Programming Drums: Advice from a Drummer

Before I got into music production, I was a drummer. I believe this has been an essential part in being where I am. Knowledge of beats and drums is paramount to being a good DJ, and knowing how to make beats is just as essential for producing music as programming synths and crafting melodies. But I really, truly hate programming drums in my DAW. I think it is due to the fact that I love being hands on and actually using a drum kit, but I sadly live in a tiny room, with no budget (or forgiving neighbours) to justify a full kit. Alas I must resort to programming drums or sampling. So, here are my tips on getting natural sounding drums programmed for your song.

People listen to music, they understand what a drum kit sounds like, even if they don't know the details. If five drums are hit at once it sounds unnatural. Drummers only have so many limbs, that is obvious. If you make an impossible drum loop, people will feel like it's off.

The trick to getting good drums, is realising the limitations of a drummer. Now, this drummer we are basing our programming on can be amazing, see below:

This guy is a complete legend (if you don't know him, he was the former Slipknot drummer) BUT even he is bound by the limit of limbs he has. So this brings us to my first point.

1. Know how a drum kit works

Watch some drum tutorials, see what can be done, have an understanding of how it works. Eight cymbal crashes all at the same time will sound wrong, as will hitting three drums at once if they are hand-hit.

Now everyone is aware of the kick and snare, with the kick especially being the driving force of dance music in particular. I listen to so many beginner tracks and hear a simple repeating kick drum loop, maybe with a snare on beats two and four. This sounds shit. It's boring and people have a drum KIT for a reason. You want your music to exploit more than two sounds.

Consider for example the hi-hat in house music. It usually falls halfway in between kicks. A good hi-hat sound is essential, it is the point where people are mid-bounce when they are jumping to the music. But there is only so much variation with kick-hat-snare-hat loops.

The hi-hat has several modes, it is two cymbals. When fully closed, it produces a click, when half open it produces a sizzle and when open fully, it sounds really splashy. Use the different sounds of the hi-hat opening and closing for variation in your sound.

An example of this, is keep it closed for the builds and verses or your song, perhaps opening it up at the end of bars for variation. For the drops however, you want energy. A prominent sizzle on the off beat will sound amazing. When you bounce to music, you touch the floor on the solid bass of the kick, and when you are jumped up into the heavens, a high frequency sizzle is the perfect sound to reach your high point at.

Needless to say, you will never hear a high-hat both open and closed, as it is not physically possible unless the drummer has two which is very rare.

Without understanding how drums work and sound, you cannot exploit this to the fullest in your tracks.

One of the greatest ways to get some hi-hat variation is to add some gentle automation, play about with the velocities to make it sound natural - a drummer isn't going to hit with the same force each time. Reaper offers a great humanization feature which allows the velocity to vary within a percentage.

Another great trick is to use effects which vary over time, bitcrushers on gentle modes are great for this adding a bit of sizzle and shimmer, this can be attached to an LFO to vary over time.

2. Drums aren't one volume, or pitch.

Listen again to the video above, where the drummer (Joey Jordison) is hitting the snare, he is hitting both in the middle and the sides, for different tones, he is also using dynamics to control the sound. The same drum sound becomes tiresome. Try using different velocities when programming MIDI drums or samples. 

Likewise, use pitch or even better, formant shifts, especially on the snare to get different frequencies expressed from the same drums. perhaps add some gentle automation to stop it sounding the exact same.

I would recommend this isn't done to much for the kick as it is the anchor to the beat, but the other drum sounds which fill out the track 

In the image above, I have just used a drum VSTi and am using ReaPitch (REAPER stock plugin). I am gently modulating the formant of the snare using an LFO. I didn't choose a waveform, instead opting for a random wave shape to get some variability.

The next thing you will want to incorporate is ghost notes (if desired) these are very gentle notes, often on offbeats which drive the track subtly forward. These can simply be achieved by programming low velocity notes where desired.

The green notes are much quieter, make sure to vary their
velocity too though to get the randomness of a hit. (this is 
just the snare channel)

Think about how drummers use their sticks, there is a technique where you can bounce the stick off the drum in a controlled manner, getting two notes for little or no more energy than just one. Consider adding a ghost immediately after the main hit to emulate this bounce technique.

Don't over fill your track with ghost notes as it can get too busy quickly. But by adding a few, even just every few bars, it can open out your drum sound to break repetition. Think about garage songs which often incorporate this to add a bit of groove to the beat, this often comes from sampled drums but can be created from scratch by playing with the steps above.

3. Unless you are Zeus, you won't be perfect on time

So let's face it, drummers are not computers, every note will fall roughly on time, but with some variation. In dance music, this creates a conundrum. You need a locked kick drum for the dancers but it often sounds very computery. 

The trick is to leave the kick drum alone, and add small discrepancies to other notes. I often humanise the hi-hats and snare so they have a small percentage of variability. This keeps the driving force of the track locked while adding a human element to the sound.

In REAPER, this can be done by simply highlighting the drum hits you want to humanise and selecting humanise.

You will get options on how much you want to humanise, but unless you are trying to mimic a shitty drummer, try and keep the values low.

The default settings usually suffice but adjust to taste. The good thing with REAPER's humanise function is it further adds variation to the velocity, as mentioned previously. If this is unwanted, just select 0%.

4. Add some groove

There is such a brilliant thing about swing, it can really add life to the track. I tend to add a small amount to the hi-hats, just select the notes and hit Q (in REAPER) this opens up the quantise function, select swing and the note length and adjust the percentage to taste. I tend to go extreme and ease back to a good point, and then a tad more. We want to keep it subtle.

5. An increasing doubling of hit frequency is not sufficient for a good build

In dance music, the kick or snare starts doubling in frequency just at the build. It increases tension and builds for the drop. This is good. It is not however the only thing to add before a drop. While rolling the drums does add a lot of energy, if that is the only element to the build, you will sound amateur. 

This is where your composition and production skills are essential. The drums alone will not build enough energy for a satisfactory drop. You will need to add musical elements to the build, tensions in the chords, rising effects, filters opening out, even white noise sweeps will be better than nothing.

Click here for a previous article in more depth, so many people cop out of making a good build, focusing their energy and time on making a good drop. I would say the most important part of a drop, is the two bars before it. 

Now we have established that the drums are not sufficient alone, let's look to see how we can actually use them for a good build. Firstly, there is nothing wrong with doubling their frequencies of being hit to build energy. We will use that as a basis for the build on top of a good use of instrumentation elsewhere.

A good drop in dance music has a lot of bass. You can hate to admit it but it's the truth. For contrast, the build shouldn't have as much, so start taking the low end out of the kick. It will be brought back on the first kick of the drop and it will blow minds. I tend to remove the bass (to a lesser extent) from the kick for the whole verses as well, taking even more out when it starts to build. 

Even that will suffice

Think about rock and metal music, they sound fine with a more clicky kick that somewhat lacks in bass. This is ok for the melodic and vocal part of the song as they are the focus. Nothing takes more away from the drop than an underwhelming amount of bass, and so since there is a finite amount you can add, it's easier to take some away prior.

Another thing an electronic musician has over a drummer is that they can use more than one kick in layers. Instead of EQ'ing out frequencies, a decision can be made to use a short clicky kick for the verses and builds, for the drop, you can then layer in a more thumpy sound with the kick. It is important to maintain the original kick throughout to keep the identity of the track (it will sound like another song is being mixed in if the kick changes) so layering works better than switching the kick entirely.

6. Too busy = BAD

While a lot of the above has talked about adding elements, there is a limit. Unless you are listening to metal, the drums are better off left as simple as necessary until a change is needed.

If you want the energy to build up, you don't always have to add a new drum. Perhaps every four bars you want to increase energy. Instead of adding a new element every four bars, see if you can add energy by replacing an element. Start by replacing every other closed hi-hat with a semi open hi-hat. This adds a much more energetic sound without ever adding a new drum on top of the ones already playing. 

After that maybe add an element, only to be replaced by the same element louder four bars later. With the ghost-notes mentioned above, try having them first on the hi-hat and then moving them down to the snare. 

7. Silence is golden

One of my favourite parts of a lot of future house and trap music, is the kick waits a few beats after the drop starts, as heard below. (Start around 00.30 in)

In an sort of anti-drop, the drop kicks in without the expected bass, and just when hope has gone, a beat or two later, it kicks in harder than you could have prayed for. 

While now commonly used, this effect still works magic. Ask yourself if taking the drums out where they are most expected will yield a more surprising result when they finally come in. If so, take full advantage of the trick. 

8. Read up about bands and their roles

Many people believe the guitar work is the most important part in rock music, but what really drives the song is the interaction between the drummer and the bassist. They need to be tight. Think about during the guitar solo. No way does the greatest sweep-picking guitarist manage to drive the song during his solo. What always needs to be kept tight is the drums and bass.

A good band is almost certainly due to this, in fact the guitarist can be doing whatever he wants, and it can still sound good if the drums and bass interact well. It is the pulse and skeleton of the track. 

Use this example with your productions, the leads while undesirable to do so, can be all over the place, but until you get a really good focus on the bass and drums - especially the kick - you will not output a good song. 

Depending whether you start on the drums or bass, you should compose the other around what you have. A recent article on this site goes a bit more in depth on composing them together to sit well in the mix.