3 Powerful Drum Programming Tips You Need To Know

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Does your drum programming sound flat and lifeless? Keep watching to learn how to spice things up.

Hey, this is Jason from Behind The Speakers, and today you’re going to learn how to make your drum programming sound more realistic and professional.

But before we dive in, I also put together a free drum mixing cheatsheet packed with powerful tips that will add instant impact to your drum tracks. So if you’re ready to learn how to mix drums like a pro, click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

Tip number one is to vary the velocity. Now when it comes to drum programming, velocity is one of the most important parameters you need to pay attention to if you want your drums to sound professional. It really can make the difference between a drum beat that sounds flat and lifeless and one that has an incredible sense of groove.

So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you exactly how to apply this technique to make your drums sound a whole lot better.

Okay so we’re here in Pro Tools and I have two different versions of the same drum beat that I’ve created. So the only difference between these two versions is that in one I applied some velocity variations to the individual drum hits in the drum beat, and in the other I left the velocity static. So there is no velocity programming on the individual drum hits. So let’s take a listen to these. I’m going to flip back and forth between them, and I want you to decide which one sounds better to your ears.

So to my ears, the B version of this drum beat sounds much better. It just feels like it has more groove, it feels like, I don’t know, it’s just there’s something about it that feels much better to me. And that’s because I’ve added some velocity programming to the individual drum hits. So let’s pull this up and I want to show you exactly what I did here. So the first thing, and the biggest place, you know, that drum beats can typically benefit when it comes to velocity, is the hi-hats. And a lot of people will leave each hi-hat hit at exactly the same velocity, so it would be like da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da just completely static throughout the entire performance or the course of the track.

Now in some genres, specifically trap, you know, you kind of want that style and that sound, but in many other genres a better approach is to vary the velocity of the individual hi-hat hits. So on every other hit, you have a decrease in velocity. So instead of da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da where every hit is exactly the same, you have da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da so each opposite hit is a little bit quieter in volume. So you can see here I’ve actually done that, so-. So you can see the velocities down here, so the second hit is a little bit quieter, the third is a little louder, fourth is a little quieter. So again we have this da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da instead of da-da-da-da-da-da-da and that’s a big part of that groove component. It’s really contributing to that, just the groove of the actual drum performance itself.

The other thing that I’ve done here is that if we take a look at some of these drum hits, so let’s take a look at the kick drum here, so whenever you have two, let’s say kicks, that are played right next to each other, if you were to play that on a real drum set, the drummer would probably not play those two hits at the same exact volume. So instead of going da-da, where both of those kick hits are exactly the same volume, it would probably go da-da. So the second hit would be higher in volume, but the first hit would kind of be like a little bit quieter, would lead up to that second hit. So that’s exactly what I’ve done here. So instead of having these two at exactly the same volume, the first – whoops – is a little bit quieter, you can see down here, and then the second is a little bit louder.

Now in terms of what numbers you should use, I think you have to use your ears and really determine what feels best given the samples you’re working with, and the track that you’re actually programming the drums in. So there are no, you know, rules here. But again, this concept of kind of applying this approach a little bit of thinking like a drummer, which we’ll talk about in a little bit, and kind of taking this approach of using velocity programming to add dynamics to the performance and just kind of give things a little bit more life.

Now same thing on snare hits. Whenever I have multiple snare hits that are kind of lined up next to each other, I like to think about how that would actually be played on a real drum kit and apply some velocity programming to make things feel just a little bit more natural. So you can see here at the end we have a couple of different snare hits. Let’s see if we can play this. So da-da. So the second hit is louder than the first. So it’s almost like a drumroll that’s increasing in volume. So we don’t have the kind of static sense where there’s no dynamics as we did in the first.

So I just want to play this again and I want to flip back and forth between these, and now that you know what’s going on I want you to kind of really hear the difference between a program beat with no velocity changes and the impact that those changes that we just made can actually have on the groove and the feel of this drum beat. So take a listen. First we’re going to start with A, which is no velocity changes, and then we’ll flip back and forth between them.

So big difference there, and this is a great example of a subtle thing that can really just enhance the groove of your tracks. So going through your drum beat and making sure that when appropriate you’ve applied these velocity variations can really take the sound of your drums to a whole new level.

Tip number two is to limit the number of drum samples you use. Now this flies in the face of a lot of modern music making practices, right? It’s become very common for producers to layer up, you know, half a dozen different drum sounds to get the kick drum sound that they’re looking for. But in my experience, the vast majority of times layering is a result of non-commitment. Instead of being firm about the sound that we’re looking for and really being intentional about the choices that we’re making when it comes to choosing drum samples, instead we just pick five or six different sounds and it kind of pushes off this whole idea of making a decision, right? So we have everything kind of there and hope that, you know, in mixing process we’re going to figure out the right balance where suddenly our drums sound really good.

Now this is not the approach that I recommend. Instead I recommend that you really take the time to find the right drum samples. Find samples that really are giving you the sound that you’re looking for and try to get everything you need from one drum sample. If you absolutely can’t get it done with one drum sample, then you might want to consider bringing in others. But by default, don’t layer up half a dozen different drum samples. It’s just, again, this whole thing of non-committing and it doesn’t make sense, so you’re going to end up with a whole mess in the mixing process. It’s just a lot more hassle than you need. Not to mention every sample you layer creates the possibility of phase problems and challenges between those individual samples. So there are a million other things you’re going to have to pay attention to, and a million other ways that things can go wrong. So in practice, I think the best approach is limiting yourself to the fewest number of samples possible you need to get the sound that you’re looking for, and challenging yourself if you’re someone who likes using multiple drum samples to get the kick or snare that you’re looking for, challenging yourself to cut back and use as little as possible to get the job done.

Tip number three is to think like a drummer. Now regardless of whether you’re trying to recreate the sound of a drummer playing on a real drum kit or not, I still think this idea of imagining your drum programming as if a real drummer were sitting down and playing that pattern on a real drum kit is incredibly powerful. It’ll help you simplify your drum programming, remove unnecessary hits, and create a sound that just feels a whole lot better. Even if you’re working in genres like EDM for example, where obviously we’re not trying to recreate the sound of a real drummer in those types of genres, it’s still super powerful and an incredibly useful approach. So next I want to jump into my DAW and show you exactly how to apply this tip to make your drums sound a whole lot better.

Okay so we’re back in Pro Tools. I have the same drum beat here that I created earlier, but I’ve added a quick little drum fill to it, and I want to use this drum fill to show you how to apply this principle of thinking like a drummer so that you can improve your drum programming. So let’s take listen first to this drum fill, and then we’ll dive in.

Certainly no John Bonham, it’s not going to change the world, but we’ll work with it anyways. Okay so I have this drum fill pulled up in the MIDI editor. Now one of the things that struck me right off the bat in listening to this fill, is that it just feels very unnatural. There’s something that just doesn’t feel right. It feels artificial to me. And if you’re feeling that when you listen to a drum fill, it’s a pretty good indication that you violated this principle of thinking like a drummer.

Now I’m not saying that you always need to create drums that can perfectly be played back on a real drum kit. Especially if you’re creating electronic music, obviously the rules are a little bit more fluid. But it’s important to realize that as listeners, our expectations of what drums should sound like are formed by the tens of thousands of records that we’ve listened to over the course of our lifetime, right? And most of the records we’ve probably listened to are recorded with real drums, right? So we’ve heard the sound of a drum kit time and time again, over tens and thousands of hours of listening, and we kind of – based on all this listening – have a very intuitive, almost like subconscious sense of what drums can do and what they can’t. And so it’s important to realize that when you create a – when you program a drum fill that violates those expectations, it’s going to create this sense of discomfort in the minds of your listeners.

And so I’m not saying that you can’t make that decision, that you can’t violate those expectations, but it’s important at least to be aware of what the expectations are and then at least, you know, if you’re creating a drum fill and you say “okay, I really want to create something that has no relation to what can be played on drums,“ at least you’re making that choice intentionally, right? So let’s dive in here and I want to show you how to really apply this principle – or this concept – to this drum fill. So let’s take a listen to the drum fill again one more time.

Okay so right here we have this kind of snare roll into these two hits here. It almost sounds like it’s kind of a snare into like a tom and then another tom even though it’s kind of a weird sample. I’m going to think of this conceptually like a snare roll and then a tom and then a tom there. And if you think about this on a real drum kit, something that we also have going here is we have the hi-hat playing at the same time throughout this drum fill. But that’s basically impossible, right? It’s not – well it’s not impossible, but you really wouldn’t find a drummer in most cases that would play the hi-hat through a drum fill in this situation because it would be like you needed three arms for it, right? It would just be too much going on at once, right? So right off the bat what I’m going to do is take these hi-hat hits and delete them, right? So now we have a little bit of a break in the hi-hat pattern throughout this drum fill, and we have this kind of snare roll into the toms and then the beat kind of starts up again with the hi-hats here. So let’s take a listen to that now, and we’ll kind of listen to what the impact is.

So there’s something about that for me that just feels so much more natural. It conforms much more to my expectations of what a drum fill should sound like. It feels more authentic to me, and it just sits much better emotionally for me as a listener.

So the next thing I want to turn my attention to here is on the downbeat at the end of this fill. We have a crash cymbal, we have a kick drum, and we have a hi-hat playing at exactly the same time. Now in most cases, if you’re a drummer and you’re playing a crash cymbal, you’re probably playing that crash cymbal with the same hand that would be playing the hi-hat. And so it would be impossible for you to play that hi-hat at the same time as you hit the crash cymbal, right? Again, you would need three arms.

Now what I’m going to do here just to make this a little bit more realistic, is delete the hi-hat on the downbeat. So right now we have the crash and the kick playing instead of the hi-hat, the crash, and the kick. So it’s a little bit more realistic. And then once the crash plays, we can kind of move that virtual arm over to the hi-hat again, and then have that continue. So let’s take a listen to the entire fill again with these changes, and we’ll back up a little bit to get some context.

So to me, that just feels so much better, right? And it’s again going through your drum programming through the lens of could you actually play this on a real drum kit. And if you can’t, making modifications so that even if you’re programming electronic music, you know, taking this approach of okay, can I play this on a drum kit and if I can’t, how can I change this so that it can be played on a drum kit if I were to sit down at a drum kit. And if you apply this approach, you’ll find that your drum programming is just going to feel much more authentic and natural, just going to emotionally sit with you a lot better.

Now if you’re looking to dive deeper, again I’ve put together that free drum mixing cheatsheet packed with powerful tips that will add instant impact to your drum tracks. So if you’re ready to learn how to mix drums like a pro, click the link in the description below or up there in the video to download this free cheatsheet right now.

But before you go, leave a comment below this video and let me know – when you’re doing your drum programming, where do you get your samples from? I love to hear from you, I read every comment and reply to as many as I can, so leave your response in the comments section below.

Thanks so much for watching, and you can check out more tips like these right here on my YouTube channel or at BehindTheSpeakers.com.

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.