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Drum Programming 101

Creating realistic programmed drums only requires you to think like a drummer. Not the most difficult thing, but takes some imagination to get right.


If quanitizing is moving every note to the grid or at least closer to the grid than the way it was performed, then humanizing is the exact opposite.  It takes your perfectly on time drums and gives them a more human feel by randomly moving things slightly off the grid.  This can really help your drums to feel more human if they're sounding too robotic. Caution!  Do not do this if you're working in hip hop, EDM, or anything that is purely electronic.  The listener expects those genres to be perfectly in time and humanized beats would totally stand out.  Sometimes, I'll turn off my snap to grid function when writing in my drum notes so they're a little more random in their timing like a real drummer would do.  But don't overdo this, your drums still need to be in the "pocket" and help the song sound and feel on time.  DYNAMICS This is the number one key to making drums sound real.  Brand new producers will program drums with every single note at 127 velocity and it sticks out like a sore thumb as being totally fake. If you can, set your default velocity when writing in new notes to 110-115 and only use the 127 velocity when it really counts.  No drummer plays every single note that hard.  If they did, we would hardly need samples.  There's a ton of reasons to program notes at lower velocities like:  Kick doubles with one foot will be a lot quieter than a single hard hit.  A flam on the snare will have one note quieter than the other.  The left hand of a right handed player will always be quieter.  The song calls for a quieter drum performance during a softer section.  A ghost note or drag on the snare drum will always be much quieter than the actual time-keeping snare hits.  As a training exercise, try programming the intro drum beat of Deftones' Digital Bath.  There is so much dynamic range to what Abe plays for that part that you'll learn a ton about when to use force and when to use finesse.


Cymbal choice has to do with 2 things:  genre and variety.  You want to pick the correct cymbal for the part based on genre.  For example:  disco dance beats are almost always on the hihat and deathcore breakdowns are almost always on the China.  You wouldn't play the ride cymbal in a deathcore breakdown and you wouldn't play a china on a swinging blues beat.  So, if you're going for a hardcore two step, stick with the hihat.  And if you don't know which cymbal to choose you can review another band from the same genre or just try different cymbals until you find one that fits.  That brings us to variety.  My rule of thumb is to never play the same cymbal for two sections in a row. So my verse will always have a different cymbal than the chorus that comes after it.  Playing different cymbals from part to part can clue the listener in to the fact that the song just changed from a chorus to a bridge or what not.  It also helps to break up the monotony.  Drums have to be consistent and can therefore sound boring but changing up the cymbal when you change up the beat can really help. Also, you should play around with 1/2 notes, 1/4 notes, and 1/8 notes for your main driving cymbal for each section. Try them all to find what fits.  Careful though, you wouldn't play 1/8 notes during a 1/2 time break down, you'd play 1/2 notes to really slow down the feel of the breakdown and make it meaner.  Aside from being time keepers, cymbals can also be used to accent the guitars.  Even if you program the feet to match note for note what the guitar is playing, you'll want to throw in the occasional accent to keep the main cymbal from becoming too boring. Now don't overdo it!  If you put in too many accents you loose the main driving rhythm of the beat and that's the whole point of the drums.

HAND CHOICE I'm guessing if you're a left-handed drummer you'll probably program drums thinking like a left-handed drummer.  For everyone else, we'll probably be programming like a right-handed drummer. Regardless of which you choose, the same rules apply.  Just flip whatever I'm about to say backwards if you're programming left-handed.  Right handed players have stronger right hands.  Period.  Although we'd like to think that we all do our exercises and our playing in a way that focuses our growth on each of our hands equally, we're totally full of shit.  When we first start we're struggling to play the beat.  We're not trying to learn and play the beat both right and left handed and therefore our right hands are developed so far beyond our left hands it's embarrassing.  So, if you're going to program a triplet with an alternating right-left-right technique then you'll want to program the first and third hit louder.  Why the first and third?  Because as rightys we start everything with our right hand.  When starting a beat the right foot and the right hand will start the beat out 99% of the time.  That goes the same for fills.  When playing an 1/8 note fill from the snare to the toms the right hands will start first on every single drum and be the louder hits throughout the fill.  That's the way the listener has heard fills and beats their whole lives and that's what they expect now.  Just remember to set up your virtual drum kit the way a real drummer would and it'll be a whole lot easier on you.  For example:  When hitting a strong chorus on the crash cymbal playing 1/8 notes, which hand do you think it is?  The right of course.  And where would you expect to find that cymbal on the drumset?  On the right of course! The only cymbal that is used as the rhythm cymbal that is located to the left of the drummer is the hihat which is located on the left side of a right-handed drummer. 


It is physically impossible to hit 5 items with only 4 appendages so don't do it.  Ever.   PERSPECTIVE

Mix engineers used to pan everything audience perspective.  What's that?  Imagine you're standing in the audience looking up at the drummer on the stage and you see him reach for the ride cymbal.  With a right-handed drummer, you'd see him reach to the left because he's facing you and it's a mirror image. To the drummer, the ride is to his right.  That's the difference between audience and drummer perspective.  In the last 20 years, the preference has shifted to drummers' perspective because it seems that only drummer really seem to care and they want to hear it from their perspective.  So, that being said, I'd place your hihat on the left, your toms in descending order with the smallest rack tom on the left and the largest floor tom on your right, the ride cymbal on your right, and the china cymbal on the right.  Again, this how 99% of right-handed drummers set up their kits and if you're looking for realism I'd suggest you do the same. 


Dynamics!  Dynamics!  Dynamics!  Little accents, ghost notes, and subdivisions are extras, they're not a driving force in the song.  So don't make them too loud.  If you're just tossing in accents on the cymbals to assist the guitar riff, they shouldn't be as loud as the main driving rhythm cymbal.  If they were, you'd loose all the momentum gained by the driving cymbal and the beat.  If you're programming little drags and subdivisions on the snare you need to set their velocities much much lower than the actual time-keeping snare hits.  These little details really help to bring the performance to life and keep your programming from sounding too robotic.  My favorite type of ghost note is with kick drum doubles right before a snare hit.  Try making that very first kick double almost inaudible and now it sounds kinda like a triplet that ascends in volume.  Most ghost notes are faint snare hits in between the regular snare that just adds a bit of flavor to the performance to keep it interesting.  But don't use it too much, there's a time and place to ditch the ghost notes and have a hard-hitting section with just the main snare hits carrying the section without all the extra frills.   Appropriate usage GENRE

Choose a beat that fits the genre.  You're rarely gonna find a back beat disco pop beat in a downtempo or hardcore track.  Why?  Because we've been conditioned to associate certain types of beats with certain types of genres.  For example:  What would a punk rock song be without a fast 2/4 beat and what would a deathcore breakdown be without a crushing half-time china beat?  When in doubt, pick beats that fans of the genre are familiar with.  CONSISTENCY

Once you've picked an appropriate style for the genre, try to focus on consistency.  Consistency is created by playing the majority of your rhythm cymbals hits on the same cymbal during the section.  For example:  a solid hardcore two step is almost always played on a hihat and you'll find that with the exception of a cymbal accent here or there, the majority of all the cymbal hits are on that one hihat.  Consistent hits on the same cymbal allows the listener to focus more on the kick and snare than all the subdivisions your playing on that hihat.  This is important because too many fills or cymbal accents destroys the feel of the track and makes it hard on the listener to feel the natural tempo of the song.  And now you're a failure as a drummer.  Remember, your job is to keep time, be consistent, support the groove, make the song powerful, and help the listener bob their head.  REPETITION

Now that we're playing a nice consistent beat it's time to repeat it over and over again.  For example:  can you imagine how hard it is for a non musician to follow a song if every 4 bars of each verse played an entirely different beat?  They would be beyond lost. So play a sick beat and stick to it for the entirety of the section.   But don't overdo it!!!  If a verse is played the same way for a full 32 bars of a verse or bridge, try switching up the beat slightly half way through to keep the listener interested.  Obviously you need to pick a beat that fits the section but changing up your beat just a bit by slowing down your hands to half time or speeding up your feet to double time can carry the listener to the next section.   MAIN OBJECTIVE

You're job is to keep time.  But it's also to provide a structure that people can clap along, bang their head, and mosh too.  Just imagine if the only drum beat was a punk beat and it didn't matter how fast or slow or how upbeat or brutal the riff was, all we could play was that fast 2/4 punk beat.  Music would be lame and nobody could vibe to it.  So yes, keep the time.  But also provide the listener with something that causes them to identify with the riff on a more primal and instinctual level with a beat that accentuates the structure and flow of the section.  


This is probably the hardest thing for non drummers to get right.  When to use a fill and what fill to use.  The absolute easiest place to tell you to place a fill is leading out of the last bar of a section into a new section. The next logical location is half way through a section just before the section starts to repeat itself.  We want to maintain consistency in our beats but we don't want to be boring.  Guitars and basses can get away with playing almost the same thing throughout an entire section but just like vocals, drums can't.  So to keep the audience engaged and let them know the section is half way done, we add a little fill.  And I do mean little.  The last thing you want to do is place an extravagant 4 bar drum fill right in the middle of the chorus.  Save that for the end of the section to help the listener mentally prepare for the song to change up into a new part. So keep them middle fills nice and neat.  Sometimes all you need is to just add a crash at the beginning of the next section to identify the half way point.  Sometimes a simple and short snare roll only to help set up the second half.  Whatever you do, you have to do something in the middle of every section to prepare people for the second half.  End fills on the other hand can be much more dramatic.  They can be longer, be more complex, and include more pieces of the kit.  Just remember to keep it realistic.  If you're trying to program a quads over doubles sextuplet fill of 32nd notes down 12 toms and ending with a variety of crashes at 280 bpm nobody is going to believe you.  And don't just fill for the sake of a fill, try to find something that assists the song getting to the next section.  If the next section is slow, you don't want a super fast fill because it will feel like hitting a brick wall.   TIME CHANGES

Drums can be a great mediator between the music and the minds of the listener.  Tempo changes can be jarring to the listener when not done right.  It can be so complicated to get right that they suggest new song writers stick to just one tempo for the entire song.  You'll also notice that 99% of pop and rock songs have just one tempo.  This makes them much more easily consumable by the mass market and therefore more sell able.  But the rest of us dig a tasty time change here and there and the drums can really help. Heading into a slower section?  Have the drums end the previous section with a slower paced drum fill.  Need to completely reset the internal tempo of the listener?  Try stopping the drums completely so they can focus on the new guitar riff that sets up the new section.  And if the guitar can't clue in the listener that there's been a time change, try programming a whole note cymbal to count along with the riff and help the listener establish the new tempo. This doesn't just help the listener, it helps the entire band find the new tempo.  


The listener listens to the snare more than any other piece in the drum kit which makes is vitally important to get right.  This is where I spend 90% of my time trying to get the dynamics just right so it sounds real.  A general rule of thumb is to keep the velocity high for the slow sections and low for the fast sections.  If you think about a drummer in real life you'll realize that the super fast hits in a blast beat at 230 bmp are much quieter than the super slow hits in a rock beat at 100bpm.  It's just physics.  We drummers try as hard as we can to make those blast beats nice and loud but at that speed there's simply not enough time between hits to really bring your hand and wrist up high enough to hit the drum as loud as you would in a rock chorus playing 1/2 notes.  So the higher the speed the lower the velocity.  I also never program every hit in a section to be the same velocity.  They don't have to be all over the place as far as volume is concerned but you do want some variety so change up the velocity of all the hits just a little bit.  FLAMS AND RIM SHOTS

A flam is two notes played on a drum (typically the snare) roughly a 64th note apart.  That's two notes pretty close together for most tempos. This is what's called a flam.  I use it when I really want to emphasize a giant slow fill into a big breakdown section.  It's usually super loud and easy to miss if you're not looking for it.  The key to flams are to keep the velocity of one of the two hits lower than the other.  That's half the cool factor in a flam is the one note accenting the other with volume.  Now rim shots are a technique all drummers should use in most steady and straight forward sections like verses and choruses.  The technique is to hit the stick on the rim of the snare and the center of the snare at the same time.  It's hard to master but gives you the biggest and fattest snare sound there is.  Not all drum software include this technique but if they do, please use it sparingly.  This is a difficult technique to do at higher tempos and sounds completely unbelievable when abused and used too often.  So just stick to big strong slower rocking verses and choruses and you'll be fine.  KICK

The trouble with kick is how low of a note they are.  At faster tempos it can be hard to hear the individual notes being played and they can start to sound like one solid note. That's why it's so important to consider your velocities and keep things randomized.  Avoid programming every kick note at a full 127 velocity.  Leave those for super slow sections or just the downbeat of every section or bar.  Remember to program the velocities lower the faster the kick pattern and tempo just like the snare.  Even the best drummers playing 1/16th notes above 200 bpm have quieter notes than if they were playing 1/2 notes at 100 bpm.  That's just the way it is.    FEEL

When drummers talk about "feel" and "groove" they're talking about the way the beat makes you feel and the way it makes you want to move.  For example, a slow ballad and a fast punk rock song feel much different.  Feel can be influenced by many things but more by the beat you choose to play than anything else.  For example:  a fast blast beat over a slow chugging breakdown makes the song feel much different than a slow driving, china smashing, and crushing half-time beat.  The same can be said about playing a super slow beat when the song is calling for an uptempo 2 step beat.  So be mindful which beats you choose because it drastically effects the "feel" of the song as a whole and try out more than one beat for each section to determine which one is right. More often than not, the right beat is the one that makes your head bob.  And speaking of head bobbing, nothing ruins a good pit more than inappropriate snare placement.  Especially when you put the snare on a downbeat that makes the section sound uneasy.  The snare needs to land where your head bobs down more often than not if you want to whip people into a frenzy.   FINDING THE RIGHT BEAT

If you're struggling to find the right beat to fit the guitar riff, start out by placing a kick drum note every time the guitar hits a note.  Now that we have every note covered, try placing a snare at the beginning of the 2nd and 4th bar.  If that doesn't work try half time by just putting the snare at the beginning of the 3rd bar.  Or even the beginning of every bar.  There's a variety of combinations to choose from, you're looking for the one that makes your head bob.  Once you have the snares in place, try removing the kick drum kits wherever they overlap with the snares.  Now it sounds like a real beat.  Next up is the cymbal choice.  I'd start with right crash if it's a chorus but for everything else I'd start with a hihat.  Slow sections are usually 1/8 notes on the cymbals and faster sections are usually 1/4 notes.  Just remember to choose a cymbal that is not the same as the section before or after the section you're working on.  All that's left to add is accents and fills.  You don't always need these, but used tastefully they can really give a sense of realism to your drums.  ROOMS

This may be more of a mixing suggestion but depending on what software you're using, this may be applicable.  Don't forget to program or blend some room sound in with the close mics of the drum kit.  Great drums aren't recorded in dry rooms, they're recorded in large rooms with just the right amount of treatment that lets the drums come alive but keeps the decay under control.  This is another way you can put a lot of realism into the drums.


If you struggle to find the right beat, just listen to one of your favorite bands.  Find a guitar riff that's similar tempo and similar amount of notes (1/4, 1/8, or 16th) and have a listen to what the drummer is doing.  You should find a couple different beats to try out.  

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