Drum Sequencing Tips
Sequencing a drum track can be made much easier by putting yourself in the shoes and sticks of the drummer. What do I mean? Put simply, when sequencing your tracks, subject yourself to the same constraints that a real drummer would have. These include:
How many hands and feet?
I can’t tell you how many drum sequences I’ve heard that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be played by a human drummer. It’s important to remember that a drummer can only strike 4 instruments at once. For example, most drummers will not try to hit their hi-hat and ride, while simultaneously hitting a crash cymbal, snare, and kick drum. Realism in programming stems from an understanding of the real world constraints a drummer is subject to, which leads us to the next section.
Learn the layout
It’s helpful to visualize the layout of an average drum set when sequencing drums. While there are a million exceptions, I think it is fair to say that the average right-handed rock drummer has a kit much like the following (lefties use a mirror image):
- Kick drum(s) – Usually in the center of the kit. Double bass drummers often place their snare between them and the kick drums. Usually played with right foot (for single bass), or both feet (for double bass).
- Snare – Placed either in the center, or slightly to the left of center. Usually played with left hand.
- Pedal hi-hat – Placed slightly to the left of center. Usually played with right hand. Also played with left foot.
- Ride cymbal – Placed to the right of center. Usually played with the right hand.
- Toms – Laid out from high pitched to low pitched, left to right. Played with both hands.
- Floor Toms – Placed right of center. Played with both hands, though right hand is more predominate.
- Crash Cymbals – Arrayed throughout the drum set, wherever they fit and are easily accessible.
Optional: 2nd Set of Hi-hats – Placed right of center, often near the ride cymbal. These are often set closed, or partially open, and are used when the drummer needs access to hi-hats on the right side of the kit, or when the drummer is playing double bass, and can’t hold the standard hi-hats closed with his left foot.
Why go through this in such detail? Visualizing the layout of the drum kit while sequencing drums will help you to determine whether a given rhythm can actually be played. When I’m sequencing a drum track, I grab a pair of drum sticks and “air drum” (pantomime) each section to see if it can be played. I’ve found that playability in the real world equals increased realism in sequenced world.
Drop a hit?
No, I’m not referring to drug use! Dropping a hit is something that drummers do all the time. It can also be called replacement. As an example, let’s say a drummer is playing eighth notes on the hi-hat as part of a basic 4/4 rhythm. If the drummer wants to hit a cymbal on one of the eighth notes, he/she would simply replace a hi-hat hit with a cymbal hit. In other words, the drummer drops a hi-hat hit and replaces it with a cymbal crash. You can increase the realism of your drum parts by dropping those hits that are being replaced with other hits.
Velocity, velocity, VELOCITY
PEOPLE THAT TALK IN ALL CAPITALS GET BORING VERY QUICKLY. SO DO DRUM SEQUENCES THAT HAVE NO DYNAMICS. Adding dynamics to your sequences dramatically improves their feel. Except for the very worst pounders (who shall remain nameless), most drummers learn from an early age to use dynamics. They learn that alternating loud and soft beats adds feel and energy to a drum part. Drum sequencers can approximate this by using velocity.
On some drum machines (and samplers), different velocities trigger a different drum sound as well as a different drum volume, just as a drum sounds different when hit at different levels of force. Many other sound sources, like computer sound cards, and many General MIDI tone modules, don’t have this feature. Instead, they simply increase or decrease the volume of the sound based on the velocity. In either case, you approximate the dynamics of a real drummer by using changes in velocity.
For an example of using velocity, listen to this sample. In the first four measures of the example, all the instruments use the same velocity for each hit. In the second four measures, the velocities are varied. For example, the hi-hat alternates between loud and soft hits. I think you will see that the first four measures sound stilted and mechanical, while the second four measures seem to have a more human feel.
So, alternate those velocities! Using dynamics in your drum sequences will help them come alive.
I could write for days about timing. Keeping time is certainly an important aspect of playing drums in rock music. The rest of the band often relies on the drummer to establish and maintain a song’s tempo. As you delve deeper into drumming, you will learn that many drummers purposefully play with tempo in order to create certain effects. Learning about these drummer-centric effects will allow you to introduce some looseness and feel into your sequencing, and help get away from the dreaded “perfect-time drum machine” sound.
The first effect to talk about is dragging. Drummers will often drag (slow) the tempo of one drum while playing the rest of the kit in tempo. This is most often done on the snare. Listen to your favorite slow songs, and you may be able to hear the drummer dragging the snare. Really great drummers seem to be able to play the snare just a little late, but not enough to confuse the tempo of the song. In sequencing drums, you can achieve this effect by sliding all the snare drum hits forward a few ticks (also known as pulses-per-quarter-note, or timing resolution, ticks are divisions of a quarter note; most sequences use a resolution of 120 ticks per quarter note). Other instruments can be dragged as well. I sometimes hear the hi-hat or ride dragged, and sometimes the kick drum. The key is to drag one or two instruments, while keeping the rest in tempo.
The next effect is rushing (or leading). In fast songs, or to build tension or excitement, drummers will often play one instrument ahead of the beat while keeping the rest in tempo. The tips and techniques for this are the same as dragging, except you would slide instrument in the opposite direction in time.
Sometimes drummers will speed up or slow down the whole tempo of the song. The entire band follows these tempo changes. This can be heard in ballads, where a drummer might slow the tempo down temporarily (1 measure or so) when transitioning from a verse to chorus. This can also be heard in progressive music, where new sections of a song may have an entirely different tempo. Changes to the entire tempo of the song require you to alter the tempo map in your sequence. Most sequencers provide a way to alter the tempo, either gradually over time, or instantly. When slowing down or speeding up for one measure (as in the ballad example) keep the change subtle (change only a few beats per minute). Any more than a few beats and the change may stand out too much. Of course, this is music, so be creative! Try everything!
My specific technique for sequencing drums is to compose them in perfect time, apply any timing effects (see above), then apply a timing randomization to the entire drum kit. The key to randomization is to be subtle. Apply too much randomization, and your track will sound sloppy and amateurish. Again, just a few ticks in either direction (ahead of the beat or behind it) will do the trick. I’ve noticed that randomizing the track helps separate the individual drum sounds since less of them are occurring at the exact same time. This also seems to increase the stereo image of the drums as well. I could be way off on this, but I trust my ears. Trust yours too!
I hope these tips will help you create more realistic drum sequences. After a decade of sequencing, I’ve learned what works best for me. I encourage you to experiment and find what works best for you. I believe there is not just one, right way to create music. Instead, find the way that works for you.
I look forward to hearing your work, and of course, contact me anytime with your questions or suggestions.
Keep on creating!
This article ©1998 Jeffrey Ryan Smoots. All Rights Reserved.