- San Diego, California - I’ll be honest: I’d love to be able to record a live drummer, but I don’t have the space or the equipment to record drums that sound half-decent. As a result, in the past I have used a software-based drum kit (Groove Agent, to be specific) and will likely continue to use them for the foreseeable future. Having relegated myself to this reality, I have spent considerable time not only trying to learn how to emulate a “real drummer sound” but also exploring how I, as a non-drummer, can understand and learn from the rhythmic conventions and creative potential of programming a drum part.
Modern software drum kit software is essentially a hybrid of “synth drums,” where a single sound effect is played with a key press, and live drum recording, where the strength of the drum kit, the type of drum used, and the atmosphere of the recording room all affect the sound captured. Software drum kits like Groove Agent contain sound recordings of different drums being hit by a real drummer with mics at several distances. Several sounds for a single drum are recorded with the drummer hitting the drum at different intensities, and these sounds are then linked to the intensity with which the program user hits a keyboard key. The user programs a part by “playing” into the computer a pattern with a keyboard or key pad. Since the computer saves the pattern being played rather than the sound played by the software kit, the user can modify the pattern on a miniscule scale after the fact, moving hits in time or adjusting their intensity (referred to as velocity) to apply fixes, add flourishes, or even swap or duplicate sections.
Because of the great amount of customization allowed by software drum kits, I find drum programming to be one of the most intriguing creative challenges of writing independent music. It focuses heavily on visualization and theory, and while not requiring one to have physical drumming skills (though those might be very helpful), software drumming does require the musician to explore the ways that drummers write context-appropriate rhythms.
The first thing that I did to prepare myself for writing drum sections was to read tutorials and articles on good drumming practices and listen attentively to a lot of music that showcased ambitious drumming. Through tutorials and articles, I learned obscure, yet essential qualities of live drum performance, such as timing snare hits in front of or behind the beat to add energy to or remove energy from the performance. I listened extensively to Underoath’s Define the Great Line and Lost In The Sound of Separation for inspiration for the more cinematic fills in my last album, because Aaron Gillespie’s fills are performed excellently and pushed far forward in the mix, making them easy to listen to. Good drumming didn’t come naturally to me, so I had to develop an instinct for writing and improvising rhythms over time and constantly revised what I wrote.
From the experience of writing and editing wholly synthetic drum parts for a full album, I quickly learned the most essential (and time-consuming) aspects of creating drum parts. Unfortunately for us software instrument performers, human hearing is very aware of repetition and (without perhaps realizing it) becomes used to the eccentricities involved in a human performance on a drum kit. The first of these issues was relatively straightforward to mitigate; to minimize repetition, I avoided using direct copies of drum sections as much as possible, opting instead to either play a part “live” several times with the rest of the song or making several velocity and timing changes to duplicates in order to distinguish.
Figuring out and emulating live drumming eccentricities was the most time-intensive and challenging part of the rhythm-writing process. Several drum kit elements, such as the hi-hat, are incredibly responsive to the intensity with which the drummer hits them. Because of this, the physical motion involved in playing these elements directly translates to the time spacing and relative intensity from one hit to the next. Figuring out, first, how these inherent patterns worked and, second, how to emulate them digitally, consumed an incredible amount of time (and wasn’t particularly thrilling to work on). The hi-hat pattern in the first verse of Traps took several days of dedicated listening, editing, and comparing with real drum tracks to get to its final form.
Having such a paradoxically intimate, yet synthetic connection with the drum theory has greatly affected how I view both drummers and the drum kit itself. I discovered that drums are an incredibly expressive rhythmic tool and that nuance in designing and performing drum patterns is essential for a drum track to be compelling and effective. I discovered that the drum kit can have as much emotional impact with seven essential elements as a melodic instrument can have with twelve semitones. I realized that I had far underestimated the drum kit, and that even the relatively limited form of software drums could offer a great amount of artistic exploration for the diligent and dedicated.
To those diligent and dedicated, the creative potential of software drums is thrilling. The greatest compliment I received concerning my software drum programming came from a drummer who could tell that the drum tracks were sampled but enjoyed them anyway because they sounded like, in his words, I had my own “style” in programming them. Until that moment, I had not even considered that a software drum kit could be performed with a “style” in the same way that a guitar or even a software piano could be. Congnizant of this possibility, I have launched into writing with a thirst to develop, expand, and refine my programming style. For a percussion-obsessed non-percussionist, the unmanned drum kit is a realized dream.