If you have access to a good turntable, stylus, pre-amp and soundcard then I would recommend going out and buying a copy of the original, sadly, I have none of the above so I just bought the Mp3 off of iTunes, which is fine for educational purposes. But it goes without saying that you should always try and sample from lossless audio formats such as WAV and AIFF.
I’ve brought the track in Ableton Live’s arrange view and disabled warping. The break starts at around 1.25, here it is:
There nice clearly defined transients and for a sixties stereo recording, the drums are fairly central, which makes this nice and easy to sample.
Next, enabling warping and setting the algorithm to ‘beats’, I’ve set about locking the main beats – the kicks on beat 1 and snares one beats 2 and 4 (except in the last 2 bars when the second snares fall on four-and). I’m not warping every single transient, as this will sap the groove out of our beat. Later down the line once we layer it with other breaks I might refine the timing a bit.
The original loops sits around the 136 bpm mark, but let’s move our host tempo up to jungle territory of 165 bpm. We can either now keep the loop in audio or transfer it to a sampler.
In audio, two of Ableton’s algorithms will work nicely for us, Beats will preserve the pitch information and Re-Pitch will treat the pitch like vinyl or tape – so if we increase the tempo the pitch will increase and if we slow the tempo down the pitch will drop. Here’s how the two examples sound:
Perhaps a more traditional approach though, would be to add our amen to a sampler. Ctrl + click on the clip and hit Slice to New MIDI Track.
The next pop-up will allow you to choose how the slices are detected, of which you can use musical values (1/4, 1/8, 1/16 etc) or warp markers, but the selection I would opt for is transients. Now our break is added to a Simpler instrument, which is much improved in Live 9.5.
There are some other options available for a closer sound to breakbeat hardcore pioneers. I’ve mentioned in a previous article this Audio Effects Rack by Illum which emulates the much sought-after E-mu SP-1200 sampler. Used extensively by hip hop, house and DnB producers, it has a classic sounding 26 kHz sampling rate and bit depth of 12. You can see a video of it in action here and download the .adg here.
The other big sampler of the era would be early Akais, like the S900, S950 and S2000. There’s a great Akai sampler emulator by the AKAIZER Project, which you can download here. Samplers like the E-mu e6400, which sadly I’m not aware of a software emulation of.
This is where it starts getting fun. Once we have our amen locked to our tempo we can start chopping it up. Let’s look at audio examples first. I’ve started by cutting each bar into a new clip using the (cmd + e) and colouring them all different colours (ctrl + click).
Now I’m going to cut up the main sections even further, rearranging them. As a guide line I’m not going to use a cut smaller than 1/16. In addition I’m going to keep the main kicks and snares on beats 1, 2, and 4 (there will be exceptions) – having this consistency will keep the groove rolling nicely, but don’t feel confined to it; it’s just a suggestion. I’m moving the cuts around using alt + drag.
You can experiment by reverse, adjusting clip volume and transpose (won’t work in Re-Pitch mode) with various slices.
Let’s turn our attention to our Simpler instrument, or other sampler of choice. With each slice loaded onto a new MIDI note we can begin to program our beat up. Using a similar principle to the example above, I’m keep the snares on the main down beats, favouring repetition. I’m introducing small variations each 2nd and 4th bar
When using the Slice to New MIDI Track function, Live replicates the original rhythm as a MIDI string of notes, much like Propellerhead’s ReCycle, which was the best way to translate audio to sampler back in the day.
Processing your Amen
So what do we do with our Amens once we’ve got them arranged? Processing Amens can be good fun, because virtually anything you do to it can sound quite creative. It’s such a thick, compressed break that it’s a joy to EQ.
If you’re unfamiliar with EQ terminology, have a read of this.
To start I’ve tuned my Amen down three semitones – already you can hear it sounds deeper, let’s add Live’s EQ Eight and given it a drastic scooped mids curve, whilst aggressively high and low passing it:
I’ve added free compressor vladg/sound Monolot producing a heavy hitting parallel compression and we’re already getting quite a trashy sound.
Creating an Audio Effect Rack, add three Multiband Dynamics into three separate chains, each with a different band solo’d (low, mid, high) and name the chains accordingly.
Now we can process our Amen by band. Start by soloing the low chain (so we can hear what we’re doing). Add a Utility plug-in and reduce the width to 0%, so everything below 120 Hz will be in mono.
Lastly let’s move to our high band. I’ve loaded iZotope’s Trash 2, using the (not-so-subtle) Subtle Warming preset from the percussion folder, dropping the dry/wet ratio to half way.
After the Audio Effects Rack I’ve added Voxengo’s (free) OldSkoolVerb and Live’s Compressor and Limiter to finish the sound:
Layering Different Sounds
Amen, Brother may be one of the most famous breaks, but it’s certainly not the only one worthy of a mention. The Worm, Think, Do The Do, Funky Drummer, Hot Pants, Impeach The President, Humpty Dump, Apache, Cold Sweat, Soul Pride and Assembly Line are a small section of other breaks that have become part of the lingua franca of jungle music.
Let’s start layering some of these up with our amen, as they all have very different characteristics. I’m not condoning music piracy, but for the purposes of education, most of these can be found online.
Here are some examples of amens layered with other popular breaks. I’ve done very little in the way of chopping these, just occasionally lining up some hits. There’s no processing either, except some mild limiting. Here’s the amen layered with:
Jimmy McGriff – The Worm
Lyn Collins – Think (About It)
James Brown – Soul Pride
Bobby Byrd – Hot Pants (Bonus Beats)
The Vibrettes – Humpty Dump
James Brown – Funky Drummer
The Honey Drippers – Impeach The President
Incredible Bongo Band – Apache
James Brown – Cold Sweat
The Commodores – Assembly Line