Making drum programming hipper

*Hi Nick, This is a bit off topic, but I’ve been asked for advice about this constantly from live loopers who like to use drum machines in their live performances and I make a lot of money teaching people the information that is contained in it, so I thought it might be a useful OffTopic post.

also, while we are at it, I wonder if it might be good to have a very, very brief bio of who I am for the Rick’s Ramblings page, just so people who don’t know me have some context for who I am and what I do in the live looping world.  What do you think?

Happy New Years,  Rick*

Hi folks,

This is a very long post and should be skipped unless you are particularly interested in making your drum computer programming hipper and more ‘real’ sounding for your live looping shows (if you aren’t opposed to using a drum machine, philosophically)

I’d like to go on record and say that when drum computer programming is creative, very minimalistic and realistic (or creatively surrealistic which , for me, is even more interesting) that drum machines can really add to live looping performance.  It is just that usually people make one of a number of mistakes in their programming that make the damn things sound like they have no soul (like the machines they are).

The consistent mistakes that I hear that make most people cringe when drum machines get turned on are:

1) lacking human energy, people try to overcompensate and over program beats.  Great groove drummers repeat themselves constantly. If the groove itself is funky and ‘human’ sounding, I find it is almost better the more simple it is.  Let your playing breathe life into the song. Don’t expect your android drummer to give it energy. I can spot a person who doesn’t know much about the ‘less is more’ aspect of deep groove playing in an instant by their drum programming.

Towards this end, I had the chance to program commercial drum machine patterns for both EMU systems and the ZOOM corporation.  What I realized was that after 20 years of studio drumming in all styles that every drum machine that you buy is filled with unrealistic and overly complex’standard’ drum beats. This is what the drum computer companies call, with shrugged shoulders, ‘the demo factor’:  If you put the beats drummers REALLY play into a drum machine, they don’t sound very fancy when you demo them at your local store. Therefore, they have concluded, you have to have a lot of bell’s and whistles in your preset drum patterns…………rendering them useless for realistic live playing.  Reasoning this way, I came up with the 100 most played studio drum grooves with NO FRILLS at all added to them.  Very politely, they paid me for my time and didn’t use them.   Oh well, I still made thousands of dollars in the 80’s and 90’s reprogramming singer/songwriter drum machines so that they would be effective for their live shows or demos because the drum machine companies wouldn’t get a clue. Mostly what I did was edit out notes that were in existing pre-written patterns.

2) people tend not to realize that great subtlety in variation is the essence of making a drum beat sound more ‘real’ I’ll start to address that below. The technology that I’m referring to is specific to Fruity Loops (the greatest drum machine ever sold in hardware or software in my humble opinion and regrettably not available to the Mac world) but you can use these tricks in any sophisticated drum machine, even including something as old fashioned as that old warhorse they still sell new for $140 USD, the Alesis SR16.

Okay, then, here goes:


I’ve been a professional touring and recording drummer for 25 years and just thought I might share a couple of really simple ways to use fruity loops or fruity studio to create more ‘realistic’ drum patterns.

for what it’s worth, try this out with Fruity Loops:

Take your hi hat tracks (are any tracks for that matter, including melodic synth ‘bubbles’).

drop down the bar graph box that allows you to scroll between velocity (volume), pitch, panning, cutoff, resonance and a thing called ‘shift’ which allows you to use each of these categories to effect each individual note that you’ve programmed. (note: this can be accomplished in other ways in most of the good midi sequencing apps or software/hardware drum machines).

Drummers, no matter how good they are, just aren’t perfect and we can use the fact that each of these drop down bar graphs can make very,very small changes in a sound to do some subtle things to a rolling drum groove like 16th notes on a hi hat.

Not all drummers, but many tend to favor their strong hand in a single stroke (hand over hand) drum roll. Consequently, if you make all odd numbered hi hats be slightly louder than their even numbered hits it will sound more realistic. Start by making velocity differences that are really clearly audible. Then lower the velocity until you can barely feel the difference. We are going to make very subtle changes like this on each of the parameters of velocity, pitch, cutoff, resonance and, importantly, shift.

I can’t stress enough that you should make these changes be so subtle that you can hardly notice them.

Just going on the fact that the right handed players start their rolls with the right hand and favor it ever so slightly (or grossly for effect as well) means that the stroke will be harder with the right hand than the left hand.

When a percussion instrument is hit harder the difference between the transient (or hi pitched attack) of the sound and the body of the instrument (or the sound that comes after the attack) becomes greater. In general, on drums, that means that a harder attack tensions the drum very imperceptably (sp?) and it also means that there will be more treble in the sound. Consequently, the pitch goes up a little teensy bit and their is more attack to the sound (increased resonance and slightly higher cutoff frequency).

Consequently, you can make the pitch of each right hand be just barely noticeably higher, the resonance should be just one or two of those little teeny bars higher. The cutoff should be just a few bars lower (allowing less high frequencies through) on the ‘left’ handed or even numbered strokes.

Typically, if drums have time inaccuracies they tend to drag the left hand a litte bit. I have to keep stressing that if you can hear the changes you make, you aren’t being realistic. You need to make the changes subtle enough that you just barely feel that they aren’t perfect. You can consequently make each left hand note shifted one or two bars late.

Tigure out how much you can tweak each parameter before it becomes obvious and then you can just randomly tweak each one up to that limit. With a little bit of variance in each stroke from parameter to parameter you will create more of a percolating texture in your programming:  This is a great technique to make synth ‘bubbles’ (the kind used in techno and house) more interesting and less mechanical feeling.

Now, you can avoid the biggest mistake that non-drummers do when trying to write ‘realistic’ programs: Turn the overall volume of the hihats until you CAN’T hear them and then slowly bring up the volume until you just begin to hear them.

Professional producers have spent countless hours trying to figure out how to gate and mix hihats OUT of tracks.

the reason is two fold: 1) Human beings have such a radical peak in their hearing around the 1-2khz range (or the intelligibility range of human speech) that we can play the hihats at incredible low volumes and they are still audible. You can’t do that with a bass drum. I tell my drum students that you cannot play a hi hat or a snare drum so quietly that a person sitting in a room with you can’t hear it. 2) Hi Hats, the snare of snare drums and cymbals all seriously MASK human vocal intellibility. How many people have gone to see live shows where they can hear the singer is singing but can’t for the life of them figure out what they are actually singing. That is ususally because drummers (or mixers , which is frequently the case) are not hip to this important fact.

So, turn down your hi hat tracks (or any track with a strong mid range, short envelope attack) and you have much more room for other musical goodies in your mix.  When in doubt, make your hi hats quieter than you think they should be. Trust me, they’ll come through the mix even at a quiet volume.

Rick Walker