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Everything You Need to Know About Downtempo

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Downtempo - iMusician

In this article, we will travel back to the UK’s Bristol Scene in the 1990s to explore the emergence and development of downtempo music, also known as downbeat. We will dive into its atmospheric sound, guide you through its history, discover some of its most influential artists, and give you valuable tips on producing downtempo music yourself. Let’s get started!

What does downtempo/downbeat mean in music?

In terms of music styles and genres, downtempo, or downbeat music, is a broad subgenre of electronic music.

However, the term ‘downbeat’ also has an alternative meaning in music: it describes the first and strongest beat in every measure. Besides ‘downbeat,’ we distinguish two other relevant terms — ‘upbeat’ and ‘backbeat.’ The term ‘upbeat’ is used to define the last beat in a measure, while ‘backbeat’ signals the stresses of the second and fourth beats in a 4/4 song.

Now, let’s go back to downbeat music. Typically slower than dance music, this genre is closely related to ambient but places a stronger emphasis on the beat and the groove. Overall, downtempo is considered a laid-back, soothing, almost tranquil electronic music style that is often played in relaxation clubs or as ‘cool down or warm up’ music during a DJ set.

The key characteristics of downtempo

Although downtempo is rather flexible when it comes to its music form and the rules that shape it, there are several elements that downtempo tracks typically share.

First, downtempo is characterized by its atmospheric sound. Instead of catchy melodies and captivating guitar riffs, artists focus more on layering sounds to create a soothing, comforting ambiance and sensual, romantic feel. This makes downtempo music ideal for unwinding and letting off steam after a long, overwhelming day or for creating a serene, relaxing atmosphere during a yoga, meditation, or stretching session.

As the name suggests, beat plays a vital role in downtempo. Typically, slower beats accompany the tracks — around 90–110 BPM — but the tempo and drum pattern can generally differ from track to track. Sometimes, the beat can be relatively simple and restrained, while other times, it is more complex, expressive, and poignant.

The beat itself is not enough to create music that evokes a relaxing mood. A gentle and soft melody is a key ingredient in the recipe! Downtempo tracks generally embrace a relatively strong melodic skeleton, with artists often incorporating more melodic phrases than purely ambient music. This also makes the songs more recognizable and diverse than ambient songs.

A brief history of downtempo

Downtempo emerged during the blossoming times of the Bristol Sound. The Bristol Underground Scene was a cultural movement that hit Bristol in the early 1980s. The artistic wave was primarily born out of the desire to provide a platform to a diverse range of then-emerging genres, including hip-hop, reggae, jazz, dubstep, grime, and drum & bass. In the heart of the scene lay the ‘transmission of immigrants’ cultures,’ which ultimately gave rise to the city’s multiculturalism and political activism.

Experimentation, which likely came from blending cultures, was also integral to the Bristol Sound. The city has been particularly associated with the emergence of trip-hop, which has been described as a slow, psychedelic fusion of hip-hop with electronica (or electro music), often incorporating influences from jazz, soul, funk, and rap music. Trip-hop is often perceived as the first emergence of downtempo and was pioneered by influential acts like Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky.

Towards the 1990s, slower-paced music became increasingly popular, which eventually gave birth to chillout rooms — designated relaxation sections in clubs or at electronic music events. Nightmares on Wax was considered a pioneer in downtempo electronica in the UK, with the genre slowly spreading internationally, particularly in Ibiza, Austria, and the USA.

The emergence of downtempo subgenres

As usual in electronic music, the influence of other genres, including pop, jazz, funk, reggae, dubstep, and more, led to the formation of several downtempo subgenres, most notably downtempo pop, chillwave, or lo-fi hip hop.

Downtempo pop is a type of synth-based psychedelic music characterized by mellow beats, lo-fi melodies, and vintage synthesizers.

Chillwave highlights notions of memory and nostalgia. It commonly features retro pop sounds, slow tempos, dreamy, lo-fi aesthetics, mellow vocals, and effects processing. The genre is also known for escapist lyricism, often evoking summery, beachy vibes.

Finally, lo-fi hip-hop blends elements of hip-hop with chill-out music. It originated alongside the underground beat-making hip-hop scene in the 2000s but gained major popularity on YouTube in the 2010s.

Top 5 current downtempo artists

1. Bonobo

Born in Brighton and based in LA, Bonobo is an English DJ known for incorporating jazz, world music influences, and organic instrumentation. He debuted in 1999 on an album compilation, When Shapes Join Together, which was soon followed by an EP Scuba, and his debut album, Animal Magic. His 2017 album Migration is one of his most famous and critically acclaimed and was composed in several locations (that’s what inspired the title). Overall, he’s released seven studio albums and is a five-time Grammy nominee.

2. Tycho

Tycho is a multi-talent musician, record producer, and songwriter, as well as a photographer and designer (known under the name ISO50 in this department). He often blends various stylistic components, including analog synthesis, downtempo guitar, and ambient elements, such as breathing or the sounds of weather forecasts and film dialogue. The best album credited to Tycho is his second album, Dive, released in 2011 after five years of production. His fourth and fifth albums, Epoch and Weather, received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album.

3. The Cinematic Orchestra

The Cinematic Orchestra, a British band established in London in 1999, has produced and released four studio albums throughout its career. Throughout its career, the band has created mostly nu-jazz and downtempo music, often remixing live source materials to create a combination of jazz improv and electronica. Their last record, To Believe, received excellent reviews across several media and music-related outlets, including Metacritic, Q, AllMusic, and Clash Music.

4. Moby

The US-American musician and producer Moby played a vital role in bringing electronic music, particularly dance music, to the mainstream audience. He gained international success with his 1999 downtempo-blues record Play, which eventually sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Many of his other studio albums were produced in downtempo, including 18, Hotel, and Wait for Me. He’s also been experimenting with other electronic music genres, including techno, ambient techno, electronica, electronic rock, and industrial rock.

5. Massive Attack

Previously, we’ve mentioned Massive Attack as one of the pioneers of Bristol Sound and trip-hop. Established in 1988, the band is still musically active and has released five studio albums so far. Regarding style, Massive Attack has been known for slower-paced music and atmospheric dynamics, often evoked through guitar crescendos, orchestral arrangements, and prominent basslines. Remarkably, some of their most famous songs do not contain choruses. Their fourth studio album, 100th Window, is the most downtempo-infused one and notably features vocals from Sinéad O’Connor and Blur’s Damon Albarn.

How to compose downbeat music

The atmospheric sound and laid-back energy make downtempo a very attractive music style – both to listen to and play. So, how does one produce a downtempo track or incorporate downtempo elements into their writing?

Here are a few simple tips for you!

  1. Focus on sound design. Incorporate sonic textures, long, drawn-out sounds, or triple delay. Also, cutting off the high end of some of your sounds may make them sound less clear and as if underwater.

  2. Use major and minor 7th and 9th chords. These chords can help you enhance the melancholy sound of your track.

  3. Integrate several different bass sounds to elevate the sound texture and keep your listeners interested.

  4. Keep the tension in your track low and focus on repeating the key melody with slight variations.

  5. Sample non-musical sound materials and field recordings to add to the atmospheric dimension to your track.

  6. Use reverbs and echos, create a sense of space in the melody, and give overtones more color.

  7. Dive into music theory. Understanding music theory better can help you write and produce music of any genre. You can check various online and offline sources, including videos, articles, or courses, to learn more about intervals, triads, chord tonality, inversions, modulation, etc.

If you're interested in diving more into electronic music and discovering articles on production, distribution, promotion, and more, don't hesitate to explore our iMusician blog!

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