Monday, September 27, 2010


Sequencing drumsBy Jeffrey Ryan Smoots

      Creating a realistic, dynamic drum sequence is much easier if you put yourself in the shoes (and sticks) of a drummer. Based on drum layout, number of hands and feet, and other factors, "real world" drummers are subject to certain physical constraints. You can increase the realism of your drum sequence by recognizing and applying these constraints.

Learn the layout

      It's helpful to visualize the layout of an average drum set when sequencing drums. While there are a million exceptions, I think it is fair to say that the average right-handed drummer has a kit much like the following (lefties use a mirror image):

    * Kick drum(s) - Usually in the center of the kit. Usually played with right foot (for single bass), or both feet (for double bass).
    * Snare - Placed either in the center, or slightly to the left of center. Usually played with left hand.
    * Pedal hi-hat - Placed slightly to the left of center. Usually played with right hand. Also played with left foot.
    * Ride cymbal - Placed to the right of center. Usually played with the right hand.
    * Toms - Laid out from high pitched to low pitched, left to right. Played with both hands.
    * Crash Cymbals - Arrayed throughout the drum set, wherever they fit and are easily accessible.

      Why go through this in such detail? Visualizing the layout of the drum kit while sequencing drums will help you to determine whether a given rhythm can actually be played. When I'm sequencing a drum track, I grab a pair of drum sticks and "air drum" (pantomime) each section to see if it can be played. I've found that playability in the real world equals increased realism in the sequenced world.

How many hands and feet?

      I can't tell you how many drum sequences I've heard that couldn't (or wouldn't) be played by a human drummer. It's important to remember that a drummer generally strikes no more than 4 instruments at once. For example, most drummers will not try to hit their hi-hat and ride while simultaneously hitting a crash cymbal, snare, and kick drum. Stick to the "No more than 4" rule, and you'll be well on your way to creating convincing drum tracks.

Drop a hit?

      No, I'm not referring to that! Dropping a hit is something that drummers do all the time. It can also be called replacement. As an example, let's say a drummer is playing eighth notes on the hi-hat as part of a basic 4/4 rhythm. If the drummer wants to hit a cymbal on one of the eighth notes, he/she would simply replace a hi-hat hit with a cymbal hit. In other words, the drummer drops a hi-hat hit and replaces it with a cymbal crash. You can increase the realism of your drum parts by dropping those hits that are being replaced with other hits.

Velocity, Velocity, Velocity

      PEOPLE THAT TALK IN ALL CAPITALS GET BORING VERY QUICKLY. SO DO DRUM SEQUENCES THAT HAVE NO DYNAMICS. Playing with dynamics means playing with a wide variety of soft to loud hits. Adding dynamics to your sequence will dramatically improve its feel. Except for the very worst pounders (who shall remain nameless), most drummers learn from an early age to use dynamics. They learn that alternating loud and soft beats adds feel and energy to a drum part. When sequencing drums, you create dynamics by using MIDI Velocity.

      Almost all MIDI sound generators (drum machines, samplers, etc.) respond to MIDI Velocity. In general, a high velocity value will result in a louder sound. Many samplers will not only increase or decrease the volume based on velocity, but they can also trigger a different drum sound. In booth cases, you imitate the dynamics of a real drummer by using changes in velocity.

       Listen to this mp3 example, which uses the Sonic Implants Large Ambient Blue Jay Drums. You can also download the MIDI file used to create the example. In the first four measures, all the instruments use the same velocity for each hit. Then there is a four measure transition which directly compares the difference between 'same velocity' and 'varied velocity'. Specifically, the first two measures use all the same velocity, while the second two measures make generous use of varying velocity. After the transition, there are twelve measures of drum groove using lots for variations in velocity. I think you will agree that the first section sounds a bit stilted and mechanical, while the second section has a more human feel, as well as more tonal variation (a result of the different samples being triggered).

      Sonic Implants Blue Jay Series (and Session series) drums are excellent for illustrating how important dynamics (varied velocity) can be to a performance. A drum's tone varies greatly depending on how hard it is hit (go bang on a real drum and you'll see!). The Blue Jay and Session drum kits feature multiple velocity layers for each drum. Using several samples for each drum, assigned to different velocity layers, allow the Sonic Implant drums to reproduce a continuum of drum tones, from soft hits to hard hits. These differences in tone allow you to create dynamic, convincing drum performances.

      So, alternate those velocities and use dynamics in your drum sequences to make them come alive!


      I could write for days about timing. Keeping time is certainly an important aspect of playing. The rest of the band often relies on the drummer to establish and maintain a song's tempo. As you delve deeper into drumming, you will learn that many drummers purposefully play with tempo in order to create certain effects. Learning about these drummer-centric effects will allow you to introduce some looseness and feel into your sequencing, and help get away from the dreaded "perfect-time drum machine" sound.

      The first effect to talk about is dragging. Drummers will often drag (slow) the tempo of one drum while playing the rest of the kit in tempo. This is most often done on the snare. Listen to your favorite slow songs, and you may be able to hear the drummer dragging the snare. Great drummers seem to be able to play the snare just a little late, but not enough to confuse the tempo of the song. In sequencing drums, you achieve this effect by sliding all the snare drum hits forward a few ticks (ticks are also known as pulses-per-quarter-note, or timing resolution). Other instruments can be dragged as well. I sometimes hear the hi-hat or ride dragged, and sometimes the kick drum. The key is to drag one or two instruments, while keeping the rest in tempo.

      The next effect is rushing (or leading). In fast songs, or to build tension or excitement, drummers will often play one instrument ahead of the beat while keeping the rest in tempo. The tips and techniques for this are the same as dragging, except you would slide the instrument in the opposite direction in time.

      Sometimes drummers will speed up or slow down the whole tempo of the song. The entire band follows these tempo changes. This can be heard in ballads, where a drummer might slow the tempo down temporarily (1 measure or so) when transitioning from a verse to chorus. This can also be heard in progressive music, where new sections of a song may have an entirely different tempo. Changes to the entire tempo of the song require you to alter the tempo map in your sequence. Most sequencers provide a way to alter the tempo, either gradually over time, or instantly. When slowing down or speeding up for one measure (as in the ballad example) keep the change subtle (change only a few beats per minute). Any more than a few beats and the change may stand out too much. Of course, this is music, so be creative! Try everything!

General Randomization

      My specific technique for sequencing drums is to compose them in perfect time, apply timing effects (see above), then apply a subtle timing randomization to the entire drum sequence. The key to randomization is subtlety. Apply too much randomization, and your track will sound sloppy and amateurish. Again, just a few ticks in either direction (ahead of the beat or behind it) will do the trick. I've noticed that randomizing the track helps separate the individual drum sounds since less of them are occurring at the exact same time. This also seems to increase the stereo image of the drums as well. I could be way off on this, but I trust my ears. Trust yours too!

Last thoughts

      I hope these tips will help you create more realistic drum sequences. After a decade of sequencing, I've learned what works best for me. However there is not just one, right way to create music. Instead, find the way that works best for you.

Keep on creating!

Jeffrey Ryan Smoots, Sonic Implant Endorsee

Jeffrey Ryan Smoots is a composer and guitarist with multiple CDs in his collection. You can hear his music and learn more about his work on his website at:

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