Proficient drum programming is the foundation of electronic music production, and together with the melody, it’s what can make a song catchy and memorable. Learning how to sequence rhythm patterns is a crucial step in the journey of electronic music producers across all genres, and that’s what we’ll be looking at today…
Creating interesting drum patterns requires patience, practice, and various steps, from choosing the right samples to adding groove and polyrhythms to your drums. Newbies often underestimate the importance of a well-developed drum pattern and end up with a flat, unconvincing song as a result.
In the first part of this article, I’ll look into the basics of drum programming, how to start creating your own rhythms and developing your style. In the second part, I’ll give you some tips to further expand your knowledge and make your drum patterns more intricate and engaging.
This guide is aimed at producers working across all electronic music genres, from Trance, to House, to Ambient Techno. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!
Drum Programming for Beginners
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the basic structure of a drum kit. Visualising the drums and seeing how they’re played live will help you understand the basics of rhythm, so make sure you take some time to see how musicians play this musical instrument in real life.
In electronic music, there are three essential parts to a drum pattern:
Kick: The bass drum is a crucial element of most tracks because it defines the song’s style and genre. The kick will probably be the most “stable” element of your drum pattern, while the rest of the song, including the melody and the rest of the rhythm section, will revolve and evolve around it.
Snare (or clap): used as a backbeat, the snare gives energy to the groove, and its variations can define the song’s tone and atmosphere. By adding some syncopation to the snare, you can start adding layers and depth to your drum pattern.
Hi-Hat: in general, the hi-hat and cymbals add texture to the drum loop and make it unique. Many agree this is the most critical aspect of your drum programming and the one you should spend most time evolving and adapting to the song’s atmosphere.
Percussion: Once you create a basic drum texture, you can focus on adding other percussive-sounds to fill the gaps and add further variety to the rhythm, making it more engaging and hypnotic.
While in most cases there’s little variation in the bass and snare drums except in their tempo, you can let your imagination run wild with the hi-hat. Depending on the music genre you’re working in, you may want to keep it minimal or create a syncopated hi‑hat pattern that will take the spotlight in your song.
A hi-hat can be open or closed, the former being a longer and louder sound while the latter is subtler and mainly used to keep the tempo. Generally, the open hi-hat is placed on the off-beat to push the track forward and give energy to the beat. A closed hi-hat, together with the snare and bass drums, represents the song’s core, so its loop should be engaging and varied.
In my opinion, the ideal hi-hat pattern needs to be groovy and punchy, and while it doesn’t have to overshadow the rest of your programming, the hi-hat should be a crucial element of your track and guide it through its natural evolution.
How do you create engaging hi-hat patterns? First, you’ll need to find a balance between the different elements of your track, and mostly between the rhythm section and the melody. Then, once you define the perfect programming for your track, you should start adding more details and variety to your hi-hat pattern, making it a leading element of your song.
Subtle variations in the velocity and timing of your hi-hat will make the song more “human”. Perhaps counterintuitively, minor imperfections in the drums’ tempo make the song groovier and more realistic; after all, even the most proficient drummers won’t play live as precisely as a computer does, so this “humanisation” of the song is an important aspect to bear in mind when creating a new drum pattern.
Adding swing to your hi-hat pattern will enhance the groove and rhythm of your loop and personalise it. More on that later.
Make a drum pattern fast
The easiest and fastest way to create a drum pattern for most electronic tracks is by focusing on the hi-hat variations while maintaining the same kick/snare pattern. Choose the tempo of your song, which, depending on the music genre you work on, could be anywhere between 110 and 180 BPM. Once you have identified the tempo, create a simple structure using your bass and snare drums. Don’t worry about adding variations for now: just focus on creating the perfect standard 4/4 rhythm and adjust the sound of each element until you’re satisfied.
However, if you’re interested in creating drum patterns outside the 4/4 standard of dance music, there’s a simple trick that’ll help you get the vibe you’re looking for.
If you’re looking for a hip-hop, garage or even drum’n’bass beat, the easiest way to achieve this is by working on the drum pattern you already created and moving the kick drum outside the 4/4 grid.
I’d leave the first kick at the beginning of the bar and focus on the other kicks. Next, you’ll need to adjust the speed according to the music genre you’re making: between 130 to 140 bpm for future garage, between 170 to 180 bpm for drum’n’bass, and so on.
We made a video where we show how to create drum patterns that can help you hit the ground running with your drum beats, regardless of your music genre, so make sure you check it out!
Now let’s focus on the hi-hat. Start with the closed hi-hat, which will add groove to the existing kick/snare rhythm, and slowly create a pattern that makes the song more intriguing. Generally, the closed hi-hat accompanies the beat rather than overshadowing it, so keep the volume down. Add the closed hi-hat whenever you think it’s appropriate, and keep adjusting it until you’re happy with the groove.
The open hi-hat can be used to highlight an accent to the off-beat and push the song forward. Open hi-hat adds texture and depth to the song, and it’s generally good practice not to overuse it, as the drum pattern might become overwhelming and tiring.
Create different hi-hat patterns for verses, choruses, and beat drops, differentiating each part of the song and making it unique.
Using Swing and Groove to Humanise Drums
The secret to successful drum programming is ensuring the rhythm pattern sounds natural and seamlessly blended with the melody and atmosphere of your track: to achieve this, the drums need to evolve and vary gradually. Though the listeners may not be aware of the changes, they’ll perceive the song’s subtle evolution and be absorbed by it. This is what is called groove.
If your song has groove, it means there’s a solid rhythm section that catches the listeners’ attention and keeps them hooked. It’s easy enough to create a groovy pattern, but a whole song? That’s an entirely different matter.
Although each element of your song contributes to the groove, drum patterns are what will define your song’s energy and momentum. I suggest you listen to the tracks you like the most and focus on their evolution, from beginning to end. Chances are the drums’ characteristics change at least two or three times, and even when the songs’ tempo doesn’t change, some parts of the tracks may feel slower or faster just because of the hi-hat’s texture.
Groove development in a track requires creating small variations in timing and velocity to your drums, which is called adding swing to a song. You can add swing to individual sounds to emphasise the off-beats of the rhythm or make the tracks seemingly slow down or speed up while keeping the same tempo. Swing is a fantastic way to improve your track and make it stand out, with a groove that comes alive and pushes the song forward.
Working With Samples
Great tracks start with great samples; however, you’ll need more than just buying the best samples to create memorable drum loops. Downloading the right samples is the first step when creating a new track, but adjusting the sound and making it blend seamlessly with the rest of your track can be tricky.
There’s a plethora of drum samples out there, both paid and free to download, and each one of them with some specific features that may satisfy your needs or make you waste time and money. There’s no way around it: you’ll need to listen to these sounds’ libraries and choose which one will work best for your tracks.
Luckily, most companies these days offer free downloads of some of their samples, giving producers a taste of what can be done with their sound libraries. Free downloads are a great way to kickstart your sound library, and as you move forward, you’ll develop a sound and taste that’ll help define which samples you need the most.
Keep your sample’s library to a minimum. Having thousands of different sounds won’t improve your workflow; on the contrary, they’ll slow you down and make it harder to finalise a song. Choose your samples wisely and learn how to process them to make them fit your songs. In the same way as many painters use a limited colour palette, music producers often have a limited sound palette which they carefully combine to create different soundscapes quickly and efficiently.
Pro Drum Programming Tips
The next level in drum programming requires making the song deeper and richer by adding extra variations and layers. Unpredictable and impactful changes in the rhythm section will result in a piece that will intrigue both casual and careful listeners, effectively making your groove infectious and dynamic.
The first thing you can do is extend the loop’s length beyond the standard four or eight-bar patterns. Adding variations or secondary percussions, removing sounds, and including subtle changes in the sounds’ arrangements are some of the things you can do to extend your loop and make the drum loop more interesting.
Off-beat syncopation can also be a valuable tool, especially if you’re working in the fields of tech-house and progressive techno. You can create it by adding an extra layer of percussions that will blend with the original rhythm but is not entirely aligned with the standard downbeat.
Creating a build-up by removing beats at unexpected times will make the song more energetic and exciting. For example, you can add missed beats in your drum pattern at the end of an extended drum loop or occasionally to increase the listeners’ anticipation.
Using different polyrhythms is the ultimate tool you can use to mesmerise your fans. If you combine a standard 4/4-time loop with a three, six or sixteen-bar loop, you’ll create a unique percussive soundscape that will barely repeat itself throughout the song. This is one of the tricks I love the most, as it enhances the drum pattern and lets the piece evolve in ways you never thought possible.
You can even use your drums to create melodies by changing the sample pitch of your percussions and creating an intricate rhythm section. As you can see, possibilities are endless, and drum programming transformed the drums into an instrument as versatile and dynamic as all the musical instruments generally associated with melody and pitch.
I hope this guide helped clarify the most crucial aspects of drum programming. While I focused exclusively on the technical aspects of creating a drum loop, there are things about drum programming that can’t be explained or taught. Groove results from a variety of elements carefully combined together and sounds that just suit each other.
The only way to learn how to make an engaging drum loop is to envision your style and create your personalised sound library accordingly. Once you’ve done that, you’ll just need to modulate and adjust your samples until the sound and groove are just right.
Regardless of the music genre, a song is well-made when it evolves harmoniously, and each sound is blended into a unique soundscape. Just like the main melody of a track, a well-structured drum programming can transform a song from flat to infectious; if you thought that the drum loop was the easiest part when creating a new track, I’m sure you have changed your time by now!
Working outside the conventional patterns when creating new rhythms will help you diversify your music and develop your unique sound. Therefore, as soon as you get a basic understanding of how drum programming works on your DAW, I suggest you start experimenting with longer loop bars and tweaking your samples in new ways.
So, hopefully this drum programming guide has helped. If you want more in-depth coaching on every aspect of music production, check out our Music Production Accelerator… and learn more about the course here.