We scour our mailbox for the most deserving recipient of the Attack readership’s collective advice in the first experiment in crowdsourced answers to all kinds of production and creative problems. No query is too small, no question too personal…

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This month’s question comes from a reader looking to step up her beat programming. Join the discussion in the comments below.

Hi!

I’ve been making deep house and kind of melodic techno for just over five years now. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to my music. Especially my beats. I’ve read hundreds of tutorials and watched a tonne of YouTube clips. No matter how hard I try, my drums are still, let’s just be honest… shit!

I found Attack through a link to the Beats Dissected tutorials on Reddit but even when I follow them I still end up with drums that I’d be embarrassed to be heard in clubs. I’m happy with the rest of my tracks. I just hate my drums. I always spend hours working on them then end up giving up and just using a loop from a sample pack instead. I’d love to hear some advice on how to make really good drum patterns and how to make them sound good enough to be released. Sorry if that’s too big a question!

Thanks!

Sarah C

 

Submit your questions through the contact page.

17th December, 2014

Comments

  • Hey Sarah,

    Although this might not be the answer you are looking for. Heres some advice that goes beyond the actual technicality of drums, drum hits and drum production. Why not use some of the already made drum hits from some well known sample/loop based companies? I know so many people (including myself) who do this. The secret is to work with it and add layer, do some equing, tuning, running through assortment of plugins. Now im not saying do this just to make them sound different – use whatever plugins you have been used to and experiment to make them fit your tracks.

    I also happen to know a handful of people who work on drum hits and drum samples for companies. And what they do is on another completely different level than working on a track. Its quite a complicated process to get great drums, and goes far beyond just for example ‘ a 909 with some compression.’ Its a painstaking process of finding the right drum hits to work together, EQing (very important), tuning, nudging in miliseconds and even having correct phasing in the layering. Everyone has their own way of doing things, and at thats what makes all different libraries unique from each other.

    I know alot of times people find it hard to use drums samples/hits/loops created by someone else. I get, people want it to be THEIR OWN. Even though this might be a bit tacky and cheesy i always like to put it like this: Just because you dont know how to build a car from scratch, does not mean you dont know how to drive it!

    Its just a thought and suggestion you might think about looking into. Look at Drumdog Drum Drum Hits. They are amazing, in my opinion.

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  • Hi. Its complicate to answer without knowing what cause your problems. But i can imagine that you don’t have enaugh feeling and skills to Make a good (if we pretend that there is good and bad) beat. I would council to follow a finger druming tutorial. Especially those of madzach. In the beginning you will feel like a torture, but une the end, you Will find your own feel, your own beat, and have the groove feelings to do it. Just dont do the beat that people want to hear or Tell you that it is good, but the one that you really like.

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  • For me as someone, who is bored by most techno- and house-tracks, i find it interesting to use what you have. I know you want a certain sound for your music, but maybe it will sound more interesting to use lush drums. Think about someone like Burial – i really love his cheap drums because it’s more refreshing than all the perfect sounding stuff. To me it’s the same in art: Your weakness forms your style, if you continue working with them.
    But if you want that good sounding club-compatible drum sounds, don’t be afraid of samples. 🙂

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  • Hey Sarah,

    I’ve made plenty of mistakes when it comes to drums, so I can understand how frustrated you must feel.

    FIrst: there’s nothing wrong using pre-built loops! Sometimes the hardest part is finding hits that go well together, especially if you don’t have a huge sample library to pull from. This being said, make that loop your own. One thing I’ve done is chopped the loop into individual hits (kick, hat, snares, etc) and then programmed the hits how I wanted them. I still retained the harmony felt between the drums, but I could now adjust a pre-built hip hop loop into a deep house pattern, or vice versa.

    Only recently did I realize this, but ADSR is your friend! I used to spend hours twiddling with compressors trying to achieve a certain punch or smooth transients, or audition hundreds of claps but finding them all just not right.

    When it comes to drums, the ADS of ADSR come really in handy. Add a little attack to smooth out a rough transient, say to reduce clicks in a kick. For sharp transients, have a fast attack and a quick decay, so it accents just that first bite of the hit, and use the sustain to adjust the remaining character of the sound.

    For patterning, start with basic patterns, then work in little bits of you. Start with a four to the floor house pattern, kick, snare, kick, snare, but then experiment with the hats. Don’t make them straight, just hit them wherever. Go back, keep what you like, and dump the rest. Rinse and repeat.

    A final word: don’t be afraid to use unconventional sounds. Instead of using tight, short hats, I sometimes use chopsticks played against a countertop. Toss your car keys from hand to hand to give a cool shaker/clap combo sound. Dig out a child’s xylophone and use only one of the keys as a clave replacement. Find sounds that stick out in your life.

    I won’t go into processing or eq’ing here, because I believe the best drums, and sounds in general, first need to be about HOW they sound, and getting most of the way there with what you’ve got. Only add effects when you need a little extra polish.

    I hope this gives you some ideas and was in any way helpful. Keep doing what you do, and never give up 🙂

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  • Sarah,

    Some advice that has served me well:

    – Start with good sounds. You don’t make great food using crappy ingredients. Even if you’re going for a deliberately lo-fi aesthetic, invest a little bit of cash in great samples. They’re the building blocks from which you’ll craft your beats.

    – By all means start with some of the patterns in Beat Dissected but remember that many of these feature additional processing (EQ, compression, sometimes limiting etc). When I started out I remember that sinking feeling when I thought the beat should sound fat but it sounded lacklustre and wimpy. Then I started to run my drums to a bus compressor for additional glue and sonic colouring. Although it didn’t change things overnight, it helped bring a lot more punch and cohesion to my beats. If you’re not familiar with the process, it’s simple: just route all (or most) of your constituent drum elements to a single aux /bus and then put a compressor on it to glue those elements.

    – Remember that when using samples, many of them have already been compressed. Although additional compression (particularly on the drum bus) may be appropriate, bear in mind that over-compression is a surefire way of robbing a sound, and beat, of its dynamics and energy. Letting high quality sounds breathe without being slapped down can give a beat way more punch.

    – Pick sounds that work together. I can’t overstate this one. Watching a high end beatsmith working always impresses me: they have an in-build capacity to (quickly) identify sounds that just work together. It take sme much longer but the feeling when a kick and snare just click is great.

    – Use groove templates. Seek out MPC templates.

    – Remember that when crafting beats, a lot of the life resides in the details. Although occasionally you may want a ridge 16th on-grid beat, 99% of them shifting hits slightly off-grid and playing with velocities on sounds like hi-hats and percussive sound, will bring way more interest and funk to a beat. Until you know what you’re doing a lot of this is down to trial and error – reducing a hihat volume here, shifting a clap sample there. But you’ll be learning all the time.

    – Never feel guilt about using loops. There’s a lot of snobbery out there about loops – often from producers who wouldn’t think twice about using a synth present or Kontakt instrument. Truth is some people just struggle with beats. If you’re one of them, and feel your strengths lie elsewhere – programming great musical sequences, writing beautiful vocal parts, whatever – then it may be your time is better spent on those things and letting third party loops powering your beats. I’d imagine that if you looked at their arrangements at least 50% of the Beatport Top 10, they would feature complete or parts of third party loops.

    Good luck 🙂

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  • A really quick tip – seen here on FACT TV http://youtu.be/RRJGO3zUd_A?t=1m24s

    Set up your kick and snare, maybe slight percussion if you have to but don’t make it too messy. Find a drum loop you like, check huxley’s whole library of breaks/loops on the right hand side.

    Bring it in underneath your standard kick snare pattern and eq it. Roll the lows off.. you’ll see him going through this process at 1:57. Use your ears and eyes (if you are using a analyser) – roll those lows off, you don’t want the kicks clashing.

    Now.. start with the volume of your loop/break at zero and slowly work it up until all that lovely pro percussion comes through but sits nicely. You now need to work the loop so it’s not recognisable.

    Don’t worry yourself with ‘stealing’ – 99% will never recognise that loop you put under your drums once you’ve added to it and messed with the filtering.

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  • Hi Sarah,

    Scanning through the other comments it seems like a lot of people have mentioned stuff like eq’ing, envelopes and fx, but what is as least as important is your arrangement of those sounds i.e what makes it groove. Seeing as you often end up using loops it could seems like this is one of the areas that need work, as well as the drum mix (relative loudness compared with each other). One of the key elements to getting better at this is really studying other tracks you like and “dissecting” them so to speak; that is focus on one drum sound at a time, work out the placement of each hit and where it sits in the mix (loud/quiet).

    What I’ve found is that for dance music, which seems to be your focus, certain sounds just work better than others. Take the 808 drummachine for example; its total sound pallette fills up the frequency spectrum so nicely without creating interference between the sounds. Hell – you could pan the whole thing in mono and it’ll still sound fantastic 🙂 Seeing as a lot of what we associate with dance music today are the classic Roland machines, they might be a good place to start when building drums. Once you get a groove going you can then decide whether some of the sounds should be replaced with other samples. Do this one at a time though and go back and forth for reference and to see whether it makes an improvement to the overall drums or not.

    Best of luck

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  • A great way to learn is to import a sample loop into your DAW. Use its slicing functionality to work out exactly what is happening and where – what sounds hit at what measure, which this come just off the beat, relative volumes etc.

    Then start rebuilding that same beat using your own sound from the ground up, checking everything against the original using both your ears and frequency analyser to see what’s going on at which area of the frequency chart. Use something like Magic AB to flip effortlessly between the two.

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  • you cannot learn this, the vibe comes from inside of you…

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  • mmm that’s helpful zoltan. In your world I assume no drummers get drum lessons. *yawn*

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  • Firstly dont panic. Ive been making beats for 10 years plus and am only just getting happy with them.

    All the advice above is your friend. Id add :
    Reuse and resample your own beats. Using them consistently will help identify problems. You may find the hours spent on one beat may only neef slight tweaking in a different track. You dont need to waste anything.

    ADSR. Sidechain. Transient shaper. Buss. Send and return effects. Study these techniques and apply.

    Get decent monitors and splash a bit on acoustic treatment. You cant mix what you cant hear.

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  • Practice actual drumming. Develop your timing. Buy a cheap drumpad controller, MPC, etc… and stop programming on a grid. There is no substitute for skill and time spent practicing. Otherwise, I would say use drumloops. Keep at it. Drumming chops don’t happen overnight.

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  • If you’re trying to use synths or software synths to get your drum sounds, I’d say do that but make sure you layer those sounds with at least one other sample. An alternative is to pick up a basic drum machine (Korg Volca Beats, for example) and try every different configuration to get unique sounds. Constantly resample and use new effects on your drums, and eventually you’ll be relying on your own samples instead of third party loops. This has been my experience with trying to get my best “original” drums.

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  • Hey Sarah,

    Been in the game long too and finally am proud of my drum game.

    Hit me up I can send you PLENTY of examples I (i make mostly experimental hiphop these days, but definitely still mess with deep house/french house kinda stuff. There are A LOT of loops used in all music these days so don’t feel bad about it. If it works it works ya know? All the advice above is killer stuff.

    I think what I would add mainly is LISTEN to as much music as you can, not just in the genre you are making. Get into weird sounding rhythmic stuff and you will start to hear drums that are so far off the grid it could break your neck when you try to bounce to the beat, but they find that pocket to really make you feel the music. Sun Ra or George Duke stuff will get you what I am trying to say. I have a trigger finger and in the end of the day I end up penciling my beat in almost ALWAYS now. Start on the grid. Kick on your 1&3. Snare on 2 & 4 for your house. Start with a 909 kit (if you are in ableton you can do this in less than 10 minutes). Use the 909 Kick and clap (808 snare if you want that extra bit of class ;P). Now take a Hat from the 909 and lay that on every other 1/16. So not the first but in the middle of kick and the snare and do that in front of both snares. Nice corny loop. Now. Duplicate it so we have 2bars. Add two claps at the end of that loop. Duplicate again so we now are at a 4bar clip (still with me:D ) and in your 4th bar, ad a open hi hat or bit of percussion just before the next phrase.

    There is a basic loop for now (i know tuts exist). Now. You want to go in and pull a few hits off the grid. I like to keep my kick always on the grid to keep the beat going. Pull your snares slightly forward. Talking 1/128th of a grid step forward if you want that really immediate feel. If you want that lazy feel go the opposite direction so its slightly late. Do the same with only a few hihats and just do it to where you feel it.

    Another thing I like to do- find a song you like. Loop it up for a bar or how ever much you want and re make someone ELSE’s drum loop just to study what they did.

    For serious, email me (1800spookypizza@gmail.com). I love making music and would love to not only talk shop, help show you some of my tricks that i think sound good, and hell lets collab on some shit. Would love to share some samples too (have a feeling this will also help you) But until I hear your actual music (dont be afraid to share :D) I can’t say more like where the sound problem is. If its too loud. They don’t sit well together. Yada yada.

    -spoo0ky (o_0)

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  • Well first of all I’m sorry if my answer was too radical. Of course i not heard any of your tracks, so there are more options, maybe you are too shy, and underestimate yourself, maybe you are too precise and you want 100% perfect beats (just like me) or your beats really don’t work… as you can read above in lot of comments, you can learn many different techniques (effects, compression, sorting your sounds, arrangement… ), but one thing you can’t (and this is what I wanted to say above) the FEELING! Of course you can develop it with lot of practice, but I thing it’s a bit…i don’t know.. a natural born instinct or sense what you cannot learn because it’s not about your mind…it gives the extra spice what we all need. And again, because I don’t know you, I assume you have this “skill”, I can only recommend for you, don’t think too much, just do it 🙂 forget your influences! zzz 😉

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  • Hi Sarah, just wanted to offer one different point on this matter, and that is to make sure you are having other producers give you feedback on your drums. It is easy to project our own misgivings about something and think that it is worse than it actually is. The beats you feel you are making that are shit may be a lot better than you give yourself credit for but just need a bit of massaging to get them just right.

    Just always seek out a variety of feedback on the work you do, people in the field of music and those who just appreciate it. You will get a more fair and balanced outlook on your projects.

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  • If you can, try collaborating with someone who’s strength is drums!

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  • go to ebay, find a mpc 2000 / xl, sample whatever sound and use the timing shift. thats all, really. for arrangement, just play it live, switch on / off tracks and record that. for mixing, get a cheap analog mixer, and then you will have your own loops with your own sound and your own groove. so you can just keep working like you did before, but honestly, just get out of the daw for drums, this will be ear-opening, for sure!! you can combine this workflow with recording of real percussion, to add more feel and groove, just get loose a bit and don’t think about eq, fx, whatever. drums is groove, so you need to play them. hope this could inspire you a little bit.

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  • I think the two most important factors are 1) groove (as has been mentioned multiple times before) and 2) balance.

    All you need is the right choice of sounds (bearing in mind that the pitch of the sound can play a crucial role), sequenced with judicious use of groove/swing/other non-mechanical timing template (making sure to use the velocity modulator on your hits to add accenting to, say, your closed HH pattern). You’re creating a compelling rhythm, that has personality and a human feel, while still being super-tight. Add variety, changes (“lifters” like a shaker/tambourine to pick up after 8 bars), progressions, fills and so on. People like hearing changes.

    With the sequencing in place, it’s really all about volume. The volume fader is THE MOST powerful tool at your disposal. Arguably, the kick drum is the most important instrument in house and techno music. If you route your kick drum directly to the master bus instead of to a drums group, you will never have a problem getting your kick to sit proudly in the mix. Try it, it works wonders. Bring other elements up, slowly, until you feel something “click” and it is supporting the kick, not trying to be the same volume level.

    You only really need EQ for tidying things up or removing problematic frequencies. For god’s sake, don’t boost! If you’re pushing 3k in your hats, choose different hats or pitch them up. Don’t ask an EQ to boost frequencies that aren’t actually there.

    Have fun with compression. It’s an automatic volume control and you can add lots of interesting breathing to different elements of your drums by sidechaining, say, the kick into it. Or maybe the snare. When things duck out of the way, what’s left is louder and has more impact… with a quick release it can be done pretty transparently, longer releases create an interesting breathing/pulsing feel. Particularly effective on hats/rides/shakers.

    Normal (not sidechained) compression – use it on the drums group, have fun with that… but only use it when you actually need it. Your snare probably doesn’t need it. If you want more attack, use the envelope.

    Also consider that your bass has a very important relationship with the kick drum in terms of whether or not your drums are “good” because they occupy the same frequency register. You want to be sure that they are not stepping on each other’s toes. This can be done through sidechain compression (again) or exercising due dilligence with your note lengths, envelopes and the sequencing of them so that your kick and bass are not clashing, or they are working harmoniously. Layering the kick and bass together can be very effective, depending on what style you are going for.

    A little bit of short room-style reverb on the drums also works wonders to bring them alive, just use a tasteful amount.

    Hope this has been useful!

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  • The Sonic Academy VST “Kick” is really good for making your own kick drums, it’s really cheap too.
    I use Ableton and I have drum racks set up with 128 samples on each pad that I can scroll through with a knob, I also have the attack ,decay, pitch, delay, reverb and compression wet/dry all mapped to the macros on my controller (push). This gives me great hands on control over my drum sounds and I can change them easily whilst my track is playing
    Works for me 🙂

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  • The fist thing I did was I built a collection of my favourite, hand-picked drum samples, all meticulously divided into folders by the type of the sample. This speeds up the workflow wonderfully, because you can find a sample in seconds once you know what kind of a sample you’re looking for so you can concentrate in making the actual beat rather than end up searching for the right sample for hours.

    Try pitched kick drums. Buy a sample pack or a drum synth with which you can adjust the base tone, the energy and the sweep of the kick right for the track you’re working on. Then layer something dirtier on top of that base tone.

    Use paraller compression for the snares, the hats and the percussion to bring out the characteristics of the sounds and to glue stuff up together. Also, I’ve found, when it comes to hats and percs, these often have sharp transients that only distract your ear and make the overall beat a mess. The easiest way to smooth these out would probably be a transient shaper plugin.

    Last but not least, make drum kits of your own in your favourite drum samples. A lot of them. Make sure to include not only all your favourite 909 kicks and snares, but also all kinds of weird/interesting sounding percs, FX and even chord stabs. It can be a lot of work, but it’ll certainly pay off later on. It’s good to have those kits around when you’re feeling like you’ve got some rhythm going on inside of you and you can just pick a kit and start building the beat immediately. Create a workflow of your own and make it fast as possible, so you don’t end up tweaking the sounds for hours just to make them sound too dull and balanced for the ear.

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  • Do not forget about the SWING !!! 🙂

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  • One thing that makes a groove work is the bass. Sometimes we put a groove all on the drums, but a bassline can make a rather pedestrian drumbeat come to life. Think of funk records, like Sex Machine by James Brown. The beat is basic, but he other rhythmic elements make it fly, like the insistent and simple bassline, and the rhythm guitar.

    Also, this site just did a great article on different kinds of time signatures in music, and it’s a great way to learn how beats are formed, and how they can be subverted: http://www.attackmagazine.com/technique/passing-notes/bored-of-44-other-time-signatures-in-dance-music/

    I find step sequencers are pretty great for working out drum beats. Something cheap like the Volca Beats can visually teach you how beats work, and you can move things around to see how a groove is affected. That way you can see the kick drum light up on the one, and start experimenting with placing elements in different places in a sequence. If you don’t have any hardware,The beats is good place to start.

    Good luck!

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  • Hi as people have said don’t be worried about using samples and loops if the melody and beat is good why not? But If you have an iPhone or iPad there’s apps on there that will act as an MPC style beatmaker. Easybeats, iMPC and iMaschine where you can add your own samples and will quantize the beats you put in and because your tapping it in by hand it gives you much more freedom and speed then using a mouse. Easybeats is probably the best out of that lot. On the desktop ADM by audio realism is a plugin that also loads samples and has the 808/909 style percussion where the closed and open hats are working together instead of being static like they would on Ultrabeat. If I had the money I would buy a jomox drum machine or TR8 or even a 909. They’ll do the work for you sound good and have a bit more presence in the track.

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  • Btw you didn’t mention if it’s the pattern or the loudness of the beat? If it’s techno then four to the floor is all it needs. Find a good kick drum, sample, start with the loudest one even if it’s too loud you can fix that later. The Vengance sample packs are great. Use compression, sub bass and some reverb. When you start the track start with the drums so it dictates the track instead of being added on later. If it’s the percussion you need start with a four four beat and add some 808/909 hats on top.

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  • Ive noticed, in the deep house genre particularly, that there is a lot of what i like to call percussive swinging. Try messing around with key tracking and velocity, pre delay on snares and claps as well as compressors and panning on your percussion. Mess around with break beats and perhaps maybe even play an actual drum set or get lessons. Ive learned a lot actually playing that I wouldn’t have simply making a beat. Ghost notes, pauses, etc.

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  • I just wanted to say THANK YOU ALL VERY MUCH! I could have posted the exact same thing Sarah C did and you all are doing a fantastic job answering. I’ve learned so much. So many new techniques to try. THANK YOU!!

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