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Hi-hats: How to keep them interesting

Hi-hats… if you’re making music that people groove to then you’re probably using hi-hats. And while they’re never the star they do play a really important supporting role. But, because they’re such a staple it’s easy to throw them in and forget about them. So in this article, we at Producer Confidential want to give hi-hats a bit of love. And look at how you can breathe more life and variation the highest of hats. 

1. The basics

There’s so much we can talk about when it comes to hi-hats. Like literally the sky’s the limit. So I wanted to start off with a simple idea. And to make sure the idea is clear we’re going to use, a four-on-the-floor house beat i.e. this:

If you’re not up on your drum kit notation let me bring you up to speed. The four dots at the bottom are the kicks, the two dots above them are the snares, and the 8 Xs along the top are the closed hi-hats. (In the audio examples I’ll be using I’ve included open hi-hats on the and of every beat. I’ve left the open hats out of this notation so it’s clearer for anyone who doesn’t read music.)

This drum pattern is one of the foundation blocks of house music. And as a result, it’s been used over and over and over again. It isn’t exactly inspiring. So how do we go about spicing it up? 

Don’t worry if dance music isn’t your genre. The ideas in this article can be transferred to other types of music, but I’m using a house pattern as the concepts will be clearer. 

2. Accents

People have been trying to make hats seem more exciting for ages so there are lots of different approaches, but for this article we’re going to focus on accents. Or to put it in the language of the DAW velocity. 

Part of the beauty of electronic music is you can create incredibly pristine and precise sounds without the need for pesky musicians. The disadvantage of that is that everything can sound robotic and samey. So let’s put some humanity back into the machine. 

Traditionally in western music the strong beats, the accents, land on the downbeats i.e. 1, 2 , 3 and 4. In rock for example the loudest kicks will fall on 1 and 3, with the snare on 2 and 4, with the hi-hats supporting these. So for the hats the beats 1, 2, 3 and 4 would be accented. Which looks like this in musical notation and in the midi velocity. 

And sound like this:

The thing about this style of accenting is one: it’s really boring. And two because the kick and snare all land on the downbeats it doesn’t sound any different than if there were no accents. This is the same beat, but without the accents on the hats.

Can you hear a difference? Or more to the point does it even sound interesting in the first place? 

3. Funny accents

So that’s it, right? You’re doomed to be stuck with boringly accented hi-hats forever? Well not really. Accents are one of those fun areas in music –and words– where playing around with them can really perk up people’s ears. As an example try changing the stressed syllable in any word and watch people lose their minds. 

What this means for music, and more specifically our beautiful little hats is that by playing with the accents you can add a bit of flavor to the mix. In the first example, we’re placing an accent on every second hat, but what if we put an accent on every third one.

We’re an accent short at the end of the bar, but you get the idea. This accent pattern is called a tresillo, and it comes from the clave patterns used in Latin American music. But’s it’s used in all kinds of music, including pop songs and folk music.

Here’s what it sounds like with our hi-hats:

Essentially what it’s doing is moving the second accent to an offbeat, in this case 2+. This adds syncopation to the hi-hat rhythm. So instead of everything landing heavy on the main beats of the bar we’re getting this additional hit on an offbeat which adds a bit of spice to the groove.

4. Off the beaten track

Starting your accent patterns on the 1 of the bar is a pretty safe bet, but you can also take the same idea and move the accent half a beat later. Now instead of starting the hat accent on the primary downbeat, the one, you’re starting on the 1+. Which will give your track a different feel. 

In this case the hi-hat accents are falling on 1+, 3 and 4+. Which means that the hat accent on 3 is the only one which supports the primary beat. The other two accents are adding syncopation to the groove. Compare this and the previous example and see how each of them feel. Both add different energy and will be useful for different types of music, or sections of a track. 

5. Primes

Part of the reason these patterns add this kind of energy is that 3 is not divisible by 2. 4/4 music primarily works in patterns that are multiples of 2 so by staying away from those you can keep things fresh. To give you another example, here’s a hi-hat pattern with strong accents five hats apart. 

With this pattern, the strong beat is every fifth hat, with a weaker accent on the third hat. Although you can play around with the velocities of the individual hits. Just know that by using accents that don’t always fall on the strong beats of the bar you’re going to create syncopation and groove. The accent pattern for this example is longer so you’re going to get a different vibe than with accents every third hat. 

6. The bigger picture

So far we’ve only talked about accent patterns within the bar, but the fun doesn’t need to stop at the bar line. Taking both of the examples above, an accent on every third hat, and an accent on every fifth hat. We can extend these patterns over the bar lines. And by doing this we create bigger grove patterns and extending the variation. 

Below is a two-bar loop with an accent on every third hat.

And here is a four bar example using a strong accent every fifth hat. 

In both of these cases the accents on the hats run over multiple bars, with the pattern repeating itself every 3 bars when accents every 3 hats or 5 bars for accents every 5 hats. It’s a musical device called a polymeter, which is beyond the scope of this article but you can find out more about here

What these kinds of patterns can do, musically, is keep the variation moving over multiple bars. And if you plan them correctly you can use them to create anticipation for a change. Or you can do what I did in these examples and break the patterns a bar before they are going to resolve.

7. Limitation

These kinds of patterns are subtle, and if the pattern doesn’t become too complex our brain will do a reasonable job of tracking them at a subconscious level. Which is why I only used accent examples of 3 and 5.  You can use patterns of any length 7, 9, 11, 13,  but unless you only accent the first note of the pattern it’s much more difficult for our brains to keep track of what’s happening. And/or not that interesting to listen to. 

When I made the pattern of 5 above I didn’t use music notation for it as I was using two accents in the pattern. A strong accent on the first beat, and a weaker accent on the third. This is the best way to keep longer patterns interesting, by creating patterns of stronger and weaker accents within a pattern of 7 or 9 for e.g. you can keep the energy moving. Just make sure the strong accent of your pattern is really clear to avoid confusion about where the pattern begins and ends. 

The mixdown

These are just some starting ideas for how you can think about how you can use repeating accent patterns to spice up your hi-hats. You can also combine these different patterns to keep the listener’s ear guessing. Or just add the occasional accented hi-hat to add a bit more syncopation to your grooves. 

The main thing is to use these musically. A tresillo pattern will really drive the music forward, while some of the more syncopated accent patterns can change up the feel of a track if you’re looking to change down the gears or move into a different mood. Stack these hi-hat patterns on top of other elements in your drums and you’ll have grooves that will keep the music fresh every time someone listens. 

Check out the other articles in the Producer Confidential catalog. Or check out the Producer Confidential Production Stacks for some world-class samples that you can get your hi-hats grooveing too. 

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