In the 1980s, hip-hop artists such as Kurtis Blow and Biz Markie began stitching together digitally recorded snippets called "breakbeats" for the floors of their dance tracks. It wasn't easy going. Hours were spent lining up the start and end points of looped grooves with pricey hardware and matching notes and tempos of intricate sonic collages.
But lately, computer software has humbled the high priests of digital beats, automating their wizardry--as has already happened with printed invitations, greeting cards and retouched photos. With a $50 program, any young Jimmy Jam can whip together a dance track with cut-copy-and-paste ease, then save it as a basic sound file to be recorded onto a CD. ("CD-burner" drives, once an expensive addition to a computer, are increasingly becoming standard equipment on new machines, and add-on CD burners now cost as little as $200).
The mainstreaming of breakbeat-based musical genres--as in this year's Grammy nomination of bigbeat vizier Fatboy Slim--has at least a half-dozen major music software companies scrambling to invent "beat loop" tools for eager living-room deejays and remixers.
One standout, Sonic Foundry's Acid, has made waves in both the professional and home markets with what is essentially a spreadsheet for sound. It looks like this: From left to right, each line marks a beat or measure. From top to bottom, each row holds a "sample," the basic unit of all loop-based music, so called because a digital recording is made of snapshots, or samples, of a sound wave, typically taken about 20,000 to 40,000 times per second.
Load a bass-guitar sample and paint it along a track. Click "play" and the infallible thump of, say, a Stanley Clarke riff rumbles along, the downbeat smacking every time the cursor scrolls across a new measure. Drums, vocals, bells painted onto separate tracks all fall in line--no matter that they came from different recordings at different speeds and keys. Behind the scenes, the program is reading an "Acidized" version of a common ".wav" sample file, which has markers on each beat and a "root note." Give the program a desired key and speed, measured in beats per minute, and it stretches the samples into submission.
Sonic Foundry also gets points for its brand-name marketing tie-in: It's offering fans the chance to remix loops from Beck's "Mixed Bizness," and the winning entry will wind up as a B-side to the single release of the song.
Though it's speedy and intuitive, Acid still has a contemplative, type-B personality in comparison to rival Mixman, which sports an instant-gratification interface. Load breakbeats, horn stabs, vocal lines or sonic bric-a-brac of indiscriminate speeds into the 16 slots spread around two virtual turntables. Play the sounds with the computer keys or warp them with deejay-style effects at the move of a mouse as the beats stay tight on the one.
While the final mix is less impressive with Mixman than with Acid, the process is more electrifying and the turntable metaphor more apt. (The breakbeat was invented, according to hip-hop authority Vibe magazine, by Bronx turntable artist Kool Herc, who cut back and forth between two copies of the same record to prolong a groove.) Keeping in the spirit of its distant deejay progenitor, Mixman has taken master tapes from recording artists such as Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot and Ice-T and posted the tracks on its Website as downloadable Mixman files, dubbed "D-plates."
Also adhering to the pleasure principle, Music Maker Generation 5 brings together breakbeats, video and a treasure of musical toys into a blue eye-candy box. The looping doesn't work as well as in Acid, its closest interface equivalent, but it picks up the slack with the ability to "paint" in video clips of twirling break dancers alongside the loops of music. Mixman's included drum-machine and bass-synth samples are styled after the early Roland models used by dance-floor pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa, and they give the program an extra touch of street cred.
Even further down the road to recreation is the MTV Music Generator, a similar beast to Generation 5, but made for the Playstation. The Playstation! Never mind that this video and music arranger has nowhere near the power of its computer compatriots, it can actually sample a loop from a music CD and store it in the little memory card that plugs into the Sony console. If you tire of navigating through Music Generator's nested menus to piece together a music video, put a music CD into the console and it will automatically generate a psychedelic video to fit the tempo of the song.
A tour of the breakbeat landscape would be incomplete without the groundbreaking, top-of-the-line sister programs ReCycle and Cubase VST. Say your eclectic tastes include both swing drummer Gene Krupa and the Beastie Boys; import a Krupa drum loop into ReCycle, which will detect every beat Krupa plays and slice the loop accordingly. Then it spits the pieces over into the Cubase arranging program, along with data that tell Cubase where in time Krupa played his snare, toms and cymbals. Repeat with a drum machine loop from "Licensed to Ill" and you have a recipe for mayhem: Krupa soloing on a Beastie Boys drum machine.
The Players (ranked in order of preference):
Most of the makers let you pay more for better performance. But worry not--usually you can upgrade afterward if you buy cheap and later need a boost.
Cubase VST, Win 95-98, Mac, $399; ReCycle, Win 95-98, $199; Steinberg, http://www.steinberg.net
Bottom line: Your sonic dreams become reality.
Acid Music, Win 95-98, $100; Acid Pro, Win 95-98, $399; Sonic Foundry, http://www.sonicfoundry.com
Bottom line: For grooves that are smooth like buttah.
Mixman Studio, Win 95-98, $35; Mixman Studio Mac, Mac, $80; Mixman Studio Pro, Win 95-98, $90; Mixman, http://www.mixman.com
Bottom line: Afraid to bust a needle? Settle in to these digital turntables.
Music Maker Generation 5, Win 95-98, $50; Music Maker Generation 5 Deluxe, Win 95-98, $90; Magix, http://www.magix.com
Bottom line: Breakbeats, video, retro-styled drum machine and synth in a bubble-gum package.
MTV Music Generator, Codemasters; PlayStation, $40, http://www.codemastersusa.com
Bottom line: How the heck did they turn a Playstation into a s-s-s-sampler?