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Drum-machine song construction tips?
I already posted this reply to the same question you posted at the Drum
Machine 4.0 tribe at tribe.net
but I thought the answer might be efficacious for other drum machine
programmers here at L.D.
So sorry for the redundancy.
From the drum machine programs I heard you perform, Mark it sounded like
you were trying to compose with drum sounds as opposed to writing things
that an actual drummer would play. I thought your programming was
interesting and your sound choice excellent for what it's worth.
I think this is a very valid approach, aesthetically but it is not really
groove oriented or necessarily what an acoustic trapset drummer would play.
No judgement either way. Some of my favorite drum machine programmers
purposefully eschew sounding like a real drummer.
Groove oriented drummers think very simply and for good reason: their job
(when they are good enough that people will pay them a lot of money for
they do) is to serve the song and provide a minimalistic enough foundation
so that the composer/songwriter has a lot of room to move over the top of
it; both melodically, harmonically and timbrally.
How I think as a drummer is to come up with a simple and distinctive drum
groove that I try to play. Frequently that may be a one bar groove but
a lot of times I may compose a two or four bar groove that has slight
variations in it.
I consider any single variation from a repeated pattern, whether an
AAAA form or a more complicated ABAC ABAD form to be a
'fill' and I tend to only use fills in a ration of 1/8 or more frequently
when I'm playing (especially if I'm recording a record for someone).
Frequently , I will even take the 'linear rhythm' which is the combined
syncopative quality of all the parts played in a piece and I will make
the fill play that exact rhythm-----this creates what I call a 'groove
or a fill that pushes the forward momentum of the piece. A wild fill that
radically differs from the "linear rhythm' of the piece will be
I also think very seriously about whether a drummer would actually be able
to play a fill that I program. As an example, if you are playing 16th
on a hihat with a backbeat on snare on beats 2 and 4, DON"T put a hihat
on 2 and 4. It's not physically possible for a drummer to play a hi hat
on beats 2 and 4 at a higher speed.
Towards this end, go out and watch a good 'pocket' funk or soul drummer
and watch what they do physically. You don't want to be doing melodic tom
fills that are physically impossible to play by a human being.
We unconciously 'hear' this when people program ineffectively.
I always use very simple song forms when providing variation in a drum
groove: AAAB, AABA, ABAC, ABCB, for example, if I am writing a four bar
This comes from a very Afro-centric orientation which is the basis of most
trapset groove playing (pre Drum and Bass and Glitch styles).
The Afro-centric approach is very call and response or response and call
Because drum machines lack 'energy' or a human feel, programmers
feel the need to make their patterns more complicated
so that 'something happens'. Oddly enough, I have found that the opposite
approach is more effective...............I think it is much stronger to
make the groove as simple as effective in conveyng the kind of feel you
to get across and then build the 'human' qualities into the upper voices
bass voice). In many pop groups this is what the drummer does anyway.
Also, because drum machines lack 'energy' frequently mixers pull them down
in the mix. I, again, have found the opposite approach works better.
I actually will mix a drum machine in a piece louder than I would as a
compensation for lack of energy.
I'd say in general, don't be afraid to use the machine as a trance
element..............extremeley minimalistic with really nice choice of
(also beware of huge kick drum sounds that mask, timbrally with big
bass guitar or synth tones).
Let me know if any of this is helpful or it you'd like more suggestions.
Also, for what it is worth, I teach a four hour (spread over four weeks,
hour a week) course called the Rhythm Instensive that is designed for
instrumentalists to understand how rhythm works effectively in
This course is tailor made for people who want to program drum machines
program bass lines for their pieces.
good luck, R.