Posts Tagged ‘ Drums ’

Do something different with rhythm

Break out of your usual rhythms.

Think about all the usual assumptions you make when you’re programming drums and rhythms for other parts. People often speak of breaking the rules… what happens when you break your own rules?

Take the kick drum for example… do you only ever place the kick drum on quarter-notes? See what happens when you place some kicks on eighth-notes between the quarter-notes. Syncopate them.

Too easy? What about placing the kick drum on the first beat of each bar? Find out what happens when you start each bar without the kick drum. Don’t just do it once or twice – do it for a whole section. Maybe a few sections. Maybe make it a feature of your next song or track.

Same goes for the snare. How often do you place a snare (or snare-like sound, such as a clap) on the second and fourth beats? Do you ever think about why you’re doing it? What happens when you shake it up a bit? Put that snare somewhere else. Listen to how the other instruments respond.

Some of these explorations might sound ‘wrong’ when you listen back. Some might make you feel uncomfortable. Some might be weird, or even interesting. Rhythm plays a critical role in establishing the way the music feels. Is it quick and nimble? Slow and lumbering? Solid as a clock? Wobbly and unpredictable? It’s right there in the rhythm.

Even if you try out a bunch of ideas and eventually return to your comfort zone, you’ll have a better understanding of why your comfort zone appeals to you. You’ll be in a much better position to deviate – even if only slightly – in a way that makes musical sense, rather than simply making random variations.

Drums are usually the main contributors to a song’s sense of rhythm. But don’t limit yourself. Break out of the usual rhythms you use for basslines, accompaniment parts, even melodies.

Still too easy? Try some less-common time signatures. Try 6/8. 5/4. Alternate between 6/4 and 4/4. If you’re feeling adventurous, go for 7/8 or 7/4. This kinds of time signatures will force you to shake up your usual rhythms. And you’ll invent something fresh.



Examples of using group busses

Group busses are a versatile and useful mixing technique. They’re often used in a variety of different situations:

  • Distorted guitar stacks. It’s quite common to layer or doubletrack (or tripletrack or quadrupletrack) distorted guitar parts in order to make them sound bigger. Sometimes the layers are all recorded with the same setup (same guitar, same amp, same mic position, etc), but it’s just as common that the layers are recorded with different setups. The layers blend to form a composite guitar sound that the listener hears as a single diffuse part. Because all these layers function as a single part, it often makes sense to treat them as a single channel when mixing the bigger picture. By using a group bus, the layers can all be treated as one. This means that when you’re fitting the guitars in the context of the rest of the mix, you can set the level and tone of the guitars as if they’re a single part.
  • Backing vocals. Much the same as distorted guitars, it’s common to treat layered backing vocals as if they’re a single sound source. This is especially useful when there are several layers that are singing the same words with the same rhythm. Unlike layered distorted guitars, it’s also common the different layers of backing vocals to be singing different harmony parts. Another difference is that backing vocals often benefit from some compression (distorted guitars often already have flat dynamics due to the distortion). When dealing with backing vocals, it’s often useful to compress each individual channels as well as the group bus. That way, each compressor can work gently while still resulting in a smooth and consistent sound.
  • Pads. While not as commonly spoken about, grouping pads can be very useful for the same reasons as distorted guitars and backing vocals. Some particularly interesting effects can be created by combining several layers of different pulsing pads and then compressing the group. Done well, this will produce a texture that is more consistent in level but is constantly changing in tonality.
  • Drum kit. This is a huge topic! The way drums and compressors interact can be quite complex. The sound is influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from the way the kit is played to the selection of kit components to the choice of miss and recording medium to the design and settings of the compressors. Like backing vocals, it’s common to compress individual drums in addition to compressing the drum group bus. Used lightly, drum group compression can give the whole kit a sense of glue and life and density. Just remember not to overdo it – too much compression will flatten your drums and make them difficult to work into the mix!
  • Kick and bass. This is a technique that has been used subtly for some time, but has recently become more fashionable with modern dance music. By grouping the kick and bass and applying strong compression to that group, the bass will duck slightly when the kick is sounding. This will make the low end of the mix more compact and solid. This is now commonly taken to extremes with the use of side chain compression – instead of using a group bus, the bass is processed with a compressor that is keyed (‘side-chained’) from the kick.

Group busses are most useful when you have several tracks that all perform a similar function in the mix and you want to either glue them together or otherwise treat them as a single unit. Of course, you can group anything you like. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to use group busses. Often it doesn’t make sense to group tracks that aren’t related to each other or need to remain separate.

On the other hand, you might find some interesting sounds by using group busses in unusual ways…



Six ways to get bigger beats

Who doesn’t want bigger beats?

Well, maybe your neighbours. But maybe you don’t like your neighbours. Who am I to judge? I just supply the tools. It’s up to you to use them ethically.

Here are some quick tips:

  • Depth. Separate your drums into two groups – main foreground drums (kick and snare) and secondary background drums (hats and other percussion). Keep the rhythm of the main foreground drums simple, but make the secondary background drums a bit more complex. Make sure the foreground drums are MUCH louder than the background drums!
  • Tone. Big sounds occupy a wide frequency range. Use EQ to make your foreground drums tall. Pay particular attention to snares – they can have energy ranging from the lower mids all the way up to the highest audible frequencies. Making sure your main snare drum has energy across a wide frequency range is an important part of making your drums sound huge overall.
  • Compression. Yes, drums love compression. Everywhere else has written about this, and there’s no need to repeat it all here. Try out a bunch of compressors and see which ones you like the best.
  • Dynamics. This is not about compression. Of course you’ve read elsewhere about using compression on drums. Of course compression is important, but dynamics is more than just compression. Dynamics is the difference and changes between quiet and loud. Making sure you’ve got a good balance of quiet and loud sections in your song is key – when the loud sections come in, they’ll be very effective. If everything is loud all the time, it will be much less effective.
  • Reverb. It’s not just for pushing sounds to the background. Use a programmable reverb and set it up with the biggest size, but shortest length. This will give you a great giant sized reverb that doesn’t muddy up the mix. You won’t need to add much to the drums – just enough to give them some space. If your reverb processor is particularly good, use more of it and compress the lot – use a reverb->compression chain on a kick&snare group.
  • Space. Make sure the drums aren’t competing for space against the rest of the mix. A few huge instruments (such as a bass and lead) are ok, but if everything in your mix is big the drums simply won’t cut through with enough power. Remember – if everything is huge, nothing is huge.

There’s really not much more to it. If you can abide by these guidelines, you’ll have beats as big as you want – every time. Sucks to live next to you.


Why ‘randomising’ is not ‘humanising’

How often do you see the terms ‘humanising’ and ‘randomising’ being used interchangeably? Or maybe you’ve seen someone ask how to make something sound more natural or human, and someone else suggests adding random variations to timing and/or velocity? Perhaps you’ve tried adding random variations yourself, only to end up with something that doesn’t sound any more ‘human’ – just sloppy.

Of course, variations to timing and timbre are key to a natural human performance. The lack of variation is one of the very defining characteristics of samples and drum machines (when compared to human performance).

The important difference, however, is not merely that a human performance has variations – but that these variations have a pattern. They’re not completely random.

If you analyse a human drum performance, for example, you’ll find that some notes are always louder than others, some notes are always earlier than others. Other notes are always quieter, others are always later. This is groove. It’s the complex combination of note emphasis, push and pull of timing, and rhythmic mode (which beats in the bar are usually sounding, and which beats are usually not sounding).

Of course, there will also be random variations as well – a human is not a machine! The variations will not only be in timing and velocity, however. There will be tempo variations. There may even be pattern variations (where some bars have a slightly different note pattern). These random variations, however, are not the defining characteristic of a human performance, and are often not the desirable characteristic we are looking for when we want to create the illusion of a human performance.

If not random, then what?

So, if we’re going to add some deliberate variations to timing and velocity, what are we going to do? This is very much a choice that depends on personal taste and the needs of the song. Generally, I find that the following work for me:

  • Stronger velocity on the beat (and weaker velocity between the beats). This works when a part needs to be stable and predictable, supporting the song.
  • Stronger velocity on off-beats (between the beats) for foreground parts or transitions (such as drum fills).
  • No timing offset on the first beat. This just makes it easier to think about where the bar starts.
  • No timing offset on the beat (1, 2, 3, 4). This provides a solid, stable beat.
  • Notes between the beats to be slightly late. You might already recognise this as swing or shuffle, but I’m talking about doing this much more subtly.

My usual groove within a beat is [0,20,10,20] – assuming 120 ppq[1]. This means that instead of every 16th note (semiquaver) being 30 ticks, the first two semiquavers are 40 ticks long, and the next two are 20 ticks long. This means that there’s a bit of lag between the beats. The effect of this is that:

  1. Strong notes on the beat have rock solid timing.
  2. Strong notes on the beat have a bit of extra space after them, making them sound a bit bigger.
  3. Weak notes lead up to a strong note on the beat sound like they ‘speed up’ leading up to the strong note, adding excitement and emphasis.
  4. Strong notes off the beat have a bit more funk and groove.

Combined with lower velocities for the offset notes, this is usually not audible as an obvious swing or shuffle. For me, it adds just enough groove that I often don’t feel the need to add additional variations – including random variations – to make a part sound human.

Humanising is more than just adding random variations to timing and velocity (volume and tone). The changes must be musical.


[1] PPQ: Pulses Per Quarter. One beat (crotchet) is 120 ‘ticks’. Half a beat (quaver) is 60 ‘ticks’. A bar (semibreve) is 480 ‘ticks’.

The case against compressed drums (articulation vs texture)

Don’t overcompress those drums!

When drums are compressed, the body of the drums is brought up in level (relative to the transient). This creates the perception of longer sustain, making the drums sound bigger. By bringing up the level of the audio between the transients, there is more sound overall. This makes the drums sound fuller. Coupled with the right kind of envelope shaping from the compressor, this results in a drum sound that is interesting and exciting!

In the context of a mix, however, this can just as easily work against you. Within the context of a mix, drums traditionally serve as rhythmic articulation. That is, they are the ‘spiky’ hits that rise above the other instruments to establish the timing and the groove of the music. On a continuous scale between articulation and texture the drums are almost entirely articulation, whereas the other instruments are more texture.

When the drums are heavily compressed the longer, louder sustain between the drum hits adds more textural sound. This leaves less textural room for other instruments. This might be appropriate if the mix is quite sparse, but you want to make it sound thick and full. A heavily compressed drum group might only need a bass and melody to sound like a complete mix. On the other hand, it will be difficult to fit in a subtle layered pad or detailed background sounds. They’ll have to be much louder to be audible, which muddies the mix and reduces its depth (because the background is not so far away).

A subtle and deep mix will be better served by shorter drums with less sustain. While these drums will sound weaker on their own, they’ll be more appropriate in the mix. The space between the drum hits will provide ample space for bringing in other sounds, allowing either a subtle textural approach or a deep mix with a far background. The space between the drum hits is like a window through which the listener hears the rest of the mix.


Composing for Kick Drums 3


Like for any other part, adding variation to the kick drum pattern adds interest and scope. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of variation – changing the timing of notes (keeping the same density) and adding/removing notes (changing the density). These variations are most effective when a regular pattern has been established (repeating for several bars) before presenting the variation bar. This frames the variation pattern in the context of the regular pattern. This effect does not last long though – if the variation bar is repeated several times, it becomes the new regular pattern. The effect of any change (such as excitement or anticipation) fades.

Pulling Notes Forward

This is changing the timing of a kick drum note so it plays earlier than expected. For example, if the regular kick drum pattern is “First and Third” (kick drum plays on the first and third beats of the bar), a variation might be to pull the second kick forward from the third beat to halfway between the second and thid beats. This will add a sense of excitement for the listener, as they hear the kick drum play earlier than expected.

Pushing Notes Back

The opposite of pulling notes forward is to push them back. This is where kick drum notes are played later than expected. Using the same example (“First and Third”), a variation might be to push the second kick back from the third beat to halfway between the third and fourth beats. This will add a sense of heightened expectation and anticipation for the listener because the kick drum doesn’t sound when expected, but the effect is tempered by eventually providing the kick a little later.

Adding Notes

Adding notes as a variation is a more effective case of pulling notes forward. The added kicks are heard as occurring earlier than expected, but the “original” kick is also heard. The added kick also increases the density of the pattern, which also adds excitement.

Missing Notes

Missing notes is an extreme case of pushing notes back. Instead of simply changing the timing of a kick so it is heard later than expected, the kick is removed altogether. This results in a sense of anticipation that isn’t fully resolved – it is only partially resolved when the next kick hits.


Composing for Kick Drums 2

Sparser Kick Drums

In general, sparser kick drum patterns will be less energetic. As with the First and Third pattern, a sparse approach is generally useful for leaving space for other instruments. Taking this approach, the kick typically only emphasises the first beat of the bar, and sometimes a secondary beat (secondary in importance – not necessarily the third beat). It can also be a very effective way of giving a section or whole song a slower pace without slowing the tempo. With a busier snare or other percussion, a very sparse kick can be very ear-catching because there may be implied beats or expected beats that aren’t there.

Denser Kick Drums

In general, denser kick drum patterns will be more energetic. In the context of the whole drum kit and other percussion, a lot more emphasis will be placed on the kick. This can be a problem if the snare or other percussion is also big and/or busy. For a balanced approach, it might be better to combine a dense kick drum pattern with sparser, smaller snare and other percussion. If If the kick drum is particularly prominent (such as in many dance genres), the other instruments may need to be thinner than usual to accommodate as well. On the other hand, a dense kick drum pattern is a good way to emphasise a heavy sound with a strong rhythmic focus. The best example of this is heavy metal, where there are extended passages with double-kicks (constant kick drums on 8th notes or even 16th notes!).


Most kick drums notes fall on the beat – meaning they are played on quarter notes (also called crotchets). The two patterns discussed last time (Four-on-the-floor, and First and Third) have kick drums played only on the quarter notes. Sometimes, however, it sounds good to play the kick drum on an “off-beat” – in between the quarter notes. Notes played on off-beats are less stable and (mostly) less predictable than notes played on the beat. If you have a lot of notes played off-beat, and not as many notes played on the beat, the whole patteren will feel more unstable, more unbalanced, and more unpredictable.

With a careful balance of on-beats and off-beats, funkier patterns are possible. These balance stability with instability on a moment-by-moment basis. Typically there will be a kick on the first beat (the downbeat) of every bar (or only every second bar!) to ground the listener and begin from a point of stability. In the middle of the bar, however, the kick may be played at various points on or off the beat. This creates a constant push/pull between stability and instability, and can make a pattern much more exciting and interesting to listen to. The effect is heightened when the kick only plays on the downbeat every second bar – so the other bars don’t even start with a kick.


Some very interesting things can happen when introducing swing to kick drum patterns[1]. To hear the swing on a kick drum, it already has to be playing off-beat (that’s how swing works – by delaying the off-beats). When a kick drum is swung, two things happen:

  1. The kick plays later than expected – meaning the listener is kept waiting in expectation for a (very) brief moment. This contributes to the push/pull of stability and instability, which is also related to expectation.
  2. The kick aligns closer to the coming beat – meaning it emphasises the anticipation felt by the listener.

This further emphasises the subtle push/pull of the kick drum pattern.

More coming…


[1] Sometimes I rhyme, but not all the time.