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December 24, 2017 5 min read

How to Bring Drums to Life

It’s genuinely hard to make programmed drums sound good. Even rhythm-savvy producers spend hours finessing their percussive creations. The quick fix of quantization — the function in DAWs and drum machines that locks beats to a grid — tends to suck the life out of played beats. While you could spend the next 10,000 hours behind the MPC to get a flow like Dilla’s or chops like Just Blaze, here are some less time-consuming tricks to help bring that real feel to your beats.

First, some history. Programmed drums have been popular for decades. From obviously machine-heavy bands such as Kraftwerk to ’80s pop sensations A-Ha, drum machines have been at the heart of countless classic tracks. Practically every song by Prince features a Linn LM1; Marvin Gaye’s sultry ‘Sexual Healing’ opens with the unmistakable sounds of the Roland TR-808, and Kate Bush’sHounds Of Love album exemplifies the combination of machines and ‘real’ instruments in perfect harmony.

In the modern electronic music landscape, computerized beats provide the relentless, pounding rhythms that keep dance floors packed long into the early hours. Their predictable repetition is not only convenient for music that is intended to be beat-matched by a DJ, but it also defines genres. Minimal techno, for example, relies on subtle changes in mechanical patterns to build energy in music — and euphoria in the audience — over long periods of time. Drum machines are great!

But sometimes, even with electronic music, you want less machine, more human…

Quantization, Swing & Groove

Drummer jokes normally riff on the fact that drummers can’t keep time. While this is often painfully true, it’s these natural timing slips that give a groove its character. A 100% quantized beat will sound lifeless, so the very first step is to avoid automatically quantizing your patterns to 100%. Though less-harsh quantize settings (70%, say) can be useful to tighten things up, quantize algorithms pay no attention to the musicality of your song. In other words, you’ll want to dig into your sequences to tweak them manually.

Pattern swing and groove settings can be helpful to quickly add character to the beat, by imparting a programmed offset to some of the beats in the grid. However, the repetitive nature of mechanical beats will still be hard to mask. Many producers manually move the notes around in their loops to create micro variations in timing. The goal here is not total randomness, but to push or pull certain elements of the groove to give it an organic feel.

    Quantization, Swing & Groove

    Tips For Organic Sounding Drums

    • Turn off your DAW grid/snap settings and move drum hits manually by very small amounts before and after the beat. Use your ears — not the screen — to decide what sounds best. There is no right answer.
    • If you’re making four-to-the-floor music, try locking at least the first kick of each bar to the grid, then experiment with micro-timings throughout the bar. A slightly late-arriving snare will create a lilting effect, great for soulful house and disco.
    • Real drummers change their timing throughout the song, particularly in band-centric music. Often the final chorus will be a few BPM faster than the intro. If this is the effect you’re looking for, you can automate the tempo in your DAW or sequencer. As a general rule of thumb: increase tempo by 1 or 2 BPM as the musical energy rises.

    Perfecting The Velocity of Drums

    Adding variation in velocity is almost as important as timing. Drummers don’t hit with the same amount of force each time they make contact with a drum or cymbal; they place emphasis at different measures in the pattern. An eighth-note hi-hat pop/rock pattern in 4/4, for example, will feel more human with more emphasis on the down beat and a softer off-beat.

    Tips

    • MIDI velocities range from 0-127, so you have a reasonably wide dynamic range. If you want to mimic a real drummer, reserve maximum velocity for the very loudest moments of your song, and steer clear of using the same velocities for repeating drum hits to avoid the ‘machine-gun effect’.
    • Ensure your virtual drums are responding to the velocity variation you create. In software samplers, you’ll normally find a setting like ‘Vel > Vol’ which allows you to vary the extent to which the MIDI velocity affects the volume of the sounds played out.

    drum velocity in ableton

    Avoiding Repetition In YourDrum Loops

    Humans are highly attuned to identifying patterns. So a one-bar drum loop, no matter how ‘real’ sounding in isolation, will start to sound repetitive very quickly.

    Tips

    • Mix long loops of different lengths; maybe a 32-bar hi-hat, a 24-bar kick drum and a 10-bar snare. The interplay will create variety that will be constantly shifting throughout the track.
    • Add subtle variation to your drums. Hand-drawn ghost notes (the super-quiet hits before and after the snare back-beat, for example) will do a lot to trick the listener into thinking the player is human. Open hi-hats and suitably timed cymbal crashes will help here too.

    sample loop repetition

    Drum Machines & MPC's 

    Machine-based drums sound the way they do because their sounds are triggered according to a virtual grid, which is generated by a digital clock signal inside the machine. Drum machines are generally hard to humanize, but that’s not to say that they can’t have character.

    Tips

    • Program in the bones of your beat to a rigid timing structure, then experiment with manually playing in percussion and other additional parts. You don’t have to have exquisite finger-drumming skills to be able to bring your beats to life.
    • For the very wonkiest of beats, use extreme positive/negative swing settings and place drum hits one step out of place. The effect will be notes that appear so early/late that you can be fooled into thinking they’re in the right place.  

    Grid drums

    The Pocket & Rhythmic Timing

    You’ll often hear musicians referring to ‘the pocket’. This is an extension of the concept of groove, where the pocket is the specific push and pull of timing within a looping riff, ‘felt’ by the musicians playing it. Drummers like Steve Gadd and Clyde Stubblefield were masters of the pocket, and bands like Parliament/Funkadelic and Hiatus Kaiyote demonstrate incredible dexterity in this regard.

    The key here is the interplay between the bass, drums and other rhythmic and percussive elements of the musical arrangement. It’s crucial, when programming, to lock all these pattern components to the same groove, to get them all in the (same) pocket.

    Tips

    • Listen to the interplay between the bass and drums. If the bass is pushing/pulling at a certain time, make the drums follow. These microscopic timing fluctuations will give character and a sense of rhythmic consistency.
    • If you’re making music with a bass player, get her to overlay some sample-based percussion — mirroring the bass groove in percussion will form a subconscious musical bond that will help to tie your rhythm section together.  

    Rhythmic Timing

    Use Actual Live Drums!

    This seems like a dumb suggestion in an article about drum programming. But adding elements of human drumming or percussion — no matter how insignificant they seem — can brighten up the dullest of drums.

    Tips

    • If you don’t have a tambourine, shaker or other hand percussion available, try banging on the tabletop, shaking a can of coffee beans, or slapping random interesting-sounding items together. You’ll be surprised by the results.
    • If you don’t have A-class recording equipment, don’t worry. You don’t need Abbey Road’s mic collection or an acoustically perfect studio — you can easily mask imperfections by filtering and EQ. Remember that this shouldn’t be a prominent instrument; it just needs to be ‘there’ in the mix.

     

    Hopefully this list of tips will have you on the way to characterful, vibrant drums. One final piece of advice, especially in a subject that will have you staring at little dots on the screen… if itsounds right, it usually is.