Finding the Right Tempo

Question received via email about finding the right tempo:

Hi there
I am a song writer who is having trouble with finding the right tempo. Many of my songs are constructed on basslines, drum beats, riffs or vocals and I feel that everything is recorded at it’s most suitable timing. However, something lacks in either the drums or percussion where I begin to feel song’s ‘dragging’ or too quick, and I NEED to know if there’s something I’m overloooking. Is there a certain ‘off beat’ thing for percussion, half time hats, attacks on notes, etc.? Help me if you can please – it’s really frustrating me.
Thanks.

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This email is a follow-up to my post:
“What is the best tempo for a song”

Let’s see if I can answer this coherently at 3am…

Try to follow me here. A good friend of mine is a session Sax player in Los Angeles. He does a lot of sessions at many different project studios, so he has a great bird’s eye view of what’s going on. In the early days of my mixes he encouraged me to think of frequency ranges, whereas I tended to think in terms of counterpoint. He’d say, “you need something in the high frequencies” on this mix, so I’d add a flute….it was thinking in terms of sonorities instead pads and layers. And I’d have to say he was usually (if not always) right. Thankfully I stayed employed, because although he had the ears for these things, he didn’t know how to execute them – which is how music producers stay in business – knowing what to do and when.

This same thinking can apply in terms of rhythm tracks. Tempo is speed – and from your email it sounds like tempo isn’t really your problem, it’s groove. If I was listening to your track I it would be easier to give specific suggestions – but not having that we’ll take the long way around the horn here. So think in terms of the rhythmic layers – you might need a stronger anchor like a kick, or a higher subdivison like a shaker.

SOME REASONS A SONG DOESN’T GROOVE

  1. Do the lyrics really fit the melody well, or are they kind of scrunched in there to make it work.
  2. Are you writing melodies on paper, or doing it by ear? I’ve found that if you rely on the visual of printed music too much, the groove can get lost in the translation. Try to hear it in your head first before you put it down, this will give you a more natural feel. Most of the great classical composers heard the music, then put their ideas to paper – not the other way around. Just my guess, I don’t have a source on that.
  3. Are you sequencing drum tracks? Using samples or live players will give you a better groove if you’re not a percussionist. I’ve sequenced MIDI for over twenty years now and am pretty strong at it, but I always prefer a samples groove of a live player – or better yet use a real human that knows how to play well.

EXAMPLES OF GROOVE PROBLEMS – AND CORRECTIONS
Here are actual examples I’ve encountered just in the last week that had to do with pieces not grooving, and how I fixed them. The specifics of each probably will not apply to you, but will give you an idea how a very small element can be the make or break for a groove. Every song has a groove, doesn’t matter the style. Yes, even orchestral music has a groove. If you haven’t found the groove, you’re not ready to play the song (read “you have no business playing the song!”).

  1. “Once In A While” from Rocky Horror Show – Didn’t have a legit 70’s country groove. Bass rhythm was dotted quarter, eighth to quarter (One-twoAND-three-four) – bass player was rushing the dotted rhythm a bit, once he layed it back the song fell into a nice groove pocket.
  2. Original song by Christian artist – Straight 4 groove with a feel a little like “Venture Highway”. Original guitar track by artist was a little blocky, had session guitarist overdub double time syncopated strumming over the top. Artist had a live recording and wanted me to duplicate guitar parts, but failed to recognize that their live recording and our studio recording were two different tempos (like 110bpm compared to 135bpm). If I had gone ahead and duplicated what their slower tempo had, the artist would have been happy out of the gate, but there would have been no groove at all to the song. Artist is happy and likes new sound. *Note* – Artist set tempos for both renditions, so that’s what I had to work with.
  3. One Day At A Time – song for church service. Southern style country waltz. Singers were singing with a classical waltz style: ONE-two-THREE, or kick-blank-snare…..not cool for a laid back country waltz. Change snare to beat one on every other measure for KICK-blank-blank SNARE-blank-blank, etc. Like the groove in “Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares”. For country waltzes, there’s also a syncopated sixteenth note hit after beat one that gives it a little lift.
  4. Brigadoon – Orchestral Dance – Waltz section. Opposite of country waltz, for this I wanted a Viennese feel – where beat three has a little lag in it. When you hear it, your mind goes “Aha, that’s Strauss!”. Once the musicians understood about delaying beat three in a Viennese style, the song had the “groove”, or to say it was more authentic to the style.
  5. Church choir – a classical church choir singing a gospel song. Was way to square – had them put their music away so they could feel the rhythm. Wasn’t quite like “Sister Act”, but it improved the feel. Musicians that are used to reading music and aren’t seasoned pros, will often get lost in the red tape technicalities of the printed music. Remove that barrier by letting them feel it.
  6. Vocal track – artist was singing to blocky. Used several different visualizations with them. The one that clicked for this artist was to imagine they were soaring above the land, like in a helicopter shooting the opening panorama for a movie. It let them give their mind something to occupy itself so they weren’t as stressed with singing each note technically correct (the recording studio is note a time to practice technique).
  7. Violin recording session – Overdubs for an album project. Player was doing quarter note and eighth note movement of a busy track; they were trying to cover anticipations and suspensions all in their one part rather than let the tapestry of the instruments unfold. I had them switch to whole note movement, so the busy parts moved around them instead. It helped the groove the have those anchoring “pads” in the music, and still created it’s own anticipations, resolutions and suspensions – but at a slower pace that gives the ear more rhythmic dimensions to entertain it.
  8. Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring – Piano student learning to play this song which is in 9/8 time. The playing was mechanical, no flow to the line. Had them accent first group of every three notes (first note of every triplet) and used dynamics for rise and flow of melodic line. Yes, very simple and rudimentary. But giving simple tools like that is much more affective than giving the nebulous instruction of: “Play it with feeling”. After a short time they were getting the music “off the paper” and feeling the movement of the music.
  9. I Will Survive – preparing song for a drag show. Band played song too fast, it was apparent they had not actually ever danced to the song before. This song needs that steady four on the floor club beat that is slightly restrained, feeling like it is held back a bit. Let’s the vocal push against that restraint to create the classic club, or “house” groove.
  10. Plainsong Chant – for church service. Kind of a”Simple Gifts” type melody. My pick for the culprit was the lame piano arrangement, which was blocky in quarter notes. I improvised a drone on eight notes and let the choir take the lead on the melody, so my piano because harmony and rhythm drone. Saved the song.
  11. Cirque Du Soleil – practice piece from Dralion. Very simple sixteenth note rhythm on string synth part – realized I was using the wrong patch and needed a volume pedal for dynamic swells into the downbeat.
  12. Medium tempo acoustic rock song – needed a little pickup and delineation for the chorus which wasn’t present enough in the drum track. Added a sixteenth note shaker. Sometimes a trite thing to do, but worked well in this case.

Simple stuff. A note here or there. The trick, as in most things, is to specifically identify what needs to be changed and know how to change it. What’s the right way to do it? I don’t think there is – or there might be 20 different “right” ways to do it. It comes down to what sounds good to you.

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