“Bloody Hell Jon, what makes you think you have anything to say on the subject of drum programming? You program BI systems at telcos and banks, not quite the same thing, is it? You arrogant twat!” You could be forgiven for asking right about now. Please don’t though, I might forgive you, but my brittle ego would never recover.
To be honest I admit I have no qualification for this at all, save that I have been programming drum patterns since 1987 and people compliment me on my drums/percussion regularly. Also I have been asked for my insights into drumming on a number of occasions and who am I to refuse?
A lot of what I have written here probably isn’t very original, I went and read a few articles on the web to see what other people had to say and a lot of it was the same, er… So you should probably read those…
OK, That intro was written 6 months ago and I have been stalled ever since.
More knowledgeable and drum/tech savvy people than me have written about this, at length. A very fine 4 part article is on the SOS website here which goes into a load of depth. There are lot of other articles too and many of them are very good. So what can I possibly add to this body of knowledge – well, I have gone back to the original question I was asked, which is how I do MY drums, not how drums should be done.
This I can answer I guess, safe in the knowledge that I may be doing things badly, or wrong, as far was conventional wisdom is concerned.
Anyway, here goes, my take on drum programming.
Almost all articles about drum programming go on and on about sounding like a real drummer. I have known a number of real drummers, I even shared a room with one for a whole year, and they are a fidgety bunch of freaks who tap on things incessantly. They still exist in the wild, although they are on the endangered list these days. I guess you could care about sounding like them… however I listen to mostly electronic music and so I have probably not heard a real drummer in decades.
If you are programming drums for a 4 piece rock band then maybe you would want to sound like a real drummer, but for any genre of music I want to listen to it isn’t really a consideration. I want interesting groovy drums, or complex edgy drums, or loud bangy drums… but not a real drummer. Besides most of my tracks would require a team of drummers because the secret of PoD drums is layering!
While I do it differently each time a ‘typical’ (or a caricature) PoD track probably has 4 layers of drums:
- Basic Kit Layer
- Percussion Layer
- Big Drum Layer
- Clicks, pops and sounds Layer
Sometimes these layers may be combined but let’s look at each in turn
1. The Basic Kit.
The core to all of my tracks is the “Basic Kit” The basics kit consists of a bass/kick, snare and hi hats. That’s it.
You can probably get almost everything you need from this combination. Imagine a brilliant drummer with a kit consisting of just these elements. The Kick has a wide variety of volume and timbres it can produce, the snare will vary wildly in volume and timbre and can also produce rimshots, drags, rolls, flams (whatever they are) semi-rimshots etc etc, hihats can be open or closed and each sound chokes off the other meaning there is a wild availability of long and short patterns available, think Morse code… dit dit dit daa daa dit…
Because of this massive and exciting variation in sound I frequently program my “Basic Kit” section with two or three kick drums and two or three snare drums, I usually have just one open/closed hi-hat pair because I find things sound weird otherwise….
Let’s build the most basic of all patterns – a “4 on the floor” type dance pattern with a kick on the beat, a snare on beats 2 and 4 and closed hi hat on every 8th:
I am going to be using the notation found in the Drum Studio app for this bit, except I will stick some spaces in to make the beats more readable.
There we are, very common, and a bit dull, unless you have a really interesting bassline going, in which case this could be just right!
The closed hihat on the 8th is pretty laid back, you can get a load more pace into the track by hitting every 16th, this will give you the standard issue drum line of all dance music from 1987-1992. Whack an acid 303 bassline on that and see. Alternatively you can open up some of the hihats to give a different vibe:
For this to work properly you really need your hats to choke each other off. In old hardware drum machines this will happen automatically but it is depressingly common in iOS apps to find that the hats do not choke each other which leads to really flabby lazy sounding hihat lines.
I tend to use Nanostudio for hats for this reason because you can set the same group for each and then only one sound in that group can play at a given time.
Incomplete List of apps that choke on the hats:
Drumjam and Figure in their own way on a single pad each
Probably BM2 but can’t be bothered to reinstall it to check
EasyBeats3 – though I don’t know if you can set it for imported kits
Yamaha Synth and Dr pad
BeatMachine (if you can be bothered waiting all that time for it to load…zzzzzz.)
S4 Rhythm/Industrial composer
Incomplete list of Apps that should bloody well know better
Synergy studio (as far as I can make out)
You can work around this issue in some apps (like DM1) by setting the sample lengths on the open hat shorter.
our rhythm so far is a bit dull, but you can do a lot with it by adding in some quieter (ghost) hits on the kick, and adding in more complex hi hat lines, in fact you can go a long way just using those tricks:
So by simply adding a few quiet bass hits and an extra open and closed hi hat we have gone from dull to kinda funky (well I think so anyway).
Alternatively for something more energetic you can keep your 4×4 snare and kick and do interesting things with the hats:
Trick is to avoid putting the open hat on 2 and 4 because the snare is there anyway and the effect is a bit Meh.
For most of my “Basic Kit” parts I lift the bass drum on 2 and 4 and I also tend to move the second snare hit to the last 8th like this:
I like the little hanging pause before the second snare, this also leaves some room for a ghost snare or two
or (for extra grooviness)
You will also notice that this sounds better in some tempos than others, and that the tempo also changes the groove entirely. 85 bpm sounds like you could rap along to it, if you were so inclined, and not a 44 year old middle class white man. 122 bpm, while not very fast, sounds pretty quick with this rhythm because those ghost hits really drive it along, 140 bpm sounds crap with this rhythm because it all sounds a but crowded and “benny hill chase scene” fast.
140 bpm needs something more sparse, if you added 16th hi-hats you could probably drop this to 70 bpm and get a different feel again.
If you are playing along at home in drumstudio this now sounds groovetastic with that busy flutter of quiet drums between beats 3 and 4 and then the delayed accent on the snare playing on the 8th. If you are playing along on DM1 or Nanostudio you will have noticed that how this sounds really depends on the kit you have chosen. More importantly you will probably have noticed that the quite kicks and snares sound really crappy in some kits.
This is because drumstudio is actually playing a different sample on the quiet notes than it is on the louder ones.
Choosing your sounds: if your quiet drums sound the same as your louder ones, just quieter, then your pattern will sound like an ’80s drum machine, think Miami Vice, this is a good thing if you want that effect, but bad otherwise. Pick a softer, less punchy sound for your quieter drums.
So – three basic lessons
1. Sounds, stick to kick, snare and hats, for kick and snare try to find a quiet sound and a loud sound for each, but it isn’t compulsory.
2. Start with a basic rhythm, move the hi/lo hats about, make small shifts in the bass and snare and work from there.
3. You need to create the drum line for the tempo you are working with, but tou can also recycle, I have frequently reused drumlines at different tempos because it changes them so completely.
Now let’s have a look at a groove in Stockastik. I use this app all the time, partly because it has a load of really good samples and partly because the ability to make a probability on each step makes for some interesting patterns.
Let’s start with essentially the same pattern as before – because Stochastic will not choke hats and to make it fit on one page I have simplified the hat line.
As you can see I have 2 kicks and 2 snares, I have chosen a hard sound an a soft sound for each. For now I have left the probability on each hit at 100 (so this is acting like any simple drum machine)
To soften the ‘soft’ snare and bass I have reduced the Gain to about 0.7 on each but also stitched on the Modify Gain with Chance option to give a little bit of variation.
Now I am going to keep my “main” hits at 100% but reduce the secondary ones a little to add some variation
Be careful when in stochastik not to leave your pattern liable to gaps – if you turn down the probabilities low make sure you have a lot of parts (you can have up to 15) otherwise you can be left with jarring silences, conversely having lots of parts playing at the same time on the same measure can sound like crap (unless you are deliberately mixing sounds) so it often pays to make sure that, for instance, only one of your bass drums can play on a given measure, or one of your snares.
now lets add in some low probability hits in
And there we have it – now you can get Stochastik to render 8 or 16 bars of this pattern, both groovy and containing plenty of variety, and you can whack that into your daw/looper of choice.
Right, that’s your lot for now – this is going to be a mammoth post so I am going to split it up – this is part one… stand by for more Drummy Blogness next time when we look at the percussion layer…