Some time around 2013, the sound of 1990s chart house music broke back into the mainstream in a big way. Clanging piano house rhythms and hand claps were heard on tracks racing to the top of the charts, with artists like Disclosure and Clean Bandit appropriating the tropes of hits from 20 years before their release. The crucial addition to these nostalgic pop hits is that allied to piano house riffs and catchy hooks are BIG synth basslines, borrowing from more recent styles like UK garage or minimal techno.
One technique that is of particular note to the Pop Lab is the use of dropped beats in basslines: in other words, leaving a space or rest at the beginning of a musical phrase so there is a musical ‘hole’ instead of notes. This approach is possibly borrowed from the rhythmic devices used in a lot of House and Detroit Techno, where repeated 16th-note syncopation plays a big role in defining the rhythmic tone of the music. Repeated synth stabs mean that there are often gaps or rests falling on the downbeats, and it is this bouncing, sometimes disjointed feel that has fed the basslines of recent chart hits.
Take example A from February 2013 for instance, ‘White Noise’ by Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge:
The bassline begins with a quaver rest, and beat 3 has a semiquaver push (‘push’ being synonymous with syncopation in pop/jazz terminology). The rest of the bar and the first half of bar two are all on-the-beat, and not pushed. The second half of the second bar is however strongly syncopated, with the second and fourth semiquaver of each beat being emphasised. As a whole then the musical phrase is well balanced between funky syncopated material and more solid on-the-beat material. It is crucial to hear that the metric grid of this track is most certainly a 16th note grid: chords, bassline, melody lines all feature semiquaver pushes and align to a semiquaver grid: 1-e-&-a 2-e-&-a etc.
Spool forward a year, and Clean Bandit’s follow-up to their No.1 smash ‘Rather Be’, ‘Real Love’ (feat. Jess Glynne):
The semiquaver grid and pushes remain (in fact, the first 6 notes of the bassline are all a dotted-quaver in length, giving a really strong effect against the 4/4 pulse). This time however, the ‘hole’ at the beginning of the phrase is a full beat’s worth. Progress!
Further toward the present, Disclosure (feat. Gregory Porter)’s ‘Holding On’:
Here, the ‘hole’ at the top of the phrase is a full beat and a half. Beat 4 has a semiquaver push, and the phrase here repeats as a single bar throughout the chorus.
As a whole what is notable about this trend towards leaving gaps at beginning of phrases is that it is often used most effectively at climax points in the songs it features in. Borrowed from longer-form or instrumental house and techno tunes, the bridge or pre-choruses of a lot of modern dance tracks will feature a build-up towards a climax at the beginning of the chorus (often correlating to the ‘drop’ in drum and bass or dubstep). In this kind of section, longer, lighter textures are often employed: long notes, reverbs and delays, higher pitches, less bass. At the change to the chorus (or drop) the abrupt use of dry texture (no reverb/delay, synths with little sustain etc.) coincides with an actual rest in the music in the case of these modern house tracks. When the bass does finally enter – a beat-or-so after we expect it – it’s like a double-whammy of satisfaction, as we get the release from the build-up followed by the dropping of the bass moments afterwards.
So there we have it: sixteenth-note syncopated basslines that feature a hole at the beginning of the phrase, of increasing duration. Roll on 2016 where we might dispense with a few more beats!