If you're ready to move on from sample packs, then programming your own drums will help make your tracks sound more distinctive. Chris Lyth has some handy ideas to help you do just that
Drums are the most important aspect of any style of dance music, but getting our own programmed rhythm tracks to sound convincing can be a real struggle. The solution is often to shy away from this and use drums from a loop pack that's been pre-produced – and that’s fine if you're happy with it! But others struggle with the concept of having something as fundamental as the drums written and produced by someone else, because other producers will undoubtedly be using the same loop. So the only option in this situation is to program your own.
Groove and feel are the elements that are often lacking in programmed drums, and while some styles such as harder techno find that quantising hard to the bar is appropriate, other styles benefit from a looser feel. And as anyone who has attempted to program a groove using a DAW’s grid edit will attest, looseness is not a quality that comes naturally to the cold logic of machines!
I’ve spoken in previous columns about moving beats off the bar, but let’s take things a step further and explore a few techniques to allow you to sculpt your grooves more effectively.
1. Only quantise specific elements of your pattern
When you have played in a drum pattern on your keyboard or controller, often the first response is to quantise the entire pattern, which locks everything to the grid . A trick that can give great results is to pick certain elements, for instance a shaker playing 16ths, and quantise that while leaving the kick and snare to roam free. This gives both a sense of consistent solidity and a looser, more dynamic feel. Conversely, you could leave the shaker un-quantised and tighten the snare or kick. As always, experiment to find what serves your track the best.
2. Quantise in small increments
Most DAWs as standard will quantise at 100% strength, which means that if you are quantising at 16th notes all your drums will be shifted to the nearest 16th note. However if you quantise at 25% the notes will now only move a quarter of the distance to the nearest note. This allows you to tighten up a part incrementally, and will leave more of the organic shuffle intact. Used in combo with the previous tip, you can get together a groove with its own distinctive gait fairly quickly.
3. Play it in slow
A great way to add feel to your programmed drums is to slow the tempo down, and then record in your part live over 8 or 16 bars. This enables you to get in those intricacies that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to play at the correct tempo. Even the tightest of performances with have that pleasing human variance, and once you have warmed up a little, you will start swinging back and forth against the metronome.
You don’t need to play in the whole beat in one go: you could start with the hi-hats and then move to kick and snare. Note that these swings are more noticeable at a lower tempo and will be less obvious once the tempo has been pushed back up, so find the ideal tempo to record at to get your swing just as you like it.
4. Keep your velocities
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the velocity at which a part is played has a great deal of impact on the feel of the groove. So unless something sounds obviously wrong, don’t be too tempted to correct the original velocity on your played in beats as it’s an integral part of the overall feel. Hi-hats and shakers greatly benefit from accented velocities, as do kicks: for example, making the first kick of the bar slightly louder than the rest will give your loop a more strident feel.
5. Ghost notes
Ghost notes are very quiet notes, often played on the snare, that add an almost subliminal groove between the regular strong 2 and 4 hits. They are very important in filling out a pattern and helping propel the groove forward. They can also be used to accent important points in the groove, such as the down beat or a quick flourish at the end of a pattern. A good technique is to duplicate your snare on your drum bank and once the main 2 and 4 have been laid down, jam some very quiet hits on your duplicate snare. You can then alter the velocity as required.
For times when swing is not king and you require a more propulsive and stricter pattern, try using an arpeggiator as a MIDI effect and play in a sequence/ Although traditionally used for synth lines, using arps on a drum bank can produce some very intricate and surprising patterns. Having your drum bank set up to respond by triggering different sounds at different velocities will only add to the fun that can be had with this technique. Arpeggiators have various modes, so experiment with them – and hit Record while you do so, to capture any accidental gold!
How we contour the drums throughout the timeline of a track is as important as the pattern itself. Repetition ideally should be balanced with variation to keep the listener’s interest, as music free from any accent or articulation can often sound flat and un-engaging. The trick here is to balance satisfying predictability with a sense of surprise. Adding variations at the end of 4 and 8 bars is a good place to start, but in general keep your drums sounding ‘alive’ by using constant subtle variations.
7. Layer for originality
If you strive to make your productions stand out from the rest, then using the same drums as everyone else is not going to get your campaign off to a great start. There is of course a fine line to tread here, as many sounds are so ubiquitous to certain genres. A good place to start is layering, preferably with sounds that you have either sampled or recorded yourself.
A mic/field recorder/synth are going to be of help here, as once you layer your texture across (for example) a 909 kick, you have a sound that is kind of recognisable, but different at the same time. How you do this is entirely up to you and a very personal and experimental process, but once you have built up a bank of original sounds you will be pleasantly surprised by how fresh even a fairly standard pattern will sound.
8. Space and time
While it’s tempting to throw everything but the kitchen sink into your drums, it can often make for a cluttered, undefined mix. The space between the hits is as important as the notes themselves, because it creates the space for the groove and is essential to the overall atmosphere.
These are a few ideas to kickstart your rhythm programming, but in a way they can be used on any instrument or pattern – there are no rules! I’ve not gone into technical processing such as compression, EQ, distortion and reverb, but this article is meant to sit alongside these, so absolutely break out the FX and go to town once your basic idea is up and running.
Words: Chris Lyth