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CREATING REALISTIC SEQUENCED DRUM PARTS

Music mythology has it that real drummers are illiterate, beer-swilling


louts with about as much musicality as a dead dog. Nevertheless, it
can be hard to find an acceptable substitute. Sam Inglis offers a
few pointers.
Many SOS readers would rightly argue that the great advantage of sequenced,
electronic drums is that they don't force you to use 'realistic' drum patterns o
r
sounds. Much dance music, for instance, is built around incredibly fast, precise
patterns and sounds which bear only the loosest relation to anything you can
actually produce by hitting a stretched skin with a wooden stick. The ability to
produce rhythms through programming, layer by layer and step by step,
certainly offers great scope for the imagination and freedom from the technical
and sonic limitations imposed by having to play and record real drumming.
Nevertheless, it's often the case that the sound and feel of a real drum part is
required, and circumstances - time, space, lack of facilities or lack of a
drummer - force people who don't play the drums themselves to knock
something up on a sequencer. And though a sequenced part will never be a perfect
imitation, there are a
number of things you can do to make it sound more convincing.
1. Remember the physical limitations to which real drummers are subject. Obvious
ly, individual
drummers have only two arms and two legs, and are therefore only 'four-note poly
phonic' in
synth-speak - but there are also other restrictions on what is physically possib
le. Many typical rock
and pop rhythms incorporate a steady eight- or 16-to-the-bar hi-hat or cymbal rh
ythm. Above a
certain tempo, this will necessarily involve using both hands, usually playing a
lternate notes, so it's
important to think about which hand is doing what; you can't hit the hi-hat at t
he same time as the
snare or crash cymbal, for instance, if you're using both hands to keep up a ste
ady rhythm on the
hi-hat - see example 1, on page 70.
2. For the same reason, there are certain sounds which can't be combined realist
ically in the same pattern. You
can't switch instantaneously between brushes and sticks, for instance, or betwee
n using a normal hi-hat and
one with a tambourine clipped to the top. Sticks can be used to produce rimshots
, but brushes and beaters
can't, so it would be unusual to mix rimshots and brushed snare. Nor is it commo
n to combine hi-hat and ride
cymbal in the same pattern - they're usually set up on opposite sides of a drum
kit. You wouldn't usually do loud
crashes on the same cymbal in quick succession, either; if you want successive c
rashes, use two different
cymbal sounds.
3. Bear in mind that the force with which drums are struck will not be constant.
To a certain extent,
there will be random variation in the velocity of each hit, but there will also
be more predictable
variations. In pop and rock drumming, for instance, the first beat of the bar is
often emphasised,

while reggae rhythms are characterised by a heavier third beat. There are also p
hysical limitations on
how hard you can strike a drum: beats played in quick succession will tend to be
quiet, since you
can't raise the sticks as high, or get so much travel with the bass drum pedal,
between hits.
4. Also, don't ignore dynamics within the song. In dance music, the drums are of
ten compressed to the point
where they are totally even in volume throughout, and any dynamic changes are ef
fected by simply dropping out
parts of the rhythm. Real drummers, however, use crescendos and other dynamic ef
fects to add feel to a track;
often, for instance, they will build up the volume going into a chorus.
5. Use sounds which are appropriate to th
e dynamic level of
a particular drum sequence. Some percussi
on instruments,
like crash cymbals, are virtually impossi
ble to play quietly,
while others, like rimshots, bongos and h
andclaps, are
inevitably relatively quiet. A sequenced
full-on drum assault
will thus sound a little false if it is b
ased around huge,
reverberating rimshots or triangles.
6. Use only percussion instruments which
are appropriate to the
style of music you're trying to emulate,
and remember that most
real drumkits actually contain a very lim
ited number of drums. Not
many rock drummers would have wind chimes
, timbales, tablas or
claves in their standard kit; similarly,
if you're aiming for a '60s pop
feel, that 808 snare probably won't be a help. Few drumkits feature all of the h
uge range of toms found in many
synth drum sets - it's often best to choose two or three and use only those. Als
o, be careful when reproducing
drum parts played on brushes: some synths' so-called 'brush' sets actually repla
ce only the snare samples with
brushed sounds, and don't bother to provide brushed samples of cymbals or toms.
7. It's one thing to have the feel of a pattern in your mind: however, it's much
harder to analyse the
slight timing variations that produce that feel. The best way to capture 'feel',
therefore, is to play the
parts into your sequencer, from a keyboard or other controller, in real time. St
art with the two most
important - usually the bass drum and snare - in a single pass. Playing the drum
s well is, like most
instruments, difficult, and requires a lot of learning. However, it's not hard t
o use two fingers to bash
out a basic rhythm, and doing so makes it much easier to capture the elusive 'fe
el' of a real drum
part. And the beauty of sequencing is that you can correct any mistakes afterwar

ds.
8. If you're not sure what sort of feel your drum part should have, or you can't
seem to get it right by just recording
to a click track, remember that you don't have to record the drums first. If you
r song centres around a particular
piano or bass riff, for instance, you could try recording that into your sequenc
er first and add the drums later.
Being able to hear the important instrumental parts is very useful for deciding
what kind of rhythm will or won't
work.
9. If you do need to edit the patterns you've entered, avoid snap to grid or sim
ilar functions. It's all too
easy to end up not only correcting mistakes, but also the timing variations that
are responsible for
the 'feel' of the part.
10. Though editing can be used to remedy mistakes or really sloppy timing, there
's
little point in painstakingly bashing out your rhythms in real time if you're th
en going
to quantise away all the variations. If you must quantise, leave a fairly wide m
argin
so that only really late or early beats are corrected.
11. Bear in mind that a lot of real drumming styles actually depend on
consistent deviations from theoretically accurate timing. Sometimes this is
quite obvious, as in the case of heavy syncopation or 'swing', which
imposes a triplet feel on a four-beat rhythm, but it can be much more subtle.
For instance, playing slightly ahead of the beat, particularly on the first and
third beats of a four-beat bar, is a common device used to add urgency to a
rhythm, and is characteristic of much disco, pop and country drumming. In
other genres like the blues, by contrast, drummers sometimes deliberately delay
the 'off' beats to
create a laid-back feel.
12. Don't simply record a one- or two-bar sequence and then repeat it throughout
the entire song. Even if you
want to have the same drum pattern all the way through, record it several times
and mix the different versions
up. Each version you record will have slightly different dynamics and timing var
iations, and the variety will help to
reproduce the looser feel of a real drum track and implement some of the dynamic
changes I've already
mentioned.
13. Keep it simple. With today's sequencers and multitimbral sound sources, it's
easy to over-egg the
rhythmical pudding, either by adding improbable numbers of virtual tambourine, s
haker and triangle
players, or by programming intricate rhythms and fills where most real drummers
would exercise
self-restraint (or lack of ambition!).
14. Listen to drumming on records to pick up the sort of patterns and fills that
get used in a particular musical
style. Careful listening can make you realise that your assumed ideas about a pa
rticular style of drumming are
actually quite wide of the mark. For instance, it's very easy to get into the ha

bit of automatically plonking a heavy


kick drum on the first beat of every bar - but there are a number of styles, not
ably reggae and jazz, in which the
bass drum is often not played at all on the first beat (see example 2, on page 7
0).
15. Learn to read drum notation (if y
ou already read
music, it's dead easy - see box oppos
ite) and look at
transcriptions in drumming magazines
and books; the
more you know about playing the drums
, the more
accurately you'll be able to program
realistic drum
patterns.
16. Synth and drum machine sounds are
usually made using
samples of each instrument in isolati
on. Recording a real
drumkit is a different matter, howeve
r; overhead or room
mics are always used (usually in conj
unction with close mics
on individual drums) to pick up not o
nly cymbals and toms,
but the sound of the whole kit, along
with a certain amount of
room ambience. Programmed drum parts
in their raw state
can sound sterile and disjointed by c
omparison, because
they lack this element. You can avoid
this to a certain extent
by taking care with panning - don't p
an anything too hard left
or right, and keep the bass drum in t
he centre of the field. You
can also experiment with putting a ro
om reverb on the drums
to make them sound more coherent.
17. Beware, however, that synth progr
ammers have a
tendency to swathe every drum sound i
n a blanket of
reverb. This may sound impressive when you're trying the instrument out in a mus
ic shop, but again,
doesn't always represent the pinnacle of realism. Massive reverb does suit some
styles of drumming
(Def Leppard anyone?) but by no means all - and where it is used to excess on re
al drums, its effect
is often to make them sound more artificial. Experiment with different depths an
d styles of reverb
until you find something that sounds right.
18. Standard drum kit sound sets, particularly
those conforming to the General MIDI drum

map, suffer certain persistent problems.


Perhaps the most obvious of these is the use
of only three different hi-hat sounds - open,
closed and pedal - when real drumming
makes use of a continuous range of sounds
from quiet to soft, from tight closed to open. A
common device for creating effective build-ups
into loud sections, for instance, is to open the
hi-hat gradually over a bar or two, moving from a tight 'tsk' to a looser, splas
hy sound - which progression can't
really be reproduced using only single open and closed sounds. There are also no
ticeable sonic differences
between a hi-hat struck with the tip of the stick and with the shaft; real drumm
ers do both, often alternately.
Getting hold of a more comprehensive set of hi-hat samples, then, is an effectiv
e way to improve the authenticity
of your sequenced drumming. You could even consider miking up and playing a real
hi-hat over your sequenced
kick and snare pattern.
19. Another problem with many sampled sound sets is that they do not reflect the
ways in which the
sound of real percussion instruments varies depending on the force with which th
ey're struck.
Giving a hi-hat or a cymbal a heavy bash produces a sound which is not only loud
er than a gentle
tap, but quite different in timbre; the same is true of snares and other drums.
If your sound set merely
responds to velocity by making the sounds louder or quieter, you need to be care
ful how you use
them (for instance, avoid trying to reproduce quiet cymbal washes if you only ha
ve samples of loud
crashes).
20. Don't be afraid of changes in tempo. Real drummers speed up and slow down sometimes deliberately,
sometimes not - and these tempo changes can help to give a track a more organic
sound. Some tempo
changes are very obvious, such as rallentando (slowing down towards the end of a
song) and segues between
slow and fast sections of a song. Others, however, are more subtle: it's quite c
ommon for drummers to speed
up slightly going into a chorus, for instance. Some classic recordings even feat
ure a gradual increase in tempo
over entire sections or, in extremes, over the entire song - a well-known recent
example is Pulp's 'Common
People'. It may take a little extra sequencing to implement tempo changes in mid
-song, but the results can be
very effective.