Your drums are the foundation of your song. They are what people dance to. Or not dance to, if they are not done well.
So to become and expert beat maker, you will need to know how to program drums well. Let's get into some tips.
I am sure you noticed that each genre has its own average tempo and drum patterns. One other thing they have is a style of sounds.
e.g. House Music uses a longer deeper kick than drum and bass, and EDM drums use more aggressive sounds than Tech House. and Techno.
If you want to write a particular style, you need to start with the kind of sounds that match that genre. Get some good sample packs, and try not to reinvent the wheel until you have a good grasp of the genre already.
The easiest way to choose the best drum sounds is to have them playing in context with your song.
i.e., Test out your drum sounds while your song is playing and make sure they work with the rest of the beat/song.
I recommend keeping your drums in MIDI format. If you program in audio, you will not be able to swap out your drum sounds fast enough so you will get lazy and avoid it.
My preferred way to do this is to use one Ableton Drum Rack per sound. i.e., One rack for kicks, one for claps, etc. I can then load many kicks/claps into each one, and merely transpose my midi to hear an alternative drum sound.
This way I can quickly switch my sounds, try alternatives, and find the perfect drum for my beat.
If you write any kind of dance music, then the goal is to make people dance. So don't make your drums so complicated that people can't move to them.
I know it is fun and cool to write tricky syncopated beats, but if no one can dance to them, no one will care.
Save your tricky bits for occasional fills instead, and make your main grooves simple and hypnotic.
This is especially important in house based genres as the kick will be on the standard 1-2-3-4 beats.
Most people try to add some funk and swing to their beats with mid-range and bright percussion, like claps, hats, shakers, etc, but they often forget to include a low-frequency instrument too.
Placing a tom, or low percussive hit in between the kicks will give your beat so much more danceable groove.
Sometimes people also overlook the brightest part of their percussion too. e.g., Hats, ride cymbals, shakers, tambourines.
If you do not have enough bright percussion drum hits in your beat, it will feel dark and lack top-end energy.
This is easy to miss if you have been writing at loud volumes. Try listening to your song at talking or whisper volumes, and compare it to your other favorite songs. Now you will quickly notice the difference between your top end percussion and theirs.
By default, the velocity input on your sampler is usually only controlling volume. This is somewhat sonically borning, and a little redundant. By the time you compress your drums, drum group, and master bus you will lose most of that volume change.
For more expressive drums, try assigning the velocity input of your sampler to control something like sample start point, or filter cut off, etc.
This way when you hit your drum pad harder, the drum gets brighter. Like a real drummer.
With sample start point assigned, you can make a hard hit play the original sample, and a softer hit can move the start point later in time. This will shave the initial attack off for soft hits. Giving you advanced sonic dynamics rather than simple volume changes.
This is a more advanced version of drum programming. Mostly used in Hip Hop, but it can work great in House, Trap, Techno, Future Bass and other genres as well.
The first way to do this is to record your drums live with a MIDI pad and quantize switched off. This will give them a loose natural feel.
Sometimes this will be too messy, so you can try a partial 50% quantize to make them slightly more tight and in time.
The second method is to start with quantized drums and nudge the notes early or later in time where ever we want to achieve our desired feel. You can use this to make a beat feel rushed, lazy, awkward, tense, stompy, and more.
Not only does the timing of your notes matter, but the length of each note plays a significant role in the groove too. It can make a beat feel jackin, or slow. It can also give a plain simple loop, a lot more life, and power.
e.g., short hats, vs. long hats. Or long boomy 808 kicks get choked off by snare drums.
Perceived attack of sounds.
Keep an eye and an ear on the perceived attack of your drum sounds.
You may have trimmed your sample start points correctly, but some sounds have a perceived start point that is different than the start of the audio.
e.g., Shakers seem to slide into their attack. It is not immediate like a kick.
For sounds like this, you might want to nudge them slightly earlier in time so that the perceived attack feels like it is in the correct place/timing.
A great way to learn drum programming to do an exercise where you copy the groove from one of your favorite records or drum loops. Whether you are just starting out, or you want to learn a new genre, this is rhythm programming exercise is super helpful and insightful.
You can often uncover all sorts of unexpected secrets when you start listening with such detail. Things like off-grid timing, intentional note lengths, hit variations, and more.
However, I would recommend you immediately take what you discover and write a song with that new info. Don’t just practice this and not start a song.
Great drum programming is detailed, yet knows when to keep it simple too.
To make your beat interesting, try out all your options. Like different sound choices, rhythms, timings, note lengths, velocity modulations, etc
Yet keep the danceability in mind too. It should still be infectious and hypnotic.
It must be so good that you can listen to it on repeat, and be nodding your head and thinking, “yes! This is the shit. I could listen to this all day”. Until it feels like that, it’s not ready.
In certain songs, your groove can be only expressed by a combination of your drums and bass. In this case, it is ok to keep the drums a little more simple and let the bass do the work. They are both parts of the rhythm section after all.
However, I highly encourage you to push yourself to make the drums as dope as possible, just on their own.
For a more detailed course on Drum Programming, Music Theory, Arranging and Mixdowns, check out my course The Road To Main Stage