The Most Significant Beat

A comparative study of changes in bass drum sounds from 70s disco to electronic dance music of the 1980s and 1990s.

Written by: Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, Ph.D.-student at the Department of Musicology, University of Oslo.

This service is offered by the Department of Musicology. The music is reproduced with acceptance from TONO. Unauthorized linking, transference or copying is prohibited. 


This Paper was presented at the Art of Record Production conference at the University of Edinburgh, September 8th -10th 2006

In preparation for this paper I have had discussions with two drummers that are students at the Department of Musicology, University of Oslo; Kristoffer Carlsen and Kristoffer Bjerke, I have also had fruitful guidance from my supervisor Anne Danielsen. 

Movie- and sound-examples in this paper depend on QuickTime Player being installed on your computer. This program can be downloaded from the following page:

The title for this paper; The Most Significant Beat, refers to the beat fulfilled as a bass drum sound. The material in focus contains the so-called four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern, where I believe the bass drum is functionally crucial in initiating kinetic patterns amongst its receivers. 

The title also refers to the digital binary domain where these sounds may be programmed or triggered as samples or electronic sounds. The Most Significant Bit in the MIDI-system is as some of you may know the first digit in a series of 8 zeros and ones indicating if the byte is a system message or a data message.



This paper presents a rather individual approach. A theoretical framework in relation to the questions I address is not fully expounded. I've been inspired by research contributed by Lacasse, Théberge, Fales, Zak, Hawkins, Moore and also literature by professionals in the field like Moylan, Massey, Brice and Owsinski.    


In rock music the sound of the snare drum is often considered significant as an identifier of style, and the driving force of the back beat snare drum pattern constitute the very essence of the rhythmic foundation. In dance music the contribution of the snare drum is less important. The back beat pattern is often present, but usually rather low in the mix. The bass drum, on the other hand, is elevated and emphasized and has seized the role in constituting the foundation. But is the sound of the bass drum significant? 

In this paper this issue is questioned in regard to the historical development and the relations to music equipment and production techniques. The following two questions will be in focus:


1. Will the transference of a rhythmic pattern from one time period to another entail transference of ideals regarding the sound?

2. How do various ways of attaining the sound influence the result?


To address these questions three examples of the bass drum sound from three different decades will be displayed:

1) Donna Summer: Love to Love You Baby (1975).

2) Steve "Silk" Hurley: Jack Your Body (1985).

3) Basement Jaxx: Samba Magic  (1995).


These three examples represent three different ways of attaining the bass drum sound: 

1. The recording of an acoustic bass drum.

2. The drum-machine.

3. A sampler triggered from a computer-based MIDI-sequencer. 

All three examples represent the same bass drum pattern; the "four-to-the-floor".


I will start with a short general introduction to the methods of attaining the sound before presenting the examples:

1) Recording an acoustic bass drum:

This is a process where numerous factors influence the sound:

     The material of the drum.

o      Wood or synthetic material?

o      If wood, what kind of wood? (Maple, birch, mahogany, beech.)

     The thickness or how many layers?

     The size of the drum? (18, 20, 22 inches.)

     The depth of the drum? (14, 16 18 inches.)

     The drumhead or the batter:

o      What kind of material?

o      Double or single?

o      Heads with oil?

o      Does the front head have a mic hole, is it complete, or is it removed?

     How are the drumheads tuned?

     The tension of the head?

     What material is the head of the pedal?

o      Compact felt, wood, glass fibres.


o      What type?

o      The placement of the microphone or microphones?

o      Is there leakage from other drums?

o      Phase problems?

     Studio equipment:

o      The path of the signal?

o      Pre-amps?

o      Compressors, limiters, gates?

o      Equalizers?

o      Level?

o      Panning?

o      Analogue tape-compression?

     The acoustics.

o      An insulated drum room or an open space?

     Are the drums padded, taped?

o      Is there anything inside the drum to muffle the sound?

o      Is there a coin where the pedal hits the drumhead?

    How is the drum played?

o      Is the pedal released or kept at the head?

o      Is there a click track?

o      Are the drums recorded separately?

So there are numerous essential choices and different ways of attaining the goal in recording a bass drum, and the sound may vary tremendously according to the choices made. 


The example representing this method is from 1975, recorded in Musicland studio in Munich. I have chosen Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte since it is an early example of a very definite and up front implementation of the four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern.

Excerpt from Donna Summer's Love to Love You Baby.

The drums were played by the British session drummer Keith Forsey, and Peter Shapiro, the writer of Turn the Beat Around - The Secret History of Disco, points to his capability of playing steady as a drum machine as one of the essential factors of the Eurodisco style. (Shapiro 2005:93) His very dry drum sound is probably important for what the producers could do with the sound.

In Tim Lawrence's Love Saves the Day - a history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979 Giorgio Moroder explain what was done with the bass drum sound:

"…the four-to-the-floor beat of the bass drum was elevated to the centre of the mix (…) I just felt the bass drum was so important", says Moroder "The thought was, ‘Why not help the dancers to dance even better by making the drum into more of a stomping sound?" (Lawrence 2003:176)


Forsey was assisted by a Side Man, the very first commercial electronic drum machine, produced as early as 1959. The sound of the Side Man could not be used but Moroder found it helpful in the editing of the song (ibid:173). I have used a Beat Detector[1] to see if the tempo varies and there are deviations but not severe and the average tempo setting is pretty much the same throughout the song (96 Bpm). When the producer chose to use a drum machine as a guide it seems reasonable to believe that there was an ideal of playing steady, comparatively like the machine.[2]  

Concerning the use of the four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern Moroder was probably inspired by another Munich-based production-team: Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay. (ibid:174) According to Ed Hogan in his review of the track SaveMe by Silver Convention at the production team had been visiting dance clubs in Munich to see and hear what functioned on the dance floor. The four-to-the-floor bass drum pattern is clearly evident, especially in the first 8 bars of this track produced a few months earlier than the Donna Summer-hit.[3] Keith Forsey played the drums also on this track.

Excerpt from Silver Convention's Save Me.


2) The use of a drum machine.

Paul Théberge writes the following passage on the use of drum machines in contrast with traditional instruments:


"The drum machine, (...) bears no resemblance to traditional drums and drumming practice. The instrument has no direct, physical sound-producing mechanism; (...). It can be played, or programmed, with a series of buttons on its front panel, a keyboard, or a computer, and requires none of the physical coordination and discipline of a drummer." (Théberge 1997:3f)


How drum machines are programmed and not played like a traditional instrument influences primarily the arrangement. The rhythmic patterns do not have to coincide with what is actually possible for a drummer with an acoustic drum set. In addition the actual sound depends on the process of realization.

Roland had produced preset drum machines since 1972 (TR 33, TR 55). In 1978 came their first programmable drum machine – the CR-78. But their most famous are the analogue drum machines from the early 1980s, and specially the TR-808 and TR-909. The sounds are made with subtractive synthesis with sound generators, filters and envelopes. On the TR-808 there are three knobs tied to the bass drum sound; Level, Tone and Decay. From Michael Fischer of Technopolis I have downloaded 25 different bass drum sounds taken from the 808 with different Tone and Decay-settings starting with both knobs all the way to the left. On the QuickTime-movie below you can observe how the sounds change according to the Tone- and Decay-settings. Hear how the sounds, when the Decay-knob is turned towards the right, have a short falling tonal movement, and how short the sounds are when the decay-setting is at the very left.

Bass drum sounds from Roland TR-808.

I see these differences as nuances to the same sound more than separate sounds. The possibilities to combine the bass drum sound with other sounds will increase the variety, but compared to the recording of an acoustic bass drum the choices are rather limited.


Comparing the drum machine with acoustic drums there is a striking difference.  

Acoustic drums vs. TR-808.


Most musicians accustomed to acoustic sounds were not very found of the artificial synthetic sounds of these machines. But in the clubs of New York and Chicago they were used to hearing electronic sounds both through listening and dancing to European synth-pop, Kraftwerk, and Italo-disco and also through the use of drum machines by deejays. They knew these sounds functioned on the dance floor. 

One stylistic feature of the new dance music of the 1980s like Chicago house and New York Garage was the dense rhythmic programming and I believe one contributing cause was the sounds of the drum machines being short, dry and definite in frequency range. Using a sonogram to analyze the frequency-spectre of the sounds I have observed how most drum sounds from the 808 occupy little space both vertically and horizontally – both in the frequency and the time domain. In a comparison between the acoustic drums and the 808 you may see the difference. (I consistently use logarithmic frequency ranges to enhance the focus of the areas in question.)


Acoustic drums:



Roland TR-808:



These sonograms use a logarithmic frequency range.


The early tracks of Chicago house around 1983/84 was made with drum machines, synthesizers and tape recorders without the facilities of a recording studio. Inspired by these accessible production techniques Steve "Silk" Hurley produced Jack Your Body, released in 1985 by D.J. International Records in Chicago. It was the first house track to reach a number one spot on the UK Top 40 in January 1987. Hurley probably used a Roland TR-707, a drum machine with all sampled sounds that resembles the sounds of the 808 and 909.   


2 excerpts from Steve "Silk" Hurley's Jack Your Body.

In the first excerpt it seems he is combining the bass drum sound with a snare drum sound.  In the second excerpt it is used separately.


The bass drum sound from the first excerpt.


The bass drum sound from the second excerpt.

3) A sampler triggered from a computer-based MIDI-sequencer.

The differences of using a MIDI-sequencer-triggered sampler or implementing the sounds directly in an audio/MIDI-sequencer is an interesting theme, but regarding the bass drum sound, there are not many differences. Both methods have the same possibilities of using either sample-CDs, finding material from old records or CDs, or recording your own sounds. There are few limitations and the accessibility facilitates the process of finding a suitable sound. The computer-based sequencer allows limitless possibilities in micro-rhythmic experimentation.

The use of sampled drum sounds came to the public with the LinnDrum in 1983. With the introduction of the MIDI-sequencer and the computer-based sequencer-program the Akai samplers became standard studio equipment.

The example I have chosen to exemplify this method is an early track of the production team Basement Jaxx (Simon Ratcliff and Felix Buxton); Samba Magic, released in 1995 on their own label Atlantic Jaxx.

In an interview with DJ Times in relation to the release of the album Remedy in 1999 they outlined the equipment of their studio. (Moayeri 1999) The core of this studio is an Atari computer with a Cubase sequencer program and several Akai samplers. I have not managed to find out what kind of Atari they have been using, the last computer they produced was the Atari Falcon, released in 1992 equipped with a DSP, and Steinberg's Cubase Audio was one of the first MIDI-sequencers to implement audio possibilities. The Atari computers have been preferred for their accurate timing but since Atari went bankrupt in 1993 most users have shifted either to Windows or Apple Macintosh computers.

I have not tried to find out where or how the bass drum sound originates, I see this as an impossible task without access to such information directly from the producers. 


Excerpt from Basement Jaxx's Samba Magic.

A comparative study of three bass drum sounds

In the comparative study of these three bass drum sounds I have tried to make choices in relevance to the questions in focus. 

1. Will the transference of a rhythmic pattern from one time period to another entail transference of ideals regarding the sound?

2. How do various ways of attaining the sound influence the result?

These questions call for some sort of tangible information capable of being put side by side. Since the material is dance music it necessitates a thorough study of features related to the functionality in a dance music orientation; how the bass drum relates to the ambition of making people move. I believe the following features are essential:

1. The offset point or attack.

2. The frequency content, in particular its density at the attack point (or area).

3. The placement in the mix.

I use several computer programs to assist a thorough listening in this research, principally to study visually the features I detect when listening.


To compare the three sounds as an integrated part of the mix I have chosen to withdraw an excerpt from each track. The excerpts from Love to Love You Baby and Jack Your Body consist of one bar that is repeated once while the Samba Magic-excerpt consists of two bars. The sonograms only displays the first bar once.




3 excerpts.


Before focusing on the bass drum there are some other interesting observations concerning the overall sound. The tempo increases from 96 bpm, to 122, and 130 in the track from 1995. This is coherent with the steady increase in the average tempo of dance music since the early 1970s.

The volume or the amount of energy also increases.

Compression[5] was done also in the 1970s but as also seen visually on the waveform and the sonogram the Samba Magic-excerpt is much more compressed. The digital format has created a new standard for compression. At all levels are the sounds compressed; during recording, in the mixing process, separately, in groups and/or at the whole mix and again in the mastering process. Not only to level out the volumes, but also to shape the sounds in essential ways by using unique compressors and specific settings (attack/release). Algorithms of digital plug-ins are written to copy the way the old Pultec, JoeMeek or Universal Audio-compressors shaped the sounds.

An FFT-analysis of the average sound level displays a striking difference, especially in the bass area.

FFT-analysis, average level from 20Hz to 1200Hz (Elemental audio, InspectorXL)

A Peak-reading also demonstrates that the Samba Magic-excerpt has more energy, but the difference is not that obvious.


FFT-analysis, peak level from 15Hz to 2000Hz(Elemental audio, InspectorXL)

The Samba Magic-excerpt has more energy below 60 Hz. This may be a result of the increased quality of sound systems. (Too much energy below 60Hz might have damaged speakers in 1975.)

These very low frequencies might also be important for how we move. Very loud bass sounds can be felt resonating in the large stomach area of our body, possibly making us automatically move downwards, as if one is hit by a fist.

Another interesting observation regarding the mix is how the Samba Magic-track is focused towards the centre.

These snapshots from the Stereo Analyzer (Elemental Audio: Inspector XL) are taken exactly at the downbeat and the contrast is quite evident.

But why is the track from 1995 not utilizing more of the stereo spectre?

Samba Magic is produced as dance music. And if you spread the sound too much it might cause problems at the dance floor. If you are too far away from the left speaker you might miss out on an important rhythmic theme. And the sound pressure from the bass drum must be the same wherever you are on the dance floor, so it must be in the centre. The two other tracks are also dance music, but I believe the awareness of this matter has been augmented through the last decade through the huge amount of dance music production and maybe also through the enhanced control of the digitalized sound. Other media like radio was probably also more of an issue concerning these earlier productions.



Focusing on the area below 500Hz the bass drum is clearly seen in the upper most image, a bit more indistinct in the middle one and rather blurred in the lower one. The energy seems rather similar, but the striking difference is the presence of other sounds in the same frequency area. The acoustic bass drum of Love to Love You operating almost isolated occupies more space in the mix both vertically and horizontally considering the lower tempo of this track. The natural reverb of the bass drum has become easier to control within the digital domain, thus allowing more sounds simultaneously in the same frequency range.




3 short excerpts where the bass drum is quite dominate.

The bass drum of Love to Love You Baby is played in combination with a hi-hat.




The bass drum of Love to Love You Baby.

Since the other hi-hats are quite evident on the sonogram I estimate that the area above 3kHz belongs to the hi-hat-sound. The bass drum is rather dry and short. Visually a reverb tail may be seen lasting approximately 400 milliseconds, but this is not very evident when listening. The ideal of the 1970s was a very muffled sound using small, insulated drum rooms and taping down everything. Several productions from this time period have been criticized for being too dry and dull but for the purpose of dance music it might have been a good choice. If the sound had been more boomy it would have been difficult to lift it up as much as it is done in this track. 

If we zoom in on the attack and the period before the reverb tail the way the energy progresses may be seen more evidently. 




The sound stretches out for about 40 ms with no definite peak, and it is rather full for about 100 ms. At the start of the attack the energy is strongest at around 200 Hz while this falls slightly to between 50 and 100. The sound is pretty much the same throughout the track, the level changes slightly but one doesn't really know if this is Keith Forsey playing irregularly or if the producers are moving the sliders.

The bass drum of Jack Your Body has a bit more mid tone since it is combined with a low leveled snare drum. 





The bass drum of Jack Your Body.


As seen visually the snare drum sound is very short just accentuating the attack. But it is present also in the reverb and one may visually see both the amount of pre-delay and the low-pass filtering of the reverb. One can vaguely hear the tonal movement downwards, heard also on the 808 bass drum sounds, but it is not very apparent. The sound has a short tail of reverb that sounds like its being gated and the mid-tone sound from the snare drum is especially noticeable in the reverb tail.




The reverb makes this sound a bit more wet than the last example but it still is definite with a profound attack. The use of reverb must be seen as an influence of the time period. The release of the Lexicon digital reverb in 1979 influenced the next decade to the effect that the sound became almost flooded in reverb, everything from the drums to the vocals. Since this production is mostly done outside a professional studio we might assume that a less expensive product like the Alesis MIDIverb (1985) was being used. 

The bass drum of Samba Magic is played in combination with a hi-hat and a handclap on beat 2 and 4 in the excerpt above.



The bass drum of Samba Magic.


It has a more definite attack. It is very dry and slightly shorter than the others, and it has a more definite tonal movement going downwards, encapsulated by the white circle in the image above, like a musical description of something being struck with a movement downwards. It resembles the Mickey Mousing-effect in film music where a musical gesture equates a physical movement. The bass drum goes "bioom", with the tonal movement as a micro-rhythmic ghost note to the actual kick, hitting the beat. A gestural representation would be very much like an arm movement striking downwards as seen in this music video clip from a Basement Jaxx-remix of Missy Eliot's 4 My People (2001).

Zooming in the attack of this sound is quite evident.




Packed in a rather short frequency range. This enables the bass drum sound to be present in the overall mix in a very definite way. The tonal movement may also be seen visually.

When the build up of the track is done and the other instruments blend in the tonal movement can not be heard and it seems like the level is turned slightly down, but the presence of the sound is still unmistakable. This might be an effect of the compressors that pushes the level down on some of the frequencies occupied by the bass drum leaving only the attack area unaffected. The bass drum is probably the same with the same tonal movement and the same level but it appears different when the musical setting differs. If played loud this bass drum is felt as much as it is heard.




Comparing these sounds it is visually evident that the Samba Magic-sound is more packed close to the attack. All the sounds have a sort of tonal movement though more evident in the Samba Magic-sound. The energy is fairly similar though the example from 1995 has the capability to maintain this capacity in a more dense mix.


The three bass drum sounds.

The three sounds are unquestionably different sounds, made with three quite different methods of attaining the sound and with 10 years in between them.

But do they have something in common? If one compare these sounds with a thinner bass drum sound with a more obvious tonal movement as typical in trance:




Excerpt from Astral Projection's Dancing Galaxy (1997)


or a fuller and heavier bass drum sound from a hip hop production:




Excerpt from Mos Def's Umi Says (1999)


I believe one would see more similarities between the examples that I have played. 






They are all rather short, packed in a low frequency range and the attack is quite distinct.

How the sounds are moulded in the mixing process might be just as important as how the sounds originally were. As long as the vital frequencies are present at the right place it can be shaped with equalizers and compressors to fulfil the purpose. The ideals of compression have changed and the importance of placing the bass drum sound in the centre has been intensified. But the vital act of bringing the bass drum sound up in the mix has been an ideal through the three examples.

So in what way is the sound relevant to the grooviness of a track? I believe it is an important aspect in the implementation of the rhythmic themes to consider the sound as well as other aspects of the gestural process. If a dance track functions or not might just be determined by the bass drum sound; if it doesn't literally make you move, you might not be moved by the music. 

Changes in the frequency area below 60Hz are important in connection with movement. To give the live drummer a chance to produce a bass drum sound with a low frequency boost Yamaha has newly produced a sub kick. The drum sound is recorded by a membrane with a size of a bass speaker producing low frequency waves. Just as the jungle drum set Yamaha produced a few years ago, it is a fascinating observation of the effect that the technical and genre-related advancement in the computer based domain has on the production of acoustic drums.


Bidder, Sean. 2001. Pump Up the Volume. Channel 4 Books.

Brewster, Bill and Broughton, Frank. 1999. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. The history of the disc jockey. London, Headline Book Publishing.

Lawrence, Tim. 2003. Love Saves the Day. A history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979. Duke University Press.

Moayeri, Lily. 1999. Red Alert! Basement Jaxx's Simon Ratcliff and Felix Burton Tell the Story of Making Remedy, 1999's Best Club Album. In DJ Times Magazine Vol. 12 Nr. 10.

Shapiro, Peter. 2005. The Secret History of Disco: Turn the Beat Around. Faber and Faber.

Théberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine. Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan University Press.



[1] The Beat Detection Engine in the sequencer program Digital Performer analyzes the amplitude structures of the sound file and marks all attacks. With this tool one can separate all sounds that are not played simul­taneously. This feature is mainly used in the editing of recorded music to move sounds that are played too early or too far behind, but it can also be a helpful tool in analyzing; auditioning sounds and finding tempos.


[2]More on the aspect of automating the beat: Shapiro 2005:81-88.


[3]It is not my intention in this paper to trail the roots of the four-to-the-floor rhythm pattern. This will to some extent be done as part of my Ph.D.-project.


[4]Théberge uses the expression "democratization" to describe this incidence with a reference to a quotation from Bob Moog from Keyboard II, 1985 (Théberge 1997:72f).

[5] Compression is a sound processing utility that reduces the sound level by a certain amount (according to a rate) whenever the volume exceeds a set threshold (in dB).