How to learn drums for music production?


When you listen to the drums in a song, it’s obvious to hear that they are the backbone of the energy in almost every song. You cannot expect any song to possess a genuine flow without the inclusion of the element of rhythm. The drums add rhythm to a song and increase its overall energy.

As a music producer, you will more than likely end up in a situation more than once where you will have to program the drums for different genres of music. It’s hard to navigate through these situations if you have not been properly taught the foundations of how to program the drums.

Whatever genre of music you come into contact with, drums are one of the first elements that people will notice. Even more so than the lyrics or melody, you will always get compliments or criticism for how the drums sound in the song. Sometimes it maybe as result of the drums sounding too weak, and sometimes you will be cheered for having a more delicate sound.

If you are trying to become a music producer, you have to have grasped the basics of drum programming in all genres of music. This will help you to be able to flexibly mix genres and make the track more interesting. Having this skill under your belt will also help with your inspiration and allow your ideas to flow more easily.

Quite often, the drums are the only element in the track that people seem to care about. If you examine an electronic dance music track, it’s all about the drum drop and the riser.

A word of advice, start using samples in your songs and then progress towards individually programming each component of the drumbeat. This way you can slowly advance in programming each genre of music. If you are taking the other route of playing drums for music production  as well as recording, you should start with traditional drum lessons and then move into recording for studio sessions.

Knowing that drum programming is an integral part of music production is only the start. But by putting your heart and soul into learning, will make you a great drum programmer. In this article, I will walk you through various ways by which you can begin and improve your drum programming. Let’s get started shall we?

What is drum programming?

Drum programming in music production is nothing but adding drum elements to a track through audio production software. You can start this process of programming the drums by first analysing the time signature of the track, then selecting samples for the drums to completely limit the track in the mastering session.

The art of programming the drums began with the development of various versions of programming software and drum machines that were developed for audio production software. These programming applications inside the production software have made sure that there was no time lost in waiting for a drummer to come to the studio to record their section of the track.

It also reduced the time needed to mix the drumming elements according to the setup of the drummer at each time of recording. These perks and advantages created a pathway to drum programming as we know it today. Whenever a song has made use of programmed drums, it’s easier to perform on stage compared to a song that has had the drums recorded in a studio. This is another reason why nowadays a majority of studio producers prefer to program the drums for a track, rather than recording it with an actual drummer.

Drumming has notably been one of the most charismatic instruments that you can play on a stage. Taking that to the studio and completely modifying it by programming through a set of buttons have made the process much simpler. Drum programming helps you to interchange things quickly in comparison to recording a drumming session.

In the case of a drumming session when a particular piece is recorded, you cannot swap a hi-hat or a kick. You have to re-record it if you need to swap around an element in the recording. This is not the case with programming the drums.

Since everything is now digital, the ability to manipulate sound at extreme levels, and even swap samples after programming, has revolutionized how the drums are used in today’s world of music production. A huge amount of music producers take more pride in programming the drums than they would ever take on the arrangement without it, because of how intuitive and simpler it has become.

When you are programming the drums for a song, it’s not all too similar when compared to the recorded drums in a studio. Programming the drums allows you to have a higher level of control over how it should sound, and how much in tune it should be. This is not the case with an actual drum set.

If you are tuning a hi-hat it takes time to tune it correctly. When the drums are programmed through the software interface, the time taken for tuning is less than 15 seconds. This has made everyone move towards drum programming instead. One other thing about drum programming is that you can even add accents with variable tempo in the beat. If you wanted to do this in a regular drumming session, it would take plenty of time to practice getting it right. Mixed timings are also so much simpler to employ in songs as the process of production has somewhat improved in the last 10 years.

Importance of programming drums 

Programming the drums can provide a music producer with increased flexibility to completely change the other elements of the song, without having to bother about how they are going to program the drums. This permits them the creative freedom to analyse and put more time into other parts of the song, rather than concentrating on how to get the drums right.

Swapping drumbeats that stick to the tempo of the song has been a dream come true for many producers. Ten years ago when you wanted to make a drumbeat stick to the tempo and to a time signature, it would take hours upon hours to locate the perfect timing. This has since been eliminated with the help of today’s drum programming capabilities in audio production software.

If a music producer is coming from a background in piano, in the last two decades they would have had to hire a drummer to do the beat section of the song. Sometimes through this process the original idea of the music producer can become lost. This has now been eliminated with the use of production software.

Due to the minimal learning curve that comes along with programming the drums, anyone can now learn how to program the drums without much hassle. Nowadays, music producers can paint the musical picture that is in their mind completely into the piano roll of audio production software without thinking too much about it. The simplicity of the drums in a song has made drum programming a much more viable option going into the future.

There is also a massive increase of interest in the producer community to learn about programming the drums. Numerous people are now getting their hands on drum programming pads, testing their skills, and improving as they further their program beats.

This concept of taking an instrument from its original form and moving it across to its digital form allows much more flexibility compared to the original instrument. This amuses a lot of people who used spend ages recording drums in the studio, hour after hour, and take after take.

One other thing to note about programming the drums through software, is that it does not take away the feel and mood of the drums. The quality of the software has improved a great deal, and even the smallest sounds of squeaking feet as a result of our shoes moving on the floor are now encoded.

This software emulates the natural-sounding drum tones much better than how they had been previously recorded along with the added flexibility it can provide. This is why I would advise everyone who is starting to learn music production to get their hands on a version of drum programming software and deeper explore how to play rhythms on a drum pad.

Back in the day, if someone wanted to play drums on stage, they needed at least a year of practice to be able to play the instrument precisely. This has completely changed with the introduction of audio production software. Now nobody has to spend their time learning how to position themselves or learn how to hard hit the hi-hat, or even where to hit a cymbal correctly. Today, all the equipment you need is a midi controller with touch-sensitive drum pads. This has broadened the pool of  people wanting to learn the intricacies of drum programming.

How drum programming is used in music production? 

Quite often the drums are programmed first, as they are generally the source of inspiration for the artist. When you have the drums programmed beforehand, you can go all-in on other components of the mix. You could also spend your time on tweaking every single aspect of the song.

Whereas if you have not taken the time to programme the drums first, at the end of the process you will have to worry about if all the other elements you added will go well with the drums. These nuances can actually make drum programming more interesting. Sometimes the drums are replaced in the end with another set of drums in order to properly suit the track after the production process. For these reasons, programming has added so much more flexibility to the inclusion of the drums.

With the help of drum programming software, today a music producer can program any type of drumbeat imaginable. Replacing a sample in the grid is all it takes to program a completely different drumbeat from different sections of the globe.

Previously, if someone wanted to program a beat from another part of the world, they would have had to learn how to play the instrument before even attempting to record the sound. Today this concept has completely changed, people from all over the world program the drums to sounds that originated from other parts of the world. Being able to include all of these aspects have now become as easy as the click of a button.

Setting the tempo and time signature as well as setting the grid lengths has provided musos with added flexibility to emulate any drumbeat from any part of the planet. Due to the flexibility that drums have now been given, they are also used as instruments of melody in some songs.

Drum hits are manipulated and pitched up and down to get the desired notes. They are also blended with different articulations in order to guide the melodic tone out of them. Since people have not heard such sounds and melodies before, it captivates their attention immediately, and it effects their mood as soon as they hear the song.

The other flexibility that programming drums have offered is the use of templates. Let’s say that I used a set of samples for a drum piece, the audio production software allows you to save the tempo, time signature, samples, hits as well as the patterns as a template.

This has made the process of drum programming much faster. If you already have a 2/4 beat programmed, all you have to do is drag and drop it into the audio production software’s timeline. Previously, in order to do the same thing, you would have had to record and redo the part to get it right, every single time.

One other thing about programming the drums is the ability to create fills and step up half fills easily from the drum samples that have been already played. This is a feature that has been added to all versions of audio production software in the last 5 years.

It started with Ableton and it even rolled out with Pro Tools, which is often considered a form of recording software. In simple words, technology innovation has made drum programming more fun and experimental than the robotic process where you just sit and re-record music over and over again.

How to program drums 

Drum programming begins with how you want your song to sound. You have to have a clear idea about what you want your song to sound like in terms of volume and energy. This has a massive impact on how you will program the drums for your song.

In the case of an actual drummer, when you tell them the mood and lyrics of the song, they automatically adjust themselves to play softer hits and mild slow moves without disturbing the flow of the song. In the case of a drum programmer, you are responsible for making the same adjustments.

When you have decided on and arranged the feel of the developing song, this is when you will need to think about the time signature and tempo. Once you have the time signature written down in the audio production software, then it’s all about the tempo.

Making the mistake of messing up tempo has taken away how a song should normally sound in a mix. When you increase the tempo of a song that has to be melodic, it removes the warmth and comfort that it would otherwise give to the listener. When you have had your tempo and time signature locked in the audio production software, this is where drum programming can truly begin.

The next logical step in programming the drums is the sample selection. This is one section of the drum programming process where it would not be advised to chance taking any shortcuts at all. The sounds that you choose at this time are the same sounds that are going to reflect on the final rendition of your song.

If you end up making a mistake in choosing the wrong sounds at this stage, you will have to come back and modify the samples. Depending upon the genre of music, as well as the feel of the song, the samples have to be selected accordingly. Once this stage has been completed, you can move to the fun part of actually programming the drums.

Patterns are the primary format for programming the drums. It takes time and practise to learn how to program each pattern for every available time signature. Once you understand the intervals that are used in each time signature and how they work, you can easily move on to making it more interesting.

There are so many ways you can use these patterns. You can take one pattern of the midi file that you programmed previously, and then apply it to another sample of the beat you have just created. These modern techniques are possible to completely change the way a track sounds.

If there is one element of musical production that can change an ordinary track to an extra-ordinary track, then it’s definitely the layering of the drums. When you layer the drums, you are essentially adding more depth to the tonality of these elements.

Simply adding the elements to create more space around the actual hits makes them pop and cut through in a mix. This is one of fundamental aspects of sound that was overlooked when drum programming started to gain more popularity. The creativity that people showcase with drum programming is just mind-blowing. They can take a small sample from a person’s speech and transform it into a complete, well-rounded beat.

Where to learn programming drums 

There are numerous platforms and places where you can learn the drums, or even programming the drums. People sometimes don’t understand the difference between playing the drums and programming the drums. These methods couldn’t be more different.

When you are playing the drums, you are playing on the actual instrument itself. Whereas, when you are programming the drums, you are just clicking a mouse to add notes in a timeline of audio production software. This is the major difference between the two types of drums in today’s music production world. Learning both of them has a very different approach, which one has to understand before jumping to conclusions about if they want to invest their time or not.

Some people try to stay away from programming the drums. They always ask an actual drummer to come to the studio and record what they need. Other music producers like to do all the hard work by themselves. No matter who you are, choose the path that you would like to follow, if you want to be a traditional drummer then stick to that path.

One thing that I would like to note, is that you will need more time to learn traditional drumming than if you want to learn drum programming. Since drum programming is software-based, it’s all about understanding the concepts. There are no moving parts involved in this learning process, other than your fingers clicking buttons.

There are a great deal of music producers, as well as drummers who teach drumming both offline and online. This all depends on what your personal needs are for learning the drums. If you are someone who thrives learning online, then you should choose that option. If learning offline is your jam, then that’s the route you should follow.

Learning online requires more motivation and turning up every single day to do the job again and again. If you are someone who struggles with accountability then I would advise you to get an offline teacher, who can guide you every step of the way. This will help keep you accountable, to ensure that you learn every single day, and put in the level of practice that is required to get better at programming the drums, or even playing them.

As I have mentioned before, playing the drums or playing any instrument for that matter, is all about repetition. The more you do it the better you will get at playing and performing. The time and effort you put into practicing the instrument will show in the confidence and precise skill of your performance.

The applause people bestow for a superior performance is not because of how you presented yourself on stage, but because of the hard work and effort that went into it to how you practiced in preparation.

If you want to learn online, I would advise you to use Udemy or Skillshare. These are two platforms that have a huge variety of instructors, not just for learning drumming, but also other instruments in a step-by-step process. They also ensure to answer all of your questions regularly to help you with your progress. In addition to the instructors, the private chat groups in these platforms can assist you on your learning journey.

Skillshare follows a Netflix-type model, where you pay a fee upfront, and then all of their courses are open access for you to use as you choose. In the case of Udemy, you have to purchase each course individually. One extra tip I can provide is that in some instances, you may find the same instructor hosting their courses on both platforms.

Can I teach myself to play drums?

Yes, you can teach yourself to play the drums with the help of various resources that are available on the internet. You can start to work on easier time signatures, and then move on to harder time signatures. The hardest thing to learn when you are starting out on the drums is gaining proficiency in being able to maintain the tempo at a steady pace throughout the beat. One word of advice would be to use a metronome that will help you in achieving a steady time..

How do you become a drummer in the music industry?

Becoming a drummer in the music industry is not as easy as it sounds. If you have a desire to enter the music industry as a drummer, you would be entering as a session musician or a stage performer. Both are good positions to aspire to, however, having the ability to program drums will give you an edge over the other performers in the case of drumming. Having something additional as a drummer will take you a further distance in the industry compared to if you are just a drummer.

How do I start learning drums?

When it comes to drums, the best way to learn is to take an offline drumming class with a teacher. You will learn so much from the posture to the grace that they have in using the instrument when compared to taking an online class. Starting slow and getting the fundamentals right is very important in drums compared to other instruments. You can correct fundamentals in other instruments easily but not in drums.

How can I learn drum music?

If you have the budget to hire a competent drumming teacher, then this would be an ideal option. If you are not in a position to start learning with an actual face-to-face drumming teacher, the best choice for you would be learning from online platforms.

Online platforms are easy to use in terms of convenience, and are not as expensive as an actual drumming teacher. You can learn at your own pace, and practice in your own time. Udemy and Skillshare are two platforms that would be an ideal place to start learning the music for the drums.

What is the hardest song to play on the drums?

Even though there are innumerable songs that are considered harder to play on the drums, “Dance of Eternity” is regarded as one of the hardest. The reason why it’s well-known as one of the hardest songs on the drums, is that each song that is considered hard has a different dimension and nuance associated with it that challenges the player to give his best. “Sedation Deprivation” is also another one of the hardest songs to play on the drums.

Conclusion

When it comes to programming or playing the drums, timing is everything. If you are interested in learning to play, as well as programming drums, it is important to concentrate on your timing in different songs and beats. Being able to get your timing right from the beginning plays a huge part in how you will perform songs on the drums later on.

A significant element you will need to master is training your musical ear in a way that is inclined towards hearing the extremities of the drums, which will help in analysing songs faster in rehearsals. The drums have always been a section of the musical world that are highly celebrated. You consistently hear people saying, “The song was average, but the drums were absolute fire”.

That’s the difference that the drums can make to the overall appeal of a song. If you are starting to learn the drums, my advice would be to dedicate more time towards daily practice. The more time you put towards investing in your drumming practice, the more it will reflect in your performances.

One of the hardest components to learning the drums is ensuring to play them every single day. The consistency that is needed to get to a level where you can play professionally, this is where your dedication towards learning the drums will be tested.

If you first learnt to play the drums and are now entering the field of programming the drums, it is best to start with learning how to use audio production software. Then move on to learning how to translate your performances into a written form on the software.

If you decide to learn how to program the drums without learning how to use the audio production software, you will have a hard time understanding the post-production process of a song, which is a whole other world in comparison to live performances.

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