There's nothing going on with it in terms of dynamics, either - it's just full strength eighth-notes down the line.

Step 3: The kick and snare drums in the first two bars play a fairly standard funk pattern, and it's the dynamics that are key to the feel - along with the awesome sound of the kit itself, of course. The first kick drum in the double hit just before beat 4 is slightly quieter than the second, and the snare hit at the end of the bar should be quieter than the main snares, but not quite down the level of a ghost note.

First two bars

Step 4: It's the second bar that really defines the Amen break, in our opinion, largely thanks to its displaced kick and snare. The double kick hit is shortened to a single hit in the first bar, and pulled back to the beginning of the second bar, while the snares on the fourth beat of each bar are held back for half a beat.

Step 5: The other thing that makes the Amen so distinctive is that crash cymbal at the end, falling in between beats 3 and 4 - a very unusual way of marking the end of the phrase. Also, although it's barely audible for most of the break, there's a pedalled hi-hat on every beat. In the first three bars, you can hardly hear it, but in bar 4, it slots in beautifully between the crash cymbal and final snare hit.

Second two bars

Whole groove

Step 6: Since the exact timing of the Amen break is so tricky to capture by manual programming, but the break itself is so naked in the original track, there's nothing stopping us extracting its groove in Ableton Live (or most other DAWs) and applying the resulting timing and velocity template to our MIDI clip. The peculiar envelope of the first double kick drum hit may require tweaking, however.

With Amen groove template applied

For more tips and tutorials on emulating classic beats and grooves, pick up the May issue of Computer Music (CM229).

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