An Introduction To Electronic Drum Programming


If you are reasonably new to music production the world of electronic drum program maybe still be a bit of a mystery to you. The modern producer is certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to techniques and devices for programming their patterns.

Let’s take a first look at some of the software we can use to produce our first beats and the different methods we can choose from. We’ll also take a brief look at some of the essential processing that can be used to pump up the final result.

Step 1: The Virtual Beat Box

Even though there are several routes you can take when programming your beats the hands down winner is still the good old drum machine. The only difference is that you now no longer need the hardware.

Some of the best dedicated drum machines are now available as software instruments and many DAW manufactures are even bundling these devices with their software. Not only to these software machines mimic their hardware counterparts but they also far surpass their capabilities.

Not only do many of these machines have impressive pad systems, effects and built in libraries but they also often include their own sequencers. Many of them are even capable of editing and playing back loops of all kinds. The drum machine has really evolved into the drum work station.

If you are serious about your electronic drum production you might want to think very seriously about investing in one of these products. Although some DAW manufactures are catching on in this area (with instruments like Propellerhead’s excellent ‘Kong’), you might want to take a look at some of the third party offerings out there.

‘Kong’ is a great example of how far DAW bundled drum machines have come.

You really have two routes when it comes to choosing the right virtual drum machine for your set up. You can go for the 100% software model or a hybrid device that incorporates software and hardware together. Essentially both of these products will be very similar but the latter adds a hardware controller of some kind to access internal parameters and trigger sounds.

Hybrid drum devices such as Native Instrument’s Maschine are a great compromise between software and hardware.

Whichever you go for these is certainly plenty of choice. To get started you might want to check out MOTU’s ‘BPM’, Native Instrument’s ‘Maschine’ or ‘Battery’ and Spectrasonics ‘Stylus RMX’.

Motu’s BPM is purely software but is extremely powerful and comes with a great library.

Of course you could go down the hardware route as there are still new products being developed. Artery’s ‘Spark’ is extremely interesting, as is Elektron’s Machinedrum . You should expect to pay for the privilege of owning one of these though, they are not cheap.

If you just have to have hardware the Elektron MachineDrum could be a good choice.

Step 2: Step vs MIDI Programming

As I mentioned previously some software drum machines include their own sequencers. Much of the time these integrated systems will be of the step variety, allowing you to create drum parts in proper retro style.

Classic hardware machines such as the TR-808 and TR-909 made step sequencing popular with the masses, although it has been around since early modular analog synthesisers. Step sequencing can be the perfect way to quickly build a pattern, even with very limited experience.

The classic 909 featured a great step sequencer in the form of buttons across it’s lower edge.

Step programming usually involves a row of illuminated buttons that represent musical measures. These measures can usually be changed but many like to work in 16th of a bar. Each drum sound can then be selected and programmed immediately by pressing one of these buttons as the step sequencer runs. This is really easy stuff and a lot of fun, perfect for both the beginner and the time challenged pro.

The ReDrum has and excellent step sequencer similar to the retro classics.

If your chosen drum machine doesn’t have a built in step sequencer or you are just looking for an alternative, you might want to think about triggering your device directly with MIDI. To do this you’ll need some kind of MIDI triggering device such as a drum pad or keyboard and of course an active MIDI track in your DAW!

Programming with MIDI can give you more control in the long run.

With a MIDI set up you will be able to play your parts in manually and have fine control over the editing of the recorded pattern. The only thing to remember is that this route is slightly more time consuming and requires a bit more perseverance.

Step 3: The Raw Audio Alternative

Another option here is to move away from drum machines with bundled libraries and think about using your own sounds either as audio files within your DAW or played back from a soft sampler of your choice.

Using your drum sounds as audio within your DAW is a great way to get into drum programming and this really gives you great idea of what’s happening. Individual drum hits can be edited and placed with surgical precision giving you total control over your pattern.

Using raw audio to program drums is not hugely popular but a great alternative to the traditional drum machine.

Programming beats in this way may seem a little alien at first but with a touch of practice you should find it’s actually very intuitive. If you would like a bit more info on how to program beats in this way please check out my tutorial here.

Another advantage to using separate audio parts for each drum sound is that the tracks can be processed independently of one another. This involves a little bit of basic mixing technique and we’ll take a look at that next.

Step 4: Breaking Out Your Drum Mix

Whether you are using audio drum parts that reside on their own individual tracks or a drum machine that is capable of sending it’s internal sounds to a separate (virtual) output, you might want to think about your drum mix and how it’ll be routed, or ‘broken out’.

Ideally every sound in your pattern should be given it’s own discrete output or track. Obviously if you are using audio this is simple enough as each sound will already have its own output but if you are using a drum machine a little bit of work may lie ahead.

When mixing audio drum parts they will automatically be assigned to their own track for mixing.

Each drum machine is different and routing sounds to different outputs will require varying techniques. It’s generally just a case of assigning the sound in question to a specific output (either stereo or mono). Propellerhead’s Kong for example allows you to physically route each pad to one of it’s 16 virtual outputs, giving you a great amount of flexibility.

Routing sounds with Kong.

Whatever instrument you are using try to breakout as many of your drum sounds as possible, doing this will give you more choices when mixing and ultimately lead to a more balanced and complete drum sound.

Once you have a good relative mix you can actually regroup the separate stems to a drum group or auxiliary channel. The drums can them be treated as one part adding cohesion. Let’e take a look a the different processes we can use on our drums next.

Step 5: Essential Processing

Obviously you could use just about any processor or plug-in you ilk eon your drum parts but there are a few key processors that are almost indispensable to the serious programmer.

Equalisation has to be at the top of the list here. Whether you are treating individual sounds or your entire drum group you should choose a solid EQ you enjoy using and stick with it. It’s often a good idea to replace your stock DAW EQs with something a little more powerful. Try Fabfilter’s Pro-Q or the legendary Sonnox EQ for starters.

A solid EQ plug-in is an essential drum processing tool.

You’ll also need to think about dynamics here, compressors and limiters are extremely useful tools and will help to give you a uniform, punchy drum sound. Try applying a compressor to your entire drum buss, using a low ratio and around 2-3 db of compression. Even this subtle treatment will add perceived volume and a certain level of cohesion to your separate parts.

Buss compression can be applied to your drum groups to create cohesion and impact.

Other extremely useful tools here are saturation, soft clipping and transient design tools. All of these can be used to ad attitude and edge to the drum group. If you are thinking about investing in some plug-ins to treat your drum parts you could do much worse than to throw a few of these in your basket!

Saturation can be another great drum processing tool.

If you need extra bite and edge try using a transient designer on individual or grouped drums.

Step 6: Keeping Your Library Stocked

Something else to think about is your sample library, some instruments and DAWs come with a good collection of samples but I prefer to build my own. You can cut drum hits from sampled loops or resample processed hits from drum machines.

With your audio sampled you should open it an audio editor to ensure the start and end points are tight. A badly trimmed sample can cause all sorts of problems including timing issues and even clicks and pops.

Editing your drum bits carefully in a sample editor can really pay off in the mix.

Another important part of building your own sample library is organisation. Keep your folders clearly labelled, laid out in a logical manner and name all your individual files as you create them. This may sound a little boring but trust me, it will pay off later.

Organisation and clear labelling is key when constructing a large drum library.

So now get to making some of your own beats… Choose a programming method, break out your sounds, mix and process the mix and save your new samples. Easy!