Drums For Beginners

Written by flux

Well, Makke started the drum tale and wrote how to use drums, but as far as I know quite a lot of beginner composers don't even know what drums actually are, how they are played, etc. So that's what I'm going to talk about. If you are experienced enough, just skip.

To make an instrument sound realistic one needs to know how the instrument is played. That's my strong opinion and I doubt I'll ever change it. And actually most experienced musicians I've had a chance to chat with think exactly the same.

So what does it actually mean? It means you need to know that the guitar's strings are plucked and you press certain places on the neck to get sound, the flute is blown and to get sound you close holes. It's very useful to know 'hardware limitations' of instruments you are using in your song. There's no such problem with a live band, but when you are tracking sooner or later you will get to that. So how does it relate to drums? I've been playing around with drums for about four years for now, so I'll try to tell you how they are played in real life and together with Makke's article it should give you a nice idea of how to have good drums in your track.

So, back to the topic. If you don't know how a hi-hat looks and how it's played I bet it would be hard to make it sound real. And most beginning trackers have hardly ever seen a real drum set. So, I'll try to tell you what it looks like. We'll be talking about a 'standard' kit and not some kind of custom made one. First, there's the bass drum. It's a big one in the lowest part of the set. And there's a kick pedal in front of the drum. So you can kick it harder or softer. You can't kick one bassdrum with a speed of 200 Bpm. So to achieve the speed metalheads use two bassdrums. Just remember you use both legs if you use two bdrums for now. We'll get back to that topic later.

On the bassdrum there are usually two toms fixed. Their tone raises from left to right (if you look from the drummer's position). And to the right of the drummer there is a big tom (known as a floor tom) and it's the lowest of toms usually. So for a drummer it is much easier and natural to make a "from high to low" break than the other way around. If your tom sample is played in a sequence like C2,C3,D#3,D3,G3,C4 it won't sound very real. A sequence like G3,G3,C3,C3,G2,G2 would sound much better. Sometimes drummers set additional toms with higher or lower tones. For example, drummers of Iron Maiden, Blind Guardian and Gamma Ray do so.

So the thing about tracking toms is the right sequence. And one more tiny thing about toms: if the break is quite fast it is supposed to be played by two hands, so no other 'hand' drum can be played in a time of break. But 'tom only' breaks don't usually sound too good and it's nice to implement snare or bassdrum hits in the tom break. It is also good to use simultaneous tom hits sometimes. You've got two hands, so you can hit two toms at once or the snare and a tom. It sounds very good, especially if you do 'power styles' like rock or metal.

Then there's the snare. Usually drummers situate it somewhere between their legs, so their right foot stands on the kick pedal and the left one on the hat pedal. During the song, drummers usually hit the snare with one hand, while the other plays hi-hat or cymbal top. It means you can't hit the snare with a speed of 200 Bpm during the song (I know, I know black/grind metal bands do so, but they don't count) and when you have a fast snare roll you must use two hands, so you can't hit any other 'hand' drums while playing a fast snare roll. But small low-velocity snare put-ins (just one or two low velocity additional hits. Jazz, funk and related styles have a lot of them) can be made using one hand only. Snare's sound can be very different. If you hit the drum closer to the border the sound is kind of higher and many drummers use that. It's very well heard on Soulfly's "Soulfly" album and on Sepultura's "Roots". By the way, don't think these tricks are only for metal, I just give examples from music I usually listen to.

One more sound that can be made by hitting the snare is when a drummer puts the drumstick on the snare and holding it there hits the border. Those sounds perfectly fit slow ballads and they cannot be played fast, because it's very hard to a hold stick down and make hits strong enough to keep them heard. Try using it instead of the snare in slow songs to make the beat a bit different.

Let's get to one of the hardest drums to track realisticly. The hi-hat. The first thing you need to know is that the hi-hat is two small radius cymbals fixed on a pole facing each other. The distance between plates is controled by a drummer's leg through a hat pedal. If you press it the hat closes and sounds shorter, and if you release the pedal the hat opens and sounds a bit like a crash. So you can vary the sound by closing and opening the hi-hat, but that's not all. Usually, trackers use just two samples: one for closed and one for open, but live drummers have much more control over the sound. You can have a half-closed hi-hat, or you can just hit the pedal with your foot to get a different kind of sound, which is a bit like a closed hi-hat. You can also vary the sound by hitting the hi-hat closer to the pole or further from it, hitting it with a stick head or the side of a stick. So, the more different samples you have for your hi-hats the more realistic your drums will be. But just don't overdo it. You should think how you would hit the drum if you were playing it.

Now let's talk about limitations and possibilities. First, you can hit the hi-hats with one hand and then you will have one hand free for making snare put-ins and stuff. Again, you can't achieve the speed of 200 Bpm with one hand. So if you have fast hats in your song you should be hitting the hat with two hands and when the snare hit time comes just move your hand from hi-hat to snare, but it doesn't leave you any free limbs for snare put-ins. And now, do you remember talking about two bassdrums? So, if you use one leg to control the hi-hat, you don't have any free ones for a second bass drum. Or if you play double bdrum you can't close/open the hi-hat fast. Usually drummers playing two bassdrums just release the hat pedal and use only open hi-hat sounds while playing two bassdrums, but sometimes they have two fixed hi-hats - one closed and one open. You can hear how two bassdrums and hi-hats are used on Blind Guardian's and Gamma Ray's albums.

Now, let's get to crashes, splashes and other kinds of cymbals. Mostly they are used to mark breaks' ends and most importantly hits in a song. They are hardly ever used without bassdrum or snare support. Sometimes drummers hit two cymbals at a time, which makes it sound richer. But having two cymbals, hat and snare sounds at one time is not nice because our drummer still has two hands. Cymbals have very different sounds and every drum kit has at least two cymbals, so using several cymbal samples in your module is a very good idea. Remember, you can't hit one cymbal multiple times in a second and make it sound clear and seperate every time. Cymbals are used not only for making the hit in the begining of the chorus or end of the break, you can also use it instead of the hi-hat. You can hit the cymbal itself if you want a powerful sound, like many punk, guitar hardcore and thrash bands do or you can hit the cymbal near the pole, which makes a very clear and nice sound. It can be used in any kind of music from slow ballad to really fast black metal. Try using it instead of hi-hats in solo parts of your song to make the beat different.

There are also many additional drums that can be set on a drumkit, from latin percussion to windbells and a cowbell. The only thing you have to remember while trying to make a song sound real is that the drummer has only two legs and two hands and he can't play with his... uh, sorry ladies, d#$k. One more important thing to remember is, as Makke said, a drummer never hits the drums with the same volume throughout the whole song. A drummer never keeps the beat exactly the same through the whole song. A drummer never rolls the same breaks through the whole song. A drummer has a limited number of limbs. A drummer is alive and creative, he makes beat changes, different put-ins, small breaks, hi-hat variations, etc. Real drums are not sampled, so they sound different with every hit (try using some vibrato, volume decay, etc.).

One more thing I forgot about - many of you will certanly ask "Hey, and what about all those bongos-congos, shakers and tambourines?". Yeah, you're right. But usually in live bands they have an additional percussion person (when additional percussion is necessary, of course). Sometimes they even have something like one for congos, one for shaker and tambourine, one for cowbell, etc. And in this certain article I was talking about the basic drum kit with one drummer installed. Simply bdrum, snare, hat and a couple of toms and crashes. If you, people, think that I should make a sepparate article on additional percussion, just tell me.

Seems like all I wanted to talk about. If you, people, have any questions or suggestions or just see some lame phrase, just tell me.

- flux/t-rex

PS: If you liked the article, write to me. If I get some feedback I'll do more articles like that about other instruments.