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The Non-Drummer's Guide to Drum Programming

The Non-Drummer's Guide to Drum Programming

It's a problem all too common to the aspiring solo artist. You've got all these great songs, a mountain of brilliant ideas and the performance down just right. Unfortunately, the tracks aren't hitting with as much authority as you'd like. You need low-end. You need rhythm. You need drums.

It also so happens you don't know any drummers, or you don't want to, or you can't seem to find one that understands what you're talking about when you say "No, don't play ba-da-da-dum-dada-DUM, I meant play ba-da-dum-dadum-DA!" Being the impractical instrument they are - not to mention expensive - and considering the years upon years of dedication they take to master, just playing them yourself might be out of the question. Most engineers and producers agree that drums are among the hardest instruments to track with any kind of quality (especially on a budget), which certainly doesn't help matters. So what's a percussionless songster or songstress to do?

Simple: you're going to take the easy way out. You're going to save yourself the hassle of finding someone who can work through your songs and booking the session to record them. You're going to program the drums instead.

This may seem daunting, and might conjure up images of weird goth and techno musicians tinkering with endless racks of equipment, but artificial drum technology has come a long way, having reduced those mountains and mountains of gear into tablet units or even mere megabytes on your computer.

The options for creating artificial drum tracks fall into two distinct categories: outboard hardware and software kits. Outboard hardware refers to any number of pieces of gear which create the drum or percussive sounds through internal sound synthesizers. These range from dedicated sound modules, such as Roland's famous TR-808 or its later standby Boss-branded sibling DR-880 drum machine, to full out electronic drum kits, such as the Roland V-Drums, which still operate by playing a standard kit rigged with triggers atop pads. Rather than making any actual sounds, the drums and cymbals transmit a signal to another module to play a certain sound based on which piece of the kit is hit.

Some pieces of gear actually combine the two, such as the MIDI-controllable Triton module by Korg, itself a rack-mountable set containing all the sounds from the industry-standard keyboard, drums or otherwise. In fact, most keyboard manufacturers are creating rack modules containing the entire sound libraries from their more popular gear. The specific piece of equipment needed is dependent on the situation, although the trend with most manufacturers is to create more realistic-sounding drum modules.

Interestingly, blatantly artificial-sounding synthesizers have been put at a premium, even on the second-hand market, and vintage TR-808 machines can sell for as much as $2,000 used. This has caused many headaches in some gear-obsessed industrial and techno music circles, but especially in hip-hop circles where the TR-808 sounds essentially defined the sound of the genre in the 1980's. Other modules have come along containing similar samples, but even Roland hasn't been able to match the slight, unplanned, legendary flaws of the original.

All hardware modules feature at least an instrument-cable line out jack, with some even having XLR or RCA outs as well, offering endless flexibility in recording and in drum sound manipulation. For example, a drum machine with an instrument-cable line out could then be run through a standard digital delay pedal for that "spaced-out" percussion sound. British prog-rockers Porcupine Tree used this sound to great effect throughout their 2002 album In Absentia.

Software kits come in literally countless forms, but two of the most common are FL Studio and the ReDrum programmer included with Native Instruments' Reason. Many producers and songwriters also use some of the VST (virtual studio technology) capabilities of recording suites such as Apple's Logic Pro, Steinberg Media Technolgies' Cubase, and Sony's loop-based Acid Pro to drag-and-drop drum loops into the desired order.

This last idea presents an interesting and extremely (although creatively suspect) alternative to programming drum patterns step-by-step, and that is the use of prepackaged drum loop files. A number of companies sell CDs and even DVDs full of expert-recorded and pro-played drum patterns, fills, and single hits saved as .WAV and .AIFF files. These can be loaded up, sequenced, multi-tracked and played over each other in any order the arranger would like, and can take a lot of the hassle out of stringing together longer sections of drumming. The downside of this is that, unless your audio editing skills are exceptional, you're essentially stuck with both the sound and the playing contained in these loops. This will all be magnified the further along you carry your recordings; for simple, working demos at home, these may be passable. For fully-distributed recordings, you have effectively surrendered control of a major element of your sound and style before it was even time to lay down the tracks. This is why you're instead going to work out your own percussion, and it's not as hard at most people would have you think.

The first thing you absolutely must be able to discern is how the drums or percussion for your song need to be played. There are countless ways to find the rhythm or groove, and these will vary by songwriter. Most commonly, you can either use your feet or hands to bang on things while playing (or listening to playback of) the track. Hitting a variety of surfaces will help as well, as the different tones will vaguely simulate the different elements of a drum kit. Get as familiar as possible with the pattern that works here (writing it down or making a recording for reference would be preferable). Here it may also help to play along with a metronome to establish where different percussions will hit – on the ones, behind the threes, and so forth. This will also help you establish an idea of your song's time signature, which will become the foundation of what your actual drum tracks look like.

The easiest way to determine the time signature of your song is to first simply count out the "natural" beat of your improvised hands-and-feet rhythm sketch. To put it another way, how many equal parts does your beat pattern fall into? Make note of this number, and then take note of how many beats fall into each of those parts. This will become your time signature with the first number on top and the second number on the bottom. Most songs in Western music are in either 4/4 or 2/4, but nearly all drum programming methods allow any possible signature to be put in place.

You'll also need to figure out the tempo of your song, as measured in beats per minute (abbreviated as bpm). For example, your song were a 3/4 waltz, you could determine your song's bpm by counting the number of times in 15 seconds your pattern returns to the 1 beat. So if you were to cycle through that beat pattern 20 times in 15 seconds, the song would multiply out to 80 bpm.

Now that you've got your basic beat idea worked out, it's time to translate that into actual percussive sounds. Of course, you could always simply record yourself hitting books, desktops, or other surfaces around the house (Eurythmics actually did this to great success with empty milk bottles on "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)", but that may open a whole new can of recording worms).

For starters, you'll need to tell your sequencer or software what signature your song requires and what tempo it should be played back. From there, you're essentially given a blank sheet upon which to place those kicks, toms, snares and cymbal crashes. While there is no literal translation from your original "boom" sounds and hitting a pen on a doorframe, it may be best to first make a very loose approximation by using a kick for the lower sounds you made and a snare for the higher popping sounds, with a cymbal thrown in for each crashing sound you needed. Most programming tools have multiple choices for each of these, but for now it's more important to get the beat down rather than worry about nuances.

Once you've got the skeleton of the beat loaded, it's time to look at fleshing out each drum hit. An important element of live drumming is the variation in the intensity of each hit, and in drum programming this is referred to as velocity. Each individual hit can be set to register as either soft, medium, or hard, which in turn will change the volume of that specific instance of that particular sound.

Another trick to keep in mind is that, while your song may by definition require, for example, a 4/4 beat, the percussive hits you need don't all fall exactly on the 1, 2, 3 or 4. This is a fairly common problem, but fortunately an easy one to work around. By simply changing the time signature to make the beat pattern twice as long, you suddenly have twice as much percussion space with which to work. For example, going from a 6/4 to a 12/4 will turn the original 6 slots within the drum track to 12 for drum or cymbal hits, but will keep the overall feel intact. This also creates more room for flourishes and a generally busier percussion arrangement, two things which define a lot of jazz, rock, and heavy metal drumming and will go a long way towards making your artificial drums sound like the real thing.

Something else to keep in mind is that the basic of tenets of drum programming are not exclusive to drum programming. Beat structure, timing, fills and flourishes in percussion are the exact same things that define playing a guitar, piano, bass, or any instrument in a rhythm setting. By the same token, it's also possible to use things besides drums in drum programming settings. Sampled instruments, sound effects, external sound banks – anything is possible, because the foundations of drum programming are the same foundations of MIDI controlling and sequencing, but those are advanced discussions in their own right.

It's important to remember that percussion is not just about playing drums; percussion is the entire rhythmic foundation of any song. When cost, precision, and convenience are of the essence, drum programming is the only logical way to go.

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