OCTOBER 18, 2023

Drum Programming: How to Program Drums and Drum Machines

Drum Programming

Drums are essential in music, providing rhythm and intensity. In the world of beat making, drum programming is a powerful skill. It's the art of crafting rhythms and beats, and you don't need a live drummer or a fancy studio to do it. All you need is a DAW, drum samples, and a drum machine plugin. In this guide, we'll take you through the step-by-step process of programming drums, using a drum machine, and share valuable tips to help you avoid common mistakes.

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What is drum programming?

Drum programming is the art and technique of creating drum patterns and rhythms using electronic equipment, typically drum machines or software. Rather than recording live drums, producers can design, sequence, and tweak drum sounds to fit any genre, mood, or mix. This practice gained traction during the early days of electronic music and hip-hop when musicians began to seek alternatives to live drumming and costly studio sessions.

Benefits of Drum Programming

There are several reasons why a producer might opt for programmed drums over a live recording:

  • Flexibility: Drum programming allows for endless tweaking and fine-tuning. Want a snare hit to come in slightly earlier? It's just a click away.
  • Consistency: Unlike live drums, which can vary in timbre and intensity, programmed drums offer a uniform sound. This is essential for genres that require precision, like techno or trance.
  • Space & Equipment: Not everyone has access to a full drum kit or the means to record it. Drum machines and software provide a compact, affordable alternative.
  • Sound Design: With drum programming, you're not limited to traditional drum sounds. Producers can incorporate unconventional sounds, samples, or synthesized tones, pushing the boundaries of what "drums" can be.

What is a drum machine?

Central to the evolution of drum programming is the drum machine—a pivotal instrument that has dramatically shaped music production. A drum machine is an electronic device designed to mimic drums, cymbals, and other percussion sounds. Unlike traditional drum kits, these machines enable producers to design and sequence beats without live drum recordings. They can be stand-alone physical devices or software plugins within a DAW.

Drum Programming

Typically, a drum machine consists of:

  • Time-based Effects: These include reverb, delay, and echo, which craft a sense of spatial depth and temporal dimension.
  • Pads or Buttons: Used to trigger specific drum sounds or samples.
  • A Sequencer: Allows users to arrange these sounds in a rhythmic pattern.
  • Sound Modifiers: These can be knobs, sliders, or digital controls that adjust pitch, volume, decay, and other sonic properties.
  • Output and Connectivity: Hardware drum machines will have options for audio output, MIDI connections, and sometimes even USB ports for integration with digital software.

  • These machines, such as the iconic Roland TR-808 and TR-909, equipped with genuine drum samples, played instrumental roles in genres like hip-hop, techno, and house. Today, Digital Audio Workstations like Pro Tools have integrated these capabilities, offering a modern take on a classic concept.

    The importance of a sample library

    To make the most out of a drum machine, it’s helpful to have a sample library with a diverse palette of drum sounds tailored to different genres for optimal sound selection. By harnessing a rich sample library, you can ensure your drum kits fit your chosen style, from the punchy kicks of techno to the intricate patterns of afrobeat.

    To help get you started, GrooveCell comes with pre-produced drum samples for a variety of genres, or you can drag in your own samples to build custom drum kits. When you pair GrooveCell with Sonic Drop, you gain access to exclusive samples updated monthly so you always have fresh content to inspire your creativity.

    Exploring the Elektron Syntakt Beats

    For an in-depth look at how drum machines work, join multiplatinum artist and Avid sound designer, Matt Lange. In this exclusive video, Matt takes us through the process of how he created a drum kit sample pack for Sonic Drop using sounds from the Elektron Syntakt drum machine’s 35 digital and analog synthesis algorithms.

    Elektron Syntakt Beats Pro Tools

    Drum Programming Techniques

    To get started programming drums on your computer, you’ll need a DAW, a drum machine plugin, and drum samples. Below are four of the most common ways to program drums inside a DAW:

    1. Use your drum machine’s step sequencer

    GrooveCell Step Sequencer in Pro ToolsOne way to program drums is to use a drum machine’s step sequencer. A step sequencer is a grid where each square, or 'step', represents a beat. You activate specific steps where you want a drum sound to play and leave others inactive for silence. As the sequence begins to play, every activated step will produce its assigned drum sound, creating a rhythm. This method is favored for a few reason

    • Ease of Use: For beginners, the grid-like structure provides a clear, visual representation of where drum sounds are placed, making it accessible and straightforward.
    • Creative Exploration: Step sequencers allow for the quick and easy experimentation of complex rhythms, making it an excellent starting point for beat making. You might stumble upon exciting patterns and rhythms you wouldn't necessarily play manually.
    • Precision: Every drum hit is perfectly timed, providing a clean and precise rhythm crucial for genres that require tight and accurate drum programming.

    Pro Tip: GrooveCell has swing, randomize, velocity and probability features that allow you to add subtle timing and volume imperfections for a more human sounding performance.

    2. Placing notes in a MIDI editor

    Programming MIDI drums in Pro Tools

    Another approach to drum programming is directly placing notes within your DAW’s MIDI editor or piano roll. This technique offers you granular control as you manually draw each drum hit onto the grid, note by note. Start by creating a MIDI track and loading a drum machine plugin, like GrooveCell. Then, proceed to insert notes in the MIDI editor at precise locations where you want the drum hits to occur. While this method demands more time and attention, it rewards you with a higher level of detail and customization in the editing process.

    3. Finger drumming

    GrooveCell Pads in Pro Tools

    Finger drumming is another viable technique for drum programming where you can perform drum parts live using your MIDI controller's drum pads or keys. With this method, you physically tap out rhythms and beats, which can offer a more intuitive and natural feel to creating drum sequences.

    Finger drumming can be particularly beneficial if you have a rhythm in mind, allowing for instant and expressive input of your ideas. However, the approach demands a level of skill, rhythm, and practice to effectively translate your rhythmic ideas into precise beats. Additionally, finger drumming might inadvertently limit you to patterns and rhythms you are comfortable playing, potentially narrowing your creative range if not supplemented with other programming methods.

    4. Arranging one-shot drum samples or loops in a DAW timeline

    Arranging One-Shot Drum Samples in Pro Tools

    Alternatively, you can program drums by arranging one-shot drum samples or loops directly in your DAW’s timeline. By dragging and dropping individual drum sounds onto your timeline, you can visually arrange and layer them to create a drum pattern. This method is similar to placing notes in a MIDI editor to trigger a drum machine plugin, except you'll be working with audio files instead of virtual instruments and MIDI data.

    To use this method effectively, you’ll need a quality selection of drum loops and samples. Aside from the expansive collection of loops and samples that come with Pro Tools, make sure to download the free Sonic Drop sample packs every month to keep your library fresh and inspiring.

    Eventide H90 video

    Parts of a drum kit

    While it's tempting to jump right in and begin placing beats, understanding the individual parts of a drum kit and their primary functions can significantly elevate your drum sequences. Each component, from the snare to the hi-hat, serves a distinct role in rhythm creation. Grasping these roles not only aids in crafting authentic-sounding patterns but also opens up a world of creative experimentation.

    To help you get a handle on drum programming, below are some common parts of a drum kit:

    • The kick drum, also known as the bass drum, is the largest part of a drum kit and produces the deepest tone. When programming drums, most producers use the kick drum to drive the rhythm and set the groove of the track.
    • The backbeat can be considered the snare drum or any percussive sound that offsets the kick drum. In most popular music, the snare sound is programmed to hit on the two and four of each bar. This creates a measured back-and-forth between the kick drum and snare.
    • Cymbals can be programmed to have several functions when programming drums. The hi-hat or ride are used to keep the tempo while the kick and snare play off of each other in a back-and-forth. In other cases, crash and splash cymbals are used to emphasize parts of a track, transitions, and a downbeat.
    • Secondary percussion instruments encompass toms of various sizes and tones, as well as a suite of other percussive instruments like maracas and electronic samples, these elements add depth, flavor, and often unexpected turns to a rhythm.

    How to program drums

    You're now familiar with four drum programming methods and the essential components of a drum kit, now it's time to bring this knowledge to life! Below are seven easy steps to begin programming drums:

    1. Create an instrument track

    Instrument Track with VI

    Begin by opening your DAW and load your dum machine plugin on an instrument track. If using one-shot drum samples, create an audio track. Alternatively, simply drag your instrument or audio files directly to the Edit Window; Pro Tools will auto-generate the appropriate track for you.

    2. Choose the right drum samples or use presets

    If you’re using a drum machine plugin, start by selecting a drum kit preset that fits your track. If you're feeling adventurous, craft your own personalized drum kit by assigning specific samples to the virtual pads of your drum machine plugin. To facilitate your sound selection process, use Soundbase in Pro Tools to easily audition and browse through sounds.

    Opening Soundbase

    3. Create a drum pattern

    With your chosen sounds at the ready, it's time to lay down your beats. Whether you're playing them on a MIDI controller, sketching them into your DAW’s piano roll, or sequencing with your drum machine, this step is where your rhythm comes to life.

    4. Quantize to fix timing errors

    Quantize in Pro Tools

    Quantizing is the process of fixing timing errors of a performance—it ensures that all your MIDI notes are in time with your tempo settings. Your DAW should have a setting that will automatically quantize a recording by moving your MIDI notes to the correct position on your piano roll’s grid. This helps keep your samples perfectly in time with the song, even if your recording wasn’t perfect. If you’re using a step sequencer, then all of your drum hits should automatically be perfect in time. If you’re musing MIDI or audio, then highlight the section you want to quantize and apply quantization.

    5. Adjust velocity and timing to make more human

    Pro Tools Quick Tips MIDI Note Selection

    When a real drummer plays, each drum hit is played with varying degrees of force and subtle timing imperfections. Programmed drums without these subtle nuances can sound overly mechanical and lifeless. You can counter this by adjusting the velocity of each MIDI hit. Velocity is a parameter in MIDI that determines the force at which a note is played. Playing each hi-hat at different velocities, for example, you can recreate the sound of a real drummer.

    In addition, slight timing nudges can also imbue your sequences with a more organic feel. You can use the swing feature GrooveCell or adjust the timing of the MIDI notes in the MIDI editor to create a more human feel to your drum grooves.

    6. Layer drum sounds for depth and texture

    For the final part of recording and editing, try layering your samples to create new sounds. Adding drums with different tones and textures on top of one another and then adjusting the volume of each layer can help you create full and unique sounds.

    7. Add mix bus compression and effects

    Mix bus drum compression unifies your drum parts, making them sound like one cohesive unit. By routing each drum sample to a group track and applying compression, you ensure a balanced, punchy drum mix. Beyond compression, don't hesitate to play with effects like delay, reverb, and distortion. After all, experimentation often leads to the most memorable beats. Want to hear how delay, filters, distortion, and reverb can be used to create wild drum parts? Check out this video of Matt Lange using the Eventide H90 effects pedal for creative sound design on drums:

    Eventide H90 Drums Pro Tools

    How do you become good at programming drums?

    Mastering the art of drum programming requires more than just understanding the technicalities—it's about developing a rhythmic intuition and constantly expanding your sonic palette. Just as with any musical endeavor, practice remains the key to progress. To elevate your drum programming skills, consider doing the following:

    1. Learn different drum patterns

    Each musical genre has its unique rhythmic signature. Familiarizing yourself with these diverse drum patterns not only broadens your repertoire but also allows for creative fusion of styles. Remember, drum patterns are predefined sequences of beats, and understanding their structure helps in recreating or improvising within any genre.

    2. Learn how to incorporate syncopation

    Syncopation is a drumming technique that involves playing different rhythms on top of one another. This creates an off-beat feel that can really spice up a song. You can also play drum parts in different time signatures on top of one another, a drumming technique known as polyrhythm.

    If you want to add some extra energy to your drum tracks, below are a few types of syncopation that will do the trick:

    • Backbeat: This is a syncopated accentuation on the "off" beat. In a simple 4/4 rhythm, this might be a heavy accent on the second and fourth beat.
    • Offbeat: Offbeat syncopation emphasizes the spaces between beats, creating a feeling of anticipation or ‘swing’ that propels the music forward.
    • Suspension: Here, the expected rhythmic resolution is delayed or suspended, often creating a moment of tension followed by release.
    • Missed beat: This involves deliberately omitting a beat or a stroke in the expected rhythm, creating a sense of surprise or disruption in the music.

    3. Leave room for other elements in the mix

    The arrangement of your song needs to make room for all of the instruments, sounds and parts. When programming drums, think about how your arrangement affects the song as a whole, and leave room for other instruments to shine.

    Get started programming drums in Pro Tools

    Now that you have the basics of drum programming, try experimenting with different methods, or combination of methods, to discover which suits your workflow and creative style the best. With practice, you'll develop a deeper understanding and intuition for programming drums that’ll improve the rhythm of your music.

    For those ready to dive into drum programming, try downloading Pro Tools Intro. This free download not only offers hundreds of high-quality sounds but also features Xpand!2, a versatile virtual instrument equipped with over 1,200 presets you can use to create drum grooves, bass lines, chords, melodies, and more.

    Download Pro Tools Intro free

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