Drum machines are a type of step sequencer that emulate sounds of a drummer. Some iconic drum machines, like the Roland TR-808, with their signature electronic drum sound, became the foundation of much of hip-hop and modern music production. A sequencer is a piece of hardware or software that can be programmed to make a certain sound at a certain time. With a step sequencer, the instructions happen one “step” at a time. There are a multitude of different sequencers, but some of the most common are step sequencers. They function much like modern score: they read left to right, one block at a time in steps (after this happens, this happens, then this happens, etc). Here are a few different drum machines and step sequencers you can use with learners to explore beatmaking that can be used for various other creative activities.
Groove Pizza is created by NYU Music Ed Labs. It is a mathematical and theoretical approach to the traditional drum machine. Your math and computer science teachers will love it too for its clear cross-curricular connection to fractions and programming. It is a unique drum machine because it is easy to create a really good-sounding beat using shapes and lines instead of only programming in a traditional drum grid (TUBS) sequencer. In my experience with the app, this “pizza grid” facilitates creativity of a good-sounding beat by having the user find interesting combinations of abstract shapes within the pizza. The more interesting the geometry, the more interesting the beat sounds. If a learner is having a difficult time coming up with a rhythm track that they like for a particular project, Groove Pizza is a wonderful place to begin for generating ideas. Some interesting features of this app are that you can play with the number of slices (subdivisions) in the pizza as well as the BPM and amount of swing.
Like Chrome Music Lab’s Song Maker and BeepBox, grooves composed in Groove Pizza can be shared through a link, but this app also easily integrates with Soundtrap. A rhythm track composed in Groove Pizza can be continued in Soundtrap without reformatting. It can also be transferred over to Noteflight and continued in that notation software as well. Currently there are no other platforms where it transfers as seamlessly; however, it can be transferred to pretty much any DAW with a few tweaks. For a DAW like BandLab, you could download as WAV or as MIDI but they would interact differently. If you export from Groove Pizza as WAV it becomes an audio file that cannot be altered once it is imported to a track in your DAW. If your groove is exported as MIDI, it can be imported as a MIDI file in your DAW but will not be transferred to the drum grid. Instead, it will default to a grand piano sound as a traditional MIDI file and interpreted as pitch (not that that would be considered a bad thing) instead of going to the TUBS grid. To get the sound you are looking for in BandLab, click the piano icon to the left of the track (virtual instrument will pop up) and select a drum pad instrument from the drop down menu and select the type of kit you would like to use. At this point, you can alter it like a regular MIDI file: by selecting the ‘MIDI Editor’ and altering pitches in the piano roll.
In a notation software other than Noteflight, the MIDI file defaults to grand piano much like in a DAW but changing the sound in a notation software after they have been assigned is much more of a challenge than it is in a DAW. To get close to what was intended, you would have to import as MIDI, then highlight, copy (with Ctrl+C), open up a new document and assign drum set to it and then paste (with Ctrl+V) to paste it in. It won’t be perfect, but at least it will be the instrument you were looking for.
- Create a rhythm track for your young learners to chant to while they pat to the beat. Or, have learners help create a rhythm track they can use for other projects.
- Could be used as a fun metronome for traditional ensembles. Collaborate with learners to help create a rhythm track that might fit with the repertoire they are working on to make it stylistically appropriate.
Drumbit.app is a versatile, free, web-based drum sequencer. There are lots of pre-set rhythm (beat) patterns to choose from and many different effects too. It allows the user to program four separate four-beat patterns to complete a phrase. The swing and BPM can be adjusted overall, as well as the pitch and volume for each track. This means each instrument track can be customized to find that perfect sound. ‘Keys Mode’ allows the user to manipulate the machine’s rhythm blocks with their computer’s QWERTY keyboard. Projects can be saved in JSON format; a web file that can be downloaded to a hard drive and then uploaded to ‘load’ the new project. Drumbit currently does not have the ability to export files to a more widely recognizable file-type, but it isn’t needed because any composition can be saved as a drumbit project file and loaded to the drum machine whenever needed. Although using a Virtual Audio Router like VoiceMeeter or the WASABI loopback drivers in Audacity, or Chrome Audio Capture you can record system audio to transfer to a DAW.
Amazingly, the paid version is only $1.99 CAD in the Chrome Web Store and saves as a web app within Google Chrome; meaning it will work with Chromebooks. And for that cheap price you get many more convenient features that include: velocity variance of each block, the ability to save up to four separate phrases (banks) of beats (A, B, C, D), more effects, more kits, and more pre-set patterns, as well as the ability to customize each kit sound with the built-in samples but can also be used to upload “user samples” to play with. This means the user can upload sounds they recorded or sample packs they might have found online. Just select the folder on the device that contains the sample to add it to the sequencer and it will appear as a custom kit and be given a place on your sequencer screen.
- Create a rap with your learners and use drumbit to find a “beat” for a backing track. Have them choose between the pre-sets and effects or compose one together.
- Could be used as a fun metronome.
- Have learners create a drum pattern to accompany their long tone exercises or to accompany their scale patterns.
- Have learners compose a piece or lift a piece of music and compose a drum pattern to go along with it in addition to their skills homework.
- Compose a beat together to help your choir groove on your pop arrangements.
- Use Audacity or a virtual audio router to record system sound so you can record a topline over it.
This cool drum machine site became a thing in late 2020. As the description suggests, it is a digital musical instrument emulating the sound of the original TR-808 drum machine and the TB-303 bass synthesizer. They are automatically synchronized for you on the site. As mentioned earlier, the ROLAND TR-808 and its iconic drum machine sound that became very popular in the early hip-hop scenes and is still widely in use today in the backing track for lots of songs. This site gives the user the ability to compose a piece of music for a track in real time using these two popular step sequencers. At this time, it only gives the user two minutes to record a song but allows the user to download as a MP4 file to the hard drive, but also the ability to share directly to social media once complete. These step sequencers have features that let the composer/producer create a great-sounding track easily.
- Use 808303.studio to compose a semi-improvised two-minute piece of music.
- Check the video of “A Guy Called Gerald” within the site and take his advice for composing a track beginning with few sounds and building to the middle and then “working it down” to the end.
- Record a beat to accompany a cypher.
- For a notation exercise, create a bass line in the TB-303 emulator and write it out in the notation you choose using the hints from the sequencer’s screen.
- Use Chrome Audio Capture or Audacity’s loopback feature to record system sound or tab sound to create a longer composition that’s in an audio format that can be imported to any DAW. To capture both the microphone and the system audio at the same time, you must use a virtual audio device called VoiceMeeter (PC) or LoopBack (Mac) or partner it with Audacity.
- If your device uses the cloud for storage only, record tab audio audio using Loom, Screencastify, or Chrome Audio Capture.
Step sequencers like these can be very useful for musical creativity and adding a flair of creative technology into your teaching. There are many more that these available, but these are the ones that I have found the most useful and versatile. As well, there are many more ways to use these drum machines with your learners to let their creativity flourish. What awesome drum machines have you found? How have you used them in your classroom? Tell me about them.