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Glitch hop music is a relatively small niche genre, itself a subgenre of glitch music. But it is part of a larger movement that I personally find fascinating: turning mechanical distortion into beautiful art. All musicians should read this amazing Brian Eno quote (you know, the guy that pioneered ambient music) that really captures the idea. “It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart […] the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
Music recording and production equipment was designed to capture and magically reproduce that fleeting experience of music. Yet, equipment is not flawless. Nearly as soon as people tried to make recorded music sound perfect, others took the opposite approach. They tried to celebrate the unique kinds of distortion and sonic texture that a person can achieve when intentionally using equipment wrongly.
The electric guitar is a prime example. A guitar amp was originally just a speaker designed to amplify a clean guitar tone. But it wasn’t long before Kinks guitarist Dave Davies slashed his amp speaker with a knife to intentionally achieve a dirty tone, and recorded the world’s first power chords on You Really Got Me.
With the first digital music production in the 80s, a new era of super-clean music production was born. Once again, though, artists started exploring ways to do digital music production “wrong” and therefore glitch was born. While many lofi and ambient genres try to capture the sound of analog distortion and low-quality tape recorders, glitch turns digital distortion into art- but never as far as noise music takes it. Check out the Max Headroom TV character from the 80s if you have never heard of him. He used an early glitch aesthetic, with unpredictable audio skipping, distorted interference, and random pitch drifting:
I’m a full time producer, songwriter, and composer by trade. I don’t work in electronic genres as much. But I do know a universal truth for all musicians to follow. The first step is to immerse yourself in what you are trying to create. Listen to some of the greatest glitch hop artists, such as machinedrum, Dabrye, eDIT, and Mr. Bill.
You will probably notice how diverse the genre is, and how many different sounds can go into it. But focus on the elements that glitch hop tracks have in common, and you will start to understand what makes the aesthetic. Of course, the music sounds “glitchy” hence the name.
Certain kinds of sounds and effects are used to imitate electronic mayhem. The genre also has a particular feel which is very important. Some genres, such as lofi hiphop and ambient, are very smooth and relaxing. Glitch hop tends to have a tense and angsty feel that’s more hardstyle than lofi. The sounds are kind of harsh, and a lot of the rhythms are jittery and choppy.
Glitch hop artists of the past got very creative with hardware, to capture their sounds in the first place. That includes circuit bending, and modifying CD players to intentionally skip. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an angsty engineer anymore to create glitch hop.
As with most electronic genres, a very minimal laptop-based setup is enough to create pro-level music. An audio interface such as the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or similar is a necessity with any kind of home studio. MIDI keyboards such as the AKAI MPK Mini MkII and its competitors are powerful tools for electronic music.
They enable musicians to quickly browse sounds and samples, write and play melodies and rhythms, and apply automation effects to their tracks. And finally, a good pair of neutral studio monitors or headphones is absolutely crucial. Imagine trying to work on a painting while wearing smudged glasses. How can you create great music if you can’t hear how it really sounds?
As with most electronic genres, your sound is defined by the software you use. For electronic musicians, the DAW (digital audio workstation) is like a virtual studio, and samples and VSTs are your instruments. Another way to think of it: The DAW is a blank canvas, and samples and VSTs are paints.
Choosing a DAW could feel overwhelming. There are so many choices! But they are a bit like cars- some are better suited for certain things than others, but at this point they can all get you where you need to go. Electronic musicians tend to favor Ableton and Fl Studio. I love Reason, which has a unique interface that imitates live synths and rack-mounted effects. Glitch artists are fond of the free Jeskola Buzz and Renoise.
Don’t fuss too much about DAW choice. The most successful musicians aren’t the ones who found that perfect software. They are the ones who chose something, and learned all of its ins and outs. The DAW is really just the host for the different sounds and effects.
One of the crucial ingredients of glitch hop music is its use of glitchy samples. These are the sounds that many early artists created by hacking electronic devices, though at this point you can easily start making excellent music with pre-made sample packs. One of the hallmarks of glitch and glitch hop is the use of choppy, digitally-distorted sound effects in place of (or along with) the percussion.
Glitch hop tracks often use glitchy hits in place of snare or clap sounds, and stuttering digital skip sounds in place of the usual but sometimes hard to mix hi-hats. Multiple layers of dynamic sound effects can weave throughout the percussion track. In fact, many glitch hop tracks actually use relatively simple sounds in the bass and synths/pads. The glitchy percussion defines the sound.
Glitch hop is a dynamic genre. The music theory is actually usually quite simple, and often repetitive. Beside the glitchy samples, a hallmark of the genre is using glitchy automation effects to warp and move your song along. Stuttering, digital distortion, pitch shifting, filters, and LFOs are popular effects to turn a simple tune into glitchy mayhem.
Cymatics has a great post with some powerful glitch VSTs. While many come with a pretty hefty financial commitment, Glitchmachines’s Fracture and Hysteresis are both free. These two are plenty powerful enough to get started.
Glitch VSTs are quite complex, with a daunting display of dials and knobs. But you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist. Some of the greatest glitch hop effects are created by randomly messing with settings, and seeing what comes out. It’s not an exact science; as a lot of musicians say, “if it sounds good, it is good.” Fool around, and try to create tonal and rhythmic balances. This is the heart of all music production.
Okay, so now you have your hardware, your software, and you are staring at a blank piano roll. It’s one thing to gather all the materials, but how do you actually create the music and how long does it take? Of course, there are literally infinite possibilities now.
We have been creating music for thousands of years and we are still writing new songs, so nobody can exactly tell you “how to create new music.” That said, I can give you a starting point. I’ll show you how to create a simple loop, which you can use as a starting point to jam over.
As I mentioned, a great glitch percussion track will have layers and variations, it is deep and complex. But many percussion tracks are based upon simple repeating patterns. Start by loading up a kick drum sound (808s can usually work if you know how to EQ them), a snare, and a hi-hat. Browse your sample packs for glitchy-sounding samples- particularly for the hihat.
This will look different depending on your DAW. But given that the bottom lane is the kick, the middle is the snare, and the top is the hihat, you should be able to create a similar rhythm. Set the tempo to 150 and loop the rhythm.
This pattern can be the basis for your track. Experiment with overlaying new percussion samples at various points. Be creative, and just see what works!
Glitch hop tends to have a relatively clean-sounding, deep, powerful bass that anchors the track. The bass tends to be simple and repetitive, allowing the percussion to change dynamically over it. Feel free to use this bass line I wrote quickly. Played with the percussion, you have the beginnings of a groove.
Glitch is more about the effects than the notes. So try loading a simple synth like a saw, and just have one sustained note like so. When you play it back, it will sound very dull. But now, try loading some of your glitch VSTs on this track, and experiment with LFOs, filters, distortion, and all sorts of strange warp effects.
Better yet, assign some of the knobs on your VST so you can control them with your MIDI keyboard. Try playing the track, and alter the effects in real time. This very simple synth can create a great glitch sound!
Honestly, one of the greatest ways to learn technique and ideas, is to try to copy things you like. A great exercise is to try to recreate your favorite glitch songs by ear. Search for similar samples, try to copy the way effects are used. There’s no shame in copying to learn. Great painters often got started by painting copies of the great masters they themselves idolized. Speaking from personal experience, one summer in college I holed up at home with a primitive tape recorder.
I recorded cover after cover of my favorite songs, overdubbing the different instruments as well as I could, and I learned so much about the way songs are put together. I think my parents thought I was wasting my summer, but my career now is much more closely related to that summer than it is to the classes I took when school was in session!
Glitch and glitch hop may be relatively obscure, non-mainstream genres. But they are one of those aesthetics that’s like an experimental music laboratory. As many people obscure genre fans know, the ideas tend to eventually filter down into more mainstream forms. Really, glitch hop is a genre of passion and innovation. The artists don’t create the music to be popular, or accessible. They are like mad scientists, seeing what new places they can take music.
Creating glitch hop music will be difficult at first. The greats are great for a reason- they have put in the time to master the art. Don’t give up, and always keep an eye on how you are improving. Get involved in forums related to music production, especially IDM-related genres, and don’t be afraid to ask how other artists did certain things. Keep your passion for the music alive!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.