The Ultimate Guide to Drum Programming

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It’s been a while since I wrote an “Ultimate Guide”, or mega-post. The last one, I believe, was on writing better and more memorable melodies which many of you found helpful.

This time around, we’re looking at an area of music production that’s just as important—if not more important—than writing melodies: drum programming.

Now, this post is particularly long (around 6,000 words). It’s not the kind of article you should skim over or read while you’re having a conversation with someone on Facebook. It will take a fair amount of time to get through.

On a more important note: what’s covered in this guide? Why should you read it?

The short answer? A lot. The long answer:

  • What is drum programming and why is it important?
  • Source material: where to find great samples and use them well
  • Simplicity, complexity, variation and interest
  • Swing and groove

Following that, there’s a section titled Genre Studies. This is where we’ll analyze a track in each major genre (Trance, House, Drum and Bass, and Dubstep), studying the style of drums and giving a breakdown of how those drums are programmed.

Also, if drum programming interests you, and you want to delve deeper into it and go above and beyond what’s taught in this article, I highly recommend reading the #HitIt – The Ultimate Guide to Programming Drums ebook.

And finally, before we start, if you find this article helpful in any way, I’d love if you could share it around. Sharing on Facebook and Twitter help immensely, but even letting a producer friend know about it is just as helpful.

Enough of that, let’s get into it.

Update: I’ve put together a pack of two cheat sheets that you can easily reference while producing. You can download them here.

What is Drum Programming?

Drum programming entered into existence with the invention of the first programmable drum machine. Apparently, before then, people used real drum kits and actually played them. Who would’ve thought?

Drum machines were used extensively in electronic music, but also other genres as well. The first programmable drum machine was the Eko ComputeRhythm, released in 1972. Several years later, Roland released two drum machines that would change the face of electronic music forever. The TR-808 and TR-909.

Nowadays, very few electronic music producers use drum machines in the classical sense. You might have a NI Maschine, which can act as a MIDI drum masch- I mean, machine; but I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this program your drums with a mouse.

Drum programming is essentially composing with drums. You’re not playing live, you’re plotting out sounds in a particular sequence. It differs from drum synthesis in that you’re not actually creating the sounds you’re using (though one could argue that drum synthesis is a part of drum programming).

The Importance of Good Drum Programming

There’s one musical element that’s fundamental to dance music…Groove. Without a solid groove, dance music is not dance music, it’s just some other weird experimental form of music.

Groove should be the basis for all your tracks, assuming your goal is to make people dance (by dance, I mean anything from tapping a foot to spinning with all limbs flailing everywhere).

People get hung up on this because they think groove means lowering the tempo to 125BPM and make a funky tech house track. This is bad thinking. Groove can take on many different forms; a 175BPM drum and bass track can have groove, just as a 140BPM tech-trance banger can. Groove does not mean swing, it just means the track has a solid rhythm that people can identify with.

How Groove is Formed

All instruments in a song should contribute to groove, but there are two in particular that lay the foundation for it: drums and bass.

Though the two work together, there’s a significant difference between drums and bass in terms of their contribution to groove. If you solo your bassline, it’s not going to have much of a groove. It needs to work in relation to something, i.e., drums. However, if you solo your drum section, then you’re going to have a groove.

So, we can argue that groove is formed first and foremost with drums. In that case, don’t you think we should put a fair bit of effort into programming them?

The Benefits of Learning How to Program Drums

At its core, drum programming is easy. It’s not difficult to create a basic kick-hat-snare drum pattern.

When you go deep into drum programming, however, you find there’s a hell of a lot to learn. It might be a certain technique, the use of polyrhythms, programming complex hi-hat patterns, trying to make your drums sound more human, and so on.

Learning how to program drums, like anything else in the field of music production, is a lifelong process.

But there are key benefits to being a good drum programmer:

  • You have a good sense of rhythm
  • Your tracks generally have good groove
  • You’re great at choosing samples and manipulating them
  • You understand the balance between simple and complex

Why? Because the skills you learn through drum programming also apply to other facets of music production.

Good vs. Satisfactory

If you didn’t notice, the heading for this section is called The Importance of Good Drum Programming.

Good drum programming stands out. There are some beautifully composed tracks out there that fall short when it comes to drums, and it’s noticeable. It doesn’t mean the track isn’t great, but it’s just somewhat of a disappointment.

Which begs the most important question, how do you become good at programming drums?

Listen, Listen, and Listen

You can’t draw a house if you don’t know what a house looks like, just as you can’t program good drums if you don’t know what good drums sound like.

Nine times out of ten when producers come to me with a problem, I respond with “You need to listen to music.”

The problem might be that they can’t come up with an idea for their drop. No worries, go listen to some drops.

The problem might be that their intro sounds too boring. Okay, go listen to some intros.

Listening is essential. You need to listen to tracks that have good drums. Not only do you need to listen, you need to analyse them. Take down notes, question why they used particular sounds, think about how strong the groove is and what sounds are contributing to it the most.

In other words, it’s active listening. Treat it as production time and spend 30-60 minutes listening to tracks, specifically the drums in those tracks.

If you need a starting point, here are tracks that I consider to have fantastic drums:

House

Trance

Drum and Bass/Breaks/Dubstep

Note: if you read this list and get annoyed at the fact that I haven’t included song X, leave a comment with a link to it and I’ll update the post to include it (if I think it has great drums).

Source Material Before Skill

Good sounding drums starts with good samples. As the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.

The better your source material is, the less work you have to do. There’s nothing wrong with layering 7 claps together, but sometimes one clap is all that’s needed. The same goes with kicks. Layering kicks is a complex process in and of itself, and often it’s better to find just one quality kick sample.

Obviously using good samples still means you have to actually sequence your drums. Samples don’t do the work for you. What they do is increase the odds of your drums sounding great from the get-go, and unlike bad quality samples, they don’t need as much processing in order to fit with the rest of your drums.

I’m not going to tell you how to pick the right samples for your drum section, because that should be an intuitive process. There’s no method or technique for picking good samples, it’s about using your ear. One thing that helps, of course, is to develop your ear to listen for samples that will fit well. The best way to do this, other than to practice, is to again listen to other music.

Where to Find Great Samples

Unfortunately there are a lot of low quality sample packs out there, free and paid. A good quality sample pack should last you many years and allow for the production of many tracks, but they’re hard to find.

Fortunately, I’ve wasted a lot of money on these things, so I’ve got a fair idea of what’s good and bad. I’ve listed a few good sample packs for each major genre below:

House/Modern EDM

Trance

Dubstep/Drum and Bass

If you’re thinking of buying a particular sample pack, I strongly recommend you download a free taster pack or demo pack if it’s available. This is a good way to test the quality of the samples and decide whether you think the pack is of quality.   Another tip that I wish I’d been told is to keep your sample collection to a minimum. You really only need a few good packs and that’s it. The more samples you have, the more time you’ll waste looking for the right sound. Save money and get creative with what you have.

Free Samples?

I’ve only linked a few premium sample packs above. I highly recommend buying at least one sample pack, because the quality is generally a lot better than free sample packs, but that doesn’t mean that good free sample packs don’t exist.

There are a number of places you can find free samples:

Your Samples Aren’t as Bad as You Think

When you have too many sample packs, you tend to look for the perfect sample. In fact, this can happen regardless of how many sample packs you have.

Sometimes you’ll be looking for a particular sound, say a clap, and you’ll come across one that fits perfectly without any adjustment. This happens from time to time, and it’s great. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen; you’ll come across samples that sound like they might be able to fit, samples that are okay, samples that have minor flaws, and so on.

These are the samples you should be using. Do not waste your time browsing for the perfect sample, it’s an ineffective use of your time. Look for the sample that works alright, and then process it so it becomes the perfect sample.

For example, you’re looking for a meaty snare that has a nice thwack around 200Hz and a crisp high-end. You come across one that has a nice thwack, but not enough high-end. Use it. It’s not the perfect sample, it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but it will do the job. After that, you can either boost the high-end with an EQ or add some distortion, or you can layer it with another snare that contains the high-end character that you want.

Instead of listening to the sample as it is, listen to what it could be. Do this, and you’ll find that the samples you own are far more usable than you think.

The Creative Potential of Using Samples You Hate

Problems require creative solutions, which is why it’s a good idea to use a sample you absolutely hate from time to time and do your best to make it fit with the rest of your drums.

You’ll probably fail the first time you try this, but that doesn’t matter. Using a sample that you hate forces you to think outside-the-box to fix it. You might have to add reverb in a certain way to cover up a horrible artifact in the sample, or do complex surgery with an EQ.

It’s not something I recommend doing with every track, but if you’re in need of a creative challenge, then it’s definitely worth doing.

Simplicity and Complexity

Drum programming seems simple, but isn’t.

To get a cohesive sounding drum section, you might need to spend ludicrous amounts of time adjusting the velocity on your hi-hats, or the reverb decay tail on your clap. It’s the minor intricacies that reflect your taste and add complexity to a seemingly simple part of your song.

Simplicity Goes A Long Way

Many producers, however, feel they need to focus on complexity more than anything. They feel their drums need to have at least 15 different channels, and that the more percussion they add, the better.

The problem of over-complexity or over-producing is a big one. It’s such a topic that I’d rather address it in a dedicated post.

The important thing to note here is that the simple solution is often the best. This means if you’re making a Deadmau5-like progressive house track and you’re not sure if you need to add an extra percussion sound, you should err towards not doing so.

The other reason for avoiding complexity is that your drums, while essential, only make up a single part of the track. You need to leave room for your basses, synths, FX, and other bits of audio scattered around the place. If you work on your drums early on in the production process (and I recommend you do), you should think ahead about what you’re going to add afterwards, and make room accordingly.

In addition to all that, the more simple your drums are, the more impact they have. The hard-hitting dubstep that was popular a few years back had incredibly simple drums, as did a lot of earlier trance. What stood out was that each drum hit punched through the mix. When your drum sections are too complex, the main features (kick, snares, claps, toms) of your drum section often become hidden.

Adding Interest and Variation

No one wants to listen to the exact same 1-bar drum loop for 16 bars. It’s boring. Yes, you should have a core drum loop: in most dance music this will be your kick, clap, hat, and maybe toms or other percussion—the sounds that play every bar. But you also want to add material to make the drum loop more interesting.

I recommend following the 2/4/8 approach, which goes something like this:

  • Every 2 bars, have a particular drum hit play
  • Every 4 bars, have a new drum hit play that’s bigger or louder than the 2 bar one
  • Every 8 bars, have another drum hit play that’s bigger than both the 2 bar and 4 bar hit

In practice, this might look like:

  • 2 bars: reverse clap before the last clap on the 4th beat of the 2nd bar.
  • 4 bars: deep tom on the last 16th of the 4th bar
  • 8 bars: gated snare on the last beat of the 8th bar

Doing this turns what would be a boring 8 bar loop into a far more interesting one. It’s also a good way to incorporate micro-tension into your track.

You don’t need to add extra samples to do this though. What you can do is simply vary the sequence at certain points to create interest. For example, instead of having a reverse clap before the last clap every 2 bars, you have the last clap hit twice (one hit on the beat, and then another straight after on the offbeat). Instead of having a low tom on the last 16th of the 4th bar, you add an extra kick in. And instead of having a gated snare on the last beat of the 8th bar, you remove everything apart from a clap.

Using Swing and Groove

Beyond picking the right samples, laying out a drum section, and adding variation, there’s one other thing you can do to make your drums sound better.

Swing.

Almost all DAWs provide the option to add swing to audio and MIDI clips. Typically, it’s under the quantise section of whatever DAW you’re using, but some DAWs will be different. For example, Ableton Live has a dedicated groove pool as shown below.

Live Groove Pool

Adding groove or swing to your drums can take them from being straight and boring to funky and exciting, or it can completely screw them up.

I like to use subtle swing on almost every track I make. It’s unnoticeable, as in, if someone listened to it they’d be hard-pressed to hear the swing doing its work, but as soon as it’s turned off, you notice its absence.

I encourage you to experiment with swing. There’s no way to really “teach” you how to use it, because it’s so subjective. You might produce funky tech house where using heavy swing will make sense, or you might make 138BPM uplifting trance in which case heavy swing won’t work as well.

Adding Swing to Individual Sounds

It’s generally a good idea to add swing to all your drums, but you can also apply it to individual instruments.

For example, you add a shaker that plays every 16th note to your drum loop, but you find it’s a little too straight and boring. At the same time, you don’t really want to add swing to everything else, so you add swing to just the shaker. This doesn’t always work, and depends largely on the strength of swing you add as well as the other drum sounds you’re using, so it’s wise to experiment.

Genre Study: Trance

Trance isn’t a genre that relies on drums as much as others do (such as house or drum and bass). That being said, there are still many interesting things about drums in trance which we’ll take a look at.

We’ll be looking at the drums in two main strands of trance music: uplifting and modern.

By uplifting, I mean tracks from artists like Ian Standerwick, ReOrder, Photographer, and so forth.

By modern, I mean tracks from artists like Beat Service, Mark Sixma, and Shogun.

Uplifting Trance

Uplifting trance is heavily focused on melody and progression. In more recent times, however, the drums in uplifting trance have become somewhat more important, especially the kick.

Breaking it Down

Uplifting trance is pretty straight forward in terms of programming. Here’s the pattern for Boulevard by Jamie Walker:   Boulevard   And it sounds like this:

Key Points

There are a few things you notice when listening to the drums in uplifting trance. The first is how powerful the kick is. Uplifting trance tracks typically use a very heavy kick that has a lot of power, sometimes this can even sound overpowering, but it works in the context of the track.

The second thing to notice is how important the off-beat is. Often there’ll be an open hi-hat on the off-beat to help move the track forward, which works in unison with the pumping sidechain that most uplifting trance features.

Another thing to point out is the claps used in uplifting trance. The claps are often very simple compared to other genres, and tend to have a long tail which leverages the “pumping” effect. This can be achieved by adding a reverb with a long pre-delay to a basic clap.

As a whole, uplifting trance is quite basic in terms of drums. If there’s complexity, you’ll find it in the high-end with the hi-hats and ride cymbals. There’s rarely any low-end percussion due to how the bassline is arranged, and also very little percussion in the mids due to the bassline taking up that area of the frequency spectrum as well.

Modern Trance

The modern trance sound that’s become more popular over the last couple of years is much harder to define. On one hand, you’ve got the Enhanced-style electro-influenced trance, and on the other hand you’ve got a smoother sound that’s still considered modern.

I’m going to stick to the sound that artists like Beat Service and Shogun produce.

Breaking it Down

Because this style of music is so diverse, it’s extremely hard to give what would be an average example of the drum sequence. Some modern trance tracks are very simple, following a pattern similar to that of uplifting. Others are far more complex. I’ve used the Beat Service remix of Armin van Buuren’s Waiting For The Night as an example.

Beat Service Drums

Here’s what it sounds like:

There’s also a fair bit of swing added to this pattern.

Key Points

Compared to uplifting trance, modern trance drums tend to be more broken. Short percussion sounds break the flow and make the pattern sound more complex and interesting.

Electro-influenced trance tends to feature more toms and percussion. Transcend by Z.E.R.O is a good example of this: Because modern/progressive trance is generally a lot slower than uplifting, you can program drums in a certain way (a complex way) and it won’t sound as bad as it would at a faster tempo. For example, if the above song was playing at 138BPM, the drums wouldn’t work anywhere near as well.

Genre Study: House

House is very diverse. I’ve used the term house to encompass a wide range of sub-genres from deep house to modern big room, festival-type music. We’ll be looking at the following sub-genres:

  • Electro house
  • Deep/future house
  • Tech house
  • Tropical/melodic/chilled house
  • Big Room

Electro House

Before we look at drums in the electro house genre, I want to clarify what I mean by electro house. I don’t claim to be an expert on genres and what’s what, so you may disagree with how I categorise things, but that’s not what matters here. What matters is learning how to program drums.

When I talk about electro house, I mean artists like Wolfgang Gartner, Feed Me, Mord Fustang, and so on. You could call it complextro. The reason I’m doing this is because of how many different styles of music “electro house” encompasses. If I’m going by Beatport’s standards, which I don’t think are the best, then I’d have to put Melbourne Bounce, Big Room, and many other styles under the same umbrella, which is far too difficult to do.

That being said, if there’s enough demand, I will update this post to include genres like Melbourne Bounce. Just let me know in the comments if you’d like this to happen.

Breaking it Down

I’m using Mord Fustang’s remix of Fussy Boy’s Gold as an example. To me, it’s the perfect example of classic electro house drums. Simple, dirty, and effective.

Electro House   Here’s what it sounds like:

Key Points

One thing to note about electro house drums is the incredibly simple patterns. The track above is literally just a kick, hat, and snare pattern (though there is a hi-hat layered with the kick). Why are they so simple? I would argue that it’s to provide contrast to the complex arrangement of basses and synths, but that’s just me.

Another thing worth pointing out is the sound of the drums. This correlates to mixing rather than programming, but generally electro house drums are very dirty and “rock” like. A good way to achieve this is by using parallel distortion or simply picking samples that have a rough characteristic.

Deep/Future House

Now for the hot genre at the moment, deep house. I’ve included future house too, just because I don’t want an elitist to come along and tell me that what I’m calling deep house isn’t deep house.   I’m talking about style of drums used by artists such as Tchami, Gorgon City, Disclosure, and Oliver Heldens. Call it what you want, I’m going to stick with deep/future because the drum style in both is very similar.

Breaking it Down

The song I’m modelling is Dreams by Tough Love.

Deep Future

Here’s how it sounds:

Key Points

The key thing to note with deep/future house is the use of swing. It’s not always used, but most of the time it is, and it’s heavy swing. It also generally only affects the 16th notes, so the open offbeat hi-hat isn’t being affected. It’s the closed hi-hats and the snare drums that contribute to the swing.

It’s also interesting how loose the drums are in most deep/future house songs. It’s much different to trance, for example, where the drums are tightly quantised and clean. This certain style of music also allows for samples that sound a little more dirty than usual, similar to electro house.

And finally, the drums are quite simple in terms of samples and layering. Many deep house tracks use a standard 707 clap, for example. The bassline is the focus, and the drums are there to support it. Not the other way around.

Tech House

Tech house is very similar to deep house, but there are obvious differences when you listen closely. Drums tend to take precedence over the bassline, for example.

Breaking it Down

There are tech house tracks out there with complex drum patterns which I could use as an example. However, due to the size of this article, and it not being tech-house specific, I’m going to use a track with a relatively simple yet classic tech house drum pattern; Coffee by Guille Placencia.

Coffee

Here’s how it sounds:

Key Points

Tech house can be quite diverse, so the drums in one track may sound a lot different to another. However, there are a few key takeaways.

The first is that there’s a big focus on the offbeat. In the example above, there’s a strong ride cymbal coupled with an open hi-hat that drives the song forward.

Secondly, tech house tends to have a lot more percussion than say, deep house. You’ll often hear tribal percussion, toms, snare rolls, and more.

Another thing that I haven’t touched on yet is that tech house, along with other genres including deep house, often uses a double kick before the start of a phrase (every 8-16 bars or so). This means that instead of the kick playing…   X – – – X – – – X – – – X – – –   on the last bar, it plays…   X – – – X – – – X – – – X – X –   This often adds a bit of energy and is an effective way to bring a new element in.

Tropical/Melodic House

One of my favorite genres at the moment, and for good reason. This type of music is always enjoyable to listen to. It’s very creative, and the drums are always amazing.

Breaking it Down

I’m going to be using Kygo’s popular track Firestone as an example:

Firestone

How it sounds:

Key Points

Unlike other genres, there isn’t really a common drum pattern in the genre. That being said, there are a few key things to notice, especially with Kygo’s track.

The thing that most stands out, at least to me, is the amount of reverb on the drums. Barring the kick, every hit has a tonne of reverb on it. You could argue that this is part of Kygo’s style alone, but a lot of artists in this genre do the same thing.

The use of samples also stands out. A lot of melodic house songs will feature the clap on the second beat, but not the fourth. Or they’ll use a different sound for for fourth beat. In the case of Firestone, Kygo has a very interesting pattern, with a snap on the second followed by a sidestick/snare on the third.

Big Room

Ah, big room. The most controversial genre of our time.

What am I talking about?

I mean the festival music. The big hardstyle like kick, the supersaw melodies, and simplistic drop. It might not be considered house music, but it’s worth covering, especially considering how popular it’s become.

Breaking it Down

Because the drums follow a common pattern and style, I’ve made my own pattern instead of remaking one.

Big Room

How it sounds:

Key Points

The first thought is, why is this drum pattern so simple?

It’s simple because it works. Festival music isn’t made for listening at home and lavishing in its artistic complexity. It’s purpose is to make people jump up and down, go crazy, and enjoy themselves. The average festival-goer doesn’t care much as to whether a producer puts in a few extra shaker hits here and there.

Typically, big room will feature a subby, distorted kick. This is obviously a key element. Often it’s layered with a clap, which often has a lot of reverb added and is sidechained to the kick. Also, it’s not uncommon to hear a ride cymbal on top of this also.

Occasionally you’ll hear a tom playing the same pattern, or similar pattern to the one above. This can drive the track forward and add extra energy after the initial 8 or 16 bars in the drop have played.

When it comes to choosing samples and programming big room drums, you need to think BIG and keep it simple.

Genre Study: Drum and Bass

Alright, we’ve looked at the four-on-the-floor stuff, so it’s time to branch out and look at two other popular genres, starting with drum ’n’ bass.

To be upfront, I’m not a drum ’n’ bass producer and never have been. My knowledge is somewhat limited, so just keep that in mind as you go through this section. If you’re looking for tips from the pros, I highly recommend reading Trevor Waldorf’s guest post: Drum Tips From 6 Talented Drum & Bass Producers.

Breaking it Down

I’m using Calyx & Teebee’s Elevate This Sound as an example. Please note that I’m modelling the middle part of the track that doesn’t contain all the percussion.   DnB

How it sounds:

Key Points

Drum and bass is fast. I would argue it’s the hardest genre to program drums in, not only due to the speed, but the importance of the drums themselves. After all, it is called Drum and bass.

One of the key things that stands out in drum and bass is the snare. It’s absolutely essential that you get the snare right. In house and trance music, the snare or clap is a supplementary sound. In drum ’n’ bass and dubstep, it’s a foundational sound (like a kick would be in house music).

Another thing that stands out is the use of hi-hats. There are often many different layers of hi-hats going on at the same time. The above example is relatively simple as far as Drum ’n’ bass is concerned.

Genre Study: Dubstep

Like trance, there’s sort of a disagreement on what “real” dubstep is. You’ve got the original sound being pushed by artists like Benga and Coki, and the more modern sound that Zomboy and others are proponents of.

Breaking it Down

I’m going to be using the middle ground as an example. A track I consider to have modern elements while still staying close to the original sound. That track is Flying to Mars by Foreign Beggars feat. Donae’O.

Dubstep

Here’s how it sounds:

Key Points

The drums in dubstep are supporting elements for the bassline, and therefore are quite simple and straightforward. One thing to note is the laid-back feel of the drums, especially in this particular track. The shuffle-like rhythm of the hi-hat makes for a very loose groove which works cleverly with the bassline.

The other thing to notice in this track is the subtle percussion. I didn’t notice it at first, but after listening more closely it becomes clear.

Tips and Tricks

  • Use ADSR extensively to make samples fit with the rest of your drums.
  • If you have to add a lot of effects to your sample to make it fit, it’s probably a bad sample.
  • Use bad samples on purpose to invoke creative and unique solutions.
  • Use swing on individual elements to add complexity.
  • Simplicity goes a long way. Always ask yourself whether you need to add another sound.
  • When picking samples, use the search function in your DAW’s sample browser. It’s far quicker and easier than opening up sample pack folders.
  • Add interest and variation. Have a sound that plays every 1, 2, 4, and 8 bars.
  • To improve your drum programming skill, remake patterns from existing tracks in your genre.
  • Always keep room for other elements (bass, synths, vocals, etc).

Conclusion + Cheat Sheet

We’ve covered a lot of material. We’ve looked at the importance of good drum programming, why you need to listen in order to learn, and we’ve also worked through a range of different genres, analysing the drums in one song from each.

If this article helped you in anyway, I would really appreciate it if you shared it. Twitter and Facebook shares help immensely.

And finally, if you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Photo Credit: ebaycustomers001 via Compfight cc

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