“And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the [drum] machine will be prevented from working at all!”
— Mario Savio
No, Mario Savio, the famed activist of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, wasn’t actually referring to a drum machine, but pretend for a minute he was. In the last 25 years we’ve witnessed a massive songwriting shift toward drum machines and programmed beats. Left and right (and right right left), drummers continue to lose work to the machine, yet some have embraced thy enemy. These drummers have evolved, and instead of hating what is calculated perfection, they’ve learned to program and nurture it, thereby rerouting more work their way that would have otherwise fallen into the hands of “producers” and beat makers.
The truth is that programmed drums have specific qualities that are quite difficult to achieve with an acoustic kit. There’s the perfectly quantized rhythms, the 100 percent volume consistency, the ease of editing patterns
in post, and the infinite range of tones. Furthermore, drum machines don’t show up late, they don’t get drunk, and they don’t try to steal your girlfriend. It’s a tall benchmark for us mere human drummers, and yet what makes us imperfect is exactly what also makes us valuable. It is these imperfections that drum machines lack that make them both perfect and flawed at the same time.
Now bear with me on this minor side note, but if it is the human’s imperfections that are the primary difference separating man from machine, then are these imperfections not the key ingredients to soul? This is assuming, of course, that drum machines have no soul.
There are all sorts of reasons folks use programmed rhythms. Maybe your singer fell in love with that cheesy beat from the Casio keyboard because he spent months writing a song around it. Worse yet, maybe the producers convinced the rest of the band that synth drums are the only contemporary way to make hits and that your outdated drumming services won’t be needed on the upcoming album (happened to yours truly). Regardless of the circumstances, sometimes these programmed parts need a little work, a little more life. This is where you come in.
It’s time to forge a truce with your ego and get over the fact that programmed beats are here to stay. It doesn’t make you any less of a drummer if you help gussy up the binary, so swallow your pride and start working with the machine instead of against it. It’s still drums and you have the home-team advantage.
Machines don’t make mistakes, and as such, programmed drums are perfect. Unfortunately, perfection can be extremely boring. In the case of programmed beats, perfection can make a rhythm suffer because of its lack of variation; every note becomes predictable, sterile, and lifeless. Without diminishing the seeming quality of perfection, one of the first steps to livening up a programmed beat is to introduce some variation. If it’s a one-bar pattern, start by making it a four-bar pattern with minor changes to either the kick or the snare. Then dissect the hi-hat pattern and adjust the velocities so they are no longer all at the same intensity. (See Fig. 1) You can aim for a typical loud-soft-loud-soft accent pattern, or shoot for something a bit more random like a Stewart Copeland hi-hat experience.
The two other elements of programmed beats that typically suffer most from immaculate repetition are the ride cymbal and fills. To this day, I’ve never heard a programmed ride cymbal I liked. It always sounds strange not hearing the variation of a stick hitting the cymbal in a slightly different spot on every stroke. The solution? Record the real thing.
As for fills, we’ve got ourselves another problem of the same order. Except for folks with pneumatic limbs (check out Captured By Robots), drummers don’t play fills by hitting the snare in exactly the same place with the same intensity every time, yet the programmed fill is exactly this. We’ve all heard those cheesy machine-gun sounding synthetic snare fills, and they’re too perfect for a drummer to play. So how does one fix this mess?
Similar to the hi-hat treatment, start by varying the velocity levels of each hit. That alone probably won’t fix the problem, so try substituting a secondary tone, and possibly a tertiary, for half the notes. (Fig. 2) Think of the substituted tone as being the left hand, and the original sample as the right. In real life each hand sounds different when playing a fill because they aren’t hitting the exact same spot on the head, so let’s try and emulate this physical aspect using a RLRL sticking approach.
That secondary drum tone can be one of two things; it can either be a completely different sample that just happens to sound similar to the original, or it can be a copy of the original, but slightly modified. I recommend the latter, as modifying the original can typically prove to be much more efficient and effective than the nightmare of endlessly searching for a similar tone.
After copying the original sample, take the duplicate and either raise or lower the pitch slightly. Most software that offers MIDI programming has this functionality right alongside typical MIDI parameters like velocity and attack. To make this effective, the pitch shift needs to be as minimal as possible – just enough to differentiate between the two snare tones. Anything more and it starts to sound like two different drums, thus defeating the initial purpose. (Fig. 3)
Did the modified tone not fix the problem? Consider the remodel an unsalvageable failure and demolition is necessary. Track an acoustic fill over the loop instead. Playing and mixing acoustic fills with electronic loops is a lot of fun and can sound awesome when executed well.
Sicks Vs. Mouse
If the main purpose of the drum loop is to showcase specific electronic tones, but the programmed rhythm is a bit too starched, consider, instead of programming it, performing it with the same tones. This could be in the form of playing electronic drums, using triggers on an acoustic kit, or simply finger drumming on an interface or keyboard. All three of these yield far more human-like characteristics than simply mapping it out inside the computer.
It eliminates certain issues such as the one-volume-size-fits-all vortex and the perfectly quantized timing. You’ll also need to make sure that the auto-quantize function is disabled on the software before tracking, otherwise your MIDI performance will be realigned to the binary grid.
Within the neo-soul and hip-hop movement, there’s been a recent rhythmic trend of heavily laying grooves back, both programmed and acoustic. It started around the year 2000 with acts like D’Angelo and Me’shell Ndegeocello, and has since grown in popularity with contemporary artists like Hiatus Kaiyote. Although it still grooves, the concept is to awkwardly push notes so far back, they seem flat out wrong. A positive side effect to these “out” notes is that it makes a programmed drum part sound more alive and realistic.
Sometimes it’s a late snare, a late hi-hat, maybe a late kick, but because it just keeps happening over and over, eventually it settles as a groove. So if, by chance, you are working with a neo-soul, hip-hop, or other like-minded artist, you can effect this concept with what I call the sludge nudge. Simply select a note and nudge it slightly later. For instance, with a basic backbeat, select the hi-hats on beats 2 and 4, and nudge those a little ways back. They should start flamming with the snare and creating the sludge effect. Some folks love it, some hate it, but there’s no denying that what was once a typical programmed drum part no longer sounds so much like machined perfection.
An alternate method to achieving the sludge nudge is to adjust the delay compensation of an individual track. This requires breaking up a drum synth into different tracks, which, depending on what you are shooting for, can potentially be a quicker method of simultaneously nudging a larger group of notes. Try taking that basic backbeat, separating the hi-hats onto their own track, and pushing them back approximately 70 milliseconds (Fig. 4). It might be a bit jarring, but then again, so were saggy pants when they first came out and now we all love ’em, right?
Brick & Mortar Drums
If none of the suggestions above have elicited a more lively programmed beat, then it’s time to add some acoustic drums. Instead of overhauling the entire track, deleting the electronic drums, and pouring a new foundation, let’s try to marry the two in a ceremony we can only hope will someday be recognized under federal law.
Crash The Wedding
Rather than starting with the whole kit, let’s begin with just the crash. Simply adding a few crash cymbals to certain accents can quickly evoke a more acoustic and realistic vibe from your track. Taking the time to set up a few overheads and a room mike, playing a few lone crashes, and storing them in the sample library for later, is a great way to add just a little more energy and legitimacy to a track. Just about every programmed track I’ve ever produced has acoustic crashes layered in.
Real Deal MCFeel
While playing a full kit, you can try tracking an acoustic version of identical rhythm, or a slight alteration, and mixing it with the programmed beat. You may run into flamming issues, but this could be a good thing depending on the situation. Additionally, you’d need to then decide either to keep the acoustic track as a complete performance or to crop and loop a small segment of it (recommended). You may also get more favorable results with a low-cut EQ set at roughly 250Hz to filter out the entire low end on the acoustic performance, thereby making room for the rich synth bottom of the electronic kit (Fig. 5).
Space Now Available
Generally, most programmed beats are valued for their kick and snare tones and everything else is somewhat superfluous. This means there’s a lot of unused sonic real estate in the high-end spectrum and additionally there are the spaces between all of the main accents. These gaps can be filled with all sorts of things, most notably the hi-hat, which is a great way to weave some humanity into the machine. You can even take it one step farther and track just hi-hat and ghost notes, though it’s a surreal experience. Furthermore, adding percussion like shakers and tambourines also greatly aid in shading a machine with touches of soul. Even adding some brushwork on the snare can be the magic glue that gels machine and soul together.
As there are countless shades of lipstick one can apply to a pig, there are a myriad of tricks in which one can dress up a mechanical sounding beat. Starting with the suggestions above, making the beat groove shouldn’t be a huge hurdle. Making it sound human, however, is still something done easier with a drum kit than a mouse. Though the dawn of the singularity may be near, the drum machine still relies heavily on the drummer for a heartbeat.