More particularly a crucial step in the development of hip-hop as the dance music genre that bears its name today, electro emerged in the early 1980s as a fusion of European and Japanese electronic music and funk, the first example being Afrika Bambaataa Seminal, Planet Rock sampled by Kraftwerk (1982).
While modern electro is, of course, much broader in its instrumentation, old-fashioned electro was largely defined by the use of talkbox vocals, analog basslines, zappy synth effects, and drum machine rhythms, the latter of which were most often generated by – you guessed it – the Roland TR-808.
With patterns having been programmed using the 808’s step sequencer, the key to reproducing the sound of electro drums in your DAW is a rigidly quantized robotic feel, capricious hi-hat lines, and no variation in velocity at the bottom. -beyond the second level of intensity provided by the 808 Accent Control.
In this tutorial and the accompanying video, we will therefore show you how to program an immediately identifiable electro classical drum track. I’m using Ableton Live and Roland’s TR-808 plugin here – available through their Roland Cloud subscription service – but any DAW and 808 will do, whether it’s an emulation or ‘a sample library.
Step 1: We start by turning on the ultimate electro sound source: Roland’s own emulation of their legendary TR-808 drum machine. We could deploy the built-in step sequencer for authenticity, but in the interest of universality, we’ll stick to Live’s piano roll. Uncheck Position lock to DAW in TR-808 kills the sequencer.
2nd step: With the 808 Basic Kit 2 preset loaded, an empty two-bar MIDI clip created and the tempo set to an electro-appropriate sound 120bpm, we start programming the pattern with the kick drum and snare drum. The snare only falls on the offbeat, without ghost notes or other embellishments of any kind.
Step 3: The bass drum is woven around the snare drum, playing a typical electro-style pattern, and each note triggering both drums is programmed at full velocity. The 808 has a Accent function, however, which can make the selected notes louder and heavier, if you want certain hits to be larger.
Step 4: Let’s move on to the charleys, and we opt for a sixteenth note sequence, as commonly used in electro. Unlike many other genres, in electro these sixteenth notes don’t need to be constant and regular, so we make a few holes in the line to break it a bit.
Step 5: To emphasize the end of the phrase, we double the last snare kick with a helping hand and place an open hihat on the final 16th. We could stop there, but we can’t resist the idea of adding a classic electro bell. A loaded, syncopated pattern increases rhythmic interest and is probably best preserved for choruses or breakdowns.
Step 6: With the pattern programmed, it’s time to polish the kit itself. Raise the Decomposition of the bass drum and Snappy snare drum the buttons extend the low end well and lighten the backbeat; turning the bell and clapping your hands a bit, and the hi-hat up, places them better in the mix. Accomplished job!