Drum Breaks: A Guide To Injecting Character into Your Music

Drum Breaks

Whether you are into house or jazz, chances are you’ve heard of the terms drum breaks or breakbeat.

A drum break is a short instrumental (often percussive) section of a song, aimed at building anticipation. It can also function as a separation between parts of the song.

Drum breaks were especially popular in both 70s and 80s soul and funk records. But how do you use them in modern music?

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • What a drum break is
  • The legality of sampling drum breaks
  • The most used drum breaks (you’ve definitely heard ’em)
  • 3 different ways to use them in your tracks

Let’s go! 👇

Spice up your drums with our free Cheat Sheets

Go from boring loops to professional drums with these 10 creative tips. Get inspired with out-of-the-box tactics and practical techniques (applicable in any DAW).

What Is A Drum Break?

A drum break is a section where all instruments besides the drums stop playing. It is sometimes referred to as a breakbeat, or simply break.

Although these terms are used interchangeably, a drum break (or break) refers to the original drum section. On the other hand, a breakbeat is the act of sampling and looping that break.

As the drums take center stage, these short sections became perfect candidates for sampling.

Entire genres thrived on the sampling of such drum breaks!

For example, with the emergence of hip hop, producers started slowing down and looping drum breaks on vinyl so that MCs could rap over them.

In the 90s, early jungle and drum and bass producers started speeding up classic drum breaks. By chopping up and rearranging small sections and hits, they created entirely new patterns. and the foundations of a new music genre.

And now, you can hear drum breaks in many different genres, from pop, to dubstep and more!

But with sampling from other songs comes a legal grey area…

The Legality Of Sampling Drum Breaks

Sampling has become a widespread technique in modern electronic music. Yet, it is worth remembering that you are never allowed to use other people’s music without their given consent.

Despite this, the process of sampling classic drum breaks has become so common that you are unlikely to run into legal trouble by using them.

If you want to avoid any issues, your best bet is to use samples from royalty-free sample packs.

Another way to avoid copyright issues is to process and layer them creatively within your track, as we will explore later in this guide.

For now, let’s see which drum breaks have been sampled the most.

The Most Common Drum Breaks

As you can imagine, thousands of songs exist where drum breaks can be lifted. However, a few stand out and have been used consistently over the years.

Let’s have a look at the most popular ones!

The Amen Break

Considered by many as the godfather of breaks, the Amen break is the most used drum break in history.

Originating from a 1969 track by The Winstons called “Amen, Brother”, this drum solo went on to define entire genres such as hip hop and jungle.

The Amen break has been praised for its versatility. Being just 6 seconds long, it is easily sped up or slowed down to fit a variety of genres while retaining its character.

Some famous examples include “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A and “I Desire” by Salt-N-Pepa.

The sample became so famous that it extended beyond electronic music, with bands such as Oasis, Slipknot, and London Grammar making use of it.

The Think Break

The Think Break is one of my personal favorites and is instantly recognizable with its “eh!” vocal sound.

Pulled from the 1972 track “Think About It” by Lyn Collins, this 2-second drum break became a staple of liquid drum and bass.

When sped up to 174BPM, the pitch of the sample becomes noticeably higher, giving it that unique character. If you need a refresher on the topic, make sure to check out our 9 Time Stretching and Pitch Shifting Tips!

Famous tracks that use the Think break include Netsky’s “I Refuse” and Calibre’s “Mr. Maverick”.

The Hot Pants Break

Although the original track doesn’t feature a drum break, the B-side titled “Hot Pants (Bonus Beats)” seemed destined for sampling. Featuring the solo drum track, this break is famous for its shaker sound and roomy snare hit.

You can hear it on tracks such as “Fools Gold” by The Stone Roses and Madonna’s “Frozen”.

The Apache Break

In 1973, “Apache” by Incredible Bongo Band was released. Although not an initial hit, it went on to be heavily sampled. It features, as its name suggests, an irresistible bongo pattern ready to be lifted.

The track has an 8-second drum intro, as well as a bongo solo at the 2:20 mark – perfect for some organic percussion layers. As the song progresses, the bongo pattern becomes more intense, offering a wealth of sampling possibilities.

Famous track examples using the Apache break include Moby’s “Machete” and LL Cool J’s “You Can’t Dance”.

The Funky Drummer Break

Last but not least, Funky Drummer is a James Brown offering, and one of the funkiest (duh) breaks ever.

Appearing halfway through the monster 9min15s long version of the track, it features an irresistible hats and snare combo.

The natural reverb captured in the recording makes it an ideal candidate to breathe life into your drum arrangement.

Fun fact, the drum break was actually improvised on the spot by the drummer. You can hear even hear James Brown telling him “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got”.

Apparently impressed with the drum break, James Brown decided to name the track after him.

Along with the Amen break, Funky Drummer has become one of the most sampled breaks in history. Famous examples include “Let Me Ride” by Dr. Dre and Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”.

As you can probably tell, half the battle with drum breaks is finding or choosing a good sample. But the other half is how you chop, process, and mangle it to fit your track.

Spice up your drums with our free Cheat Sheets

Go from boring loops to professional drums with these 10 creative tips. Get inspired with out-of-the-box tactics and practical techniques (applicable in any DAW).

3 Creative Ways To Use Drum Breaks

The first question you should ask yourself is what the purpose of a drum break will be in your track.

Will the breakbeat be the foundation of your track? Or simply there to add character and space? This will guide you to the best method to sample and integrate a drum break into your track.

Creating New Patterns with FL Studio’s Slicex

Slicex is a powerful tool that allows you to chop up and manipulate drum breaks endlessly. Let’s explore the basics that Slicex has to offer. In Ableton, you can achieve similar results with the Slice Mode of the Simpler device.

First, load up Slicex into your Channel Rack, and drag the drum break you want to manipulate into Slicex.

chopping a breakbeat
Chopping up a breakbeat in Slicex

Above the waveform, select Medium auto-slicing to isolate each drum hit. Your Piano Roll has now assigned each hit to a note on the keyboard.

You can now easily re-arrange individual hits to create an entirely new pattern!

Let’s go a step further and process individual hits differently within Slicex. You can create up to 8 different articulations with distinct filtering and ADSR envelope settings, and assign each to a separate drum hit.

Let’s listen to the original drum break first, and then the re-arranged version:

Original drum break
Re-arranged and processed breakbeat

The first thing you will notice is that I beefed up the kick pattern.

I also removed a lot of the Sustain from the original break to remove the natural reverb. But if you pay close attention, you’ll hear that I left the second snare hit unprocessed to add some variation.

Articulator 1 is applied by default to all the hits – ADSR envelope is enabled and sustain reduced
Marker #8 corresponds to my second snare hit – I have assigned AMP to Articulator group 2, and left the ADSR envelope unchanged to retain the original reverb

Slicex is one of the most fun ways to manipulate breakbeats and make them your own – so go crazy with it!

Note that you can also work directly with the audio, by chopping up and assigning sections and hits to different Mixer tracks.

Recommended: The Ultimate Guide To Drum Programming

Spice Up Your Drums With Layering

Layering is the act of adding multiple samples or loops over each other. This is often done to fill out the frequency spectrum and add excitement to your arrangement.

As you layer up your breakbeats, it is important to process them individually to make sure frequencies don’t clash together.

For this, EQ is your best friend, but stereo separation and sidechaining can also help avoid a muddy mix. If you need a refresher on stereo imaging or sidechaining, check out this article on the Haas Effect and this article on sidechaining.

Let’s listen to a basic 4/4 drum pattern:

Not a bad loop, but let’s try to add some excitement. I feel like some bongos would fit in nicely, so let’s grab the famous Apache break and layer it in:

Can you feel the groove?

I’ve removed a lot of the sustain of the original Apache break to keep the loop clean. I also removed the low-end so it doesn’t clash with my original kick. I then boosted the frequencies where the bongos are playing.

Finally, let’s add the famous shakers from the Hot Pants break:

So much groove!

Once again, I removed all frequencies below 500 Hz. I’ve also sidechained quite heavily the kick and snare from my initial loop with the Hot Pants break, and added the free Wider plugin to create some width (and check out our Best Free 51 VST Plugins for more free goodness).

One of the key reasons to layer classic drum breaks is for the groove.

Old tunes were never quantized like modern music is today. Thus, individual drum hits will rarely fall precisely on the grid.

This is why layering classic breaks will give your drums a natural and human element.

Create Anticipation with Drum Fills

Lastly, a breakbeat can be the perfect transition between two sections. Used sporadically, it will tell the listener that something is about to change in the song.

Listen to this example to hear how the drop is introduced (at around 1:25):

You can hear how the drum break brings about anticipation for the imminent drop.

Let’s build on the house loop we were working on earlier, and introduce a transition.

For this, a good tip is to make use of filters to introduce the drum break seamlessly.

As the 4-bar section ends, I bring in the faithful Amen break with a low-pass filter and some distortion applied to it to make it crunchier. This signals to my listener that something is about to change in the song.

Of course, you can combine this technique with chopping and re-arranging the loop to make your transition even more exciting!

Spice up your drums with our free Cheat Sheets

Go from boring loops to professional drums with these 10 creative tips. Get inspired with out-of-the-box tactics and practical techniques (applicable in any DAW).

Final Words

Hopefully, you will now have a better sense of some of the most common breakbeats and how to use them. As always, remember that “there are no rules”, so experiment and discover new ways to breathe life into your tracks!

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