20 Drum programming tips
Words by Sam Inglis
1. Remember the physical limitations to which real drummers are subject. Obviously, individual drummers have only two arms and two legs, and are therefore only 'four-note polyphonic' in synth-speak - but there are also other restrictions on what is physically possible. Many typical rock and pop rhythms incorporate a steady eight- or 16-to-the-bar hi-hat or cymbal rhythm. Above a certain tempo, this will necessarily involve using both hands, usually playing alternate notes, so it's important to think about which hand is doing what; you can't hit the hi-hat at the same time as the snare or crash cymbal, for instance, if you're using both hands to keep up a steady rhythm on the hi-hat.

2. For the same reason, there are certain sounds which can't be combined realistically in the same pattern. You can't switch instantaneously between brushes and sticks, for instance, or between using a normal hi-hat and one with a tambourine clipped to the top. Sticks can be used to produce rimshots, but brushes and beaters can't, so it would be unusual to mix rimshots and brushed snare. Nor is it common to combine hi-hat and ride cymbal in the same pattern - they're usually set up on opposite sides of a drum kit. You wouldn't usually do loud crashes on the same cymbal in quick succession, either; if you want successive crashes, use two different cymbal sounds.

3. Bear in mind that the force with which drums are struck will not be constant. To a certain extent, there will be random variation in the velocity of each hit, but there will also be more predictable variations. In pop and rock drumming, for instance, the first beat of the bar is often emphasised, while reggae rhythms are characterised by a heavier third beat. There are also physical limitations on how hard you can strike a drum: beats played in quick succession will tend to be quiet, since you can't raise the sticks as high, or get so much travel with the bass drum pedal, between hits.

4. Also, don't ignore dynamics within the song. In dance music, the drums are often compressed to the point where they are totally even in volume throughout, and any dynamic changes are effected by simply dropping out parts of the rhythm. Real drummers, however, use crescendos and other dynamic effects to add feel to a track; often, for instance, they will build up the volume going into a chorus.

5. Use sounds which are appropriate to the dynamic level of a particular drum sequence. Some percussion instruments, like crash cymbals, are virtually impossible to play quietly, while others, like rimshots, bongos and handclaps, are inevitably relatively quiet. A sequenced full-on drum assault will thus sound a little false if it is based around huge, reverberating rimshots or triangles.

6. Use only percussion instruments which are appropriate to the style of music you're trying to emulate, and remember that most real drumkits actually contain a very limited number of drums. Not many rock drummers would have wind chimes, timbales, tablas or claves in their standard kit; similarly, if you're aiming for a '60s pop feel, that 808 snare probably won't be a help. Few drumkits feature all of the huge range of toms found in many synth drum sets - it's often best to choose two or three and use only those. Also, be careful when reproducing drum parts played on brushes: some synths' so-called 'brush' sets actually replace only the snare samples with brushed sounds, and don't bother to provide brushed samples of cymbals or toms.

7. It's one thing to have the feel of a pattern in your mind: however, it's much harder to analyse the slight timing variations that produce that feel. The best way to capture 'feel', therefore, is to play the parts into your sequencer, from a keyboard or other controller, in real time. Start with the two most important - usually the bass drum and snare - in a single pass. Playing the drums well is, like most instruments, difficult, and requires a lot of learning. However, it's not hard to use two fingers to bash out a basic rhythm, and doing so makes it much easier to capture the elusive 'feel' of a real drum part. And the beauty of sequencing is that you can correct any mistakes afterwards.

8. If you're not sure what sort of feel your drum part should have, or you can't seem to get it right by just recording to a click track, remember that you don't have to record the drums first. If your song centres around a particular piano or bass riff, for instance, you could try recording that into your sequencer first and add the drums later. Being able to hear the important instrumental parts is very useful for deciding what kind of rhythm will or won't work.

9. If you do need to edit the patterns you've entered, avoid snap to grid or similar functions. It's all too easy to end up not only correcting mistakes, but also the timing variations that are responsible for the 'feel' of the part.

10. Though editing can be used to remedy mistakes or really sloppy timing, there's little point in painstakingly bashing out your rhythms in real time if you're then going to quantise away all the variations. If you must quantise, leave a fairly wide margin so that only really late or early beats are corrected.

11. Bear in mind that a lot of real drumming styles actually depend on consistent deviations from theoretically accurate timing. Sometimes this is quite obvious, as in the case of heavy syncopation or 'swing', which imposes a triplet feel on a four-beat rhythm, but it can be much more subtle. For instance, playing slightly ahead of the beat, particularly on the first and third beats of a four-beat bar, is a common device used to add urgency to a rhythm, and is characteristic of much disco, pop and country drumming. In other genres like the blues, by contrast, drummers sometimes deliberately delay the 'off' beats to create a laid-back feel.

12. Don't simply record a one- or two-bar sequence and then repeat it throughout the entire song. Even if you want to have the same drum pattern all the way through, record it several times and mix the different versions up. Each version you record will have slightly different dynamics and timing variations, and the variety will help to reproduce the looser feel of a real drum track and implement some of the dynamic changes I've already mentioned.

13. Keep it simple. With today's sequencers and multitimbral sound sources, it's easy to over-egg the rhythmical pudding, either by adding improbable numbers of virtual tambourine, shaker and triangle players, or by programming intricate rhythms and fills where most real drummers would exercise self-restraint (or lack of ambition!).

14. Listen to drumming on records to pick up the sort of patterns and fills that get used in a particular musical style. Careful listening can make you realise that your assumed ideas about a particular style of drumming are actually quite wide of the mark. For instance, it's very easy to get into the habit of automatically plonking a heavy kick drum on the first beat of every bar - but there are a number of styles, notably reggae and jazz, in which the bass drum is often not played at all on the first beat.

15. Learn to read drum notation (if you already read music, it's dead easy - see box opposite) and look at transcriptions in drumming magazines and books; the more you know about playing the drums, the more accurately you'll be able to program realistic drum patterns.

16. Synth and drum machine sounds are usually made using samples of each instrument in isolation. Recording a real drumkit is a different matter, however; overhead or room mics are always used (usually in conjunction with close mics on individual drums) to pick up not only cymbals and toms, but the sound of the whole kit, along with a certain amount of room ambience. Programmed drum parts in their raw state can sound sterile and disjointed by comparison, because they lack this element. You can avoid this to a certain extent by taking care with panning - don't pan anything too hard left or right, and keep the bass drum in the centre of the field. You can also experiment with putting a room reverb on the drums to make them sound more coherent.

17. Beware, however, that synth programmers have a tendency to swathe every drum sound in a blanket of reverb. This may sound impressive when you're trying the instrument out in a music shop, but again, doesn't always represent the pinnacle of realism. Massive reverb does suit some styles of drumming (Def Leppard anyone?) but by no means all - and where it is used to excess on real drums, its effect is often to make them sound more artificial. Experiment with different depths and styles of reverb until you find something that sounds right.

18. Standard drum kit sound sets, particularly those conforming to the General MIDI drum map, suffer certain persistent problems. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the use of only three different hi-hat sounds - open, closed and pedal - when real drumming makes use of a continuous range of sounds from quiet to soft, from tight closed to open. A common device for creating effective build-ups into loud sections, for instance, is to open the hi-hat gradually over a bar or two, moving from a tight 'tsk' to a looser, splashy sound - which progression can't really be reproduced using only single open and closed sounds. There are also noticeable sonic differences between a hi-hat struck with the tip of the stick and with the shaft; real drummers do both, often alternately. Getting hold of a more comprehensive set of hi-hat samples, then, is an effective way to improve the authenticity of your sequenced drumming. You could even consider miking up and playing a real hi-hat over your sequenced kick and snare pattern.

19. Another problem with many sampled sound sets is that they do not reflect the ways in which the sound of real percussion instruments varies depending on the force with which they're struck. Giving a hi-hat or a cymbal a heavy bash produces a sound which is not only louder than a gentle tap, but quite different in timbre; the same is true of snares and other drums. If your sound set merely responds to velocity by making the sounds louder or quieter, you need to be careful how you use them (for instance, avoid trying to reproduce quiet cymbal washes if you only have samples of loud crashes).

20. Don't be afraid of changes in tempo. Real drummers speed up and slow down - sometimes deliberately, sometimes not - and these tempo changes can help to give a track a more organic sound. Some tempo changes are very obvious, such as rallentando (slowing down towards the end of a song) and segues between slow and fast sections of a song. Others, however, are more subtle: it's quite common for drummers to speed up slightly going into a chorus, for instance. Some classic recordings even feature a gradual increase in tempo over entire sections or, in extremes, over the entire song - a well-known recent example is Pulp's 'Common People'. It may take a little extra sequencing to implement tempo changes in mid-song, but the results can be very effective.

Published in SOS October 1999.

Category | TechTalk: 20 drum programming tips Added: 09/02/07
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