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Essential Techniques: Drum Programming & Beat Making

by Nate Mars
music & audio

Great drum sounds combined with a great drum groove can make all the difference in the way listeners interact with your music and the way different elements sit in the mix. While there are many different approaches to drum programming and beat making there are some drum production essentials that every producer should know, no matter what genre. Even if you are a guitar player, it can be helpful to know some drum programming basics so you can create a beat to record along with your guitar parts or better communicate your ideas with other members in your band. In addition to recording live drums there are many other tried and tested options for achieving and programming great drum sounds.

Sampling

One of the most well-known approaches for creating drum sounds is sampling. When you sample drums from your favorite recordings, and particularly a live drum kit, you not only capture the sound of the drums themselves but also the sound of the physical space the drums were recorded in. Drum samples from various songs and recordings have served as inspiration for many new songs and countless hit records. Take for example the tremendously popular “Amen” break from The Winston’s “Amen Brother”. This one iconic drum break served as the inspiration for everything from the theme song to TV series Futurama to NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”. Check out the chart below from Ethan Hein that illustrates the influence of this particular sample.

These days it is pretty easy to sample your favorite recordings. Traditional hardware samplers, while still used by many, have led the way to computer-based plugins for working with samples; and your favorite DAW is probably one of the most powerful samplers. Once you’ve found the sounds you want to use, there are a few common approaches to creating the drum parts themselves.

creative live amen brother

Playing Parts Live vs. Step Sequencing

If you have a MIDI keyboard hooked up to your computer, your DAW probably includes some sort of software sampler that will allow you to add your samples and trigger them in real-time. You will most likely also have the option to record the MIDI information so you can further manipulate parameters. When you are programming drums you may want to adjust the velocity to give a more realistic feel or use a fixed velocity for genres where you are working with electronic drums or “drum machine” sounds.

In addition to programming drums by performing them live, step sequencing is another popular method for quickly creating drum patterns. Many hardware drum machines like the renowned TR-808 feature a step sequencer as the primary way of working with drum parts. Using the original 808’s pattern sequencer, you first select the drum part you want to use from a fixed set of sounds like kick drum. clap, hi hat and then enter notes as a measure repeats, using a knob or tap button to adjust tempo.

creative live tr-808

These days several popular DAWS include drum machine or sampler plugins with a pattern sequencer function. Logic’s Ultrabeat is a great example of this. You can also easily program MIDI in steps by looping a few bars and drawing MIDI notes in by hand to trigger your drum parts. Again, one of the major differences between playing the parts live vs. step sequencing is that you will have more natural varying velocity.

creative live ultrabeat

Layering Drums

Layering drum sounds is a great way to make your drums sound more unique. Layering can also be used to achieve a new sound using certain elements of different drum hits. For example, you may be going through a library of kick drum samples and one of the samples you like is a huge, sub “boomy” kick. After a while, you realize the kick isn’t sitting the way you want in the mix because it is lacking a “thump” or “punch”.

While compression and EQ may help, you may also want to try things like finding a new kick that doesn’t have as much sub frequency but has more attack. From there you can layer the samples, EQ and even bounce them down together in your DAW to create a brand new kick drum that has all of the frequencies and punch you are looking for. This technique works well with snares as well. For non traditional approaches, you can also layer your drums with interesting sounds like vocal samples or vinyl noise. Be creative and try this one out!

Adding Swing

Another technique that can often transform the way your programmed drums parts sound is the process of adding swing. Adding swing is one of the things that makes people uncontrollably start nodding their heads when they listen to your tracks. This process involves adjusting drum parts so they are slightly “off the grid”. You can get interesting results when you apply this technique only to certain elements like adding swing on the hi hats to make them a little behind the 1/8 or 1/16 note. You can also apply this effect to your entire drum pattern.

If you are in 4/4, increasing swing can make certain parts sound like they are sometimes going back and forth between 4/4 and 3/4, creating more natural, grooving drum parts. Many modern DAWS have interesting ways of achieving swing. For example, Ableton Live’s Groove Pool will allow you to impose the groove or swing of retro drum machines and samplers, like the Akai MPC series, to your selected clip.

cretive live ableton groove pool

These days, there are many great tools to help you create great sounding drum parts quickly. To learn more about drum programing and beat making, check out these online Music & Audio courses from Creative Live.

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Nate Mars

@natemars