Advanced Drum Production Techniques

Posted by James Cullen on

One of the marks of being a professional when it comes to music production is knowing your strengths. It’s equally important, however, to know your weaknesses, or if you’re not comfortable with that terminology, maybe you could think along the lines of ‘areas that need improvement’.

Your journey as a producer should be one of constant learning and self improvement. Not only because this will -in the long run- lead to great improvements in your skills, but also because on a more real world applicable level, often, creating a project for the purposes of practicing a new technique can often lead to new track ideas!

You will do yourself a huge favour by getting into the habit of regularly dedicating some production time to learning and practicing new skills. One of the skills I myself have forced myself to work on over the past year is my drum production. I have always been good at writing harmonic or melodic parts. I come from a singer/songwriter musical background, I played in bands, I play guitar and piano, so I possess that hard wired melodic musical knowledge. However, I've always found drums to be a challenge. I'm not a drummer, and despite my best efforts, have no natural rhythm (you should see me trying to dance!) 

However, I forced myself to start really working on my drum production, and I've picked up some valuable habits and tips that I'm going to share with you today.

So, before we start, make sure you have a blank Ableton project open. I like to use audio samples for my drum programming, so this tutorial will mainly do that. However, it is entirely possible to do what we are going to do today using Sampler and MIDI programming. So don't be put off if you either don't have many drum samples, or you just prefer to use MIDI. I will make sure this covers both!

Without further ado, let's go.


Starting the beat

It's worth pointing out here that my beat is at 140bpm (which is just the tempo I'm working with recently) but you can do yours at any tempo you're comfortable with.


The first thing I do is my hi hats. I used to try and make my beats using the kick first, but over time I've found that it's easier to start with the more nitty gritty detail, and work outwards from there. So, draw yourself a hi hat pattern. Here's what I've gone with.



Now, for this tutorial you can either follow what I do exactly, or make your own patterns but pay attention to the techniques I will be using. So make and loop a 2 bar hi hat pattern, then hit play. If you're happy with the rhythms, pay attention to the sound. Dropping samples (or a MIDI pattern) such as this can often sound very rigid and robotic. This is due to the dynamics, which are always the same when a sample plays. Do you think a human drummer would hit every hi hat note at the exact same volume? No, probably not. So, to make the pattern sound more dynamic and 'humanised', let's edit some of the velocities.


The pattern I have created uses 15 beats, and as you can see in the image above, I've adjusted the velocities of the 2nd 5th 8th and 14th beats in the phrase. I actually added in the 14th beat, because the lower velocity hi hat sounds good leading into that last beat. 

Remember, if you're using MIDI, the velocity is found in the velocity lane at the bottom of the MIDI clip editor. As shown below. You can see the shorter bars and faded colour to signify a lower velocity.


Now, listen back to your pattern. You should have edited some of the beats to be quieter, which straight away gives your hi hats a more dynamic edge to them. This effect is compounded when we add layers. 

For my first hi hat, I've used a simple closed hi hat sound. Now, I'm going to take an open hi hat, and create a new pattern.


As you can see in the image above, I've chosen an open hi hat sample, but it has a really long tail. I like the timbre of the sound, but I don't want the super long tail. So, a way you can get around that is by using Fades. First, shorten the length of the sample itself. You can see in the image below that I've taken the sample right down to a short little hit.

You can also see the orange automation indicators. These are controlling the fade on the sample, which shapes the transient for us. To enable this, in the dropdown on your channel, select the 'Fades' option (shown below). This allows you to control the tail of the sound, making it either a super short snappy one, or allowing for a long release. This is down to taste, so don't take this as gospel! I just love a short open hi hat in this kind of drum pattern.


So, I've chosen a sample, adjusted the transient by shortening it and then applying a fade, and now I'm placing it in a simple pattern playing every other beat, like so.


So at this point, you should have a pretty nice little groove going. The layering of two different hi hats which compliment each other can be a really simple step to add character and dynamic to your drums. But I like take it one step further.


The final hi hat layer.

This process can be a little convoluted, but trust me. What I've done is created a third hi hat rhythm. I've used a closed hat sample, and made a straightforward offbeat pattern. Then, I've added a Simple Delay with linked Left and Right channels to add some delayed signals, and finally I've bounced it as a loop, and then edited the transients to make a super snappy little hi hat pattern. Here's how to do it.


1) Create your hi hat pattern. Simple off beat, like so.


2) Add a Simple Delay audio effect, and then make sure to link both channels, and also set the delay time to ms instead of Sync. Adjust until you find a value you're happy with.


3) Create another Audio Channel, and select the input as Resampling. If you're not sure how to do this, check out our recent article on Resampling here. Make sure you hit Solo on your Hi Hat channel, so we get a recording of the offbeat pattern with the delays.


4) Once you have this audio loop, go into the Clip Editor. Navigate to the dropdown menu in the Warp section. This dictates what Warp Mode is applied to your audio clip. We want to make sure that the Beats warp mode is enabled, and select the shown icon from the Transient drop down.


5) Finally, adjust the Transient Envelope to change the fade of each audio segment. What this does is applies a volume fade to each piece of audio. With a value of 100, there is no volume fade, with a value of 0, there is a very quick volume fade, meaning the sound dies very quickly. Experiment until you're happy. I've gone for 33.


After following these steps, you should have a layered pattern of several hi hats playing together. You can experiment with the levels and panning at this stage, to really give you an idea of how your hi hats are going to sound in the context of more drums. Here's how I've mixed and panned mine. Once you're happy with your hi hats, let's move onto some snares and claps.



Adding some groove.

Now, the next step to creating a sophisticated drum loop is adding some percussive groove elements. These could be snares or claps, or any other drum hits. The point is, decide what samples or sounds you want to use. Different samples are common across different genres, but you can always mix it up and use whatever you like. I've gone for an 808 snare and a clap sample first of all.



As you can see in the image above, I've used a snare drum to play a pattern in the first bar, and then a clap to play in the second. This type of arrangment is called 'Call and Response' and it allows for a nice level of interplay between your musical parts. Chances are you are familiar with this concept from school songs, as many children's nursery rhymes and songs use call and response.

It's a great way to create a sense of movement in your music though, as one of the traps I always fell into when programming drums was making an 8 bar loop and copy and pasting it. This made my tracks sound flat and sub par, whereas adding variation in the drums such as this allows for a more flowing sense of movement.

You'll notice that I've applied fades to the Clap samples in the image above. As with the open hi hats I used earlier, I liked the timbre of the clap, but wasn't so keen on the long tail. Always bear this in mind when selecting samples, you can adjust the length of them to fit your taste by using Fades!



Once I'm happy with the snare and clap, it's time to lengthen the loop we are working with, we've started with a 2 bar loop, now let's make it 4. When you're creating drums, the thing you always need to bear in mind is the progressions. How are you going to keep your listener interested over a 5 minute track? We start with 2 bars looped because the hi hats play a two bar progression. Same with the snares and claps. Now we want to think about other percussion elements that may have longer progressions.

The key is to make sure your drums (or arrangement) is changing at regular intervals. We can refer to these as progressions. So, the reason we lengthen our loop from 2 bars to 4 is to make the context of these progressions wider. In other words, create musical changes that only occur every 8, 16 or even 32 bars. Let's look at how to do that.



If you look at the image above, we now have two additional rhythm parts. The Tambourine which plays once every 2 bars, and a Crash Cymbal which plays every 4 bars. We've elongated the pattern to 4 bars, allowing us to implement more long form changes.

However, it's time we think about adding a kick. This is the moment where you'll decide on the entire main groove of your track. The reason we do the hats, snares and claps first, is to make sure they have a good enough groove on their own. This may sound trivial, but I find it very useful in making a drum pattern without the kick, so that it works on its own. This offers some exciting possibilities to make sections of music without any kick at all. Where the kick drum has become so synonymous with dance music's rhythm and groove, it can be a good exercise to make some music that doesn't rely solely on this driving kick drum for it's rhythm.

Having said that, let's create a driving kick drum for some rhythm! 



As you can see in the image above, we now have a 4 bar drum loop consisting of 3 layers of Hi Hats, a Snare, a Clap and a Kick, and then a Crash Cymbal and a Tambourine. As I mentioned at the beginning of this guide, your beat doesn't have to exactly match mine in terms of rhythm, but as long as you've implemented some of the techniques we've used here, it's a good learning exercise.

I like to think of my drums in terms of categories.


The Kick is ovbviously one category; it drives the beat forward, providing both a rhythmic and a low end centre for the track to work around.

The Snare / Clap form a category; these are often the accenting parts, for example it's common in various genres for a snare to denote beats 2 and 4 of the bar. In electronic music, the Clap plays a similar role. Now, you don't always have to follow these rules, you can use Snares and Claps any way you like. I've even used the snare to play a busy rhythm in this beat!

The Hi Hats form another category. In terms of both the sonic frequency they occupy, and the rhythmic role they play. 

We've covered the above 3 categories in this article. Stay tuned for the next part in this guide, as we discuss the other categories of drums and drum production techniques! 



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