"Eat Drums! Eat Cymbals!"
Programming drums is easy. Programming great sounding drums is much more of a challenge.
Drums form the backbone of electronic dance music. They are the driving force behind the track, creating a rhythmic foundation that maintains the song's energy and momentum.
Its therefore essential that the drum parts you create in your own tracks sound alive and exciting, and keep the listener engaged throughout. If your drums sound boring and lifeless...then so will your track.
In this EDM drum programming tutorial, I'll be taking a deep dive into how to create your own pro-level sounding drums. We'll be covering how to source your own drum samples and process them, how to recreate drum patterns for some popular EDM genres, as well as exploring how to add variation and interest to your drum tracks to take them to the next level.
Let's get into it.
Table of Contents
Drum Programming Basics
Unlike a real-world drummer who plays a physical drum kit, a dance music producer works with virtual instruments or samples within a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), or by programming a drum machine's built-in sequencer.
The constituent parts of an EDM drum kit however remain the same, consisting of a kick drum, snare, hats, cymbals, toms, as well as some additional percussive elements:
The Kick Drum is the rhythmic heartbeat in every dance track, providing a pulsing energy at the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Kick drums follow a standard 'four-to-the-floor' pattern in most electronic dance music genres, but this is not always the case as we'll see later.
The type and tone of kick drum samples can vary a great deal, so it's important to select the right type of kick for your genre, or you track might sound 'off'. If you're struggling to find the perfect sample, then you can always create your own custom kick.
Clap / Snare
In a standard House drum pattern the clap or snare drum generally coincides with every second kick, providing contrasting energy in the high-mid frequency range.
Producers often layer together claps and snares in staggered combinations to produce unique sounds. For instance, you might want to layer a classic digital TR-808 snare with a more natural sounding analogue clap to create something that fits better within your mix.
If you want to know how to synthesise your own snare sound then check out this article: Making a Snare Drum in Ableton's Operator.
Hi-hats generally play in an 1/16 note or off-beat 1/8 note pattern towards the higher end of the frequency spectrum. They are crucial for adding a compelling groove to your track, so it's important that you spend some time making them sound as interesting as possible.
Hi-hat samples are taken either from drum machines or from live kits. They can also be easily synthesised from scratch using a VST synth such as Ableton's Operator, using envelopes to shape the sound.
Open hat samples have a longer decay than closed hat samples which causes them to ring out longer. By reducing the decay on an open hat, you can achieve a hybrid style hat that sits somewhere between the two.
Much like hi-hats, cymbals fill the upper parts of the frequency spectrum, and have an even longer decay time. Types of cymbals include a ride which can be used to announce the end of a bar, or a crash cymbal which may be used as part of a transition to a new musical section.
Toms or bongo samples are generally pitched, so it's important that they are tuned to fit with the specific key of your track. They can be used to create interesting counter rhythms within your drums to add additional character and texture.
Percussion is a general term for sounds that don't fit any of the classifications above. Percussion samples can range from shakers to cowbells, maracas, or even found sounds that you've recorded yourself. They are great for adding even more groove and personality to your drums by creating secondary rhythmic patterns.
Drum Programming in your DAW: Audio vs MIDI
There are two ways to program EDM drums in your DAW, either by dragging audio samples directly into the timeline, or by importing the samples into a Sampler and then using MIDI notes to program your beat.
Both methods have their pros and cons, and you can even use a combination of both styles of arrangement depending upon how they suit your creative workflow.
Advantages of Audio Drum Programming
The main advantage of using samples directly within an audio track is that you immediately get a very visual representation of when each sound waveform begins and ends. This makes it easier for some producers to identify 'gaps' in their beats to fill out with percussion hits and create unique sounding patterns. Some people also find it easier to cutup and edit audio samples and loops directly within the timeline.
Advantages of MIDI Drum Programming
The main advantage of using MIDI is that it gives you more flexibility and can be faster to use. For example, once you have your MIDI drum pattern programmed in you can then easily swap out different samples within the Sampler to audition different drums. Using MIDI also gives you the opportunity to use hardware controllers to lay out an organic sounding beat in real-time. This will give you a more natural sounding drum pattern with slightly off-grid notes and velocity changes.
Drum Sample Selection
Whichever way you plan to program your drums, you're first going to need some decent sounding drum samples.
How to Find Good Drum Samples
I'm a great believer in not paying for stuff when I don't need to, and this holds especially true for samples. Before you splash the cash on expensive sample packs, I recommend first exploring the sounds that come with your DAW, as you might be surprised what you uncover.
There are also some great free sample packs available. Check out the following post where I've listed the best available by genre: The Ultimate List of FREE Sample Packs.
If you feel you do want to buy drum sample packs, then I suggest you limit yourself to one or two good quality sample packs that should last you many years, rather than getting a huge amount of lower quality samples.
I won't make any specific recommendations here for the best drum sample packs, as what you choose will be dependent upon what type of music you are producing, however if the pack has a demo selection of sounds available to download first, then this is a good option to help you decide whether it's worth the money.
How to Save Time Selecting Samples
The more samples you have in your library, the more time you'll waste selecting the right sound.
However much you try, it's likely that over the years you will end up with a large sample collection. To avoid wasting time auditioning tons of different drum samples, a small amount of library management can go a long way to streamlining your workflow.
I keep named folders containing a small number of great drum samples specific to genres that I produce in. So, if I want to find a snare for a melodic house track for example, then I'm browsing through 15 or 20 samples rather than several hundred. It's a simple idea, but one which will save you a huge amount of time and speedup your workflow.
Create Your Own Drum Samples
One of the downsides of using sample packs is that everyone else out there is doing the same! To avoid sounding like everyone else you might want to consider creating your own unique drum and percussion sounds to use in your productions.
This can be achieved through sound synthesis using a VST, or by recording and processing a recorded sample from just about any source. Any sound can be percussive. There are no rules here, so it pays to be as creative as possible.
5 Essential Drum Programming Patterns
Let's take a look at some basic MIDI drum programming patterns for a number of popular genres.
Note that there is no processing or automation applied to these examples, as we'll cover this later. These drum pattern cheat sheets are to give you a starting point on how to program drums in different EDM styles.
House Drum Pattern
This first House MIDI pattern has the kick playing a standard four-to-the-floor, and a snare/clap combination together with a closed hat playing every other 1/4 note. Note that the clap is brought forward slightly to make its transient more pronounced.
An open hat hits on the off-beat, and a shaker plays 16th notes with velocity variations across each 1/4 bar to give it some groove. Finally, a tambourine and tom are used to introduce secondary rhythmic patterns.
In terms of tempo, anything from 110bpm to 150bpm should work depending on what House sub-genre you are going for. Your samples should be a mixture of drum machine hits and live samples.
Drum & Bass Pattern
The tempo for Drum & Bass is usually around 160 to 180bpm. The snare (in this case a rim shot) remains on beats two and four, however the second kick in each bar is shifted to the right by 1/8 bar to form a classic 2-step pattern. Several hats are used to create a 'shuffled' rhythm which is associated with Drum & Bass, with the groove again coming from their varying hat velocities.
Trap Drum Pattern
I've set the tempo for this simple Trap drum pattern to 140bpm, using both 1/4 notes and triplets for the closed hats to create a syncopated rhythm with varying velocities. The clap plays regularly on every 3rd beat, with the kick hitting more sporadically. The short percussion sample and open hat at the end of the phrase adds additional interest.
Techno Drum Pattern
The tempo for this Techno MIDI drums pattern is set at 130bpm. A drum rumble sample is used in a four-to-the-floor arrangement in conjunction with a top-end layer to make the kick stand-out. An open hat plays on the offbeat, and a shaker sample plays on every 16th note with subtle changes in velocity to create the groove.
There are also some assorted rimshots and percussion samples to create a secondary rhythmic pattern.
UK Garage Drum Pattern
The tempo is kept to 130bpm for this UK Garage MIDI pattern. The kick alternates between the on and off beat, whilst two separate snare sounds also hit on both the on and off beats. The hats form an off-grid flam pattern that generates the groove of the beat, with the first hat being lower in velocity than the second hit.
How to Make your Drums Sound Better
Understanding the basic drum patterns for your chosen genre is a great starting point for your track, however there's much more to creating great sounding drums than simply chucking a few samples together and hoping for the best. Let's take a look.
Add Variation to your Drums
Once you're programmed in your basic drum pattern, the temptation is to simply repeat it throughout the entire track. However, without any variety this runs the risk of making your song sound dull and monotonous.
Adding small changes to your drums every four or eight bars can really help spice things up and keep the listener interested. Introducing new percussive elements for example or adding or removing drum parts create a sense of the track evolving over time rather than being static.
Add Percussive Hooks
It goes without saying that a great melody needs a memorable hook, and this statement also applies to your drums. When designing drum patterns, think about adding percussive motifs such as 'call and response' where small rhythmic phrases are played and responded to.
These motifs can then be developed as the track builds, introducing additional compelling rhythmic elements as the song progresses towards its climax.
Get Creative with Drum Loops
Try to avoid the temptation to lazily drag a drum loop into your track with no thought behind your process. Instead try to be original by cutting up, stretching, warping, and reversing samples, or make a sample really your own by creating cool effects through delay and reverb.
One of my favourite drum programming tricks in Ableton is to use the beats warp mode in the Simpler device, with the option selected to preserve transients. By adjusting the transients control you can totally change the sound of a loop to create something completely new.
Add Groove to your Drums
Programming a drum pattern where every note is quantised exactly to the grid is a sure-fire way to creating robotic sounding drums. Unless this is the sound you're after it pays to learn how to use groove effectively in your drum patterns to add humanisation and feeling to your beats.
One way to achieve this is to program your drums in real-time using a MIDI controller. Doing this will introduce small imperfections in your drum hits (as well as changes in velocity), which will go a long way to humanising your drums and make them sound more real.
Alternatively, you could manually adjust your MIDI or audio samples within your DAW's arrangement view to bring them slightly off-grid. Moving them to hit slightly before the beat will add a sense of urgency to your track, moving them slightly after the beat will create a more relaxed swing effect.
The third and perhaps easiest method is to use your DAW's inbuilt ability to automatically add groove to your drums. Checkout the video below to see how this is done In Ableton:
Add Stereo Width to your Drums
If you're trying to make your drums sound full then panning can really help. There is no definitive standard on how to pan your drums effectively, however the following tips may help:
Keep the main driving elements of your drums such as the kick and snare at the centre of your mix with no panning applied. Then apply slight right or left panning to your hats and percussion to give more perceived width to your drums.
Alternatively, you could use the Haas Effect to create stereo width to your higher frequency elements. For a fuller explanation check out this article: The Haas Effect - what it is and how to use it in your tracks.
For toms, bongos, and more melodic percussion feel free to apply more radical panning. You can use panning creatively here by adding automation so that the percussion moves around subtly within the stereo field.
Fill the Frequency Spectrum
As well as filling the stereo field, you should also ensure that your drums fill up the frequency spectrum as much as possible. Intelligent sample selection is the way to achieve this, making sure the low, mid, and high-end frequencies are all covered by your sound choices.
How to Process Drums
Effective drum processing is probably one of the hardest things to get right as a beginner, but it can make the biggest different to how your drums sound within the mix.
The theory is relatively easy to understand, however it can take years of practice to train your ears well enough to instinctively know what EQ adjustments to make, or which compressor settings to use. It's worth putting in the time here though to really understand what you're doing.
Let's take a look at the basic concepts:
Knowing how to EQ your drums is an essential aspect of getting a great sounding mix. It's important that each drum part has its own identity without being obscured by other parts.
Corrective EQ is used to cut unwanted frequencies to reduce overlaps, whilst Shaping EQ can be used to sculpt your sound to give each drum element the space it needs.
In the example above, a high-pass corrective EQ has been applied at around 100 Hz to a snare drum, to cut out the low frequencies to prevent it interfering with the bass and kick.
A slight boost has then been applied around 8 kHz and a high shelf at 11 kHz to shape the sound to allow the higher frequencies of the snare to cut through. Finally, a secondary boost around 255 Hz gives the snare more body.
In order to improve your knowledge of the frequency spectrum to get the sound you want when using EQ, I highly recommend using ear training software. If you want to know more then check out this article: Do Ear Training Apps Work?
Compressors work by reducing the volume of an audio signal when it reaches a predetermined threshold. Compressing your drums can therefore help to reduce the initial peak when the drum hits, allowing you to raise the volume of the drums in your mix without reducing your overall headroom.
In other words, using a properly configured compressor on individual drum tracks allows you to shape the drum sound so that the body of the sound is louder, without reducing the punchiness of the attack.
As well as using compression on individual drums, a gentle compression can be used on your drum bus to 'glue' your drums together into a cohesive unit.
Compression is a balancing act, as you still want to keep some of the dynamics of the drums intact. Over compression will lead to them sounding flat and uninteresting.
Just as panning moves your drum elements to the left and right within the soundstage, adding reverb to your drums will add perceived depth. The result will be a more realistic sounding spacious mix.
Reverb can be used for individual drums or across the drum group as a whole. The trick though is to use it in moderation, especially if you have a busy sounding mix at a high tempo. As a starting point, I tend to increase the reverb effect dry/wet from zero until it becomes noticeable, then back off ever so slightly.
If you're adding reverb across your entire drum group, then make sure that you high pass the reverb so that it doesn't add unwanted muddiness to your low-end.
The type of reverb you use will be dependent upon your track and genre. If you are relatively new to music production however then I'd recommend just using your stock DAW reverb effect and experimenting with the various settings. If you're more advanced (or just loaded), then Valhalla or FabFilter Pro-R are my favourite go-to drum reverbs.
Creative Drum Processing
Using creative effects on your loops and samples is a great way to add unique textures and variety to your drums.
For example, you can use a Phaser or Vocoder effect on Hi-hats to give them perceived movement, or a small amount of saturation on your drum group to add more body and presence.
I particularly like using the Erosion effect in Ableton to add more body and grit to my drums.
I hope you found this EDM Drum Programming tutorial useful.
If you're thinking of singing or rapping over the top of your newly created beats, then check out this article where I review the best free autotune plugins: Best FREE Autotune VST plugins
New to Ableton? Check out this guide on How to Use the Piano Roll
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Have a great day!