Percussion Part 2: Breakbeat

Breakbeat is any rhythm where the kick does not match the beat, but rather appears in the periods between beats, or when the snare is off-beat. Basically, anything that isn’t Four-To-The-Floor, but still has underlying percussion.

The basic breakbeat pattern
Let’s divide a bar into the 16 steps that we get from slicing each beat into quarters; we’ll label these steps 1 through 16. Your basic breakbeat has a few standard features: a kick on step 1, a snare on 5 and 13 (and no kicks on these beats), and at least one kick somewhere between the two snares. If the second kick occurs on step 11, we call the pattern a “two-step”. Adding a few more snares and kicks to that gives the Amen break.
Generally, the snares on the 5 and 13 are louder than any other snares that happen to occur.
The world has gotten by quite happily with breakbeats that follow this pattern, but you can do better.

Breaking away
So how does one compose interesting breakbeats? The answer is to not use the pattern outlined above. If you do use it, don’t repeat it continuously. Mix it up, change things. Swap in different patterns, different rhythms, different drum kits. The idea behind the breakbeat is to make it irregular, to not have every beat, every bar, every phrase be the same.

Snares
The breakbeat is all about the snares. Four-to-the-floor centers around the kick, but for breakbeat the main weapon is the snare. So the first thing to think about is how to arrange the snares.
The snares on 5 and 13 stand out, establishing percussive emphasis in the same way that the kick did for four-to-the-floor. But if they do stay on 5 and 13 all the time, they end up becoming regular, occurring every eight steps, and hence boring. Instead of every beat having a kick, now every other beat has a snare.
So fix this. For example, by putting your main snares on 5 and 11, you break up the monotony a bit since the interval between the snares changes. Add a third snare in somewhere. Just don’t make the intervals between the snares constant.

Polyrhythmy
If you’re doing breakbeat, you’re already doing syncopation. But as with four-to-the-floor, that’s not enough. Just as with four-to-the-floor, between the emphatic kick and main snare there is plenty of space, so fill it with stuff.
Ghost snares are secondary snares, often quieter and higher-pitched than the main snares, that help fill the space. For instance, with your main snares on 5 and 11, you could put ghost snares on 3, 4, 9 and 10, so that the ghost snares lead into the main snares.
Also keep in mind that your hats and cymbals are no longer constrained by the notion of the “offbeat”; use them to add contour and accentuation wherever you need them, even if they land at the same time as kicks. Even more so than in four-to-the-floor, variations in velocity and volume are important for your hats and cymbals.

Longer patterns
The easy way to avoid repetitive-sounding music is to avoid repetition. Make your patterns longer than a single bar; go two, four, eight bars before repeating. Maybe one bar is the standard Amen break, but the next is the 5-11 snare pattern we looked at above. Maybe the third and fourth bars are variations on the first two. One important idea is to change the points of emphasis; normally you keep a kick on 1 to anchor the tempo and the time signature, but since the percussive emphasis is the most noticeable part of the rhythm, changing where it falls will do the most to break up any encroaching monotony.

Percussion Part 1: Four to the Floor

The basic four-to-the-floor beat has its emphasis locked onto the beat grid via a kick- or bass-drum hit every beat. Being completely regular, or close to it, it ends up sounding repetitive, mechanical, lifeless. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes this is not.
There is also the issue of density. The kick drum occurs once per beat, but there can be a lot of time between beats, time that you could use to your advantage.
So suppose you don’t want your percussion to be empty or lifeless, but you don’t want to let go of that nice, beat-locked kick. The standard method is to put down a snare/clap on the second and fourth beats of each bar, and to put hi-hats on the off-beats. Now it’s no longer quite so repetitive, since the second and fourth beats sound different than the first and third, and it’s no longer quite so empty, since we have the hats between the kicks.
But this still doesn’t lead to interesting percussion, because everyone does this. So what else can you do?
You have two options, and doing both often gives the best results:
1: Syncopation and polyrhythmy
2: Swing
I’ve mentioned both in my post on composition, but I’ll elaborate here:

1: Syncopation and Polyrhythmy
The basic idea here is to add more stuff. If you’ve got a kick, snare, and hi-hat pattern, add more stuff on top of it: shakers, ride cymbals, toms, more snares, more hats, cowbell, etc. Kicks might not be such a great thing to add since that will screw up your beat-locked kick pattern, but anything else is fair game.
There are two things to keep in mind: since these elements are decoration rather than foundation, you don’t want them to be as loud as your kick and you don’t want them all at the exact same time as your kick, i.e. not on the beat.
1.1: Syncopation
Each beat is often subdivided into four quarter-beats; some programs call these “steps” or some other such nonsense. These are usually the shortest lengths of time that you’ll care about. The kick will occur on the first step per beat; that leaves three steps on which to put things. Your basic “offbeat” pattern puts, say, a hi-hat on the third step; a “shuffle” pattern generally has things on the third and fourth steps.
You can also subdivide into three instead of four.
1.2: Polyrhythmy
In general, even simply adding more stuff isn’t quite sufficient if your instruments are still playing the same rhythm. What you want is for all of your instruments to be doing different things. For a given instrument, you’ll probably want its pattern to span more than one beat before repeating. If you have a bunch of different instruments playing different rhythms, it gives a sense of movement as the instruments move in and out of sync with one another.

2: Swing
A human drummer doesn’t play perfectly. Usually one hand is dominant, playing more precisely and with more force, while the other hand often trails a little bit behind and plays more softly. Also, humans are incapable of playing with perfect repetition; there’s always a little bit of variation. If your percussion is perfectly timed (i.e. if it matches the beats and steps precisely) and the volume of a given instrument never changes, it sounds inhuman and “cold”.
To make your percussion sound more human, “warmer”, you need to adjust the timing and the volume of the drum hits. But it ought to be subtle, since you’re trying to emulate a good drummer, not a terrible one, and it won’t be completely random. Also, you want your kick drum to occur perfectly on the beat, since that 1: establishes timing, and 2: makes the imperfections in the rest of the instruments more noticeable.
I suggest that your timing for each note should deviate from perfect by no more than about one 16th of a beat. It’s enough to be heard, but not enough to sound bad. So one trick is to make all the sounds that are not on the beat slow by one 16th of a beat, e.g. instead of perfectly on the 2nd step, make it one 16th of a beat after the 2nd step.
Also, make sure that the velocity and volume of each hit is not perfectly uniform. Specifically, make the notes that you think are more important (for instance, maybe the off-beat/3rd step) louder, and make the notes falling on the 2nd and 4th step softer.
Here it’s important to not compress your percussion too much, since you want these volume differences to be audible.

Dealing With Critique

Most of us started making music because we were inspired by a few tracks that we really, really liked, that we thought were awesome enough that we wanted to be part of that awesomeness.
Fortunately, and unfortunately, music is a complex enough process that nobody fully succeeds the first time. It’s not easy, and that makes it worthwhile.
So you’re going to fail the first time; your first track is probably not going to be very good. Nor will your second track, or your third, and everything you post could get torn apart by critics.

Do not despair.

A critique of a track reflects only how good you are now, but an artist is not measured by that. An artist’s worth is in how good he can become, and you can become better. Success is nice, but educational failure is more valuable, because what didn’t work can teach you how to do things that do work, while success often masks the real techniques and ideas that caused that success under a blanket of “good job”.
Criticism is in fact more useful than praise. Criticism shows you your weak points, and you can go to work on those, while praise only highlights your strong points, and concentrating on those won’t make you better; it will only lead to stagnation, and as an artist that is your worst enemy. You and your work can always become better, more technically proficient, more clever, more impressive, and you should want to know how.
So when someone says “your kick drum sounds like a bunch of dogs vomiting”, don’t be ashamed, don’t be dismayed. Be grateful that someone pointed out a place where you can become better, and get to work on becoming better. You have been given an opportunity to improve yourself, to learn how to make better music.
At the very least, that is what I am thinking when I issue criticism and when I receive it in turn; “this is a chance to improve as an artist”.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
-Samuel Beckett

Mixing

Mixing is the art of getting your instruments to work together, and like with any group of anything, with the canonical example being cats, this can be difficult.
Two things to keep in mind:
1: You are not trying to make the instruments sound better. Hopefully you’ve already gotten your group of instruments sounding good via sound design and composition. Now you’re trying to get these good-sounding instruments to work together and not step all over each other without making them sound bad.
2: You’re going to need to adjust each instrument individually, but relative to each other. Everything that I’ve said below is in the context of the entire mix, even if the adjustments are being made to individual instruments. Sometimes you’ll have to change an instrument in a way that makes it sound worse in isolation, but that can’t be detected when all the instruments are playing together; since your listener won’t be hearing the instruments in isolation, this is not a bad thing, and may be a necessary thing.
Conversely, you can’t just stick EQs and compression on the master channel and hope that will work, because you’ll need to adjust each instrument in a different way. So you need to put each instrument in its own channel, and apply the fixes and tweaks to each channel one by one.

1. Volume
The first thing to pay attention to is the volume of your various instruments. Can you hear everything? Are the instruments that are supposed to be louder actually louder? If something is drowning out other instruments, maybe you should lower the volume on it. Another reason to lower the volume is clipping; even digital systems can only handle sounds within a certain volume, and beyond that the system starts chopping off peaks and introduces distortion, which in the context of things going wrong is usually called clipping. If your sound levels are going into the red, then maybe you should pull down the volume.
The general idea is to take your most important instrument and make sure that it is at the right volume, and then take your second most important instrument and adjust its volume so that it is good relative to the first instrument, and then repeat with the other instruments in order of importance.

1.1 More on compression
Compression can be used in sound design to change the envelope of a sound, but it can also be used to prevent your track from clipping; you set the threshold so that the compressor starts lowering the volume before it gets to clipping. If you have really bad volume spikes that are far apart, you might try a limiter, which is like a compressor but more severe. Be careful with compression and limiting because they can change the character of your sound if you set them badly. At the point of mixing, you want them to be gentle and subtle.
Compression can also be used to “glue” different instruments together; you have both instruments feed into one channel and put a compressor on it so that the compression responds to both instruments and makes them interact. Be careful, as this effect only goes so far, and really most of getting your track to cohere is in the composition and sound-design phases.
Another use of compression is side-chain compression, where instead of pulling down the volume in response to the signal being affected, the compressor pulls down the volume in response to a different signal. A common use is with a kick drum and a bassline; often when played together it’s hard to hear the kick drum, so you put a compressor on the bassline and side-chain it to the kick, so that when the kick drum plays the bassline gets quieter.

! Be careful with compression on your master channel! A very common mistake that beginners make is to have a compressor or limiter on the master channel (FL, for instance, defaults to having a limiter on all new projects) and not setting it properly. The usual effect is to compress too much, so that the volume of each instrument changes abruptly and drastically every time anything happens. This makes the track sound irregular and sloppy, especially percussion, and often makes it sound like the music is being played through a thick wall.

2. Equalization
If adjusting the relative volumes of things doesn’t do the trick, you could try using equalizers. Often a sound will have content in ranges that you don’t care about, like very low frequencies that humans can’t hear directly but can sort of detect as “mud” or unwanted “thumpiness”. So what you want to do is shave off this unwanted content using an equalizer. Another thing you want to prevent is frequency overlap; if two instruments both have a lot of content at the same frequency, it can be hard to tell the two instruments apart. So you want to pick one as being more important, and shave off that frequency from the less important instrument.
Like the volume adjustment, you’ll probably want to do this in order. You take the most important instrument, put an EQ on it and shave off all the frequency content that you don’t care about. Then you take the second most important instrument and, while playing both instruments at the same time, shave off all the frequency content from the second instrument that you don’t care about, and any frequency content that interferes with your ability to hear the most important instrument. And then you go down the line, shaving off stuff you don’t care about, and then shaving off stuff that interferes with more important instruments, and maybe boosting anything that you want to have more audible.
Generally you can make very deep, narrow cuts and still get natural-sounding results, but high, narrow boosts tend to sound strange and tend to change the character of the input sound. Judge for yourself exactly how much you can cut and boost before it starts sound bad, but remember that the more you can cut, the more room each instrument will have to be heard.

! When dealing with getting rid of really low-frequency stuff, don’t trust your ears; you can’t really hear that stuff too well. While most of the EQing ought to be done by listening, detecting stuff below about 60hz is hard to do with your ears. Use a spectrogram to see if your instruments are pumping out unwanted low-end.

3. Stereo
Do whatever sounds right. Panning all the way to one side is usually irritating because it makes a mix feel unbalanced, but this can be overcome by panning one instrument to one side and another instrument to the other. Panning can be used to give some separation to instruments that overlap otherwise, but it won’t really fix that problem.

4. Foreground/background
Generally you’ll want some of your sounds to really pop out at the listener and grab attention, while you’ll want other ones to kind of sit in the back and provide ambiance. There are a few basic tricks to this:
Volume: Sounds from farther away are generally quieter.
EQ: Sounds from farther away tend not to have as much low-frequency or high-frequency content.
Reverb: Sounds from farther away tend to be a bit more diffuse, hazy.
Stereo: Sounds from your sides tend to sound closer than ones in the center, mainly due to biologically-ingrained paranoia.

5. Note on headphones
Unless you have really, really, really good headphones, mixing on headphones is a bad idea. Headphones won’t give you a good idea of what the low-frequency content is doing because the sound source is so close to your ears. Get speakers, and get good speakers, preferably with at least a decent woofer; bass content is murder on your mixing levels and you’ll have to treat it very carefully.
This is not to say that you should only mix on speakers. (Good) headphones are useful for getting details that are hard to hear on speakers. Plus they’ll let you know if you’re panning too hard.
The best thing to do is to use both headphones and speakers when mixing: speakers for frequency issues, headphones for detailing and keeping your panning under control.

Structure

Having composed your melodies and rhythms and basslines and having chosen and tweaked your instruments, you now have a whole bunch of short (or not so short) loops. Now what?
There are two main ideas to keep in mind when arranging those loops into a track.
The first is that your track needs a balance between what I’ll call “coherence” and “contrast”, how much part of your track reminds of what happened earlier in the track, and how much it differs.
The second is what your audience expects to happen, and whether you plan to fulfill those expectations or not.

1. Coherence and Contrast

If you take a theme, a melody, a rhythm, a musical idea, and repeat it a dozen times in a row, people will complain that your music is boring. They get acclimated to the theme/melody/whatever and lose interest. Even slight variations, while more interesting that pure repetition, get boring after a while.
On the other hand, if every few seconds you completely change everything, the listener will get irritated. They’ll complain that it sounds less like a single track and more like you just shoved a bunch of random things together.
The two things to balance here are coherence and contrast. You need coherence, to glue your track together by having later sound like (or identical to if necessary) earlier parts of the track. You’re telling a story; you need to keep the cast of characters somewhat constant. You also need contrast, so that your story actually goes somewhere.

1.1 Establishing Themes
Sometimes you need to repeat a section several times in a row. This is to establish it as a part of the track; things that aren’t main melodies or hooks often need to be repeated a few times so that the listener can get used to them, acknowledge them. A steady sense of pace and intensity created by repeating a short section builds a sense of momentum, a sense that “now the track is doing this”.

1.2 Development
Once you’ve got something established, you want to create some variation, changing things so that the track goes somewhere. This is the part where you add or remove instruments, change melodies subtly, change the sound-design parameters over time. Develop and elaborate upon the musical ideas that you’ve established.

1.3 Differing Sections
Usually simple development isn’t enough. Sometimes you want to change everything, such as going into a sudden drop or breakdown, or up into an anthem/chorus. This is good for getting your listener’s attention and for maintaining interest. This also allows you to explore more musical material and to bring in new themes or ideas to contrast with your previous parts. But just remember that you need to tie back to everything else.

1.4 Contour
Just like how your individual sounds have volume and filter envelopes, just as your melodies go up and down in frequency, your track needs to go up and down in intensity. Intensity is a result of many factors, including pace, volume, sonic density and complexity. Generally the chorus is more intense than verse sections, anthems more so than breakdowns. Some genres try to be intense all the time, but like with everything else, if your track is high intensity all the time then it ends up feeling flat. Humans are more attuned to contrast than absolutes, so in order to make any part of your track feel intense, you need other parts to be less intense. But if you’re bouncing up and down in intensity, it feels choppy and unstable.

! A common structuring mistake is to make two or three sections and alternate between them, so that the second half of the track is just a repeat of the first half of the track. Doing this leads to the question of why anyone should bother listening to the second half of the track. You need something different to happen the second time around, maybe a new instrument, maybe a variation in the melody, maybe a change in the sound design. But simply composing half a track and repeating it twice doesn’t make for interesting music.

2. Expectation
The other side of coherence and contrast, comparing parts to previous parts, is expectation, wherein the listener tries to guess what’s going to happen later. If your track goes exactly as the listener thinks it will, then it gets considered predictable, and thus dull. If your track never follows up on the cues you give earlier, then it gets considered illogical or incoherent. So as always, you need balance.

2.1 Tension
Tension is when you set up an expectation and then put off the expected part. If the listener is primed to expect a chorus but instead of following with a chorus you put in something else, you build tension, like a horror movie where you’re watching a single, unarmed character walking down a dimly lit hallway. If the listener expects something and wants it to happen, but doesn’t know when it’s going to happen, the listener’s attention becomes more focused on the track. On the other hand, if you delay for too long, then the listener becomes frustrated or bored.

2.2 Transitions
Moving between sections can be tricky. Even if you want a lot of contrast between one section and the next, you often don’t want it to be too sharp or else you risk knocking the listener out of whatever mood was being built. So a transition, usually starting somewhere between half a bar and two bars before the change of section, sets up the change by differing from the section currently playing in a noticeable way. This can be via drum fills or introducing a snippet of melody or sound that stands out but doesn’t jar like a soft white-noise that grows in volume and pitch.
You can also use them to set up expectation. If you have a buildup transition, like a snare roll or some white-noise with a rising pitch, then listeners will expect a high-intensity section to follow. If you cut a bunch of instruments for the last bar of the section, people will expect that the following section will have less intensity. Some genres like melodic trance use buildups to set up the expectation of an anthem and makes the buildups really long to create tension.
You need to remember contrast, however. If your buildup leads all the way up to or above the intensity of the following section, then the fact that the new section is high intensity gets masked and diminished. You can often use this to create tension, but you have to be careful that the listener doesn’t simply get annoyed at the subversion.

Sound Design

Any sound that appears in a piece of music is the result of two main processes: a sound is generated, and then the sound is manipulated. The manipulation is generally the interesting part.1. Generation
For historical reasons, sound generation is usually broken into “waveforms” and “samples”, but this is a mostly meaningless distinction nowadays. A waveform is just a short sample that is repeated fast enough to make a desired tone. What you’re looking at in the end is a sound.

1.1 Basic waveforms
The basic waveforms are sine, saw, square/pulse, triangle and noise. Sine waves are considered “pure tones”, in that they only have content at one frequency, whereas for instance a saw wave at a given pitch has content at the corresponding frequency (the fundamental frequency), but also at twice the fundamental, and at three times the fundamental, and so on. How much relative content at each multiple determines the timbre of the wave, so that a saw wave playing a C sounds different from a square wave playing a C, but is recognizably similar to a saw wave playing a D. Sounds made out of basic waveforms are usually called “synthesized”; this label doesn’t matter at all.

1.2 Layering
Just like a choir has a different sound from a solo singer, you can consider playing multiple sounds at the same time. Maybe you want to play a saw at C and a square at C at the same time, resulting in a sound that is neither a saw nor a square. Or you might play a saw at C and another saw at a pitch that is very slightly off from C, doing what is called “detuning” the saws relative to each other. Since they’re at almost but not quite the same frequency, the two saws interfere in ways that change over time.
Another good example is with kick drums; you can use recorded samples of actual kick drums or you can make them out of basic waveforms (synthesized drums); the best results are usually gotten by layering kick-drum sounds together.

1.3 Note on samples
While I said that waveforms are just samples, sometimes it’s better to grab large samples than to try to get the basic waveforms to do stuff for you. Most acoustic instruments are only vaguely reproducible using basic waveforms, speech and guitar being the supposed hardest. When you need to use samples, remember that you have less control since a sample tends to be a complete sound already shaped and manipulated, so you’ll probably want to grab a good sample rather than try to fix a bad one via envelopes and effects. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to make a good sample better, though, but try to get things as good as you can as early in the chain as possible.

2. Manipulation
If you just take a wave, say a saw wave, and play a single note, it’s boring. What you want to do is add some flavor to your sound.
There are many ways to do this, the main ones being divided into volume control, filtering and “effects”.

2.1 Volume control
If you pluck violin string, you get a sound that starts loud and quickly dies out. But if you use a bow on the same string, you get a sound that starts soft, gets louder, remains loud for a time and then dies out more slowly, depending on how fast you move the bow. For electronic music, this difference is handled by what is called a “volume envelope”. Normally you get four controls: attack, i.e. how long it takes the sound to reach its maximum volume, decay, how long it takes to go from max volume to a more stable volume level called the “sustain”, and then the release, which is how long it takes to completely fade away after the note stops. The pluck has a short attack and a short decay, low sustain and long release, whereas the bow has a long attack and decay, high sustain and long release.

2.2 Filtering
A filter takes a sound and cuts out parts of it based on what frequency those parts are at. A low-pass filter will take a signal and reduce the high-frequency content, i.e. letting only the low stuff pass through, whereas a high-pass filter does the opposite. A bandpass filter cuts out content above a certain frequency and below a different frequency. This is how you turn the boring standard waveforms into more interesting waveforms, since relative frequency content is what determines the flavor of sounds.
Most filters don’t cut off everything outside their pass range, but rather have a roll off, so that frequencies near the pass range are reduced only a little bit, while frequencies farther out are reduced more. Adjusting the rate of roll-off can change the sound character.
One of the most important ideas in early electronic music was the idea that in addition to a volume envelope, you can also have a filter envelope, where here instead of “max volume” and “silence” you have “lets lots of stuff through” and “lets only things in the pass range through”. A pluck will have a short attack and decay, while a bowing sound may have short attack but long decay.

While everything here is a suggestion, the quickest way to make a sound boring is to ignore the envelopes on the volume and filter. A common beginner mistake is to just have everything be 0-attack, long decay, high sustain, long release. This makes the sound flat and dull because nothing happens, but also because all the instruments sound the same. Play with the envelopes and try to make your various instruments sound different. Also, long volume releases eats up room and makes notes overlap; this is good for ambient, but otherwise just makes your tracks washed out and congested.

2.3 Effects
There are lots of different types of effects; I’ll only talk about a few broad types here:

2.3.1 FM/Ring Modulation
FM and Ring modulation both say “take a sound, take another waveform, adjust one sound according to the other”. FM changes the pitch of one waveform according to the other waveform, ring modulation changes the volume of one waveform according to the other waveform. What exactly results is hard to describe, especially if controlling waveform is going through an envelope for instance.

2.3.2 Equalization
Equalization is very similar to filtering, only instead of saying “I want to reduce frequencies outside a given range”, you say “I want to reduce the frequencies inside this range” (cut) and “I want to increase the frequencies inside this range” (boost). You can use it to emphasize the parts of a sound that you like and reduce the parts that you don’t like or don’t care about.

2.3.3 Distortion
Most people associate distortion with guitars, but distortion applied to other things can provide different sounds. Distortion is essentially taking a wave and chopping off everything that passes above a certain height. The overall effect is to add high-frequency content and to level the volume somewhat. The kind of content added depends on the type of sound and how loudly it is being played.

2.3.4 Compression
A compressor takes a sound and says “every time you get louder than this level, I’m pulling the volume down by this amount”. This is different from distortion because distortion chops parts of your wave off, changing the relative frequency content, whereas compression makes it quieter but maintains the relative frequencies and hence the timbre. This changes how the volume changes over time, which you kind of did with the volume envelope but the exact changes made by a compressor are determined by the sound rather than set beforehand.

2.3.5 Gating
Gating is like moving the volume up and down really fast, sometimes in a rhythmic way.

2.3.6 Delay/Reverb
Delay is the echoing effect, repeating a sound over and over and fading in volume. Reverb is like a really fast delay so that it gives the sense of being in a closed room with the sound echoing off the walls; reverb is usually used to give a sense of space or of sounds being far away.

See also: Basslines

Composition

Say you have a melody. Maybe you thought it up in the shower, maybe you stole it from somewhere, maybe you found it in a box in the attic. Perhaps it’s the melody of a song you came up with.
In any case, you have a melody. This is a good start. But you need more than a melody.

In general, you’ll also want the following things, to various extents:

Drumline: To support the track and to give a sense of time
Bassline: To support the melody, or perhaps this is what’s carrying the melody.
Background: To make your track seem more complete, less empty; also adds depth.
Punctuation: Temporally isolated sounds for catching/diverting attention at crucial moments.

1. Drumline
A lot of electronic music is built upon a percussive rhythm, usually consisting of a kick/bass drum, a snare or clap, and some hi-hats or cymbals. Percussion rhythms are usually divided into four-to-the-floor and breakbeat, but you can alternate between the two if you like, and the terminology certainly isn’t so fixed for non-4/4 time signatures.

1.1 Four-to-the-Floor
This is the standard founding rhythm for House, Trance, Techno and most Hardcore. Its defining feature is a kick/bass drum hit every beat, and in general percussive emphasis lands on the beat. Snares commonly, but not always, occur on the 2nd and 4th beat of the bar, and the hi-hats are arranged so that they mainly occupy the space between beats. This rhythm is easy to build upon, but gets boring quickly.
See also: Four to the Floor

1.2 Breakbeats
The various ___step and ___breaks styles use breakbeats, which, unlike four-to-the-floor, does not have a kick/bass drum hit every beat, and the percussive emphasis often lands between beats. This is classically called syncopation. In breakbeats, the snare/clap plays a more prominent role since it often occurs without a simultaneous kick. Breakbeats range from a simple variant on the four-to-the-floor with some of the kicks moved or removed, to very complicated rhythms with many kick and snare hits appearing in a single bar. Breakbeat rhythms often extend beyond a single bar before looping.
It’s less simple to build melodies and basslines upon breakbeats than four-to-the-floor rhythms, but breakbeats tend to go for longer before getting boring.
See also: Breakbeat

1.2.1 Breakcore
At the far end of the breakbeat idea is breakcore, wherein the notion of a repeating rhythm has been discarded altogether and percussive emphasis becomes irregular and unpredictable. While often more attention-grabbing than either simple four-to-the-floor or breakbeat rhythms, breakcore is very difficult to make and very difficult to build upon.

2. Bassline

There are two main ways to use a bassline: as a dominant feature of the track, or as a background support.

2.1 Bass as a Dominant Feature
In certain styles of music, such as electro-house, dubstep, or some kinds of drum and bass, the bassline is the main attraction, so you want to make sure it stands out.
Because of the way that harmonics work, it’s harder to make good-sounding chords with bass notes, and so one usually doesn’t rely on the bassline to carry a complex melodic structure. As a result, composition with regards to the bassline usually focuses on rhythm. But remember that your percussion is also providing a rhythm for the track, so if you don’t want your bassline to get lost in your percussion then you’ll need to create a new rhythm for the bassline. Ideally, your bassline rhythm and your percussive rhythm should complement each other, doing different but related things. Don’t make it too simple or the listener will get bored, but don’t make it so complicated that the relationship is lost.

2.2 Bass as a Supporting Feature
If your bass is not supposed to drag the listener’s attention to itself, then you’ll want to make it quieter and less intrusive. This does not mean that you can be lazy about it; the support of the track is just as important as the hooks and the melodies. If you’re working with a four-to-the-floor percussion rhythm, it’s easy to just put a bass note on the off-beats, so that you alternate kick-bass-kick-bass etc. This is easy but can get boring. Beats can be easily divided into sets of four sixteenth-notes, and each of those provides a place to put a short bass note. Hence you can make interesting bass rhythms while still avoiding the kicks. The bassline will stand out a bit more, but it won’t be dull if the listener’s attention happens to wander across it.

3. Background
Even after making a melody, a drumline and a bassline, your track will probably still sound fairly sparse compared to the music you listen to. This is because you’re missing the background elements, tiny, thin, barely audible sounds that make your track feel fuller and control the overall tone. Background elements can provide room for variation even when the melody, bassline and percussion are locked into a loop.
Things in the background don’t need to have full, developed melodies, nor do they need to be present at all times. Just snippets here and there will be enough to let the listener know that there are things going on and provide an ambiance and atmosphere for the things happening in the foreground.

3.1 Pads
Background pads are often lush and complex, using a lot of LFOs and varying quickly parameters. Usually they vaguely follow the melody but the notes often last half or whole bars, allowing for textural development.
Similarly, you can use sounds with lots of reverb and decay like they were pads, since the echoes draw out the length of the sound.

3.2 Staccato Melodies
Basically the opposite of pads, short rapid notes don’t allow for textural development but do provide more room for secondary and tertiary melodies. Again you don’t want them to wander too far from the main melody or else they’ll stand out too much, but because the notes are short, often sixteenths or even shorter, they fill space without holding the attention.

3.3 Percussive background
In addition to whatever your kick and snare are doing, you could also have a soft shaker or hi-hat rhythm going, again very softly, to fill the space in the percussion just as the pads and staccato melodies fill up the melodic and textural space.

4. Punctuation
So far, everything has been fairly uniform, fairly even in terms of things happening. Your melody is going all the time, your bassline is doing stuff all the time, your drums are doing things all the time, etc. But you don’t want absolutely everything to be uniform, or else your loop will sound flat no matter how cool each piece sounds. You need things to pop out every once in a while. These can be percussive elements that you didn’t use before, like a rimshot on an offbeat, or a trill from an instrument that isn’t used for anything else. You can also use samples, like vocal snippets from movies or speeches, or sounds culled from real life, or short bits from other pieces of music.
Be careful, though; you don’t want to break up any momentum that you have going, so punctuation should be both subtle and regular, say, once every two bars, and only slightly more prominent than your background material. Try to keep the bits short or else they’ll start becoming the focus rather than simple nuances.

5 Quantization and Swing
If you’re creating melodies and rhythms by playing a MIDI keyboard or even plopping down notes in a piano roll, it’s easy to miss your timing. Humans are generally mediocre at keeping steady rhythms without prompts. But we are very good at noticing when you screw up. If your rhythm doesn’t match the beat, the listener will notice and think it sloppy.
The trick here is to quantize; you tell the program to only allow you to put down notes exactly on beat, or on half beats, or quarter beats, or however closely you want to quantize, and whenever you put down a note, either via midi controller or directly into a piano roll, the program will drag each note to the nearest beat/half-beat/etc. This will prevent you from sounding sloppy and lazy.
For genres such as house or breaks, however, you often don’t want your music to sound too mechanical, too precise. The common way around this is to use swing, where the exact placement, volume and accent of your rhythmic elements are varied slightly from uniform. Instead of a hi-hat every sixteenth note, you might make every other hi-hat just a little bit late and a little bit quieter, or you might make your snares just a little bit early or late.
You need to balance the timing so that it doesn’t sound like a metronome, but doesn’t sound like a mess. For swing, the variations should be just barely noticeable, so that the listener can’t say for certain that the timing isn’t exactly on beat. You can do this either by setting the quantization timing to be really precise (maybe 1/32 notes) and then adjusting everything by hand, or you could play it live without quantization, but if you choose the latter, again be careful that your timing isn’t completely all over the place.