Drum Programming (Part 6)
A Series By Warren Cann.
This month, we go ever deeper into the mind of that unfathomable entity, the drummer...
Last month, we looked at the importance of the hi-hat's contribution to the rhythmic pulse. Losing the hi-hat during fills was an obvious first move towards a more authentic, human feel in your drum programming, but what else can we do?
Let's imagine a situation whereby you were able to 'perfectly' record an acoustic drum-kit; you have a mic for each item in the kit, you've achieved separation between sounds — nothing else leaks through into an adjacent mic, and every mic goes to its own track on tape. If you were to mute all of the tracks on playback except for the hi-hat track, you would hear just how much activity is going on beyond your expectations of simply hearing eighth notes. You'd experience difficulty in orientating yourself regarding the part's context; downbeats are missing, there are lots of accents you wouldn't expect, and the opening and closing of the hi-hat seems to be all over the place. Weird. Unmute the kick drum and you'd suddenly hear it make more sense. Then, as you unmuted each successive track, all the parts of the puzzle would lock back into place.
When a drummer hits the snare and kicks the bass drum during a rhythm, he cannot help but involuntarily hit the hi-hat harder on those beats too. By accident (or design, depending on the drummer), the foot holding the hi-hat pedal down tends to vary its pressure, even when the hi-hat is supposed to be in the closed position. Plus, a drummer will tend to really dig into that hi-hat if the music is really kicking; he'll almost rock back and forth on it, creating a further subtle groove, layered on top of the basic one he's already playing. It all contributes to the overall effect.
When I program, the first thing I do is lay down the hi-hat. If it's in eighth notes, I make every even-numbered beat just slightly quieter than the odd-numbered ones. This gives a far more representative version of the slightly rolling feel any drummer gets when playing eighths (see Figure 1). Pick up a drumstick and try it; you'll see that you won't play every beat with exactly the same velocity. After that, I turn off the metronome click and use the hi-hat as my timekeeper. Every subsequent pattern I create uses that hi-hat pattern as its template, whether the hi-hat is actually used or not.
Once I've decided on a kick and snare part, I turn down the volume on the snare so it's just audible, and then turn down the bass drum about halfway. The hi-hat part can easily be adjusted this way, as it's so prominent, yet you can still hear the other parts for context. If I've been using the Fixed Dynamics setting on the drum machine (as I almost invariably do — I'll cover this later), I then take the louder of the two settings, the one I've used on the 'odd' numbered beats, and overdub this setting onto the hi-hat beats that fall on the kick and snare beats (see Figure 2). If the drum machine has a fader with which to gradually open or close the hi-hats, I'll slow the tempo right down and experiment with just opening the hi-hat up a tad, again just on the beats which coincide with the kick and snare. If your machine doesn't have this, try replacing the appropriate beats with a sound which is more open. You can also try a combination of louder and softer dynamics with normal and slightly lower tuning. The higher or 'brighter' tuning on the even-numbered beats gives you a filtered effect; when you strike a hi-hat harder, its pitch is also higher and brighter. By 'layering' the hi-hat activity like this, you avoid the dull and totally artificial effect of every beat being the same.
Keep checking your progress by occasionally returning the volume of the kick and snare to their normal level. Remember: if your drum track is supporting a hard rock or metal song then the hi-hats can be quite open and sloppy-sounding, especially during parts you want emphasised. If it's a funk or dance track, you'll want to keep the sound very tight and defined. This isn't a hard and fast rule — just be aware of context.
Another useful trick is to replace that last hi-hat beat before a fill with one that is slightly open, or even completely open. Often, in the heat of the moment, a drummer will take his foot off the pedal — either inadvertently, or to begin a series of stomps which help him keep time during his fill. The half/fully open cymbals ring on slightly through the beginning of the fill. More disciplined drummers will keep the hi-hat quietly ticking off either quarter-notes or on the 2 and 4 of the measure while they're doing the fill, partly for effect and, again, to help keep time. If realism is your thing, keep the hi-hat playing quarter-notes very quietly throughout any passages where the drums momentarily stop playing — for example, where something else is rattling away, and the bass and drums come in with crashes that accent everything. Whether on stage or in the studio, a real drummer would be keeping time on something to keep the rest of the band in line, and this usually bleeds through onto tape. As long as it's not too loud, a lot of people don't go to the trouble of erasing it, as they feel it adds to the vibe, and 'live', of course, it's just accepted.
Trust your instincts, see what sounds best to your ear. You don't want to overdo it because a little goes a long way; exercise some subtlety here and it will make a big difference. By tracking the activity of the kick and snare, you are mimicking the actions of a real drummer, you're approaching the sound of our hi-hat in the 'perfect' recording mentioned earlier. In reflecting this behaviour, you will be distancing your drum tracks from the tell-tale characteristics of a dumb machine. The rhythm is still tight, but now it's not so flat or one dimensional. More feel, dude.
Now that you're armed with this technique, try updating the hi-hat parts of the patterns you've programmed so far, making the necessary deletions and so on. It's best to renovate all of the patterns now before we get any further. How will these changes effect your Song Chain? Your drum machine will handle it one of two ways: hopefully, your machine treats a Chain as merely being a set of instructions as to which pattern to play, and in what order. This way, any change you make in an individual link/pattern will instantly be mirrored by the behaviour of the entire Chain. This is good. The second (and not so good) possibility is that your machine actually develops a sort of dual personality; once you've created a Song Chain, any alterations to its individual constituent parts are not echoed by the chain upon playback, so you have to go and replace (or delete and insert) each altered pattern with... itself. This refreshes the memory and keeps your chain data current. Thankfully, this sort of nonsense is disappearing.
Examining our song map sheet we see that the entry into the first verse is a bit flat, with just a cymbal crash (they were guides, after all), so let's take our simple, 3-hit snare fill on pattern 08 and replace Step 8's pattern 01 with it. The fact that pattern 08 goes into Step 8 is purely coincidental. You're bound to get a few pattern numbers coinciding with the step numbers; don't let it throw you. And don't forget to enter the update into your drum machine's Song Chain.
For variety's sake, let's use a slightly different fill for the entry of the second verse. Copy pattern 01 to pattern 09, then add a small snare drum roll as in Figure 3; this ought to get us into the second verse with a fraction more energy than pattern 08. Go to your Song Chain and replace Step 18's old pattern (pattern 01) with this new fill, pattern 09. Again, keep up to date by erasing Step 18 on the song map and write in pattern 09. I suppose it really doesn't matter which you do first — whether you alter the chain, then fill in the map, or write the change on the map, and then change the chain data. For what it's worth, my own particular preference is as follows: first I decide what I want, I program it, then write down its description on the Drum Machine Pattern Data sheet. Next, I make the alteration to my song sheet (so that I know what it should be, even if I get distracted), and then, lastly, I go back to the drum machine to change the Step with the appropriate pattern.
We could certainly do with something to kick off the chorus — let's copy pattern 09 to the next blank pattern in line, pattern 10. Again, slow the tempo down to something more manageable, and delete a single snare beat, as shown in Figure 3. Notice how just the removal of one beat totally changes the feel of the fill. Granted, this isn't the wildest of fills (it's probably the most minimal one you can actually do), but it's subtlety makes it one of the most useful.
The purpose of drum fills isn't always to make your head snap around, a la 'In The Air Tonight'; they're there to help the flow of the music. Every time you add a fill you're adding a little colour to that moment of the song. Sometimes you're helping lead the listener's ear to the next section of the song; a small fill in the middle of a long verse helps break up the rhythmic monotony, and also helps delineate the two halves. It may hint that something is about to occur, it can clue you to a new event in the music so that the transition between, say, a verse and a chorus isn't too abrupt. If you want to increase the drama, then a more flamboyant fill at the same point will wave a flag and alert the listener to the next change. You may be emphasising the music simply by adding cymbal crashes to existing rhythmic accents and, in doing so, find that adding a few extra snare beats helps make the accented passage more effective. An imaginative drum fill often makes a good intro, a series of fills increasing their intensity over the course of an outro can maintain urgency and excitement. But, please, remember... not doing a fill can be just as important if you pick your moment correctly.
The burst of rhythmic energy provided by a drum fill in the right place can make a lot of difference, but the degree to which you highlight events is up to you. Have a little faith in the intrinsic power of the music. Whether the chord changes are conventional and drastic, or slick and subtle, they all have a personality to them. You don't have to be literal in your approach to drums. Dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't' really isn't necessary — sometimes the drums best serve their purpose by just cruising on through whatever is going on, nailing down the groove so that everything else has a constant reference point to bounce off. Nothing is worse than hearing a drummer overdo it; a fill every four bars, too many busy rhythms, too much cymbal work... the crimes are endless. If you really can't decide whether or not a particular fill is 'too much' or not, relax... ask yourself, "Is this another idea? Or is this another song?" If it's the former, as long as you've paid attention to the overall feel of the song and have added detail to your broader strokes, you can probably lose the fill completely with no harm done. If it's the latter, you've answered your own question — it belongs in another song, so save it for another day.
Feature by Warren Cann
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!