How to enter drumbeats easily and efficiently
April 9, 2006 10:50 PM   Subscribe

OK. So I have been playing guitar and keyboards and making music for some time now, and I recently have begun doing more work on the computer, composing and recording. I need help making drum tracks.

So here's the deal: I'm no percussionist. Often I am trying to make a drum track that imitates some particular style or song that I have heard or have a recording of. Entering this in manually seems impossible (using a sequencer like, say, fruity loops) either using the regular interface or the piano roll. For any kind of subtlety, I can tweak for hours and never feel like I got it right. I have a few ideas and I wanted to know if any of these make sense, or if anyone knows some better ones:

* some kind of tool that "pieces" of drum work that I can cobble together into a drum track (something like band in a box but less cheesy and easier to control)
* software that detects rhythm instruments and makes, say, a midi of the drum track (Ok, probably just dreaming there)
* I'm thinking I could look at a spectrogram (like this or or this) and pick out drum beats, and using the scale on the x axis of the spectrogram, figure out the intervals to use on the piano roll entry. A program that would overlay a piano-roll entry on top of a spectrogram would be really awesome. I might could make one if I really had to.

The other method I use, which I find hard for almost anything, is to listen to a piece of music over and over, and assign some drum sounds to a keyboard, and try to hit the keys in the rhythm I want. This is harder than it sounds for anything but trivial drum beats. I'm trying to enter some samba rhymthms that are driving me nuts.
posted by RustyBrooks to Media & Arts (22 answers total)
Get away from the computer and learn to play real drums. Seriously, I mostly work on the computer, but I found that taking a few basic hand drumming classes (conga and djembe mostly) helped a great deal. It's also a lot more fun than staring at a screen and moving little rectangles around for hours.
posted by xil at 10:58 PM on April 9, 2006

Heh, I should have posted this in the morning, so I'd have time to read responses and reply before it scrolls off the page. But, Im frustrated now
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:59 PM on April 9, 2006

and then what? Play drums and record them? Use the knowledge to enter it in some other way?
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:59 PM on April 9, 2006

Well, I've never found a good solution for programming drumbeats. If I were you, I'd do one of two things:

Purchase some professional libraries (of .wav file loops of real drummers... usually 20-50$ a CD, tons of loops) or of MIDI files for FL Studio...

Two: befriend a real drummer and record them. My brother is a brilliant drummer and so are a few of my friends. It's just a matter of getting them in the studio. And the results are fantastic, and often inspire me in totally new directions.
posted by fake at 11:11 PM on April 9, 2006

I think once you get a better sense of rhythm. and how real drums work and are played, you'll find it easier to break down what you hear in other peoples' songs, and easier to replicate them by playing them yourself -- on the keyboard or by tweaking notes in the sequencer or whatever.

In other words, I don't think your problem is in physically inputting the rhythm you want. (Since you're doing it on the computer, you can sit there and tweak notes all day until you get it right, unlike a real drummer who has to play it right the first time!)

I think your problem is that you don't quite recognize what you're hearing. And if you can't hear it, you can't play it -- same as how you'll find it impossible to draw a picture of something if you don't REALLY know how it looks.

Also there are a lot of little idioms for common rhythms and fills. Take a look at some drum instruction books, and they'll go through them in great detail.

(It could be I'm totally wrong about your case, but that's certainly how it worked with me -- and I still have a LOT to learn.)
posted by xil at 11:14 PM on April 9, 2006

Ive always been able to work it out by manually entering the notes on a sequencer.

I suppose I can only really offer my method, Ive found that I get great sounding full sort of loops by just programming something really dense and then slowly deleting the notes that sound wrong :) Also dont forget to play with the volumes of each note - thats important.

I remember I sort of felt like you in the beginning. Even though your not actually playing the drums, programming drum beats is a skill in itself and requires some practise and experimentation. Of course its not going to just happen the first time you open the program. I sort of think your trying to find technical ways around a problem that if you really worked at would be more useful in the long run.
posted by phyle at 12:03 AM on April 10, 2006

Also what Xil said is completely right.
A good drum beats sound like one cohesive instrument. It really takes practise to be able to break it up in your mind - to work out what beat is a kick a snare or a hihat ar whatever- and which beat is a mixture of them.
posted by phyle at 12:08 AM on April 10, 2006

that's good advice.

focusing just on how to program drums via a sequencer, you have to keep a couple things in mind:

-good, free drum samples are hard to come by. they're around, but usually cheesy.
-do you know how to sample songs? you may be able to isolate just a snare noise and use that... just 1 route of many.
-as a musician (and a assumedly avid music listener), you understand the mechanics of a drumset. when you compose a loop, keep that in mind. a drumloop or drum track sounds more authentic if the pattern is somewhat playable.
-use the velocity bars (in FL), as well as the swing bar. it adds a sense of humanness to MIDI. makes a huge difference.
-eventually, EQ the parts (and the whole), to make the kit spread out more sonically. you can probably find FAQ's out there.
-experiment a LOT. it's not easy at first to make something that doesn't sound cheeseball. maybe grab some DJ Shadow, DJ Krush, or some instrumental hip hop stuff to get the hang of a good isolated beat to nod your head.

hope this helps!
posted by blastrid at 12:47 AM on April 10, 2006

Like phyle says, in many cases when I've programmed out a beat and the rhythm still felt wrong, what it needed was tweaks to relative volumes.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 5:40 AM on April 10, 2006

My philosophy is that if I'm using electronic drums, I don't try to fool anyone into thinking they're real drums. I know other composers who feel the same way. A programmed drum kit has its own strengths and weaknesses just like a human drummer. Recognize that it's a different instrument and take advantage of the possibilities it makes available.

Also, what xil said. I've only programmed drums in Reason, but I imagine it's somewhat similar to fruity loops. I start out by envisioning the basic feel and accents of the beat, then tackle each piece of the kit one at a time until it gels. But I think the key is being able to hear the beat in your head as several independent rhythms running simultaneously.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:11 AM on April 10, 2006

This isn't strictly speaking an answer to your question but anyone without drums who'd like to make drum sounds might find the Midisticks listing at MetaProjects interesting. And no, it isn't my project. It looks like it's in the early stages of development but it seems very promising.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:31 AM on April 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

You may want to try this.
Put a drum loop into FL, and use a filter to single out individual drum frequencies. (this will be inexact, but good enough).
once that's done, you can mimic that loop by transcribing those hits. If you do this for all the drum parts, you end up with a copy of the loop, which is now tweakable.
posted by subtle-t at 8:25 AM on April 10, 2006

Some interesting thoughts in here. I'll try some of this stuff out and give some thought to trying to take up the drums.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:51 AM on April 10, 2006

I'm not sure if this is entirely appropriate, but as a (very) amateur musician I found the video of the asian guy playing drums on a keyboard to be informative of basic drum structure, as well as entertaining.

I'm sure there are better resources out there, though.
posted by chimmyc at 9:32 AM on April 10, 2006

You can try downloading different drum loops, then opening them in either FL with the right BPM set, or a sound editor that has the ability to show where the beats are, and see where all the subtleties are.

Oftentimes you'll hear different tones of the snare (usually modulated by the volume/velocity) that make the sound more cohesive. Also, when real drummers play, their hits are not exact, which actually adds a different feel for the drums. If you're curious, try a drum quantizer -- the sound of a human drummer with the subtle timing inconsistencies sounds far more "real" to us vs. after it's been corrected to sound perfectly timed.
posted by spiderskull at 9:43 AM on April 10, 2006

I'm a songwriter and my mentor is suggesting to me that I buy a drum machine.

Personally I prefer real drums if I can get them but when composing at home it isn't like I can keep one in the next room!
posted by konolia at 10:29 AM on April 10, 2006

take your MIDI keyboard (you do have one, right?) and get it going with a VST like GURU. in most environments (I don't know about fruityloops) this will give you the benefit of being able to play parts in on your keyboard and click/mouse data in as well. with a typical setup you'll be able to play bassdrum/snare on your left hand (the GM spec is like bassdrum on B1 and C2, then snares on D2 and E2) and hats/cymbals on your right (hihat hit on F#2, pedal hihat on G#2, open hat on A#2).

even if you're just using a normal GM synth instead of a specialty VST like GURU, you should still have a plethora of sounds at your disposal -- almost definitely more than you have keys on your keyboard.

play along with some of your music collection. work on imitating what you hear. the hardest part will be making your brain let your hands work separately instead of having them interfere with each other. you'll look like an absolute dork, but keydrumming is fun and I know tons of people (including myself) who swear by it for programming in drum tracks. I've even seen my friend do it live with his band in front of an audience of hundreds.
posted by tumult at 10:52 AM on April 10, 2006

This isn't strictly an answer either, but it's helped me (a non-drummer MIDI composer):

A live drummer often leads the beat by a few 480ths; your MIDI events will actually start in advance. It's a pain to do loops this way, but it sounds more realistic and can have more "drive".
posted by kurumi at 1:17 PM on April 10, 2006

It has helped me to learn a little about how drummers play. When "thinking out" a drum beat, I sometimes will actually sit there like a fool and hit imagined drums in the air, to get a feel for the groove. This will then tell me how to write more natural sounding beats in my sequencer.

I have heard of one guy taking this one step further: He will put down just a basic beat as he works out the song. Then, to make drums, he will literally record himself slapping his thighs along to the track as though he were a drummer. The resulting thigh-slapping recording is then inserted into his track as a template, and then he replaces the thigh-slaps with snare hits and what have you. This can actually work really well for drum fills and such.

The much, much easier solution to your problem is to buy something like BFD or Groove Agent or any of the other handful of "auto-drummer" VSTs. They have gotten quite good. The sample libraries they use are massive, so the sound is fantastic.
posted by edlundart at 3:22 PM on April 10, 2006

edlundart: I like that idea.

I'm a keyboardist, no drummer! And armature. The best drum tracks I've ever gotten in a song didn't start as drumtracks. I played some rhythmic music with my existing tracks, then changed the patch to drums. Then I slid the midi key transpose until it sounded interesting. Purely quick-and-dirty, but I got the drum rhythm very nicely. For whatever reason, my feel for rhythm worked better when I performed it as musical notes. I think this approach could be used with further tweaking to get very nice results.

Another thing I find I tend to overlook is the rhythmic value of the bass line. For me, this is due to musical background (organ and voice). This isn't about drums, but it does go to the overall rhythm of a piece.
posted by Goofyy at 11:25 PM on April 10, 2006

Have you ever tried using a cheap drum machine rather than the computer? I could never get the hang of drum programming in the various bits of software I used to use, but got a Korg ER-1 and immediately found I could get what was in my head out, so to speak. (And since it's midi, you can presumably use it as a sort of input device with Fruityloops? Never used that app, but I'd imagine so...)

I honestly have no idea why having actual buttons to push and knobs to twiddle makes life easier than virtual buttons and knobs in an app, but it definitely made a big difference for me.
posted by jack_mo at 3:25 PM on April 11, 2006

Midisticks would do the job - assuming you can carry a rhythm with some sticks / pedals - and I could get the idea off the ground commercially! But for now...

o You could use a drum-machine as a source for MIDI triggers, or...

o There're a number of people on the web who provides a service (you send them the tune, they record
a drum part for you in either MIDI or Wav.

o (something like) BFD ( has a virtual drummer you can use, built in - It's like a drum machine (but a very good one!) - great drum sounds, and very programmable.

(BTW Thanks for the kind words [timefactor]. Appreciated)
posted by Dub at 1:47 PM on April 12, 2006

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