What Makes a Great K-Pop Beat?
What makes a good K-pop song? In most fans’ cases, it helps if the track was recorded by an act you are enamored with (it’s certainly the only way I can justify the vast stash of Rainbow songs on my hard drive).
But if you put aside personal preference for a moment and, to coin a phrase, listen without prejudice, you could probably come up with a list of songs that you like for purely audio-related reasons.
So what draws us to a K-pop song? What makes certain songs stand out? How do you go about identifying a “good” song? Join us now as we attempt to answer all those questions and then some. Yes, it’s time for Soompi’s epic three-part guide to appreciating the audio side of K-pop.
Let’s begin with the basics, the real nuts and bolts. And for many, it’s the best bit of all: the beat.
The first thing to consider when we talk about a song’s beat is that the word “beat” means completely different things to different people.
For hip-hop heads, an entire song (minus the vocals), can often be referred to as a “beat.” In fact, most competent rappers need nothing more sophisticated than a simple drum track (or a bit of human beatboxing) in order to ply their art, as illustrated by EXO’s Chanyeol here, with a little help from D.O.
For fans of club music, the beat is the most essential part of any track – it’s what keeps people on the dancefloor.
To many rock fans, though, drums are more of an afterthought. For them, beats are like a glamorized metronome.
They comprise only a single part of the band’s rhythm section. In some cases, their chief function is to keep time for the singer and guitarists.
It gets a bit messy trying to apply the above info to K-pop, though. K-pop is often referred to as a genre, but, in reality, there is no such thing as a unified K-pop sound. Is this K-pop?
If it were in English, it would be called rock, perhaps pop-rock.
Is this K-pop?
K-pop is just a catch-all term meaning modern, commercial Korean music.
So the answer the question – which K-pop tracks have a good beat? – really depends on what constitutes a good beat for you. Do you want to hear a real drummer pounding some actual drums? Then you will probably like this kind of thing.
But aside from the K-pop rockers, most beats you hear in K-pop tracks are created by producers on a computer using audio software programs called DAWs (digital audio workstations). There are absolutely no actual physical drums involved with songs like this:
Using DAWs so allows producers to create instrumental tracks in the same way as electronica artists – it gives them total control over a song, rather than having to rely on a band or session musicians. For most K-pop acts, drums look less like this
And more like this
Crafting songs using DAWs is ideal if you are making a dance song. After all, if you want your act to dance around the stage when performing, you need to provide them with a track fit for the purpose. This is why K-pop acts draw so much from electronica now.
In many instances, the line between K-pop and electronica has been blurred – perhaps lost altogether. Case in point:
The electronica genre that has most strongly influenced K-pop producers is house, a genre that itself emerged from the American disco movement of the late 1970s-early 1980s. This itself goes a long way towards explaining why the retro disco theme is such a commonly recurring K-pop concept, both in terms of look…
A song’s tempo is measured in beats per minute (bpm), which is typically the amount of bass (or kick) drum sounds you can hear per within a song.
Just like many disco songs, 115-130bpm is standard house music tempo. That has been true since the early days of house (this sort of thing), right up to the work of modern day artists like David Guetta.
Unsurprisingly, K-pop acts love this kind of tempo. KARA have pretty much stuck with the 120s, from their “Step” days (123bpm), through “Damaged Lady” (120), and all the way to the present-day “Mamma Mia” (128) and “Cupid” (122) era.
In fact, most girl groups stay within the 120s if they are going for an upbeat sound. The afore-mentioned “Hurt Locker” is 122. AOA’s “Heart Attack” is 126. Hello Venus’ latest effort “I’m Ill” is only slightly higher at 131.
If you want to go for a more sultry sound to fit a steamier, sultrier concept, just slow the beat down by a few bpm. If not, keep that tempo high.
SISTAR are good at this. Their upbeat songs tend to stay in the 120s: “Shake It” is a round 120, “How Dare You?” is 122, while “So Cool” and “Push Push” are both 127. Aerobics instructors just love songs like that.
The more atmospheric SISTAR songs, however, drop to 115 in the case of “Alone.”
Or in the case of SISTAR19’s “Ma Boy” – not really a dance song at all in the sense that you could not play this at a club – as low as 89. Runners and fitness class instructors would likely shy away from both of those songs.
Boy bands are more likely to go with slower-tempo songs, even for dance numbers. EXO’s “Growl” is arguably the defining K-pop boyband song of the past few years, and is a steady 90.
The faster “Call Me Baby” is a 100bpm number; it uses a steady beat that does not really change in pattern from start to finish.
BTS’ “I Need U” is a real atmospheric number that benefits from a 78bpm tempo. The 2PM boys experimented with a 120 tempo for “Go Crazy” last year, this year’s “My House” went back down to 88.
However, there is more to K-pop beats than 120 girls and boys in the 80-100 range. Many artists like to mix it up. Girl’s Generation make songs with tempos that are all over the spectrum; the same goes for BIGBANG and a whole host of others.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” beat – what might float your boat might grind the gears of the person sitting next to you. Each song is a fairly unique blend of hi-hats, bass drums, kick drums, snares, toms and cymbals; crafted on a computer or a real metal-and-skin kit.
It is only natural that some of that will appeal to you, and that some will just leave you cold.
There are even a few great K-pop songs that dispense with drums altogether, if that is what appeals to you. This is a prime example:
For drum purists who prefer realistic, undistorted physical drum kit sounds, there are songs the likes of Infinite’s “Last Romeo.”
For old-school electronica fans, the beat in songs like High4’s “Day by Day” and G-Dragon’s “Crooked” recall a golden era of songs made using the Roland TR-808, aka the 808, a drum machine first released in 1980. The 808 is also a favorite tool for Korean hip-hop artists.
Most producers now do not use physical drum machines, however. The days of using this kind of thing are just about over.
Instead they use virtual machines on DAWs. You can have a play about on a free virtual 808-style synthesizer here – perhaps you can try recreating your favorite K-pop beat! (Hint: choose the “Hip Hop” kit from the “Drum Kit Select” menu for the most authentic 808-style sound.)
And for fans of an even more synthetic drum sound, check out just about any 4MINUTE track, such as this, or something from 2NE1’s oeuvre. These girl groups and their producers seem to be fans of drum sounds laced with delay, reverb, and other fun effects.
A good K-pop beat, ultimately, is whatever is memorable for you. For what it’s worth, though, here are a few songs with beats I personally think are worthy of note.
EXID’s “Ah Yeah”
Varied drum patterns throughout mean it would be really hard to dance to a song like this if a DJ spun it in a club, but in each section of the track, the drums lead the proceedings. Shinsadong Tiger is a production pro and rarely messes up his drum tracks. Quick-quick for the rap sections, nice and slow for the melodic vocal parts, you cannot look past a beat like this. This gentleman certainly didn’t.
SHINee’s “Married to the Music”
Here I am harping on about this song again. The song has a great disco feel, and much of that is down to its beat. A nice even tempo of 115BPM (much like disco classics like this and this) helps the retro sound work.
The boys have gone faster for songs like “Lucifer” and “View,” and considerably slower for tracks like “Replay.” The complete opposite of EXID’s “Ah Yeah,” the drums stay pretty steady from start to finish. Thick, hollow bell sounds drive up the funk factor and a the kick drum is nice and firm. Sometimes good does not have to be complicated.
After School’s “Bang”
From the days when After School used to (a) be pretty active and (b) release audio fire like this. Sigh.
TVXQ (U-Know)’s “Champagne”
This is a great track in so many ways, but it only really kicks off when the driving beat kicks in at 00:35. The 808 clap effect is frequently used in K-pop, but it has never sounded better than this.
Nine Muses’ “Wild”
You bet your butt that there’s at least one Sweetune song on this list. Relentless, breathless, at times overlapping and merging with the bassline.
Quite possibly the highlight of the Sweetune-Nine Muses partnership days. Although the vocal mix is expertly executed (mmm, those rap sections), it is worth listening to the instrumental now and then just to take all that yummy drummy goodness in.
Poems need to be written about how good this beat is. It’s may be a relatively simple drum track, but this is percussion with presence. This beat sounds like the war drums of a fierce, advancing army. And from the song’s title and concept, warpaint and all, you can guess that was the desired effect, too.
Now you’ve read our thoughts, Soompiers, it’s time for you to have your say! Who is the best K-pop drummer out there? Which K-pop songs do you think have the best beat? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Join us for part two of this mini-series – as we get our funk on with some groovy K-pop bassline fun – coming soon, only on Soompi!
timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica and a hankering for hip-hop. When he isn’t writing for Soompi, he is remixing your favorite K-Pop tracks – with sometimes astounding (but often catastrophic) results.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not represent Soompi as a whole.