By: Dan Palladino
For non-drummers, coming up with realistic sounding drum parts can be an intimidating prospect. After all, drummers study and practice for years to be able to play solid time, mark phrases and interact with other musicians. But even if you can't keep very good time or play the lick to "Wipeout", you can still capture the essence of what drummers do by using your most important instrument--your ears.
By doing some simple transcribing and concentrating on one drum at a time, you can create some convincing parts. First, let's talk about some very basic drum recording guidelines:
1) Make sure the kick and snare are panned near the center. (I like to pan the bass and kick drum slightly off-center to opposite sides, so they don't get in each other's way.) If your recording gets knocked down to mono, or is played back on a mono device, the kick and snare will be completely lost unless they are near the center.
2) I prefer to have the hi-hat a hair off-center to the left. (I mix drums from the drummer's perspective. Some folks like to hear it from the audience's perspective--if that's you, your hi-hat would be slightly to the right.)
3) Everything else is a matter of preference. I like to pan the other cymbals a little further to each side. Sometimes it's cool to have the toms spread out across the stereo spectrum ala Neil Peart. If I'm using percussion, I will pan those instruments hard left and right, so that each sound has it's own little space in the mix. On certain types of music, it may be more appropriate to not stray too far from the center position, sounding almost mono. Remember, when you are standing in front of a drum kit, you hear everything coming from a single source--very close to mono.
Now let's do some transcribing. Find a song with a simple beat. Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" would be a good place to start. Transcribing requires very careful listening and breaking down parts into their basic elements. Let's just concentrate on the kick and snare for now. Sing it: boom bap, ba-boom boom bap. Boom bap, ba-boom boom bap. Hey, you're transcribing!
Now let's listen to the straight eighth note hi-hat part. Sing it to yourself--don't forget the open hat that occurs on beat one of every bar. By breaking the beat down into two basic elements, we're now able to record it one piece at a time.
I've found that the most realistic parts are created using some type of pad setup. This way you can whack away like a real drummer using sticks. If drum pads are not available to you, a keyboard or those little tiny pads on a drum machine will do.
Record the kick and snare on one pass, and then go back and record the hi-hat separately. If you can help it, don't quantize every part you record. Quantization makes everything a little too perfect, making your parts sound machine-like. Use it sparingly. If you want to make sure the snare hits squarely on beats two and four, go ahead and quantize it. However, you will have a more realistic sound if you can leave the hi-hat un-quantized. This will let the hi-hat part breathe a little bit.
Don't forget--a drummer pushes and pulls the time from section to section. For instance, it's not uncommon to push the tempo a little when making the transition from verse to chorus. Don't be afraid to push the tempo going into the chorus, and leave it at the quicker tempo. All musicians play behind, on top of, and ahead of the beat when it's called for. Experiment with that concept in your drum parts--you add human feel that way.
Learning to break drum parts down in this way gives you a great advantage. If you start with simple beats and work your way up to more complex ones, you will have the playing of every great drummer at your disposal.
Are you writing a tune that needs a funky kind of groove to really make it work? Get a copy of "James Brown's 25 Greatest Hits" and go shopping for drum grooves. Once you find one that would work well with your song, break it down into it's kick-snare and hi-hat elements, and you're on your way.
Are you working on a rap/metal kind of thing? Grab a Limp Bizkit CD and do a little transcribing.
If you came up in the age of sampling, borrowing tracks and turning them around for your own use isn't such a foreign idea. In fact, there are tons of programs out there that allow you to sample and create drum loops very easily. All we're doing here is taking a basic foundation and applying it to different music. Your song is going to sound like you no matter what drum beats are on it, and you'll find the need to modify the original beats to fit the music you're writing anyway.
In order to learn any new skill, we must first copy from others. With experience comes the ability to find your own unique voice. After awhile, you won't need to listen to CDs to come up with beats--they'll come out of you naturally. Until that day comes, however, you will need to copy. Don't feel bad about it--everyone does it. It's just that nobody wants to admit to it.
Happy transcribing everyone!