Virtual Drumming for Rookies with Special Guest Ralph Zeuner from Rayzoon Technologies

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Here are a few tips and tricks from the master of virtual drumming on how to program your virtual drum track to sound like a real one.

July 2014

Introduction by A. Arsov

There are an endless number of Drum samplers and romplers out there. Some of them are very good, some even better, but there is only one, and it’s not even the best sounding, which sounds like a real drummer.  We can thank Ralph Zeuner for that. Ralph (pictured right) is the creator of Rayzoon Jamstix, and he generously shares his advice on getting realistic drum tracks with us below.

The main source of authenticity in Jamstix lies in a so-called “Drum brain”, some sort of an internal sequencer in which you can insert your desired rhythm, and the software will play it while introducing small deviations in rhythm and feel that is common only to a live player.  Jamstix is more than just software that randomizes your beat. Actually it’s a set of virtual drummers offering a great array of playing styles. And every virtual drummer even has its own fill style. You only need to select where those fills should be.

Pure magic! I recorded a few albums with Jamstix, and over time I gave them to various drummers.  Not one of them ever mentioned anything about the drums – and you all know how drummers hate the sound and the groove of the virtual drums.  They uniformly just thought that I had hired some drummer that they didn’t know. And they were right, I hired Ralph Zeuner!  Ralph’s software is my best live drummer – pay for it once and use it all the time.  That’s what I did and that’s what I do.

Virtual Drums & the Mystery of the Pocket

by Ralph Zeuner (Rayzoon Technologies LLC)

When it comes to playing drums, few concepts appear as elusive and ill-defined as the ‘pocket’. Ask a drummer or search the Internet on this topic and you will get various vague descriptions, ranging from “you’ll feel it when you’re in it” to “it’s when you’re locked in”. If you’re using software plugins for your  drum tracks, you may have searched for the pocket many times to give your tracks that special touch. In this article, I’ll try to explain some of the most common techniques behind the ‘pocket’ and how to apply it to your drum tracks.

First off, whenever a drummer and a bass player interlock their patterns, play in-time and leave lots of space for other instruments, they can be described as being in the pocket. However, this merely means that they are playing well, connected with each other and with proper respect to the other instruments. You can match this concept by composing your tracks according to these principles. I’ll also ignore the use of triplets, which enjoy such strong popularity with Funk and Gospel drummers that they are now often triggering a sense of pocket feel in listeners. What we will focus on today is the application of timing that many identify with being in the pocket and how you can achieve it. I will be assisted by Jamstix and its virtual drummer ‘Simon’ to demonstrate the concepts in a few audio samples.

It’s OK to Be Behind … a Little Bit

The secret of many professional drummers is their ability to play certain hits slightly behind the beat. The biggest delay is on the snare backbeat hits, a little less on hihat and almost none on the kick drum. Have a look at this video of an 11-year old kid . Pay close attention to his snare hits. Some are right on-time, some are too far behind the beat and some are just right, far enough behind the beat to notice but not too much to feel off-time. What this does is inject a laid-back feel that appears to expand each quarter.

In Jamstix, you can experiment with this in the FEEL section of the brain by moving the pocket knob. The sweet spot is different for each song and depends heavily on other instrumentation. Some listeners might not even notice it in your final mix but I think you should experiment with it, especially if you have tools that make this easy, such as Jamstix.

16th Shuffle – the Secret Sauce

If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember this: your drums can sound in the pocket if they have a 16th shuffle/swing feel to them. The kid in the video does it and so do many modern Gospel drummers. In fact, modern Gospel music has massively deepened the association of pocket and 16th -shuffle feel over the last 15 years or so.

Let’s look deeper into how this works. We will assign weights to all 16th notes in a 4/4 bar as follows:
QUARTER: 1 -& –   2 -&- 3 -&-   4 -&-
In a standard rock beat, all ticks with A would carry kick, snare and hihat hits. The ticks identified by C would have lighter hihat notes and all the B ticks would be empty. Here is the trick: you can apply a 16th shuffle feel to any groove by delaying the B notes. The amount of the delay equals the degree of the shuffle. There is a maximum amount you can apply but I won’t bore you with the math of it. Many hosts allow you to quantize a MIDI track this way and some virtual drummers have dedicated controls for it, such as Jamstix.

If your drum pattern has no notes on the B ticks, then applying 16th shuffle won’t change a thing. That is very good as we will soon see. Listen to the kid in the video again and notice that his main pattern is a standard rock with no hits on the B ticks. However,he adds additional 16th hihat notes on B ticks here and there and they are all shuffled. It is that simple action, which puts the groove deep into the pocket!
Now, if your basic drum pattern has no B tick notes and most of your other instruments neither, it gives your drums the freedom to add these shuffled B notes as needed for the best pocket feel.

Let’s look at an example. Here is a simple groove with a funky hat pattern:

Now listen to the exact same groove with 16th shuffle turned on:

The main kick and snare are not affected by the shuffle since they don’t fall on B ticks. It is the hihat, accents and fill that have B ticks and therefore convey the shuffle feel. The more B ticks you have, the stronger the overall shuffle feel will be. Each song and arrangement will be different as to how much you should employ but rest assured that even a small amount of them will give you some ‘pocket’.

Here is another example using a 16th hihat pattern, which means we’ve got lots of B ticks:

It sounds a bit mechanical and simple but we can change this using our 16th shuffle trick. Here is the same groove played by ‘Simon’ with the pocket timing described earlier and with additional B hits on the kick. All B hits (hihat and kick) are shuffled.

This immediately sounds more like something a good drummer would play versus programmed drum tracks. It breathes, it moves and it has a pocket. As I mentioned before, there is a degree to the shuffle, which you can experiment with. Here is Simon playing our groove at only 50% shuffle and with little kick, hihat and cymbal accents to make things lively. Also, instead of a full 16th hihat pattern, we use an 8th note pattern with additional B notes (16ths) interspersed by ‘Simon’:

Please go back and compare this performance to example #3. They are fundamentally the same groove but feel completely different due to the addition of 16th -shuffled accent notes for kick, snare (ghosts) and hihat.

I encourage you to listen to the performances of drummers that are thought to have great pockets and analyze the layering of their grooves. You’ll find that the basic pattern is often quite simple and that all the magic comes from the layers of accents sprinkled on top, many of which are 16th

As you examine your own programmed drum tracks, try experimenting with a layered approach that uses a simple, static pattern as a skeleton and deliberate accent notes on top that vary over a four bar sequence. Snare ghosting and light hihat notes can be very effective without crowding the acoustic space while 16th kick notes (especially when the bass guitar is synchronized with it) have a larger impact.

I hope I have been able to shed some light on the elusive pocket and give you inspiration to go fine-tune those drum tracks of yours!

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