Drum Programming (Part 1)
A Series By Warren Cann
If you use a drum machine or programme drum parts on your sequencer, chances are you need help. Warren Cann explains why in this introduction to his new series on drum programming.
Tired and listless? Not quite up to par? No, not you — I'm talking about your drum machine programming... If you feel you're just not getting the best out of yourself, and know that you can do better, then perhaps I can help. Over the next few months I intend to shed some light on aspects of rhythm programming that ought to assist you in attaining good, solid tracks with a minimum of brain damage.
I'm going to begin this series by telling you what I'm not going to do. This isn't going to be yet another 'How To Program' series which just hands you countless examples of patterns or beats for you to recycle — if you check the ads in the back of this and other magazines you will find that, via MIDI files, there are now many sources for that sort of thing. Lack of raw material to mess with is not a problem so, generally, I will steer clear of giving you the easy way out. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that I don't think that's what most of you are really interested in, or why you're reading this. This won't be a what-to-program type series, but a how and why series.
While I will occasionally refer to specific drum machines, sequencers, or sequencing programs, please don't worry about whether or not you have the relevant hardware or software as these will only be examples. I do not profess to have intimate knowledge of the operating system of every drum machine and sequencer ever made, and details of particular hardware and software are not really within the realm of this series, so if you have any specific queries regarding the operation of a product, get stuck in and read the manual.
What I will endeavour to do, however, is take you through an approach to programming which ought to lead you to producing more interesting and convincing rhythms on your own. Instead of concentrating on variations of specific rhythms-and-where-you-should-use-them, what we will be dealing with is more of a general architecture and work ethic. I'll also be going from the ground up in many areas; the inter-related nature of the subjects will necessitate a broad scope.
I'll discuss why drums sound the way they do, and how drummers make them sound that way. We'll examine the physical logistics of playing a drum kit and will see how that can affect your programming. I'll explain the system I've developed to map out every event when programming a drum track and/or instrument tracks, so you need never get too confused or lost again. I will talk about the basics of arranging and structure, so that your rhythms and songs flow. I'll also touch upon psychoacoustics and how we perceive things differently according to the live or studio environments. We'll cover why you've probably run into difficulties before and how to avoid them.
Later on, as we get further into drum programming and drum machines, we'll get into some of the more advanced ways of outsmarting the damn things, debate the merits of quantisation, weigh up the choice of sounds for musical context, and consider questions such as whether to use variable or fixed dynamics for programming, how to prepare for studio work, and what not to do with sync codes. Due to fact that the drum machine programming procedure has been adopted as a starting point for so much other technology which permeates the entire process of making electronic music, I'll occasionally be digressing beyond a blinkered, purely technical essay. If you find the initial pace rather slow, please be patient, I want to build a clear, accurate foundation — not everyone finds this subject a simple one. By the end of the series, both beginners and more advanced users of drum machines and sequencers ought to find it easier to get on with the real task at hand: making music. So let's start...
Few musicians have any problems in finding role models to emulate when initially learning their chosen instrument: there's a pantheon of axe heroes for budding guitarists, legions of drummers for novice tub-thumpers, and so on. If you're just starting out you usually have players in mind whose style you admire. Once a certain degree of technical proficiency is achieved, you eventually get to the stage where you pay less attention to what others are doing and begin to devote all your energies to finding your own voice. Most musicians with some experience behind them will readily admit to themselves that, while the first steps were often difficult and laborious, they have attained a level of competence that they're at least comfortable with (while still striving for greater heights, of course).
At this point, a kind of mental subdivision sets in whereby you readjust your priorities. You begin to pay more attention to things other than your instrumental prowess; songwriting, arranging, technology, et al. This is all part of the normal process of integrating all of the aspects of being a contemporary musician. It's a path that never ends; still, you learned to expect all that, and are motoring along nicely. But then modern technology throws you a curve-ball by virtue of it's own usefulness and versatility, and things begin to get trickier when you find yourself having to understand the inner machinations of other instruments and their disciplines. The advances made in the last 15 years have forever changed the way we make and listen to music — the scenario of anyone other than a drummer working with a drum machine is a perfect example of the uncommon becoming the norm. That is why a series like this is necessary.
Chances are, if you're reading this magazine, that you're probably not a guitarist or a drummer. The odds are fair that you're a keyboard player and/or the sort of chap that either works in studios or has a small studio set up at home. You got over the worst of MIDI shock a long time ago and consider yourself a technical kind of guy, someone accustomed to the juxtaposition of modern musical technology and art. Because of the current generation of synths and samplers, you've learned, for example, that a decent saxophone patch/sample might sound great sonically but can still come across as awkward in situ if the line isn't played with a degree of sympathy for how horn players approach their instrument. Or how an acoustic guitar sound is best employed for chordal work by flamming the attack of the notes; unlike a keyboard, the guitarist cannot strike all the strings virtually simultaneously.
"The scenario of anyone other than a drummer working with a drum machine is a perfect example of the uncommon becoming the norm. That is why a series like this is necessary."
You've encountered many such situations before and have either attempted to adapt by putting yourself in the mind-set of another instrumentalist, or have happily flouted convention and just played whatever you liked because it worked. It doesn't matter which approach you took; my point is simply that it's a circumstance that is not unfamiliar to you due to the opportunities available via your everyday musical tools. As the instrumentalist who deals with the most technology, you're somewhat better prepared for the stretch.
Now, the guitarist or drummer (whom I hope is reading this) is usually facing this situation for the first time: the guitarist because he has previously had quite enough on his plate coping with a rack of effects, and he now wants to demo tunes at home with a kicking rhythm section; and the drummer because although he has hitherto never needed to personally deal with anything too hi-tech, he has decided that he wants to do the rhythm programming on the demos and in the studio rather than hand the responsibility to the keyboard player or hired-gun programmer. Even if he hasn't used a drum machine before, that's no reason to throw away his ideas and feel.
Then, of course, there's the keyboard player who is a relative beginner and whose enthusiasm has funnelled him into a bit of a technical dilemma. He's assembled a setup of a keyboard or two, a modest rack of expanders and effects, a small mixer, and a 4-track. The idea of the individual pieces of equipment didn't seem too daunting, but now that the setup is in place, the sum of it all taxes his concentration to the limit. Now he's added a drum machine and has discovered there's really more to it than just plugging it in, provided he wants to progress beyond his usual pedestrian rock beats or manic (but ultimately not too useful) polyrhythmic extravaganzas.
So, everyone, just when you thought you were doing OK, you turn around and have to deal with a drum machine. And even if you've always felt happy with drum machines, the feeling of techno-overload I've described is still a familiar one. There's just so much depth to the equipment we now use, so much to deal with above and beyond the actual music. In fact the level of technology which contemporary musicians, producers, and engineers deal with on a regular, daily, basis is only surpassed by that of NASA and the military.
Many musicians (myself included) now find they approach a new piece of gear with some apprehension tempering their usual enthusiasm. They have to really want that new gear before they plonk down the readies and take it home, because they know it's no longer a matter of just plugging it in and burning rubber — it's a matter of learning a whole new operating system architecture. With a decent MIDI setup, it all begins to add up. You may discover (as I have) that when you contemplate the purchase of a new piece of equipment, you have to weigh up the thought of taking yet another manual and a pot of coffee to bed with you every night for the next six weeks. New equipment is no longer just a question of sonic pleasure vs. bank balance; one now has to deal with considerable intellectual commitment which, for some of us, is the last thing we need.
Please don't misinterpret me; I'm not retro, wistfully pining for the days of nothing more exotic than a valve amp or a tonewheel. I dived in and got dirty long ago. I just think it's healthy to have a certain amount of 'attitude' to the technology which seems to find more ways to intimidate us with each passing year. The applications are tremendous but, to get the most out of the technology, you really must dig in and make it work for you, not the other way round. Where we come unstuck is that this stuff is not always logical. Hopefully, you will get off to a good start with your drum machine or sequencer — hopefully it came with a well written manual. If you bought second-hand and don't have one for your unit, then contact the manufacturer and get one — you won't regret it. Without a manual you may have no idea of how to carry out a certain procedure. Manufacturers do attempt to make their equipment as intuitive as possible, but that approach only goes so far. You may be unsuccessfully attempting something that the machine is actually incapable of. Rocket scientists among you may find it entertaining to confront a new piece of gear completely 'cold', but most of us would appreciate an easier ride. A good manual lets you get on with the music.
Many are the times I've sat down attempting to sculpt some fleetingly elusive, creative mood into something tangible when, after 10 minutes, I had to check a manual. Sometimes you can get away with it — you find what you were looking for, you understand it, and you return to what you were doing. If not, you find that hours have passed, your eyes ache, your brain hurts, and that initial conceptual impulse is long gone. The moral of all this is; get to know your equipment as thoroughly as possible, and let the creativity flow. With that out of the way, we can get down to some real work next month...
Feature by Warren Cann
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