How to play the drums when you've never played the drums
August 3, 2011 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Please suggest resources for me to learn how to create good drum/percussion parts (using a MIDI keyboard). I don't know anything about percussion and so need help with figuring out what sounds to use and what sounds good where. (I know how to get the MIDI into my computer -- I need artistic, rather than technical help -- at least I think that's what I need!)

My music background is in piano and singing. I write all my music on an acoustic piano and use a tape recorder, and I'm just beginning to sketch out musical ideas using GarageBand (I want to create the sound of a fuller band -- something beyond just me and some keys). I have a Kurzweil PC88mx keyboard and all the various gubbins and cables to get MIDI from that into GarageBand. I know GarageBand has a wealth of percussion loops, but I'm interested in learning more about how percussion works, what sounds good and what doesn't, what instruments to use, etc.

Assume I know nothing: I've never touched a drum kit (in fact, I have no idea what instruments are in a drum kit), I don't know what people are talking about when they mention names of various kinds of drums and percussion instruments, and I'm just a total beginner in this entire genre of music. I *do* have a grasp of music theory and can read music, if that helps. My songwriting genres are pop/rock/folk/jazz/blues.

I'm looking for websites, videos, books, or whatever other resources I can study to help me get a handle on this. Please ask for clarification if my question doesn't make sense. I'm finding it quite difficult to articulate what I'm looking for because this whole field feels quite foreign to me! Thank you.
posted by hansbrough to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
What helped me, coming from a similar background to yours, was 1) trying to copy existing beats in your favorite music program with the standard MIDI channel 10 drum kit, 2) finding .mid files of songs with impressive sounding drum tracks and dissecting them (slowing the tempo way down, looking at them in the piano roll, etc.)., and 3) improvising with the MIDI drum kit in real time, as if you were actually playing the drums.

(In the modern age of Youtubery, looking at intro drum kit lessons online may also help you get a feel for what "real" drummers do.)

Fortunately, although the availability of all kinds of percussion in e.g. Garageband can be daunting, the basic elements of a drum kit are actually really simple. Here they are, from a fellow non-drummer's perspective:
  • kick (the low "thump" sound that you usually hear on the downbeat, MIDI B1 or C1)
  • snare (mid-range "crack" sound, usually on off-beats, MIDI D1 or E1)
  • hi-hat (high-pitched "tick" sound), which can be:
    • "closed" to give a short "tick," (MIDI F#1) or
    • "open" to give more of a "tsshhhh" sound (MIDI A#1)
    • often the "closed" sound is used on 8th or 16th notes with the "open" sound on, for example, quarter notes
  • crash cymbal (what it sounds like -- think "end of a bad joke") (MIDI C#2)
  • toms (the drums that actually sound like they have some pitch -- mostly useful for "fills" and transitions between sections of a song) (MIDI A1, B1, C1, D2)
There are more exotic things that people use sometimes but mostly, this is really it. And the first three (kick, snare, hi-hat) are all you really need to lay down a groove, so I would start by just limiting yourself to those. Enjoy and good luck -- I'll come back and post if I see any good tutorials out there.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:51 PM on August 3, 2011

Download Nanostudio. Start a new track.

Hit record (top right), it'll start up a four bar loop that will just go round and round, playing whatever you've played, until the end of time.

Go to the ominously named TRG-16 via menu button at the top left. It is a drum machine of delightful vim and plasticity.

Hit the bass drum a few times, bottom left pad. Now the snare (just to the right).

Now a little cymbal (HH-CL stands for 'high hat closed' and goes 'tick', HH-OP stands for 'tshh').

And some ride.

Yeah baby.

Now a bit more bass drum. Okay, getting a little messy.

More snare!!

Okay quite messy now, but it's still a beat!

None shall pass!

Our funk will rule the galaxy!

Go over to the eden synth

It'll be set on this awesome throbby bassline sound... play a note! Make a nice four bar tune!


But you can do better - and you will! Save it, start a new piece, do it better!
posted by Sebmojo at 9:05 PM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

More seriously, if you have an iOS device, then I can't recommend Nanostudio highly enough as a 'learn by doing' tool for loop creation that you can carry around with you (and make professional quality sounds that you can extract and use at home). Not only for beats, but also synthesised sounds - it has a phenomenally good set of tools and filters and effects.

The free download is here

As to learning beats - try listening to music you like and work out what the different instruments are doing, rhythmically. Then try and copy it on Nanostudio.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:19 PM on August 3, 2011

I mean here.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:20 PM on August 3, 2011

This may be some help (though probably slanted towards 4/4 time):
Here's how to write drum tracks really fast on a midi sequencer.
posted by smcameron at 9:30 PM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and for the *very* basics: Kick on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4.
posted by smcameron at 9:37 PM on August 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might find this thread helpful.
posted by sophist at 10:29 PM on August 3, 2011

Starting out by following my own advice, and inspired by smcameron's fantastic link, I knocked this out on the bus on the way home. One drum machine (with tweaks as suggested in the link) with beats added largely at random, a simple throb bass, a bit of guitary synth and a couple of other layers in there for interest.

Structuring it took longer than making it - Nanostudio isn't great at the more macro work of fading stuff in and out (or more probably I haven't quite worked out the best way to do it).
posted by Sebmojo at 2:48 AM on August 4, 2011

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