Drum Programming: Secrets of the Stone Masons (Not really)
Contrary to popular belief, the bass wizards of today’s electronic music scene are not endowed with an innate, mystical knowledge of secret VST’s or sacred hardware from the 80’s that provides them authentic, punchy, and dynamic drum kits. Although with some basic knowledge of sound design, extensive practice using sound tools (EQ, Compression, etc.), and by taking on an intimate relationship with your DAW, even you can achieve the throat-punching effectiveness of an intellectually engineered drum kit.
The majority of problems new producers/engineers face with drum programming are:
1. A lack of punch with percussion elements
2. Mechanical-sounding drum kits
3. Percussive elements not sitting/sounding well with the melodies and synths
The purpose of this article is to help you understand some of the mental processes involved with percussion sound design and is by no means a definitive guide on the subject. With that said, ALWAYS trust your ears! If it sounds good to you, it IS good.
Part 1 is tailored towards the beginner-intermediate level producer; therefore some basic knowledge is required to grasp the concepts discussed here.
MIDI vs. Audio
There are two options for “in-the-box” drum programming; MIDI and audio programming. In a nutshell, MIDI is a protocol used by music systems to communicate across software, hardware, and internal platforms. It is the programming language of the recording world.
For our purposes, MIDI programming is used with a sampler that can program MIDI “notes” in a sampler’s piano roll in order to trigger a stored audio sample in a sampler.
The main advantages of MIDI are:
-A clean interface and the ability to replicate sections cleanly
-Many MIDI effects such as swing and velocity
-The ability to preview samples very easily which is EXTREMELY important when choosing the right samples (we will cover sample selection later on.)
Audio programming consists of literally laying samples directly into a DAW’s arrangement timeline in order to create sequences rather than using MIDI clips.
The advantages of Audio Programming are:
-Samples can be chopped up into very finite pieces
-Samples can have its time/pitch finely warped
-Individual samples can be arranged without the constraints of a grid that “snaps” clips into the proper time increments or into traditional time signatures (MIDI is capable of doing most of these, albeit with a bit more difficulty)
With sampling and re-sampling, there are an infinite number of possibilities to create unique sounds and often one can end up with something completely different than what they initially had planned (which is a good thing.) Neither method is greater than the other, but rather an expression of choice for whichever method suits your creative process.
In my personal setup I use a combination of both; I prefer MIDI for my kicks as I can preview a bunch of kicks together to layer them more efficiently, MIDI once again for snares which is then re-sampled into audio because I like to move my snares around on the arrangement to find the sweet spot or “snap” of the layers. I use only audio programming for my hi-hats and cymbals to arrange swing into the rhythms and to allow for the samples to bleed into one another for a more natural-sounding percussion.
Now that we’ve made the distinction between MIDI and Audio, the following sections outline the most important elements to programming our drums.
1. Sample Selection
3. Editing & Mixing Effects
4. Finishing Touches & Final Mixdown
1. Sample Selection
First and foremost, you have to have an idea of what your drum kit should sound like before going full steam ahead. You must define the sound you want. For example, if I were to make a romping 175bpm half-time track with a distorted, rolling bassline, I would want a kick with a hard click, solid knock, and resonating thud. My snare would have a clap or a lot of snap to it and would have a long transient as there is more space in a half-time track with fewer hats. My half-time hi-hats would sound “crispy” and would definitely be sampled from a real drum kit to get that high-end break-up/splash of real hats and would also be slightly distorted to attain that “crispy” tone.
Once you start to envision what the drums will sound like, your mind can start to make the connections on how to achieve these sounds. Now in our example I mentioned sampling hi hats from a real drum kit therefore it is worthwhile to address sampling vs. sample packs.
Sampling can take on two forms:
1. Sampling already existing recorded material (breaks)
2. Recording your own samples
Drum and bass is famous for its use of sampling recorded “breaks” which involves digging for drum “breaks” from old songs and recordings to add life and motion into a drum kit.
Creating your own samples by recording live drums is often a very complicated process as there is a lot of adjustment (mic position), attention to detail (levels, recording a clean sample), and equipment involved (preamp, interface, microphone, compressor.)
The advantage of recording your own samples is absolute creative control in how your tracks will turn out. You are in charge of your drum destiny and this may often be a quick route to gain punchy drums as you can compensate to eventually capture a good clean sample. On the other hand, there are sample packs which are pre-recorded or pre-cut samples that have already been processed and are ready to use.
The advantage of using sample packs is that it’s efficient and convenient to instantly pull up usable drums when inspiration strikes. Some notable sound packs include the Vengeance sample packs, Gold Baby samples, Black Octopus sample packs, Xfer records sound packs, as well as purchasable or free packs designed by artists and labels. A major disadvantage of sample packs are there accessibility, so samples must be used in a unique and creative way to avoid using the same sound as another producer.
So, what should you be looking for in samples? There are many guides on EQ ranges for drums that can be located with a Google search but I will choose to not address that in this article as where your drums should be all depends on what type of track you’re making and the associated melodies.
As a VERY general guide, kicks are in the low spectrum (50-200Hz), snares are in the mid spectrum (120Hz-5khz) and hi-hats and cymbals are in the high spectrum (500hz-19khz).
The most important aspect of drum programming is choosing samples, and unfortunately it is a skill that is only gained through constant digging and practice as no amount of explanation can replace the creative intricacies of how your brain perceives sounds. Also you must ensure that you choose samples that embody the sound or a layer of a sound (if you are using multiple samples for a single sound) that you are trying to achieve. I know it sounds easy, but that is truly the most difficult part of it all: having a truly objective ear.
There is an old adage: “Crap in, Crap out” and this applies in every sense of audio programming. If the sounds you use don’t innately embody the sound you want, no amount of effecting, twisting, and processing will polish a turd to sound like a gem.
Therefore it is important to spend the most time at this stage to avoid having to scrap all the work you put in to creating a sound that you later realize isn’t as effective to achieving the sound you want.
In part 2 we will revert to our above example where we will break down the components to achieving a kick drum with a hard click, knock, and resonating thud. Sample selection involves searching for a kick that embodies the sound we want, but you will later come to learn that you need a collection of sounds to build the one you want. This is where layering comes into play.
Check back for Part 2 where we will cover layering!
-Words by Bearlon