Behind The Track: 'Birds' Remix - Creative Percussion

Since releasing my remix of Maddison Wilson's 'Birds' last year, I've often been asked about some of the percussive elements scattered throughout the track. It led me to think about creating a new section on my website where I can dive into some of the mechanics of my music, by sharing some of my process. Hopefully it inspires you on your next project!

Sketching Rhythms

In my last newsletter, I talked about what the song 'Birds' is about and shared my story of how I connected to it whilst building a new sound for it. Perhaps it's all a bit too much, but I think it helped me land on an interesting aesthetic. Here, I will share a little about how I created the drum pattern and rhythm section.

More often than not, rough compositions start in my head and the fastest way for me to record these ideas before I forget them is to vocalise the melody I'm hearing into my phone, stereo recorder, or into the studio microphone if it's set up. I've even heard of people who sing voicemails to themselves! 

I'll continue to hum the chords or harmony layers I'm roughly hearing, and lay down the drum rhythm by beatboxing. I find this approach allows me to establish drum patterns, tempo, and even effects that may characterise the drum mix (such as delay or reverb on a snare) very quickly, without having to see what works from scratch on a MIDI sequencer. It's then simply a case of translating my rough audio recording as a multi-track pattern on my DAW (in this case, Logic). 

Here is an example of beatbox patterns I recorded mid-production, after deciding a straight 4/4 beat wasn't a good fit, followed by a snippet of the final drum arrangement:

(Recorded August 11th, 21st, 21st & 22nd 2014 respectively.) You can hear the first and last idea I explored are very similar - I returned to my first idea, after exploring a couple of other variations. This first idea became the final pattern! (The beat and aesthetic was actually inspired by the sounds on Balam Acab's Wander/Wonder album after a friend of mine recommended it to me - thanks Sheree!) You can hear me trying to (badly) mouth a delay effect on the snare, and sustain some of the kicks on beat 1 of each bar (clearer on the first two patterns), with a slight growl. That is often my vocal interpretation of a deep or sustained kick, perhaps with a sine wave underneath (think 808-esque), or a deep, roomy kick (think dark reverb). Sounds awful on tape, but it's a handy guide.


I likened the process of this remix to a personal journey. I'm always infusing my work with elements of musique concrète - I'm a a big fan of it, especially in contemporary music. So, to represent a journey in a literal way, I toyed with the idea of using sounds of footsteps as the basis of a drum or rhythm track. 

I decided to repurpose some footstep recordings I had recorded for an earlier project. Additionally, whilst walking down Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh in early August, the sound of the dirt and rocks beneath me sounded interesting so I recorded part of my descent on my phone - nothing fancy. 

Using Ableton Live, I listened back to these recordings for any naturally occurring sound which sounded interesting to my ear. The phone recordings sounded as you might expect... pretty average and thin, with a lot of noise and distortion from the breeze. Fortunately, there were a couple of useful and interesting rhythmic parts which I sliced up and warped to fit the tempo. There weren't very many parts used, but when combined to fit a one or two-bar loop, it created a very interesting, rhythmic sound.

Listen to some of the original recordings below (headphones recommended), followed by what some of the samples I used sound like once looped to tempo, processed and arranged. See if you can identify which samples I took!

The second example above features additional sounds added to the processed loop. What you hear in the final track is the combined use of traditional electronic drum sounds, some layering to fatten up kicks and snares, and the usual compression, EQ and level automation tricks of the trade.

I'm a big believer on getting creative and out of the box to make something unique. Infusing elements of sound design in your recordings, no matter how subtle or prominent in the final mix is a great way to make your work interesting and stand out better. Try it!

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