Keeping The Rhythm – Part 2

DIY Drums – Part 2 – Programming

This article first appeared Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

Last month, I talked about recording acoustic drums yourself within whatever limitations you have.  This month, we’re expanding the conversation into programmed drums.  Just like last month, the main thing I want you to get is inspiration to experiment and maintain your relentless pursuit of cool.

If you’re an EDM producer, dubstep guru or drum n bass oldie, programming drums is your bag.  You may also be a singer/songwriter looking to do something fresh, an electropop person making licensable, “current” records, or you may just be completely without mics or recording space, relegated to headphones and a laptop, trying to make something sound “real”.

That last scenario is the root of all electronica, including hip-hop, and the thousands of genres that have been created over the last 30 years should be a testament to the idea that limitations really can be the mother of creativity.

Whatever your Reason (pun intended), here you are, wanting to make a sick drum track, or at least tastefully augment your tune.  First, let’s talk about “reality”.

Keepin’ It Real

The first question when you start any drum track is whether you want it to sound like a real drummer.  When you’re doing rock n roll, singer/songwriter, world or other “natural” music, the answer may be yes.  In that case, start with my article on acoustic DIY drums from last month’s Recording.  People aren’t easily fooled, and my experience is the more I try to make programmed drums sound “real”, the less “real” and legitimate they actually sound.  Rather, I recommend letting an electronically created track sound electronic.  That’s not to say you won’t have acoustic elements, but let each part do what it what it does best.

That doesn’t, however, mean you shouldn’t employ some techniques that people might refer to as making a track sound more “human”.

To begin with, picture a drummer.  She has two feet and two arms at most.  More than 4 different drum hits at the exact same time might not make sense to the ear.  Then again, it depends on what they are.  You can certainly get away with conga laid over drum kit, for example, because that could be a whole other person.

Another thing about human drummers is they’re never computer-perfect.  Try using your software’s swing or groove-quantize (Figure 1) to create a more human feel.  If swing doesn’t work, try sliding hits around a hair to make them a little less uniform in time.  This is a technique not well suited for techno and dance genres but if you’re aiming for something more “real”, it could help.

Figure 1 – Swing Quantize

Subtly randomizing velocity, phase or pan is great too, especially for hi-hats, to make the track more “lifelike”.  Even if you’re not going for a natural sound, programmed hi-hats can get pretty boring and lifeless, so messing with them is often a good idea.  I’m a fan of a little distortion and subtle (or not) auto-panning on programmed hi-hats.

All that said, if you need real sounding drums, another way to achieve that which wasn’t available even a few years ago is to use live loops.  Loop libraries like Loop Loft use real live drummers to play loops and fills you can use.  Some freelance drummers even keep loops lying around that they’ll sell or even give you, if you’ve got a good relationship! 

I wasn’t a huge fan of loop libraries before multitrack versions started showing up; a pre-mixed stereo loop is too hard to mix and too generic-sounding.  With separated tracks, though, you can treat them like you would anything delivered by a session drummer.  EQ to taste, pan how you want, use distortions, compressors and pitch shifters, and make it your own.  You can even stretch or compress to change tempo (within reason).

BYOB – Bring Your Own Beats

Most drum tracks created electronically make no attempt to sound like real drums.  This is great, because what used to be a limitation is now an unlimited palette of options.  This may be overwhelming, but like I said last month, you can start by thinking of the functionality of a drum kit.

Figure 2 – Hydrogen Drum Machine

My usual process is pretty typical.  First I build a virtual “kit”, by picking a kick sound I like, then snare, then hat, etc.  I make a basic pattern while I do this, usually starting with kick/snare.  If you do this work for long, you’ll realize there are only a few workable kick/snare patterns in 4/4.  You can always experiment, say by changing time signatures, but it’s not necessarily bad to start with a tried and true four-on-the-floor “pop” pattern.  The pattern itself is only the first of many places you can be unique!

Figure 3 – Step Record

You can build drum patterns any number of ways.  You can use a pattern editor (Figure 2), which is how old drum machines work, you can step enter into your MIDI sequencer (Figure 3), you can play live using your MIDI interface (Figure 4) and then quantize (or not), or you can copy/paste actual samples or MIDI data right into a timeline, such as with Ableton (Figure 5).

Figure 4 – MIDI Interface

If you enter MIDI data rather than audio samples, you can easily experiment with different patches, or create remixes later by using different sounds with the same pattern.  In any case, avoid placing different drum sounds all on the same track.  Just like with acoustic drums or loops, you want separate kick, snare, hat, etc. tracks so you can control and manipulate properly in the mix.  You can get away with having some stereo loops here and there, but you’re usually much better off giving yourself some mix control.

Figure 5 – Abelton

If you’ve played your MIDI performance simultaneously into one track, say by doing kick/snare or kick/snare/hat all at once, simply create a new track, select only one instrument (eg kick) using the filtered selection option (Figure 6), and cut/paste to a new track.  If you don’t have this option, you may be able to route different patches to different outputs on your device or any number of other things to get your tracks separated.  If there’s no way for you to do that, then play one part at a time.

Figure 6 – Filtered Select

Be Cool

Creating basic patterns is pretty easy, but you want them to be cool.  Think of your basic pattern as a roughed in Michelangelo’s David.  You can see that it’s him, but now it’s time to start chiseling in that six pack.

One of the best ways to improve a groove is with what I like to call tiered turnarounds.  Consider this basic pattern:

If you loop this, you’ll notice an odd sensation of wrongness when it repeats.  The second measure needs variance.  So instead, I might do this:

That feels better, but on measure 4, we get a similar sense of wrongness, so I’d add another variant, a bit more like a fill.

I usually take this out to 8 measures, where I might even use both the last 2 measures as “fill”.  Once I have an 8 measure groove, I feel more comfortable repeating it.  Each of these little variances or fills, which usually happen over proportionately longer periods of time (ie: a quarter of the length of the loop) is basically a turnaround, which creates the feeling of balance in a passage.  The number of tiers and variances you use may vary, but the concept is to create a push-pull while repeating.  You don’t really want to NOT repeat – that would be chaos, but turnarounds work with repetition to keep the listener engaged.  The same concept can be applied to any kind of riff – guitars, pianos, bass, etc.

Oh Yeah, The Song!

Hopefully you’ve already been considering the song as a whole, but if you haven’t, this is a good time to refer again to the song itself.  Once you’ve got one pattern you like, consider a larger variance or different pattern altogether for your chorus, and maybe a third for your bridge.  The song should have informed your basic pattern, and it will probably inform your chorus, and it should certainly inform you what to do with the bridge and other odd sections.

Thinking of the song as an arrangement when you’re building drums is one of the best ways to make your rhythm track stand out from the crowd, even if you’re starting with drums, and even if you’re not going for a standard song structure.  If you’re going for a build over time track or a trance track with subtle progression, do these things in the drum track as well as any other instrumentation, rather than letting the drum track plod along with no change.

Once you’ve got an arrangement, start augmenting with effects, variable velocities, new parts, and even recording acoustic parts to go along, if you can.  If you’re using hardware synths, you should probably record that audio to the DAW now, so you’re not fumbling around when you try to mix.  This is a good opportunity to use cool things like tubes or even more drastic effects to give the tracks even more life, grit or uniqueness.  Make sure to mute and record one by one (or use your synth’s L/R or aux outputs strategically) so you still have separated tracks.   Don’t just record the whole stereo mix from the synth, especially if you’re sending tracks to a mix engineer.

Timbre And Flavor

Once you’ve got some cool sounds, killer patterns and an arrangement that doesn’t just drone on, try going back to timbre.  Is anything off?  Does your snare fit, is the kick awesome?  You’ve probably already found some cool sounds to start with, but no matter what they are, they probably came from a sample pack or a synth, which means other people have access to them.  That means you should start making the track your own. You might try layering certain tracks to strengthen them or make them cooler, or try adding elements in certain sections.  You may even change something like the snare in a chorus or bridge, or bring in a vastly different sound for a one measure breakdown.  Look at your arrangement again and see if there’s anywhere you can cut the drums entirely, or break down to just hats, or kick.

At this point, your track probably sounds pretty cool.  You’ve probably already laid in any other tracks, if you’ve got them, and you’re well on your way toward a mix.  You may have spent 4 hours, and you may have spent 4 weeks.  Either way, it’s probably time to go outside!

Hopefully you’re inspired now to experiment and search.  Drum tracks, like anything in the record making process, are a matter of purpose, an open mind and that relentless pursuit of cool.  Groove on, baby!

I’ve been programming drum tracks for long on 25 years (well…more now I guess), and I’m still pursuing cool.  Talk to me about it on Facebook or Twitter @AaronJTrumm

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