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Drum Programming

Good programming is replacing good music discipline By Graeme Hague

Home music studios and Digital Audio Workstations let everyone do more than just record themselves individually now. The virtual instruments and sampler software that come with applications like Cubase and Sonar means that guitarists can create a passable piano track or keyboard players can slap in a neat, fretless bass line. Good programming is replacing good music discipline.

You don’t have to sit around for a few years and get your fingers around all those funny valves and tubes on a saxophone, for instance. That’s got to be a good thing, right? So are musicians an endangered species? The answer is still no, because nothing can replace the spontaneity and creativity an accomplished player can offer. But a lot of the time getting a real person to play on your recording isn’t a practical option and instead you have to work hard at making your programming sound like the genuine thing.

Drumming can be the trickiest of the lot. There are a lot of programs and sample libraries that will give you great results, yet your music still has that “drum machine” sound. How can you avoid it?

Native Instrument's Battery 3 is a great drum sampler that can seriously sound like the real thing- but it's only ever as good as the programming driving it!

When you’re programming MIDI for drums there are a few basic concepts that can make all the difference. It’s about allowing for the human element- emulating a living, breathing drummer (without drinking all the beer in the fridge and falling asleep on the couch). Try these following tips and you’ll inject a lot of realism into your sequencing. Importantly, before we go further, note that the wave file examples below are audio files rendered from MIDI programming- we’re looking at sequencing tips here.


No One Is Ambidextrous
Great drummers can do amazing things with either hand or foot, but they’re still left or right-handed which means that in a majority of actions every second drum hit is weaker with their non-preferred side. Listen to the samples below of a snare fill. In the first, each hit is at the same velocity (volume) and has that mechanical feel. In the second example I’ve lowered the velocity of every second hit to mimic a softer, left-hand strike. Look at the Piano Roll Edit screen shot too and you’ll see in the first example all the notes are the same color, but for the next fill every second note is colored differently denoting a lower velocity value. You can apply the same theory to tom drums and percussion fills.

Snare 1

Snare 2


Tom 1

Tom 2


Depending on your DAW software setup different velocity values can be displayed as particular colors. You can see how it works here, but your own software might display things another way.

High-hats are a little different. The idea of allowing for a weaker hand still works, but remember that drummers also tend to accent the first hit of every four, too- subject to the musical time signature. A “sixteenth” feel is a good example. In the first wave everything is the same volume. In the next, every second hit is a softer left-hand hit and also the first of every four hits is loudest.

Hi Hats 1

Hi Hats 2

Kicking Things Along
Programming a kick drum needs a similar approach, but for a different reason. If a drummer is playing a fast kick drum then some of the hits are not so loud, because they’re physically setting themselves up for the next strike. Have a listen to the examples below.


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Related Keywords:Drum Programming , sample libraries ,MIDI for drums , kick drum

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