Name this drum sound of the late '90s
May 12, 2015 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to identify the drums used on a lot of music of the late '90s. Three songs that have this drum sound are Lullaby by Shawn Mullins, Short Change by E-Z Rollers, and Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3.

I'm sure I've heard similar drum sounds on other music of the same period, but the three songs I listed are the only ones I remember distinctly for that sound.

On the credits for Lullaby, producer Brandon Bush is credited for "Drum Programming [Drum Loop]", which is indicative of the use of a drum machine.

I have considered the possibility that the distinct sound was just a common way to produce drum sections at the time, but that explanation feels like a cop out; I'm pretty sure there's something more going on, even if I can't prove it.

I want to thank anyone giving this a shot in advance.
posted by Megnusin to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you say more about what you hear in common between those three songs? I don't really hear enough of something in common to put a name to it.

Throughout the late 80s and well into the 90s, first in hip-hop and then the rest of pop music, it was very common to use a (sometimes) modified version of the Funky Drummer break... I can almost hear that in "Short Change" but I'm not sure. Lots of other songs were used in this way.
posted by sleevener at 12:58 PM on May 12, 2015

I agree, those three song sound different in the drum area to me.

You may be talking about the Roland 808 sound, which i think the Shawn Mullins track is closest to.
posted by humboldt32 at 1:03 PM on May 12, 2015

I think you're talking about sampled/looped/programmed drums in general, mostly deriving from the use of breakbeats. Breakbeats are sections of old records that were simply drums. Producers would sample the section with just drums, and loop it. Then hip hop dudes figured out around 1989 that they could chop the loop (that is to say, a few seconds of drumming) into the individual drum hits and resequence them to form new patterns. Each chop, or drum hit, could be tweaked all sorts of ways, to produce something that while sounding like real drumming at it's core, has a decidedly machine made feel. This was done in Hip Hop and Dance music for years and years, but when Beck came along with "Loser" and Portishead with "Sour Times" this aesthetic became a trademark of 90s pop music.
posted by tremspeed at 1:15 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Lullaby and Short Change both use pretty straightforward sampled drum loops, but with the speed slowed down a bit, creating a lower pitch and slower rhythm. Woke Up This Morning has a bit more to it, but it sounds like the drum samples used are also slowed down. Sounds like there's also a bit of reverb on the drums on all three songs.
posted by zsazsa at 1:25 PM on May 12, 2015

Response by poster: I can understand if Woke Up This Morning sounds different given the very apparent percussive synth sounds and what sounds like acoustic drum sounds mixed in, but apart from that I don't really understand how you can't tell there's a similarity -- the beats are even of a similar structure, regardless of the sound. I don't think my putting it into words is going to help much if you can't tell by hearing for yourself.

It's not the Funky Drummer break, I find it very unlikely to be a 808 and it's not the Amen Brother break either. It's probably not the same samples that are used across the songs, although some of them may be. What makes them similar is the warm, yet treble sound, the cricket like sound of the hi-hat/percussion in Lullaby. What the drums have in common is similar to what different 808, Linn, or other drum machine beats have in common respectively. A Linn beat doesn't sound like a beat from most other drum machines, not just because the samples are different. This along with the Soul's Core credits are what leads me to think it's a drum machine
posted by Megnusin at 1:31 PM on May 12, 2015

Best answer: points out that Lullaby sampled the instrumental funk track "Midnight Theme" by Manzel, which shows up in a lot of hip-hop and trip hop (including Dilla, De La Soul, Tricky). It's a common enough breakbeat that I had heard of it before this post, but couldn't identify it by ear. The other two tracks you list don't use the same break, though...

Here's the whosampled page if you are interested
posted by homotopy at 1:53 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you are 1) clearly aware of various breaks and 2) their contextual uses, as well as 3) the signature sounds of various drum machines...

I'm kind of baffled about what you're looking for, here.

The structures are similar, as well as the overall -- I guess -- timbre of the parts, but I just hear three kinda-generic downtempo breakbeats (I'm a bit disappointed in the EZ Rollers, as they have no damn excuse for being so lazy). Being kinda-generic downtempo breakbeats, of course they're of a similar structure and sound. That's their whole point, from a production standpoint: Something slightly-gritty-but-non-threatening, and vaguely recognizable, to enliven an arrangement and/or provide a dash of street cred.

I think tremspeed's examples are good, but the whole thing jumped the shark when Eric Clapton used 'em, in my book.
posted by credible hulk at 1:56 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I added my answer before reading zsazsa's answer and unfortunately my time to edit it ran out, but I think that one hit the nail on the head on the most part. I have just briefly tried the method myself and it does sound a lot like that drum sound, though I still think there's something more to it.

Maybe there was a drum machine or another piece of equipment out at the time that combined samples, or loops, with the ability to adjust playback speed?

zsazsa, do you know other examples of a beat that's slowed down like that?

Again, thank you all for the answers.

Edit: Again I'm slow on the keys, thanks for the new replies.
posted by Megnusin at 2:06 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Maybe there was a drum machine or another piece of equipment out at the time that combined samples, or loops, with the ability to adjust playback speed?

You just described a sampler, the Akai MPC being the most common example. Most have a characteristic sound from their respective A/D converters - try a bit reduction plugin if you're using a DAW. You could almost certainly have done this in software even back then as well.

Check out "downtempo" music for plenty more examples.
posted by STFUDonnie at 2:37 PM on May 12, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It was common practice back then to sample at a higher speed and pitch down in the sampler to wring more sample time out of these machines. The interpolation and sample rate adjustments that would allow this to happen definitely had a sound of their own.
posted by tremspeed at 2:52 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

That Alanama 3 song sounds nothing like the other 2, which both have the same basic rhythm as the James Brown Funky Drummer break, possibly that actual break sampled and stretched/slowed down.
posted by w0mbat at 6:35 PM on May 12, 2015

Maybe there was a drum machine or another piece of equipment out at the time that combined samples, or loops, with the ability to adjust playback speed?

Yeah, seconding STFUDonnie & tremspeed re: this is/was likely done with samplers, there were a variety of samplers & sampling keyboards out at the time (in addition to the Akai MPC, a variety of products by Ensoniq, Roland, and E-mu could do this), and all of these products would alter the sampled sound to at least some degree based on their A/D converters and processing algorithms, plus various tweaks could be done during sampling or afterwards.

Computer recording or "digital audio workstations" were also definitely in use in pro recording studios by the early 90's (Pro Tools being the most likely software used), which are of course capable of all sorts of looping and tone shaping and time manipulation.

producer Brandon Bush is credited for "Drum Programming [Drum Loop]", which is indicative of the use of a drum machine.

In context, at the time, this could be equally indicative of Bush programming a sampler, or creating the beat in Pro Tools, or using MIDI sequencing, which would allow you to get a kick drum sound from one drum machine/sampler/synthesizer, the snare sound from another, and a hi-hat sound from yet another. This kind of "high-tech" sampling/looping/computer-based production was definitely more quirky and finicky in the 90's than it is today; giving Bush "programming" credit is basically saying, "This is the guy who figured out how to make the hardware/software do what we wanted it to do" - it doesn't really tell us anything about which hardware/software was used.

What makes them similar is the warm, yet treble sound, the cricket like sound of the hi-hat/percussion in Lullaby.

This sounds to me like you are kind of zeroing in on the dynamic range (or audio) compression that's part of the drum tracks, and maybe especially the snare drum. Where this comes from can be almost impossible to tell - it could have been on the original recording that was sampled, it could be an artifact of the sampling process, it could have been applied afterwards during the mixing. (It also sounds to me like there's a tambourine along with the hi-hat in the "Lullaby" loop, which could account for the "cricket.")

I'll also note that I really really strongly think that not all of the drum sounds are samples (or at least not sampled loops or beats) - the chorus of "Lullaby" very clearly adds another drum part, which sound very much like "real" drums to me, and the drum parts of "Woke Up This Morning" could also equally be a recording of actual acoustic drums, possibly with additional sampled sounds added (especially to the kick (bass) drum sound.)

I have considered the possibility that the distinct sound was just a common way to produce drum sections at the time,

Really, I think this is more true than not - certain sound "styles" will become wildly popular and commonly used for a time, and then fade away and get replaced with a different popular sound. I also think you're sort of underestimating the vast capabilities and possibilities of multitrack recording and recording techniques. You're focusing in on a certain tonal quality, but there are literally thousands of ways to get similar tonal qualities between two different drum parts on two different songs - every element in the signal chain can have an effect; the size of the drum, the type of heads on the drum, how the drum is tuned, the size and acoustics of the room it's recorded in, what microphones are used and where they are placed, the electronic characteristics of the circuitry in the mic preamps (which can be standalone units or part of a audio recording console), the characteristics of the A/D converters or the actual magnetic tape & tape machine (and it's likely at least parts of the songs you're citing were recorded on tape), the compression and tone shaping capabilities of audio consoles and external units during both recording and mixing, the addition of reverb . . . . . and that's before we get to the possibilities offered by sampling and manipulation of samples and even just adding sampled sounds to another track of a multitrack recorder so the final sound you hear is a combination of an acoustic drum and a sample.

I have to say, too, that it's really not clear whether you're looking for a particular drum sound (which is definitely different between the three songs and definitely a combination of various sources, depending on which part of which song you're referring to), or whether you're hoping someone can identify the source of the loops/beats used in the songs (when/if loops are actually used, which they may not be, again depending on the song or which part of which song you're talking about.)
posted by soundguy99 at 9:37 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

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