What is a Drum Break

What is a Drum Break What is a Drum Break

Drum breaks can be heard in all forms of music. From the early hip-hop pioneers who sampled 70s and 80s funk records to create some of the biggest hits the genre has ever known to the music libraries of corporate sync licensing used to sell clothing and cars, drum breaks have found their way into our lives in more ways that we might recognize.

In this guide, I want to take you through all you need to know about drum breaks, from what they are to how you can sample and creatively use them in your music.

What Are Drum Breaks?

A drum break is a portion of a piece of music where other instruments stop playing and the drums play solo for a period.

Breaks can be long, short, fast, or slow. Some breaks, such as the famous 'Amen Break,' only lasts for around six seconds, yet this four-bar loop has been used in countless tracks since it was first sampled in the 1980s.

The original point of a drum break was to showcase a drummer's skills without any distractions from the other musicians on a record, through it eventually became one of the most important elements in sampled tracks.

The Introduction of Drum Breaks Into the Zeitgeist

The history of the drum break goes way back to early jazz, soul, and funk music during the mid-20th century.

In some of the big jazz bands of the 1920s and 1930s, drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich would perform drum breaks during brief solo sections as a breath of fresh air for the listeners.

By the time funk and soul music appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, drum breaks became a staple of 'band' music. Some of the most famous drummers of the time included Clyde Stubblefield and Zigaboo Modeliste.

By the mid to late 70s, funk music was popularized by James Brown, who many referred to as the "Godfather of Soul."

He often had this unique feel in his songs with a slight swing and an emphasis on the "1."

In fact, Stubblefield's work with James Brown, particularly on tracks like "Funky Drummer," featured drum breaks that would later be among the most sampled in music history.

The above break can be heard on tracks like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

It wasn't until the cultural explosion of hip-hop in the late 1980s that brought a new dimension to the use of drum breaks.

DJs and producers began isolating these breaks from funk and soul records, looping them to create the rhythmic foundation for their recordings.

The break from "Good Times" by Chic helped catalyze the disco to hip-hop transition.

It was famously sampled in The Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper's Delight," which became one of the first mainstream hip-hop tracks, introducing the genre to a global audience.

What Makes Up a Typical Drum Break?

Drum breaks don't follow a one-size-fits-all approach. There are endless patterns, tempos, grooves, and syncopation styles a drummer can use to make a drum break.

However, for the most part, if we listen to some of the most famous examples of drum breaks , we'll hear a few techniques that present themselves often, such as rolls, flams, and ghost notes. There is a sense of freedom and looseness in your average drum break, which defies the sequenced, robotic nature of programmed drums we usually hear in electronic music.

Drum Breaks in Different Genres

We can hear drum breaks across several genres, though the way .in which they're used depends on the genre itself.

Hip-Hop Drum Breaks

In hip-hop, drum breaks are often the foundation upon which everything else in the track is built. DJs and producers have been sampling classic breaks from funk and soul records for years as rhythmic foundations for their tracks.

We can date this practice back to the late 1970s and early 1980s with pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa. These DJs would loop breaks from vinyl records on two turntables. The technique would eventually become a staple of hip-hop.

They would essentially buy two copies of the same record and keep the loop going so breakdancers could show off their moves.

As time went on, producers would find unique ways to move beyond simply looping breaks. They found out that with the controls on their turntable sets or MPCs, they could manipulate their drum samples, adjusting pitch, tempo, and layering effects to create entirely new sounds.

NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" is another prime example of an iconic use a of a drum break from the song "Amen, Brother" by the Winstons. This break eventually became the most sampled break in history.

Others like the "Apache" break from the Incredible Bongo Band became popular in hip-hop history, sampled by everyone from Sugarhill Gang to Nas.

Rock Drum Breaks

In rock music, we often hear drum breaks during pivotal moments of songs to provide a dramatic and dynamic effect. These aren't looped and sampled like we'd hear in hip-hop, but rather played live to showcase the drummer's skills.

That's not to say that these breaks haven't been sampled by hip-hop producers. In fact, Dr. Dre famously sampled "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin in his track, "Lyrical Gangbang." We can hear John Bonham's hard-hitting drum groove from the song making up the bed of the drum break.

Jazz and Funk Drum Breaks

When we refer to a "drum break" in jazz and funk, it's very similar to what you'd expect from rock in that it offers a moment of rhythmic and improvisational freedom.

Some of the most famous jazz drummers, such as Max Roach and Art Blakey, have been sampled over and over. In their record, they'd use breaks to improvise with other musicians.

A Technological Evolution

In the very early days of hip-hop, many producers would either have to record a turntablist juggling the loop between two records to tape or re-record the drum loop in a studio, the latter of which was often outside the budget of most underground artists.

However, by the '80s more affordable pieces of sampling technology started coming around, allowing hip-hop and electronic music producers to lift breaks directly from records to layer them in their mixes. One of the first major samplers came from Akai.

Before the MPC series hit the markets in the 1980s, rackmount units like the S900 and S950 were all the rage. However, it was the MPC60, with its 16 playable pads, that made manipulating breaks so easy.

Across the pond from the States, British and European producers began taking inspiration from old-school hip-hop producers, introducing breaks into emerging genres, including techno, acid house, jungle, drum and bass, and breakbeat hardcore. The rave scene was growing, and producers would create sped up drum beats (often as fast as 150-170 BPM) using a mix of sampled drums and electronic break beats.

Eventually, producers began creating compilation albums with famous sampled breaks and beats, including the Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation, which became widespread in the 90s. By this time, many producers were working with more complex setups, such as Cubase or Pro 24 on a PC with an Amiga 500 or Atari ST attached.

However, the process of sampling breaks was still pretty laborious, as you had to record everything you wanted from the record into a sampler, slice it up into usable pieces, place it on the keyboard, then integrate what you had going on in your sampler to your computer screen. Compared to the capabilities of a modern DAW, this was far more work.

Of course, by the 2000s, technology had evolved so much that it fundamentally changed the way producers could approach sampling a drum break. Software like Pro Tools and Ableton Live made it possible loop, slice, and time-stretch breaks in a matter of seconds.

Modern Drum Break Sampling

While some producers still approach using breaks the old-school way, it's pretty clear that the rise of digital audio workstations (DAWs), sample packs, virtual drum kits, and loops have changed the way that we sample drums.

Instead of having to record, speed up, chop, and manipulate a loop yourself, you can use pre-made kits that are already designed for a specific sound you have in mind. Many producers like to think of this as a form of digital crate digging, and it's hard to argue against it considering how much time it saves.

How to Sample a Drum Break

The process of looping, sampling, chopping, and manipulating a break can change from producer to producer. However, there is a baseline approach that can provide a good jumping-off point.

First, find a drum break or sound that you like. Again, think of this as crate-digging. Listen to some old-school funk and jazz tracks, explore breaks on platforms like Splice or Loopmasters, or record your own drums.

Once you have a break, pull it into your DAW and decide on the number of measures you will use to chop it up. The way in which you chop your break depends on how much control you want. If you have 16-bar break, for example, you could theoretically chop it up into 16 one-bar chops and load each of those one-bar chops onto dedicated pads for playback.

However, you can also go as far as sampling each hit in that 16-bar loop (i.e. kick, snare, hi-hat), and map those individual hits onto your drum machine, whether it's a digital one like the Drum Rack in Ableton or a physical one like the Akai MPC.

From there, you can make further adjustments to the tempo, dynamics, or the overall sound using effects.

How to Use Drum Breaks In Your Music

One of the easiest ways to use a drum break in your track is to simply loop it .

Take a few measures from your isolated drum break and loop it in your DAW. From there, you can add other rhythmic elements, such as percussion, or melodic elements, such as bass, synths, or other musical samples.

Most producers will adjust the tempo of the break they're using to get a different feel.

If you want to make the break more your own, you can chop it up by mapping it to your MIDI keyboard or drum machine.

For example, you might love the sound of the drums on "Funky Drummer" by James Brown, though the pattern doesn't really fit with your track like you envision. To remedy the issue, you can isolate each element of the beat and place them on different pads. This way, you have the authentic tone and timbre of the original drums without the groove.

There are endless third-party plugins available for this technique, including Big Fish Audio's Momentum and Sugarbytes' Looperator.

If you want to get really creative, you can deconstruct the samples altogether and mold them into something completely unrecognizable. By using pitch-shifters, distortion plugins, modulation plugins, or whatever else you can think of, you can twist the sound so much that you wouldn't even be able to suss out where it came from.

While you might think, "cool, I guess that means I can avoid copyright claims," we'd still highly recommend clearing the sample if it's not free for use, both for legal and ethical purposes.

The Beat Goes On

Without the almighty drum break, music as we know it would not exist. The break has been the foundation of many modern genres, and as a producer, understanding how to use them can take your production skills to new heights.

Happy beatmaking!

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