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Tips for Realistic Drum Sequences

Use these tips and suggestions to make your drum sequences come alive!

Sequencing software (such as Sonar and Cubase) give anyone the power to record great drum tracks. Especially when you figure that today's synthesizer workstations have such incredible drum samples built into them. But all this power can work against you when it comes down to producing realistic, human-sounding drum tracks for your recording projects.

  1. Quantize sparingly!
    Quantizing is a feature in most sequencing software that locks down the sequence so your instruments (drums in this case) play right on the beat. If a particular drum hit is before or after the beat, quantizing allows you to sound like a better drummer. Use this feature sparingly! It can make your sequenced drums sound mechanical -- like a drum machine. This is great if you're playing techno, but for a loose, "live" feel, keep your quantizing to a minimum.


  2. Play the hi-hats like a real drummer.
    Sequence programmers often make the mistake of cutting and pasting the hi-hats to play throughout the song. During a roll, most real drummers only have two hands, so they can't continue to play the 'hats while they're hitting the toms and ending with a crash cymbal hit. Cutting and pasting is fine, but remember to leave out the hi-hats entirely during a roll, or hit them sporadically as a real drummer would do. As Randy Jackson would say, "Keep it real, dude!"


  3. Use a variety of volume.
    Volume is the spice in your well-seasoned percussion track. Just as most any meal would be ruined with too much salt added throughout the cooking process, don't sequence all your drums at maximum volume and expect the final result to sound like it was played by a real drummer.

    Instead, vary the individual volumes. You can do it during recording if your MIDI keyboard or trigger pads have variable sensitivity, or do it later by selecting individual drum events and changing their volume slightly. And for added effect, turn down the overall volume on the drums after the solo for added dynamics. Then turn 'em back up for the big finish!


  4. Laid-back feel or tight and focused?
    Digital multitrack recorders and MIDI sequencers alike allow you to move the drum ahead or behind the beat by a few milliseconds (thousandths of a second) to build tension or create a certain musical feel.

    If the drums are behind the beat by a few msecs, your song will seem loose and laid back. Great for those R&B tunes or old Rolling Stones covers.

    If you play ahead of the beat by 3-5 msec, you'll add a sense of urgency to the song. Some songs combine these techniques. The verses may be laid back, the choruses right on the beat, and a rushed feeling added right before the guitar solo or final chorus.


  5. Avoiding duplicate drum hits
    If you're recording in real-time, your sequencer or synth may feature a loop recording mode. When loop recording is enabled, the sequence automatically starts again from the beginning once it reaches the end. This allows you to keep adding drum sounds until the track is complete.

    The problem with looping is that you may accidentally hit a snare where there's already an existing snare sound. This does two things: it increases the overall volume for that particular sound event, and it can produce a "flanging" effect -- especially if the two sound events are not precisely on time with each other. You have two choices: either turn off the sound-on-sound option when using loop record, or go back later and edit the track wherever you hear the loud, flanged sound. Your drum tracks will sound much better for it.

Good luck with your realistic-sounding drum and percussion tracks!


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