Producing realistic drum tracks is the main challenge when solely working in-the-box (ITB). Fortunately, Andia from In Your Dreams has put together the below article to get you started.
Hello and welcome to the blog on ‘how to produce realistic drum tracks’, ITB (in the box, in any DAW).
I am a drummer, for over 30yrs now, and I’d like to impart some insight into my approach, and other common ways drummers would approach the same goal..ie..a killer drum track!…and how it applies ITB.
The premise here is to help those that work solely ITB to arrive at a realistic sounding drum composition. The idea is to give you some way points (not audio-technical, for now) to craft your own patterns, and develop your understanding of the principals involved.
Much of drum programming and construction IS genre specific. There’s not much point in reverse engineering genres like Techno or House music…they rely heavily on drum machine/midi drum repetition, and simple ‘4 on the floor’ patterns that can easily be shifted way up in tempo to dizzying heights..which would be in range of a competent drummer…but not sustainable over many songs…or indeed interesting for a drummer to play. It’s more likely you have a more organic song, that needs the right feel of drums for it. You may of started with a synth or piano part..built up a few layers, and put a placeholder drum pattern in there.
Here I attempt to explain how an experienced drummer would approach the composition, what motivates them, and how they come up with the final parts..that really works with the feel of the song!
Let’s check the tools at our disposal. We have hardware drum machines, like the Alesis HR16 etc, drum modules from e-kits, drum racks and midi writeable software or VSTs in your DAW, and sample packs, complete with loops and single shots. All of which are a good starting point.
This is in contrast to an actual acoustic drum kit, that multi-headed beast, that needs a human with passion and dedication to play (not to mention record/produce) which is where everything ITB originates, ie, people playing with other people and the vibe and buzz that we all know and love. It’s an organic feel.
So let’s start to reverse engineer the drummers POV, so that you can gain an insight, and use that to your drum writing advantage.
Here goes, strap in!
There are 26 rudiments that every drummer should learn. Basically, these are the vocabulary that builds a pattern, based on a combination of single and double strokes. Starting with the hands. But what goes for the hands, also goes for the feet (Kick, double kick, or kick and hi-hat) Still with me? Good. It happens that most of these rudiments can be tricky to use just as a beat. (although that does happen…the Paradiddle..RlrrLrll was actually used to great effect on one of ZZtops earlier tunes)
Once you get to know the rudiments, and they become engrained in muscle memory..the language and hence the expression of a groove deepens. In combination, they’re commonly referred to as chops. At which point it becomes easier to perhaps overplay..much like an actor..over acts…they are simply trying too hard, or dumping a whole bag of tricks at the project at one time..and it shows. It detracts from the intention of the piece, instead of supporting it.
So you’ve heard the expression KISS…Keep It Simple Silly! This is a bit of a deceptive term. Just keeping a simple beat, without knowing WHY to keep it simple, is the trap that so many fall into. (and perhaps why your drum tracks don’t sound ‘right’) Simple in this context means..lack of feel, or vision. It does a job, no more. It’s flat and rather uninspiring. For drummers, the reverse of this becomes the norm..just because you have a whole repertoire to use, doesn’t mean you should, at any given time. And since we have a studied knowledge of rhythmic abilities, knowing when to keep it simple is critical to the art of drumming. It’s this very technique that gives rise to contrast, and dynamics, and that term you may of heard..the pocket!
Another thing to consider is space. Both the sound design space the actual kit sits in (more on that in future articles) and the space you give to the other elements in the arrangement. Also, should your drums play a more supportive role? Would they need to be ‘out of the way’? Or much more upfront, more in focus and obviously ineracting with bass guitar/keys/vocals etc? It all depends on the type of song, how many instruments there are, and how the song dictates the aesthetics to feel and sound.
Let us also consider the human factor. We humans use our cerebral cortex for thinking, our logic and reasoning centre. This takes lots of energy and focus to use, i.e.: self discipline. Since aeons ago, our hard-wired limbic system (the fight/flight instant reaction…and emotional centre) is always shouting like a skittish cat at the logic part of our brain. The limbic system always wants the easy path…pleasure at all times. If you listened to this..you would never accomplish anything, and your self discipline would be non existent. Players that focus on self discipline, and develop that..much like a muscle…are able to focus and use their own set of skills to full effect. This manifests in as many ways as there are drummers…it’s unique to every player.
How the player interprets the music, how it makes them feel, and what they have internalised, emotionally and in muscle memory, all affect the externalised outcome.
Why does a ‘pocket’ player sound so good? What makes a complex fusion song flow? Why does a simple beat sound so good? It’s to do with all of the above, the experience, and a passion that is burning to be expressed..and in the tension in NOT playing everything you might want to, holding it down to build on that tension….then finally a little release..where you can add a fill or embellishment just at the right point…or a huge change in dynamics…a big fill before the chorus…in contrast to the previous sections.
So if you put a simple beat in your track, its going to sound OK. Where to take it from there and how to handle it is what the art of drumming is all about, and as you can see, it gets complicated quickly. But worry not, I will be doing more of these articles (perhaps in deeper dives) to get you to a place where you have the know how to create drum parts that align with your expectations.
Hope this helps!
Artist / Drummer @ In Your Dreams