Smart Tips: Get More Realistic Drums!

Welcome to the first in our new regular series, Smart Tips! The idea of quick tips is to give you a little titbit of info and a little bit of inspiration between our more in depth tutorials.

When you’re programming drums, it’s easy to make a pattern that just doesn’t sound quite right, somehow… and it’s often down not so much to any rhythmical errors but more to do with what we associate with being ‘correct’ when it comes to drum sounds.

There are two very important things to bear in mind when it comes to programming drums:

  • How many hands and feet the virtual percussion section has
  • The physical attributes of the instrument that’s being hit
Waste of a great drummer?

To start with, let’s deal with the first point. If you’re creating a part for a standard western drum kit, then the assumption is that there are two hands with drum sticks in them and two feet for pedals. With this in mind, there’s no way that a high hat, a kick, a snare and a cowbell can all hit at exactly the same time. Similarly, if you are making a bongo part both skins and a rim all at the same time just won’t sound right. There’s an art to figuring out how to make a drum part as varied as possible in real life whilst accepting the fact that we’re not all Dr Octopus, and if you can simulate those decisions you should immediately hear a more realistic style to your drum patterns.

The second point requires an understanding of how the instruments you choose to use make their sounds and how we can simulate the same kind of response on our equipment.

  • As a basic example, take hitting a drum twice in quick succession. The second time we hit the drum, the natural decay of the first sound will be interrupted by the second sound.
  • We also need to consider instruments that can make more than one distinct sound, like a high hat. The short, sharp, closed high hat sound will interrupt the natural decay of an open high hat.
  • Thirdly, it’s extremely difficult to hit a drum exactly the same way consistently – especially for, for instance, a ride cymbal that will be constantly moving and thus nearly impossible to guarantee the exact same volume every time.
  • Finally, a drum kit takes up a fairly large amount of space, and so occupies more than one place in the stereo field.
Battery 3 has excellent voice group settings

In order to get sounds to cut themselves or each other, we use our sampler’s group and choke functions. Different samplers will require different methods to set groups up, and some (usually specialised drum samplers) are structured so that each individual slot can already mute itself, like Akai’s MPC series, and sometimes even a neighbour, like Reason’s Redrum. Because you can assign groups their own polyphony, putting your open and closed high hats in their own group and setting polyphony to 1 will allow them to cut each other out without affecting the rest of your kit. Some samplers also have ‘choke groups’, which do the same thing but don’t require polyphony to be cut.

When it comes to making samples make slightly different sounds, we have a few options. One option is to use an LFO to modulate the sound, and another probably preferable method – providing you have a keyboard/pad input device – is to use velocity so that you have complete control. Attach whichever you choose to volume, and voila.

The final point is such a simple but often forgotten tip, and that’s to give your drums some subtle stereo wideness. Maybe hats go a couple of clicks to the right, cymbal a couple to the left, and so on. Don’t forget that open and closed high hats need to be in the same place!

Now, go use these rules to make some more realistic sounding drums! And then break them all and make something crazy!

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