7 music production techniques you can learn from Four Tet’s ‘Three’

Learn how to add a bit of Kieran Hebden spice to your rhythm tracks with these tips inspired by Four Tet

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Four Tet performing at Coachella in 2019, photo by Koury Angelo/Rolling Stone/Penske Media via Getty Images

Four Tet performing at Coachella in 2019. Image: Koury Angelo/Rolling Stone/Penske Media via Getty Images

Kieran Hebden has been pushing the boundaries of electronic music production for more than two decades. In that time, he’s developed a unique style of drum production, among other distinct musical traits. Although clearly inspired by the big-room beats of genres like house, breaks and UK garage, his rhythms are less in-your-face and softer, designed to support the track’s main melody rather than carry the whole show on their own.

This is particularly true on Hebden’s latest album as Four Tet, Three. Pared down to the essentials, the record mainly uses dance floor-inspired rhythms to buoy the harmonic content of the songs. Hebden employs some clever production tricks, from judicious sample selection to lo-fi processing to mix down techniques like EQ and volume.

Curious how he does it? Read on.

Here’s a finished beat in the style of Four Tet with added melodic content:

Sound selection

When putting together a Four Tet-style beat, start with a selection of drum sounds that complement the melodic elements of the track — or at least don’t distract from them. Four Tet favours sounds that trend towards the small. Think short kicks, snares, claps and hats without much low-end weight. He also avoids over-used samples from trendy machines like the TR-808 that clutter up big-room tracks. Whether taken from an analogue or digital source, go for something characterful instead of the same old sounds that even your Gran canes.

Feel free to adjust the start point of sounds to change their character and make them more unique. Your kick may not need such a pronounced transient, for example. You can also further fine-tune with parameters like cutoff and resonance in the sample player.

Pitch up drums

If you like the character of a sample but feel like it’s not quite working, instead of throwing it out and wasting hours trawling through sample folders, try pitching the sound up a few semitones. Sometimes just moving it up the piano roll a note or two will be enough fit it into the mix better, as with the clap in this example.

Swing and groove

Although clearly inspired by the rhythms of dance floor bangers, Four Tet has always taken a more organic approach to rhythm programming. One big part of that is swing. You can hear it especially in his UK garage-styled beats like in Daydream Repeat, the chief inspiration for the rhythm in this tutorial.

Swing in DAWs and drum machines, as invented by Roger Linn, nudges drum sounds out of time by a chosen amount. While applying swing to kicks and snares sitting directly on the downbeats won’t have any effect, it will definitely be heard on 16th-note elements like closed hi-hats. There are many ways to apply swing. In Ableton Live, go into the Grooves category and drag and drop an appropriate amount onto the piano roll. Swing 8ths 54 works well in this beat.

For additional variation, try nudging the placement of certain drum sounds forward or back on the timeline. Humans don’t play perfectly, after all. Moving a sound forward is called rushing, while going in the opposite is dragging. Mix them up for an unusual feel. Be careful not to overdo it though (unless you want a specifically wonky J Dilla feel).

Humanisation with automation

Kieran made several experimental albums with legendary jazz drummer Steve Reid. You can’t spend that much time with someone like Reid and not pick up a few things.

Accordingly, Four Tet’s beats tend to move around in subtle ways. To mimic the playing of a human while still keeping an electronic feel, try using automation to lengthen the decay of an open hat in the middle of a bar.

For a more subtle feel, use variation to affect the attack of a sample. This will move the sample playhead start point around, mimicking how a human drummer will hit different places on the drum — and at different velocities — every time.

Layer in texture

Texture is important in Four Tet’s rhythm tracks. You can create textures with processing (as in the next step) or by layering in some rhythmic noise. Anything can work, as long as it adds to the rhythm, such as vinyl crackle as he’s here.

Import a sample, find a section that is rhythmically interesting, and loop it under the beat.

Soft and smudgy processing

A big part of Four Tet’s drums is the processing. Compression is important, of course, as are things like reverb but this is the time to get creative. Break out your lo-fi plugins like XLN Audio’s RC-20, use saturators and mild distortion, and give everything a nice patina of grit.

You can also be more adventurous — try running percussion through heavier effects like ring modulators. Here, the open hat is processed by Kilohearts’ kHs Ring Mod to add an electronic element to the acoustic sound. Chorus and phaser effects further smear it out.

Push the drums back with EQ and volume

Lastly, use EQ and gain to help set the whole rhythm track back in the mix. Cut a lot of the bass and the highs from the sounds to give it a warm (and slightly thin) vibe, reducing presence.

You can also place all of the drum tracks onto a single bus and lower the volume more than you would normally on an electronic track. This may feel counterintuitive if you’ve been making dance music for a while, but Four Te tends to mix his songs like 60s pop records, with the drums taking a backseat to the melodic elements.

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