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5 Drum-Programming Secrets

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There have been dramatic shifts in music production over the last 10-15 years. If the phrase “big guitars” could be used to sum up the production style of the late 20th Century in general, the 21st Century could be described as “big drums.” The continued explosion of Hip Hop and EDM, combined with the proliferation of affordable, computer-based production setups, have both been contributing factors to the trend of drum-beat-driven production across the entire spectrum of musical genres. Hence, here are five secrets to programming banging, bouncing drums.

Pick the Right Drum Sounds

This may sound obvious, but picking the appropriate drum sounds for your track is huge, and it’s not always as easy as it sounds. For instance, if you’re making a modern hip-hop track, you may be inclined to start with a typical 808 clap, or, if you’re making a house track, a 909 kick may be your go-to sample. While these may be great starting points, it’s important to stay flexible, without getting too attached to a particular sound. What I mean by that, is once you start building up the additional elements of your track, like synths, basses, and guitars, it’s imperative to stay in tune to whether your drum sounds are still working, in terms of style and feel, as the song takes shape.

In my experience, new producers tend to “fall in love” with a sound, and sometimes try to force it into a song to which it doesn’t lend itself. This is can be the cause of a track “just not feeling right.” So be flexible. All drums should be considered “scratch drums” until the track really takes shape, and when it’s truly working, you’ll know it instinctively.

Layering Drum Samples

Layering multiple samples on top of each other can be a useful technique for beefing up your kick and snare in certain situations. Here’s a common scenario. Say your track has a long, resonant, 808 kick with pitch changes that serves as a bass line, and a shorter kick that plays on all of the same beats. Maybe you have a low pass filter on the long 808 that rolls off the high end around 90 Hz, which makes room in the mix for the shorter, punchier kick. The track is giving you plenty of “boom” in the low end, but you can’t seem to get that midrange “knock” in the kick you’re looking for, no matter how much you fiddle around with the EQ. Sound familiar? If so, I want to let you know that you are not alone, and that there is hope. Read on.

When I find myself in this situation I like go into my drum library, and find a second, natural-sounding kick that has a present beater head in the sample. Then, I insert an EQ and make a hard, high pass around 800 Hz, give it a moderately tight bump at 1 kHz or so, and then roll the high end off all the way until around 2.5 kHz. On its own, this will just sound like a little, innocent “click.” But, when layered in with your main kick and bass, it can make a world of difference, giving your drums a much harder hitting sound. Now, you don’t want this beater head kick to be too loud. Rather, it should blend into your low kick, to give the impression you’re only hearing one, extremely hard-knocking kick.

Bump Your Drums Around

When I was first getting into music production, I wondered how my favorite producers got their tracks to “bounce” or “groove” in such cool and unique ways. I’d played around with the groove and swing functions on my MPC, and in my DAW, but my patterns tended to feel formulaic, and I just wasn’t getting the drum feel I wanted. After hundreds of frustrating hours of terribly stiff beats that no one could dance to, a more experienced producer friend finally clued me in to the missing piece of the puzzle by introducing me to the practice of bumping my drums around on the MIDI grid manually.

There is a method to the madness, however. Much of the swing feel lies in the hi hats. Try this. The next time you’re composing a drum pattern, turn off the “snap to grid” function in your DAW, and try pushing all your hi hats just slightly late on the grid. Then maybe select every other hat, and push those a bit later. For kicks and snares, hard quantizing often works for the downbeats, but try bumping around the kicks and snares that happen on the upbeats that lead into the downbeats. Experiment with it, and see what kind of unique grooves you can come up with. This is a more advanced technique, but with practice it can add a new level of expression to your production arsenal, and help you start to develop a signature sound.

Tune Your Drums

Although it’s often overlooked, tuning your drums to your track can make a big difference. While not an exact science (most drums are technically unpitched instruments), I find that making slight pitch adjustments to my drum sounds to better match the key of the song can be very helpful when trying to perfect a groove. Before you even reach for an EQ, try tuning the pitch of the kick so it blends as well as possible with the bass, yielding the most thump and definition. Tune your snare or clap to dial-in just the amount of “weight” needed to get your head really nodding.

ADSR

ADSR stands for Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release, and is sometimes called an envelope control. ADSR allows you to shape the way in which your drum hits are triggered. Almost all drum samplers have ADSR controls, and they work in a standard way. The attack parameter can be set to determine the time it takes for the sound to reach full volume when it’s triggered, and the decay sets the time it takes for the sound to drop to the sustain level after this peak. The sustain is not a time value but, rather, it sets the volume level of the sound after the decay and it lasts until the triggered sound is released. Finally, the release parameter sets the fade time after the note is released.

The use of ADSR envelope controls on your drum kit can really tighten things up, improving the groove and mix of your drum sound. For example, if you’re layering kicks together, as I mentioned above, you may also want to chop the attack off your low kick to make room for the high beater head kick to peek through. Conversely, you could also set an extremely short decay, and chop the release off the beater head kick sound, so as not to cloud up the low, thumpy kick. That’s just one example, but hopefully it shows that ADSR can have a massive impact on the tightness and clarity of your drum sound.

I hope you enjoyed these tips, and I encourage you to try some of these techniques out for yourself. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have in the Comments section, below.

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