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…