Programming drums can be a lot of fun, whether you’re using a hardware drum machine, a virtual instrument or a sampler. Learn how to program drums for realism and your beats will instantly sound more realistic.
How to Program Drums Like a Drummer Would Play
If you’re making electronic music that uses hip hop drum loops or house drum loops you’ll find it’s pretty easy to get cool sounding results.
If however, your goal is to make your drum sequences sound like a live drummer, there are some tricks you need to learn to make it sound more realistic. Of course there is no substitute for the real thing, sequenced drums will never be able to completely replicate the tone and humanization of a talented drummer, but it can get pretty close. The real trick for how to program drums is understanding the physical limitations of a real drummer.
Download the Ableton Drum Kit and Drum Sequence
We put together an Ableton Live set that has a basic drum kit and a simple drum groove that includes many of the techniques mentioned in this article. For demonstration purposes we over-compressed the mix so you can clearly hear the effect that compression has on the overall sound. Feel free to play with this and try your own grooves and settings.Download Ableton Set with Drum Samples – 4.7 Mb Download MIDI and Drum Samples – 4.7 Mb
Here’s a demo of our a programmed drum pattern
Learn How a Real Drummer Plays
Having recorded scores of drummers over the last 15 years we’ve gained a lot of experience regarding what a human being can and cannot do with a drum kit. Staying true to these limitations when programming drums really adds a sense of authenticity to your drum sequences. If you are new to drum programming let us share our experience and knowledge with you. Let’s start with the basics:
1 – The 4 Limb Rule
When figuring out how to program drums it’s essential to remember that drummers usually only have four limbs (excluding Tommy Lee). This means you should not program any more than 4 sounds simultaneously. For example, a real drummer would never be able to hit the snare at the same time as the crash cymbal and the floor tom.
Also bear in mind that a drummer typically only uses his/her feet to operate the hi-hat and bass drum so you’d never have an instance where the drummer plays the bass drum, crash, snare and floor tom simultaneously because even though that adheres to the 4 limb rule, it’s physically impossible for the drummer to hit the crash, snare and floor tom simultaneously with only 2 hands.
Really try to imagine which parts of the drum kit your drummer can physically hit simultaneously. Draw a diagram or study some pictures of a drum kit to get an idea.
2 – Speed of Movement
Aside from a few super human drummers, you’ll find that most drummers can only move around the kit at a certain speed. It’s unlikely that a drummer can switch from playing sixteenths on his/her hi-hat to playing sixteenths on a floor tom at a tempo of 230 Bpm. There will need to be a gap where the drummer moves from one side of the kit to the other.
3 – Closing and choking Hi-Hats
Another top tip for how to program drums is that a real drummer would never play a closed hi-hat at the same time as an open hi-hat. It’s just not possible unless they have two hat sets on their kit. When a drummer opens the hat for an accent and then closes it with his/her foot, there should be no other closed hi-hat sound in that groove while the hat is opening and closing.
Your sampler or virtual instrument should allow the open hi-hat sound to be choked out whenever the hi-hat foot pedal sound is triggered. This emulates how a real hi-hat operates. If you’ve put together your own kit from single hit samples your sampler should allow you to do this, read the manual as all samplers are different. Ableton Live has a really cool function for doing this as shown in this video – how to make a hip hop drum groove.
4 – Ghost Notes
When you learn how to program drums properly you’ll have to become familiar with the concept of ‘ghost notes’. If you want to program drums that have a funky feel, you’ll need to program ghost notes which are quieter hits that should ideally trigger a separate sample to the main full velocity hit. For example, a snare drum can sound totally different when the drummer lightly tickles the top drum head with the drum stick. Compare this to a full velocity side-stick hit and you’ll see the massive difference in tone and volume, yet this is the same drum being hit by the same stick.
Be sure to use a different sample for the ghost note hit than you use for the full volume hit (like in the IMPULSE drum kit we made for Ableton Live above) and never use both at the same time as that would not be possible for a real drummer. You can use ghost notes on all parts of the drum kit but mostly you’d hear real drummers use ghost notes on the snare, hi-hat and kick.
5 – Left Hand / Right Hand
When it comes to snare fills, such as a continuous para-diddle at a high tempo, you’ll get a more realistic sound if you have separate samples for the left hand and the right hand. This is because the tone produced from each hit is slightly different. If you don’t have that luxury try altering the velocity (volume) of each hit to more effectively emulate the different level of power a real drummer would use on each hit. You could also use minor pitch fluctuations on each hit to further emphasize this effect.
The same method would also be very effective on closed hi-hats where the groove requires lots of fast, intricate hits from both hands.
6 – Choking Cymbals
Drummers like to use choking crash cymbals to create really powerful accents. This is often used in Rock and Metal and will often be accompanied by the kick drum. If you’re not sure what I mean, it’s where the drummer will hit a cymbal hard and then quickly grab the cymbal to cut off the crash sound.
You can use the same technique as explained above for the open/closed hi-hat whereby you assign a sample to cut off the ring of the crash cymbal. This is ideal because you get to decide how long the cymbal rings out before it gets choked.
7 – Don’t bother with snare buzz
Some virtual instruments boast the virtues of adding snare buzz in order to make sequenced drums sound more ‘authentic’. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a clever concept and it definitely does make sequenced drums sound more real but unless your producing trad jazz tracks, that snare buzz can get really annoying.
Bear in mind that sound engineers have struggled for decades to GET RID of snare buzz and we take a great deal of care in our recordings to completely eliminate any sound that interferes with the pure sound of each drum. So, as much as this is a cool idea, the chances are that by the time you’ve mixed in your bass, guitar, vocals etc, that snare buzz will have worn out its welcome. Perhaps use it only in places where your mix has enough space.
8 – Room Ambience
Generally you can make a ‘dry’ drum recording sound more ‘live’ by adding a touch of room ambience. Some drum samples might already contain some nice room ambience but most tend to be completely dry which ultimately allows you more control when it comes to mixing in your own room sound.
When recording a live drummer, the room ambience is usually recorded using two mics placed strategically within the drum room at some distance from the kit. This is why you’ll hear the room sound on all parts of the drum kit and it really enhances the live feel of a drum sound.
To achieve a similar effect with sequenced drums you can add an FX channel in your DAW to the drums with a medium sized room reverb. Mix this pretty low so that it’s just audible. Now you want to group the drums and reverb channel you just added into a stereo sub group on your mixer. This basically assigns the drums and the reverb to one pair of faders. Now you can apply compression to that sub group which will squeeze the sound to allow the room reverb to pop out of the gaps in the audio.
Use this effect sparingly, you’re really just trying to achieve a more realistic drum sound as apposed to some crazy effect – but if it sounds cool go with it.
9 – Quantization and Velocity
Humans don’t play in perfect time, especially drummers. Most sequencers include a humanization algorithm in their quantize options so it’s often good to tweak that so that your drum patterns aren’t so robotic and rigid.
You can even use subtle tempo shifts to further ‘humanize’ your drum programming but use this wisely as any accompanying instruments such as guitar, bass and vocals will all have to synch up with the drums.
As I mentioned earlier, velocity is also a big factor in making your grooves sound more realistic. A real drummer never really hits with the same power on every single beat. Compressors are used to flatten out some of the dynamics of a live drum performance so you should try to program your drums in the same way and then use compression to even out the signal. Just like in a real recording of a live drummer.
10 – Use Real Drum Sounds
This might seem obvious but it’s worth stating that if you’re trying to achieve realistic drum sequences, an 808 kit just won’t cut it. Search for high quality drum samples that you can load into your sampler. Try to get full drum kits that match. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use toms from a TAMA Starclassic with a Mapex Kick and Snare, but usually you’ll get a more cohesive sound from a kit that was designed to go together.
All of your drum samples should be perfectly edited so there are no gaps at the start of the waveform and your cymbals should have long fades.
11 – Simplify your fills
When a drummer performs a drum fill, chances are that the drummer will keep it minimal, at the most they might continue a hi-hat groove with the foot pedal. The hands will be occupied with hitting the snare and toms so keep the kicks minimal and either drop the hi-hat out altogether or switch to a simple foot pedal groove.
Simple fills also give your music more breathing space and allow other instruments to fill the space.
12 – Use the Flam
A flam is when a drummer hits a drum with both sticks but not exactly at the same time. One stick will hit the drum skin just before the other which results in a cool ‘flam’ sound that works great on tom fills. This is easy to emulate in your drum programming, just add another hit in the sequence slightly before your main hit and then reduce the velocity of the first one.
How to Program Drums – Summary
These are the basics you need to know when programming realistic sounding drums.
As we said at the start of this article, you’ll never beat the sound of a real drummer playing live acoustic drum loops on a beautiful kit in a great sounding room, but you can still get good results if you follow these tips.
For high quality sounds visit our pals over at Drum Samples for some free downloads.