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Programming Live Drums

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Programming real sounding drum tracks is a bit of an art form. Also, you only have to punch the information in once! The drummer jokes have started already! In this tutorial I'm going to share some tips I've learnt over the years about programming convincing live drum tracks.


Introduction

Programming live drums from scratch can be a very rewarding experience but it takes time and a lot of patience if your going to do it properly. I once had a drummer who was pretty good himself ask me who the drummer was on a track I had programmed. I was pretty shocked but replied with the old joke,"Oh yeah, that's Mac Hine. Great guy too!". I don't think he got that Mac Hine spells 'machine'. Anyway....

The need for real sounding drum tracks is getting popular as more and more musicians and songwriters move towards the DIY approach to recording. Most people who make music for either a hobby or even a living just don't have the budget to hire an awesome session drummer and big studio to lay down a rhythm track. Instead we turn to loops or sampled kits that can be integrated with our DAW's in a home or small studio setup. For a time the vast majority of programming work I did was centered around programming live drums.

Now it has to be said that a lot of software drum instruments will ship with premade 'drag and drop' MIDI files for quickly putting together scratch (or finished, depending on how fussy/lazy you are) drum tracks. In my experience these are great but you'll find that you'll have to tweak those MIDI files as in a lot of cases they'll be close but not quite be what your after.

So whether your tweaking MIDI files or starting from scratch Here are some tips and techniques I've learnt over the last 12 or so years.


Tools of the Trade

Software Options


Having a good sampled kit is essential and will pretty much do most of the work for you. Nowadays we're spoilt for choice when it comes to great drum libraries but it's only been since RAM hasn't been an issue that we've seen some truly realistic kits emerge. Here are a list of some great contenders for your hard earned cash!

EZDrummer - Toontracks extremely popular virtual drum plugin. Cheap, expandable and sounds great! Comes with tons of MIDI files for quick drum comps and fills.

Superior Drummer 2 - EZDrummer's big brother. Awesome sounding kit! Large collection of classic snares and more to come. Load all your EZX packs too!

BFD - The Big Friendly Drummer. Massive collection of drums. Internal mixing and FX. Very cool!

Battery 3 - Native Instuments brings you this huge collection of acoustic and electronic drum sounds.

Addictive Drums - XLN Audio

Stormdrum 2 - East West's library of everything you can possibly hit with a stick. Has a nice acoustic kit too!

Get something to hit!

Having some pressure sensitive pads to tap your rhythms out on is definitely the way forward. A full blown MIDI kit even better, especially if you actually play drums!

Two low cost pad options. The M-Audio Trigger Finger and Korg Nano Pad.

Drawing your parts in with a mouse will inevitably lead to something a bit on the stiff side. I've never been a fan of MIDI keyboards for drums as they're usually oversensitive velocity wise and half the battle is getting the right dynamics into your groove. I don't know about you but I can tap out a mean beat on a table. That's much easier to translate to some sort of drum pad.

Create a Good Map

Setting up you pads into a comfortable mapping can have a quite profound effect on your playing. If your right handed having the snares mapped to the left side (on a kit you would use your left hand for the snare) and your hats and kick mapped to the right (both played with your right side) will probably feel more natural and produce more real world results.


This is how I map a kit to my pads. Try out your own and see what feels good to you.


There's Nothing Like the Real Thing!

I'd like to point out before we start that there is 'nothing' like a real drummer with a good kit in a good room! End of!

Spotting a Fake!

The human ear - like the eye - can spot a fake a mile away. Every time a real drummer hits a snare there are subtle differences in pitch and tone depending on how hard it's hit and where it's hit.

The phenomenon known as 'Machine Gunning' is the absence of these variations, and are a programmers arch-enemy when it comes to live drums. Without them a rapid succession of hits using them same sample will start to sound like a waveform oscillation. Fills are a dead give away and will expose the whole thing as a fraud straight away. Here's an example of 'Machine Gunning' follow by a 'humanized' version of the same snare. No contest really....unless your going for that effect!


When I started out, the best library was 'Bob Clearmountain Drums'. I had it on CD and had to record each hit into an Akai S1000 manually and save them to a floppy disk!!! While they we're well recorded samples they had a serious limitation in the fact that there just weren't enough samples and velocity layers for each drum. Even on a simple loop where the snare only hit on the 2 and 4 it would start to sound fake as your ears searched for those subtle variations.

Old Skool Tricks!

One technique to add life to these basic samples was to very slightly change the pitch and timbre of the sound via note velocity but even this was hit and miss. Another trick was to subtly modulate the pitch with a 'Sample and Hold' LFO synced to a dotted half note to add some variation. Although not ideal on live drums this technique can still be used to add life to electronic programmed loops.


This clip uses the above technique (the Reason file is in the Playback download). The LFO is used to subtly change the pitch of the samples. Listen closely to hear it. The Pitch CV in is set to 2 for each sample. Any more and it will become too much.

Of course techniques like this were used when RAM was a precious thing. Imagine doing a whole sample based track with 2 meg of RAM. Well that's the way it was. Now that RAM isn't an issue samples libraries are becoming so real it can be hard to decern them from the real thing.

Modern Drummer

Nowadays virtual instruments like BFD, Superior 2 and Addictive Drums have taken velocity layering and sample randomizing to whole new level thus totally eliminating the 'Machine Gun' effect.

I contacted Mattias Eklund who is Head of Sound Design at Toontrack and he was kind enough to shed some light on how they approach their level of realism.

"When it comes to layering sounds in Superior 2 it differs very much from one drum to another, and also from certain velocities, it can be anything from 3-20 or so samples per velocity.

A snare 'Centered' hit can have anywhere between 60 to 150 different soundfiles only on that articulation, and in the future it will be even more... While a crash cymbal maybe only holds a total of 10-20 or so hits for an articulation. Compare that to Superior 1 where we only had maybe 6 samples on a crash cymbal, and maybe something like 20-25 or so hits on a snare articulation.

The idea that you as a drummer or drum programmer should never feel that you are sitting with a machine, we want it to feel like you have the drummer playing next to you."


Basic Rules

Drummers aren't Octopuses!


Drummers only have two hands and two feet and at the most can only hit three thing at once. The only exception is if you want to include the hi-hat pedal to keep time. Stick to this rule at all times. Hitting two cymbals, a snare, a kick, two toms and a cowbell at once is impossible for a real drummer, so don't put it in your programming....Even if you just gotta have more cowbell!!!

Keep it simple!

You'd be surprised just how little live drummers sometimes play when it comes to drum tracks (especially if they're not getting paid!). Space is a valuable commodity in good production and leaving enough room for all your instrumentation to breathe is really important. A common mistake is that when starting with a drum track, trying to make it sound sonically 'full' before you've added the other 108 tracks of guitars, bass, keys, brass, FX, percussion and vocals can lead to one big old mess!

A good example of this is acoustic guitars. A rule I generally follow is if the strumming pattern has a 16th note feel then limit your hats to 8th notes straight away. Let the guitar imply feel of the 16th notes and fill the space. As both hats and acoustic guitars have similar high end frequencies. Of course this won't always be the case but "If in doubt, leave it out!"

Variation, Variation, Variation!

One thing that can really add to a convincing programmed track is variation. This is where loops fall flat for me an why I never use them for live sounding tracks.

A drummer's performance from one bar to the next is always different, even though it may be very subtle. When your programming try to vary elements as much as possible. Now I don't mean go mad and randomly displace every snare beat! I mean subtle changes in dynamics on hats, adding ghost notes here and there. On ride parts use the bell articulation in places to break up the part and add interest.

Don't just be lazy and program a two bar loop and copy it all the way through. Glue all those copies together and go through every bar and make slight changes like the ones above.

One great way to program a live sounding track is to actually record the whole thing through as a performance. I sometimes do this and it can lead to some really natural results. You can do this a number of ways depending on your preference. Here's how I do it. (Sometimes, it varies!)

Step 1

Record a whole pass of kick and snare for the entire song, use some pads if you have them. Lay down a guide guitar or piano track first, as it will help you get the kick pattern right for your track. Keep it really simple and focus in on the dynamics of the sections. Build the intensity towards certain sections like the chorus or Middle 8. Leave gaps for fills if you want. Don't quantize it!!!!

Notice these hits aren't on the beat. Don't panic!!!

If you have to, do it again and comp it! This will all add to the feel of the track! Here's what I have.

Step 2

Once you have a good pass of kick and snare do another pass for the crashes, hats and ride. Again, keep it really simple and focus in on matching the dynamics of the sections.

Do all three kit elements with one hand only (apart from quick left/right crash fills). This will ensure you never overlap the sounds. Think of it this way, on a kit if your playing a hi-hat pattern then you hit a crash you have to move your hand away from the hats to play that crash. There should always be a break in the hat pattern when a crash occurs. Playing with one hand ensures you do this! Don't quantize it!!!!

Incidentally MIDI Controller No 4 is dedicated to hi-hat control (used for electronic kits). 0 is open, 127 is closed. All good drum software will take this into account and let you control how open the hi-hat is. This can be very handy. Noticed how I've used this to open the hats up. I have this mapped to a slider on my Trigger Finger. I tweaked it a bit after the live recording.


Here's the take with the hats pass.

Step 3

Glue the parts together and see what you have. Now add some fills you can play them or program them manually if you want. Don't forget hats and rides stop playing where fills occur (see the hi-hats section). It may take a little work to tweak and clean up the track and add some ghost notes but the result will be worth it.

What you end up with doing it this way is that every bar is unique. Both in timing and dynamics. Now I'm not saying you have to do it this way but at least try to do each section all the way through.

Here's the whole thing.

Here's the whole thing in a musical context. I just slapped some guitars on it.

This technique works well for me when doing demos or tracks that are live songs. It sounds a lot more real than looping bars as you get a natural flow.

Quantizing!!!!!!

Quantizing is a black art and really overused, in a bad way. Just because you're on a computer, it doesn't mean you have to quantize the hell out of everything you input!

If a note really sucks then move it but if it sounds OK then leave it. I've luckily never played with a drummer who plays metronomically like a robot. If you want that, buy a drum machine!

Music is supposed to move. Bands speed up when they get excited. Beats are purposely held back to suck you in! It's called feel!...or groove!

If your going to quantize, do it by percentage. If your reading this you obviously have a plus account. Have a look for my article about quantizing which is available to you as a member!


Basic Sticking Techniques

Basic Rudiments

Rudiments are the foundations of drumming. They are a series of sticking and coordination patterns that form the basic vocabulary that every drummer uses.

There are 40 rudiments according to the Percussive Arts Society (PAS). Once learned they can be combined and applied to the kit to form just about anything you've ever heard a drummer play, from beats to fills.

Now I'm not going to cover all 40, you can find them here. All I'm going to say is that knowing some of the basic rudiments helps you not only think like a drummer (I'm not sure if that's wise actually!) but also lets you program authentic sounding patterns and fills.

Let's look at a two basic rudiments and see how they could apply to the kit, and your programming!

Double Stroke Roll

This is a very basic rudiment. It consists of two hits with the right hand followed by two hits with the left hand. That's it!


Let's look at how we could apply this rudiment. Here's a typical fill you might hear a rock drummer do.


The fill sounds quite flash but the theory behind it is really simple. Just simple double stroke rolls. You'll notice it's the right hand that moves around the toms. You should also notice the left hand snare gets replaced with the kick at times. You can create hundreds of fills with this idea. It's also employed widely on hi-hats (see below).

Paradiddle

The paradiddle is one of the most popular rudiments. It's combination of single strokes and double strokes (like most rudiments). The 'pa-ra' is the single stroke (RL), the did-dle is the double stroke (RR). The pattern starts again but now starts on the left side 'LRLL'. What you get is RLRRLRLL.


Here's a funky little groove using a paradiddle, it's probably quite familiar as it's been used on loads of grooves. You can hear it on bar two when it goes to the ride.


Again just a simple rudiment. Now the applications of this are limitless and further examples would take forever. Check out this guy who uses the paradiddle in a Drum and Bass context to see how useful this simple rudiment is. By sometimes starting RRLR instead of RLRR he comes up with some great variations!

I'd recommend learning some of these rudiments using your hands. Bang them out on a table in your spare time (not around people, it's really annoying so I'm told!).

Ruffs, Flams and Rolls

These are still rudiments but used in a more ornamental way. They can be used to add interest to your parts. Let's start with flams.

Flams

A flam is two hits that are played slightly apart. The first note can be played as a grace note or (if your Dave Grohl) at the same velocity. They can be used to add emphasis to a stroke. The flam is the basis of many rudiments including the flamacue, flam paradiddle and oddly named pataflafla. Here's what it sounds like.


Here's a typical flam fill played around the toms.


You'll use Flams all the time so practice them on that table!

Ruffs

Ruffs are grace notes that precede the main note. The proper ruff is a 16th or 32nd note double stroke followed by a single stroke. Here's an example.


Another variation on this is the 4-stroke ruff. This is used a lot in fills. It's used a simple RLRL roll with the accent on the last stroke.


Here's a typical 4-stroke ruff fill. Very John Bonham!

Rolls

Unless you have an electronic kit programming Press/Buzz rolls (like you you here before the magician pulls the rabbit out the hat) is not recommended. If your drum software has a dedicated sample use that.


Groove Fundamentals

Dynamics

Dynamics are arguably the most important part of programming a groove. So what are dynamics? Well, loud and soft! Drummers never play every hit at the same level, unless your in some sort of speed metal band! There is always some sort of dynamic going on.

Here's what I mean. You'd never hear a drummer play this groove like this.

With every note played at the same velocity everything just sounds wrong! It's really stiff and has no groove. The hi-hats are the worst offender.

Here's the same groove with the dynamics added. I've put a lot of emphasis on the one of the bar which really gives it a nice feel. Most of the snares are turned right down to become 'grace notes' as are any hats that reside on the e & a of the beat. We'll discuss hi-hats later.

Grace notes are a very important part of drumming. They fill in the gaps and can really propel a groove along making a difference to your drum tracks. It's these differences in volume that give a beat interest so really pay attention to this.

If your beats are sounding a bit lumpy the first thing you should do is check the velocities. Taking down the 16th note value usually helps. The most important aspect of any groove is the quarter note pulse, that's the 1-2-3-4 bit (the bit you nod your head to!). Everything between this should ebb and flow complimenting the one.

Layered vs Linear Grooves

Layered or stacked grooves are polyphonic patterns where two drums sound at once. These kind of patterns are the most common. Here's an example.

You can hear the hi-hat is layered over the kick and snare beats.

Linear beats are monophonic, meaning only one drum is allowed to play at any given time. Now this may sound like a weird idea but you can get some really syncopated and funky grooves using linear beats. This example uses essentially the same kick and snare pattern but this time only one drum is hit at a time.


You can hear you get a more syncopated feel where the hi-hat is only allowed to fill in the gaps. Try out some grooves using this idea. You'll always come up with something cool.


Hi-hats - Your Nemesis!!!

Hi-hats are hardest thing to get sounding real. It's mostly down to dynamics, and good samples. If I had one piece of advice it would be to play them in live. If you have to slow the track down while your recording and really try getting a good performance. In general the hats are all about the quarter notes which drives the rhythm.

This will be where most of the accents are. The 8th note of quaver values are usually less pronounced followed by the 16th note values which are mostly moving towards a grace note value. Of course this not the case with all grooves but it's a good starting point for most.

The hi-hat is the most versatile instrument on the kit. It can produce a wide variety of sounds which makes it the hardest to sample well. From closed with the tip of the stick to an open bell sound, a good sample set is half the battle. Velocity layering is also key to a passible hat track.

The Pea-Soup effect

Here's an example. The 'pea soup' effect is when the player hits the hat open and then closes the pedal. All MIDI drum patches only allow one voice (monophonic) for the hats. There maybe samples on several notes but only one can sound at any time, like a hi-hat!

Some people make the mistake of stopping the open hat sample with a stick sound for the 'pea soup' effect. What you should do is always stop it with the pedal sample (found on G#1 in General MIDI) like a real drummer would. Here's the 'pea soup' first with the stick stopping it, then the pedal.

The later is much more realistic. Here's a classic 'pea soup' fill.

This is a very common effect so try to follow this rule if you can. It does however become less important on fast passages.

Use MIDI Controller 4

I mentioned earlier that MIDI controller number 4 is dedicated to hi-hat pedal control. This is so players on MIDI kits can use the hi-hat like a real one. The way it works varies from one piece of kit (manufacturer) to another. The end result is the same though. Here you can see and hear the effect of Controller 4 on Superior Drummer 2's hi-hat sound. MIDI note G0 is mapped to hat sound that responds to Controller 4 in a very realistic way.


Using this in a performance can really help build dynamics. I would recommend you map it to a hardware controller now!

Hi-Hat Licks

You'll often hear hi-hat patterns that have fast rhythmic flourishes in them (usually in breakdowns and intros where the hi-hat is the main part). These can be tricky to get sounding right. Here's a common 16th note hi-hat pattern (Shaft!!!).


You can see in the screenshot what I mean about the dynamic placement. The e & a are pretty softly played and the quarter notes are really standing out. The main pulse (bottom note) would be played with the right hand, I'm using a slightly heavier, looser sounding sample. The 16th values (e & a) are played on a tighter, softer sound to add to the realism. Not a machine gun in sight as every hit is velocity mapped to a different sample!

To embellish this pattern a drummer will add triplets and 32nd note passages. They do this using the double stroke rudiment. Thinking like this is really handy for adding these effects in to your programming.

Triplet

I'll now add a 16th note triplet at the end of the bar. What I'm doing is add the (trip) 'e-let' using a double stroke on the same articulation (mapped sample) just like a drummer would. You don't have to go this deep with by the way, it's just the way my brain works! Still, it gives a pretty convincing result though!


32nd's

Let's take it a step faster with 32nd notes. This time the 16th are doubled up using the same double stroke rudiment idea. I've added some more to it for some variation. Here it is.


One of the reasons I do things this way using rudiment ideas is you get results similar to what an actual drummer is capable of playing, and how they would play it. You can also try some air drumming to see if it works! Basically I want a drummer to hear it and not know it's not a drummer!

Hi-hats will definitely make or break you when dealing with live kits. So get some good samples.


Programming Fills

Fills are a matter of personal taste. Simple is good for most pop and rock stuff. There are only a few simple rules or tips to follow.

  • Hi-hats and rides should stop playing where the fill starts. This is because the drummers hands are busy hitting other stuff (like the bass player!). Only include them if they're part of the fill.
  • Keep the fills at the right dynamic, and stylistically in the right place. Polyrhythmic Jazz fusion licks in a country track won't cut it!
  • Also small things like knowing that if you play a fill around the kit on toms the downbeat crash is usually played on the right side of the kit as it's nearest the low tom. It all helps!

If you need a syncopated fill and aren't quite sure how to do it, try this.

Step 1

Play in the accents you want for your fill. This should be what you hear in your head.


Step 2

Now it's just a case of filling in the blanks. All I've done is turned the main snare hits into 4-stroke ruffs and doubled the main snare hits.


Step 3

Now I'll add a hi-hat pedal from beat 2. This will allow any open hats to ring out over the start of the fill.


The last step was just a touch really as drummers often keep time through fills with the hi-hat pedal.

If your looking for an example of this, look no further than the breakdown section in 'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zepplin.

Step 4

Put it together and hear it in context!

This is one way of doing it. Don't be afraid to add premade MIDI file fills (EZdrummer) and tweak them if your having trouble. I've learnt a thing or two from looking at those, they're played in live! Speaking of learning from drummers....


Learn from Real Drummers!

Watch and Learn

Probably the best way to learn how to program is to watch real drummers play. You may want to be careful about asking drummers to show you something (unless you know them well) with them knowing it will go towards replacing them with a computer!

One example is once I was asked to program a half time shuffle similar to the groove on 'Rosanna' by Toto played by the late Jeff Porcaro. Try as I might I just couldn't get it just right. I eventually had to phone a drummer friend and ask him how it was done. Of course this was back before Youtube. Now one quick search on Google and you've Jeff Porcaro actually teaching you the groove!

Toto's Jeff Porcaro and Spinal Tap's John "Stumpy" Pepys both died in bizarre gardening accidents!

The Internet (especially Youtube) is full of excellent drum tuition videos. If you need to program a Latin groove for a production and your unsure how to do it just type in 'Latin groove tutorial' into Google and you'll have a wealth of information about the subject to learn from. Many tutorials deconstruct grooves and you'll always get something useful out of it.

Transcribe Beats

Learning beats from records and trying to copy them in a sequencer is a great way to understand how patterns are constructed. Here's a good example.

In the Jeff Pocaro video from the above link he says the beat is a combination of two grooves he took from 'Babylon Sisters' by Steely Dan (played by Bernard Purdy) and 'Fool in the Rain' by Led Zepplin (John Bonham). All he did was change the kick pattern (funnily enough to a pattern he stole from Bo Diddly).

The top kit (hats and snare) part is the key to all three grooves. Here it is written out.


Knowing this piece of information is all you now need to create your own half time shuffle patterns. A little piece of information can go a long way. Here's an example applying it to mimicking John Bonham's original drum track from 'Fool in the Rain'.

Here's the result.

The example programmed in Logic.

I worked on three seasons on a popular TV talent show here in the UK for a producer who was doing the backing tracks for the live shows. My job was to program the drum tracks as budgets and deadlines were tight. I'd have to dissect each cover version and meticulously copy the drum parts with sounds as close to the original recordings as possible. Know one ever knew they weren't real, and I learned a tonne!

Learn Some Basic Drum Notation

If you're confused at the notation above, it might be a good idea at familiarizing yourself with drum notation or notation in general. Most examples of drum patterns will be presented in this way so knowing where the drums are marked on the stave is quite important.

Here are some handy links to get you going.


Conclusion

This really is the tip of the iceberg as far live drum programming goes. I hope you've found some of this helpful. Next time you grab a pre-made MIDI for live drums think about trying it for yourself. Till the next time!

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