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How To Create More Expressive Drum Machine Parts

Craig Anderton explains how you can add some 'humanity' to your drum machine patterns.

Craig Anderton explains how you can add some 'humanity' to your drum machine patterns.

So you've got your shiny new drum machine or sequencer hooked up to some drum sound modules, and you start programming away. If you're like most non-drummers, you'll begin by programming way too many notes - the temptation to use all those buttons and sounds is too strong. After you settle down, you realise that indeed, less is more, especially with electronic drum parts. But then there's another problem: some drummers can play a simple, repetitive drum part and make it sound great, but when you try the same thing it comes out sounding - well, simple and repetitive.

The secret to creating a great drum machine part is to make every note count. If you just programme a couple of patterns and loop them over and over, you're not creating a drum part; you're creating a metronome that just happens to have drum sounds. Drum patterns require just as much editing and tweaking as any other sequencer part, so here are some tips to help you tweak those parts to perfection.

Vary dynamics within the entire kit, not just one drum.

If you have a drum pattern churning along and you fade up, say, a snare roll, remember to add a little bit of level change in at least some of the other drums too. Don't just turn everything up or down, though - if the snare is fading in from full off to full on, you might want to have the bass drum go from three-quarters full to full on over the same time period, and a quarter-note hi-hat part range from half to full on.

Add acoustic cymbals to drum machine tracks.

Have you heard a good sampled cymbal yet? I thought not. So don't fight it; get a real cymbal or two and overdub them on tape along with your drum machine part. Having a real acoustic sound can fool the listener into thinking the rest of the drum sounds are real, too. I'll often throw in a real tambourine, maracas, or cowbell to heighten the illusion even further. (And if you own a sampling drum machine, just think how much memory you'll free up by getting rid of a cymbal sample.)

For good hand claps, record one quantised hand claps part, then overdub a part with quantisation off.

Drum machine hand claps never sound very good because a group of people don't all clap their hands at the same time; there will be a cluster of attacks during the first few milliseconds of the hand claps sound. First, quantise a hand claps part, then turn off quantisation and try to overdub an identical part. You'll come close, but every now and then you'll be a little bit off, and the real-time part will come in just a fraction of a second before or after the quantised clap. While the second clap may cut off the first one (it will on most drum machines), the resulting sound still has the kind of multiple attack sound that adds considerably to the part's realism.

Here's another hint for better hand claps: use a delay line or echo unit to add a bit of slapback echo to the hand claps output, then add just a bit of modulation to vary the slapback echo time.

Lock in with another instrument every now and then.

For example, suppose the bass player hits a pattern like this:

quarter note, quarter rest, eighth note, eighth note.

Have the kick/bass drum beat the same pattern. The effect is very cool, especially if the bass player hits the note and then slides down as the bass note decays.

Throw in triplet fills occasionally.

Many neophyte drum programmers select a quantisation value and stick with it. But when recording something like tom fills towards the end of a four-bar section, try using triplets. They'll give a feeling of motion that leads well into the next section of a piece of music. Some fast snare rolls also sound better as either 8th-note or 16th-note triplets (depending on how fast you want your mechanical drummer to play).

Use tempo changes where appropriate.

Drummers are humans, not machines, and they know when to 'push' or 'retard' the beat. One or two slight tempo variations per minute can really alter the mood of a tune. For example, slow down just before reaching the big chorus, or inch up the tempo during the lead guitar solo - only to drop it back down again when the singer returns.

Beware the effortless drummer.

If you've just programmed an incredible drum roll followed by a cymbal crash on the down beat, make the cymbal crash just a tiny bit late. It will heighten the illusion that the drummer really had to sweat to play the drum rolls, and was therefore a bit late on the down beat.

Turn quantisation off for one part in a pattern.

Go ahead and quantise a rock-solid kick drum and hi-hat - but then turn off the quantisation and put on a 'humanised' snare drum part. Or quantise the snare drum part but have the hi-hat ahead of the beat a little. Even slight variations can banish any feeling of mechanicalness. For more information on the creative use of small time variations, read Michael Stewart's article 'The Feel Factor' in SOS October '87.

Programme some patterns with minute variations, and use these variation patterns from time to time.

Many times during a solo (like the lead vocal), a drum part will repeat for several measures, playing essentially the same part - bass drum, maybe a snare drum on the second and fourth notes of the measure, and an 8th-note hi-hat part. Although it's a temptation to just loop repetitive patterns over and over, adding even the slightest variations - an occasional snare accent, an open hi-hat hit instead of a closed one, etc - keeps the drum pattern from becoming monotonous, yet doesn't get 'busy' enough to divert attention from the solo line.

Add signal processing to minimise 'insistent' sounds.

Nothing can sound more dull and repetitive than a hi-hat part that hits on every 8th-note. A real hi-hat sounds a little different with each hit; a sampled one usually does not. I solved this problem on one tune by putting the hi-hat through a phase shifter, and lightly modulating the amount of phase shift at a very slow rate (about 1 Hz). Each hit therefore sounded just a little bit different, and the part became far less mechanical. As an unanticipated bonus, the phase shifter 'warmed up' the sound somewhat.

Listen to real drummers.

This is probably the best way to learn to be a good drum programmer. Listen to how good drummers use notes and space, and how they can get across incredible emotion with just a few well-placed hits. And remember that drums are the rhythmic foundation of the music; think support, not solo, unless you have the chops to pull it off.

© Electronic Musician magazine. Reproduced with the kind permission of Mix Publications Inc.

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Big Band & Studio 24

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Jan 1989

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Craig Anderton

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