Programming Drums: 8 Tips for Better Beats

Beats: we all create them—some better than others… Sound Designer, G. W. Childs is here to share 8 tips to help you create better beats for your tracks, whatever DAW you use.  

Beat building is usually one of the first great loves, or one of the biggest obstacles to new electronic musicians. There’s a strange amount of insecurity, as there’s always the lingering thought that threatens us with, “Will they be able to tell that I’m not a real drummer…” and other such nonsense. Don’t listen to this voice! Instead, let me list a few tips for creating some programmed beats that may actually incite another voice to say, “Damn, you programmed that?” 

1. Find the Right Tempo

When building any beat, especially if you’re building from a beat you hear in your head, start with the right tempo. This cannot be stated enough. If you lay down beats too fast, you can cause your song to sound rushed. If you lay down some beats too slow, you not only put yourself to sleep, but also your listeners. I recommend using tap tempo. Just tap along to what you hear in your head for three or four beats. Once you feel right with the tempo, start recording. By using Tap-Tempo, you keep the rhythm feeling much more organic, and the foundation of your song is solid.

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2. Auto-Quantize, or Not? 

Auto-Quantize can be either your most hated tool, or your best friend, depending on the style of drum pattern you are going for. The down side of Auto-Quantize is this: If you are recording yourself playing a pattern, and you’re deliberately playing ‘lazy’, or with a groove, Auto-Quantize will make the whole thing very rigid, and exactly on beat. Or, it may even alter the beat entirely. The upside of Auto-Quantize: When active and the Auto-Quantize resolution matches your patterns resolution, magic happens, and you no longer have to go back and tighten up every drum hit. My best advice is to spend a few minutes finding a default Auto-Quantize resolution that matches your play style, or matches the play style you’re currently using for your song. Even if there is only a percentage of Auto-Quantize in effect (in most DAWs you can choose from a range of 1-100), you can still have your computer do a little bit of the tightening for you!

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Tip: Not all DAWs call Auto-Quantize the same thing. For example: In Reason, it’s Q Record. 

3. Start Small and Build Out Big

If you’re either programming, or recording your drums with a controller, I recommend building your drum patterns out from small looped sections and then building out, as the pattern sounds more to your liking. I usually start with two to four bars, either manually, or recorded on a controller, within a pre-determined looped section. The reason you start small is because drums, especially hi-hats can be tricky to program either by hand, or manually because of so many notes entered. It can be very tedious! By starting small, you can quickly drop, or play in complicated parts, build up the loop, then copy the loop out, around the rest of your arrangement.

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4. Begin with the Basics

As you begin building a drum loop, I usually recommend starting with either the snare, or the kick. Both pieces within any drum kit carry a lot of force, sonically, and do a wonderful job of establishing a memorable beat. Once you have the kick and snare sounding the way you like, it’s very easy to sprinkle crashes, hi-hats, tabla, samples and any other percussion samples that you can think of.

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5. Change It up!

A great way to establish realism, fluidity and polish is to add in some snare, and kick embellishments every two to four measures. This only requires adding in an extra snare hit towards the end of a measure, killing the snare for a measure, or doing something interesting with your kick, as you move to a different section of the song. An easy way to do this is to copy your main loop, after finishing it, and creating several variants of your main drum loop. Just copy the loop over a few times, do some quick basic edits, and place the new copies where they are appropriate within your song. 

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6. Velocity is Your Friend!

Many people tend to forget that even though you’re building drum loops on a computer, that you can still hit the drums harder, or softer! Adjusting the velocities of your drum hits, within your sequences will quickly, and easily change the feel of your drum patterns from clunky robotic beats, to polished pro-sounding rhythms. A fun, easy way to experiment with velocities is to draw in velocity patterns for repetitive drums like hi-hats. Here’s a hi-hat with no velocity edits:

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And, here’s a variation of the same pattern, same sample, but with velocity editing.

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Another great way to use velocity is when you’re doing multiple snare hits as a big fill. Just ramp the velocity up, to simulate the snare getting louder as the snare roll completes. 

7. Never Forget the Grid

Grid resolutions are often overlooked by new computer musicians, and this is a real shame. Grid, or snap settings appear in most every DAW. The Grid lines are visual indicators of when beats and bars complete based on the current tempo of your host project, as well as the Grid resolution. For example: This grid is currently displaying a 16th note snap resolution. 

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By adjusting the grid resolution, after editing in 16 beats, within the 16th note grid, and adding in a few hits playing at a slightly faster Snap setting, like a 32nd note, or 64th note, I can change up the pattern, making it groove more and take on a life of its own. 

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8. Break It Down!

With the staggering amount of recorded drum loops that are out there, I would highly advise taking some time, every now and then, and attempt recreating some loops that you really like with what you currently have at your disposal, be it a drum machine, or computer. By recreating cool drum loops, you begin to figure out how other guys were able to get specific effects within there patterns, thus building permanently on your own internal beat library. Using DAW tools like Ableton’s Convert Drums to New MIDI Track is a great way to really see, in MIDI, what is taking place in side of the rhythm!

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Conclusion

This is by no means the definitive list of tips for drum loop creation. But, it does establish some handy practices, as you’re learning to tighten up your drum patterns. At first, you may find yourself frustrated. However, with perseverance, and by following some of the tips above, you’ll notice a major shift in the polish and sound of your loops. And, before you know it, you’ll have people asking you to program on their tracks!

Sound Designer, Musician, Author... G.W. Childs has worn many hats. Beginning in the U.S. Army back in 1991, at the age of 18, G.W. began learning electronics, communications and then ultimately audio and video editing from the Department of Defense. Upon leaving the military G.W. went on to work for many exciting companies like Lu... Read More

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