Drum Programming 101

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Creating drum patterns from scratch can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. This primer in the subject introduces the basics to novices wishing to give it a try.

by Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2013

Creating drum patterns from scratch can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Loops are quick and easy, but not as flexible as making your own beats. Doing it this way, you can create anything you want instead of using some pre-made wav loop files that take much of the control away from you. Even the MIDI clips that may be included with some drum plugins can be useful, but if you just drag-and-drop them into your tracks most of the time, you might wonder: how is that beat made, and how can I make my own, or get a more realistic sound?

In this article, I’ll go over the fundamentals of setting up a basic pop/rock beat using a drum plugin in a DAW (digital audio workstation). For this example, I am using Battery 3 for the drums, and SONAR Producer as my DAW, but won’t go into the details of how those operate. This will be more about how to set up the drum beats themselves, so you can apply this in your own gear.


 The Basic Beat

I usually start out with one or two measures of a basic beat, using a hi-hat, snare and bass drum. Then I just change that to my liking later on; adding fills, and sometimes maybe even will use different time signatures for certain changes. I will touch briefly on how time signature changes are used later in the article.

A lot of pop/rock music is based on a simple 4/4 beat, which just means there are 4 beats in each measure. In the simplest drum beat, the bass drum (sometimes called kick drum) may be hitting on the 1 and 3 count, and the snare usually hits on the 2 and 4 count.  The hi-hat usually hits once on each 1/8th beat. While the main count is 1, 2, 3, 4, the hi-hat using 1/8th notes will be hitting twice as many times, like this: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & .  The “and” being the off-beat, so the hi-hat is hit 8 times per measure. Very often the drummer will play the main beat of the hi-hat louder, while playing the off-beat quieter.


Audio example:


You can change the velocity settings for each note in whichever DAW you are programming the drums. That lets you imitate how a real drummer might play. Say 0 is the quietest velocity setting (no sound) and 127 is the loudest (hardest hit sound). For the hi-hat part I mentioned above, you can use those same velocity settings, and change them up for every other note.

You might set the notes velocities like this: 110, 45, 110, 45, and so on. You can also make it more realistic by changing the velocity a little each time, but keeping the basic pulse the same, so it could be 117, 50, 111, 45 … etc. This gives it a more human feel to it.

For the snare and bass drum, the velocities usually should stay more on the louder side. I don’t keep it totally full-blast all the time, as I don’t want it to be too robotic sounding. A range anywhere between 110 and119 would work well for both of those drums. Depending on what drum plugin and sounds are loaded in it, the highest velocities on the snare (right around 122-127) may change to a rim-shot type of sound. That sound is a bit hard to describe, but it’s a louder “crack” type of sound that really cuts through the mix.  If you use that kind of sound here and there in a track, it makes more dynamic/realistic, and can also be used to emphasize a certain part.

Another basic type of beat that is used pretty often is where the bass drum hits on every quarter-note, and the snare on 2 and 4. The real big change is that the hi-hat is hitting on the off-beat, so instead of 1 & 2 &  3 & 4 &, like in our first example, now it just hits on the “&” part of the beat. This pattern is frequently used in dance tracks, electro, trance, and some other styles. To make it more interesting, drummers usually hit two 1/16th notes on the hi-hat once in a while. They would be hit on the & part of the beat. You’d count 4-e-&-a and you just hit the hi-hat on the &-a beats.


Audio example:


Once you have your basic pattern setup, you may want to add a crash cymbal hit every now and then. Usually they hit once every 4 or 8 measures, but not always. If you want, just throw one in on an off-beat, but that’s up to you. Just don’t overdo it!  Listen to a few songs, and hear how they are used in a track. Usually drummers will use the regular crash cymbal more than other types, and they have straight metallic sound to them. Sometimes you hear a drummer using other specialty types of cymbals which aren’t used as often. A couple of those are the china-type, which is sometimes a bit gong-like and/or “trashy” in sound, and the splash, which is a just a small crash cymbal, so it’s a lot higher in pitch.

For certain sections in a song (musicians usually refer to them as changes), the music may have a half-time feel to it. It’s basically the same as our 4/4 beat we went through earlier, but the “feel” of it is stretched out twice as far. You may switch the hi-hat’s beat to the ride cymbal and keep its basic notation the same. For the snare and bass drum however, you would hit the bass drum on the 1st beat, and the snare on the 3rd beat. Sometimes drummers will also step on the hi-hat’s pedal control in time with the beat, if they are using a ride cymbal instead of hitting the hi-hat. Drummers may also do this for the intro to a song, with just that stepped hi-hat sound playing. Or it might be in between different sections, and they want a different instrument to stand out more during that bit of time.


Audio example:


Another method drummers will occasionally use is playing what sometimes are called “ghost strokes”. To play those, you just play a lot quieter in between the other louder hits, and they’re mainly played on the snare drum. Typically they are used to fill-in the spaces between the hits of the hi-hat and bass drum, and can give even more feeling to the basic groove. You can hear this method in many styles of music.


Audio example:


Time to Change

Using different time signatures can be good for a change in a song, but usually they aren’t used very often. Most pop/rock/country songs don’t really use them much, but they are great to use once in a while to make it more interesting, and switch up the feel of the track. If you ever heard songs by certain groups like Rush, King Crimson, or Yes, you will hear many different time signature changes in their music. You will also hear them in jazz and classical music now and then.

What is a time signature change? It just means you switch to a different count for one or more measures in the song. So instead of counting up to 4 for each measure, you count up 5 (for example). The simplest way to change your basic beat to 5/4 is to add one more bass or snare hit drum hit on the 5th count, while the hi-hat or ride keeps the same pattern. In some more complicated music, the signature might switch back and forth between 2 or 3 different times signatures. For an example of this, there is a Rush song called “Jacob’s Ladder” that has one part where the group switches repeatedly between 6/8 and 7/8. It can really add a whole different vibe to a song. We won’t get into all the complexities how to apply all that here, but I will say it can make the interaction between the instruments really stand out, instead of having a straight-ahead 4/4 beat over and over.


Panning, Effects, and Realism

One thing I always like to do is to use a bit of the pan control for some parts of the drums/cymbals. The snare and bass drum I will usually leave centered, but I try to spread out the cymbals a bit from left to right. Same goes for the toms, so it all seems more like a real drum set would be. You may notice it more when you listen to a song with headphones on, how a cymbal may be off to the left or right just a bit. Or the drummer does a fill, where he hits each tom quickly. You may hear it starting with higher toms from the left side, and gradually as he keeps going along with the fill, it goes over to the right side, ending up on the lower pitched toms.

With some drum plugins, the pre-made drum set “presets” you load in might already be set that way, but if not, go ahead and tweak the pan knobs a bit.

Another great thing about making up the parts yourself (versus using loops) is that you can have control over each separate sound that the drum kit makes. For example, you could put a snare on one track, bass drum on another, the hi-hat on its own as well. This lets you mold the audio to your liking using compressors, EQ, effects, you name it. You can use a Send in your DAW to have the drum or cymbal’s sound go to a Bus, where it can then be treated with effects.  Using some automation, you can add all kinds of great variations to the sound, and have it change in time with the rhythm of the song.

One thing to remember (which helps with the realism) is that drummers only have two hands and two feet. That may sound really basic (and why am I even mentioning it?),  but when you are setting up your drum patterns, you could accidentally have some impossible parts setup. For instance: try to avoid having two different crash cymbals plus a snare all hitting at once, or a snare drum plus two other toms all the same time. Of course, you could say that the extra hit of a crash or drum could have been overdubbed if it was a real drummer playing. That’s possible, and sometimes they actually do that.  Usually though, it is just a regular drum set on the track, and then maybe they will throw in extra sounds in the studio; like maybe a tambourine, congas, or maracas.


Final Thoughts

Hopefully you will find this article useful, and it will stir up new ideas for you to use on your own. Don’t forget to really listen to music, hear how the drums are being played, and how they interact with the other instruments.  It can definitely help with your own creativity when you check out how others set up their beats.

There are other more advanced topics I could go into, such as more detail on using different time signatures, using side-chaining, more realistic drum fills, and more on “humanizing” the patterns. In addition, there are many types of music that I didn’t even mention, and all kinds of styles to play the drums in. Your new drums tracks are just waiting to be created.





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