Not every song needs a pulsating drum track that grooves with the rest of the instruments. Some songs are simply too delicate for that. From a production standpoint, the drums just get in the way and crowd out the real essence of the song.
Sometimes you need something simpler while still keeping the song flowing. You see, every song needs a "rhythm beat" of some sort, but it doesn't always have to come from a five-piece drum-kit.
When you have softer songs that need rhythm, what can you do?
There's this song I really love from this indie band called The Warm Guns. It's called "Something in the Night":
It's a really simple acoustic song that's driven by an acoustic and electric guitar with the vocals front and center. But in the background the whole way through is this simple shaker, just shaking away to the beat.
It's nothing special but the song would song much different without it. It keeps the time without getting in the way of anything else. And since the song is so sparse to begin with I think it's a very effective way to keep the beat while staying subtle.
How to Record a Shaker
If you don't want to shake an egg throughout a whole song, a good trick is to record about 15-20 seconds, and then randomize it throughout the song. The subtle time difference between measures will fool the ear into thinking the percussionist is playing the whole time.
A 20 second loop might even be enough to fool the ear, but you can also cut up the measures and randomize them for a more authentic feel.
Just the Kick
Acoustic folk songs aren't all slow and ballady. Some are incredibly fast and powerful. But even so, they don't always need a full drum-kit.
Take Mumford & Sons for instance. Little Lion Man's rhythm is driven purely by the acoustic guitar but once the song explodes the kick drum really helps drive the song forward.
You can almost think of it like they stole the four on the floor kick from dance music and wrote a catchy folk song around it. It's a good example of when only a kick drum is enough to create a powerful beat, because I don't think a whole drum kit would have fit into the production of the song. The song is so busy with other instruments that I think a whole kit would've just gotten in the way.
Think Outside of the Box
Another way to make songs sound different while still retaining a rhythmic element from the drums is to create a sort of soundscape out of them.
Take "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins for instance:
Excluding the big drum-beat at the end of the song, the far-away hits of the drums isn't exactly a typical beat, but rather acts as a soundscape alongside all the other instruments. Phil Collins produces his drums more like a part of the ensemble of all the other instruments and not as a stand-alone foundation drum-kit that everything else sits on.
Create Pulses not Beats
A simple way to make your drums sound distant and different is to simply filter out the highs. Taking out the higher frequencies keeps the rhythm intact while taking out the invasiveness of the attack.
It's an easy way to make a kick drum sound like a heart-beat for instance, or a shaker sound like rhythmic white noise.
Overcompress and Gate
An interesting way to change the nature of a simple drum is to buss the whole drum kit to one channel and just process the hell out of it.
Here's a pretty exaggerated example. Listen to this simple loop:
This beat wouldn't work in any genre obviously. But once we process it heavily with EQ, compression and gating we can lay it down as a soundscape for a very different genre than you could before.
- I've filtered out all of the high end as well as cut pretty drastically in the mids to get rid of the boxy sound of the snare sound. The filtering goes back to the tips I talked about before. If you filter out the high end the hits end up sounding more like pulses and heartbeats rather than actual drum hits.
- I've compressed the sample so that it's really squashed. Don't worry about over-compression because there's nothing natural about what we're doing.
- Finally, gating it can be very interesting as the different settings can really change the way the loop jumps through the gate. The gate can also work in conjunction with the EQ because the louder a specific part is, the greater the chance it will open the gate.
It's a pretty exaggerated example, but I hope it can give you some ideas on how to take beats and loops you have on hand and transform them into something completely different.
When I was doing some googling before this tutorial I came across this thread about creating rhythm from crazy things and using crazy processing to create something different. It's a funny read.
So many songs don't have a place for the typical drum kit. Sometimes it's the genre that dictates it. Sparse, Neil Drake-like songs sound too vulnerable and delicate for drums. Intense Americana like Mumford & Sons simply don't have the space for a full drum-kit, so a kick-drum will have to do the job. And successfully, I might add.
Finally, if you're stuck in a rut and you can't seem to figure out a nice way to insert some rhythmic drums into your song, try to think outside the box. A simple beat might work wonders once you've processed the hell out of it. Maybe a rhythmic soundscape might be the exact thing your next production needs?