MIDI Drum Sample Programming: Perfection Doesn’t Work

Brandon Drury —  May 19, 2008

I come from a science / math mindset. It’s my nature. I’m a technical nerd. This has it’s advantages when getting into this recording business, but it has it’s drawbacks. That’s a whole chapter in itself, but let’s just say that drum programming is an instance where you can toss your math and technical perfection out the window. In fact, “perfect” drums from a mathematical sense where each note is an equal distances apart (in terms of time) can not only sound awkward. It sometimes simply sounds WRONG!

Note: I do not have any intention of singling out the guy who made this mix. My goal is not to make fun of him or single him out. He just happened to stumble on a situation where this anti-math drum programming concept was illustrated EXTREMELY well. Please don’t take offense. Instead, be thankful that such an awesome illustration is available and a lesson is so easily learned.

DFH Superior
Head over to this song in Recording Reviews

Listen to the song (you may need to be logged in for this to work). We’ve got a fast, punk rock style tune going on with distorted guitars and drums from DFH. The mix doesn’t sound too bad. However listen up to 0:20 seconds. The snare feels WEIRD! It makes the whole part (which is quite rocking) feel out of place. We aren’t firing on all cylinders here. What’s going on?

I don’t know anything about official musical terms, but I know one thing. If a good, real drummer had played that song on an electronic drum kit, we could immediately fire up the MIDI file and see that his snare drum hits would not land exactly on beat 2 and beat 4. They would be ahead! To people in their early 20s and younger this may seem a bit wrong. Modern music is so perfected to death (That’s a whole other chapter) that many people just assume that using the quantize button to perfect snap the kick onto beat 1 and the snare onto beat 2 is right for every song. This is simply not the case. Mathematical perfection and musical perfection are entirely different things.

Smash Your HD TV
When we take this quantized approach to drum programming, we lose “resolution”. Think about it. The masses are all running out and buying TVs with 1,000 lines of resolution so they can see every detail in Friends, Everybody Loves Ramon, and all the other “brilliant” shows out there. We we approach this drum thing from the perspective that kick drums land on 1 and 3 and snares land on 2 and 4, we’ve reduced our 1,000 lines of resolution to 4 lines. Uh. This sucks! Why filter out all the detail and all the possible human expression and potentially emotional intensity?

Note: It’s very possible that if our human playing the drums isn’t the best at expressing emotional intensity that we could be better off with quantizing. In this regard you have to use your best judgment. In this articles, my goal is not to make crappy playing a little better. My goal is to make great music sound great!

Fire up five of your favorite songs. Pick songs that it is safe to assume were played with a real drummer and weren’t edited to death. Really listen. Start tapping out the beat with the snare drum. Go for maximum precision here. It’s important that you perfectly match the groove with your tapping. 99% of the time in a natural drum performance played by a real drummer, the kick drum will lock in very tightly. However, the snare is a different weapon altogether and plays by a different set of rules.

The snare has the ability of total mind control. The snare can take a listener, throw out what he would be thinking about the song, and replace it with a new intensity. As you tapped out the song, you would notice that the parts that are mean to feel slow, relaxed, etc pretty much land on 2 and 4. The slowest parts (quiet breakdowns with rimshots on 2 and 4, for example) meant to sound the “saddest” or at least the “slowest” will have the snare land behind 2 and 4. The parts that are meant to feel fast, busy, over powering, and intense will (like clockwork) land ahead of 2 and 4. Sometimes what sounds perfect to the ear ends up being pretty far in front of 2 and 4 when we take a look at the screen. (Another case where putting too much emphasis on the eyes can hurt us when recording music!).

Going back to our example, the song feels wrong for the first 0:20 seconds. Then, at 0:21 there is a fill. The feel of the song has changed. There is no need for the snare to push here. The song feels good again. Then, we jump back into our fast punk thing and the song gets weird again. Our “racing down the interstate” vibe is gone. There is a conflict.

It’s clear that these drums were programmed (either by the user or by a preset groove) to land on 2 and 4. The song is calling for something else that a natural drummer would have picked up subconsciously. We could fix this issue by going in and sliding the snare drums forward just a bit. (Make sure snapping and quantize are OFF!). You need to experiment with this. It’s just as easy to go to little as it is too go too much. Every song has different requirements. To take it further, every snare hit may have different requirements!

The Exceptions
There are exceptions to this human, anti-math drum issue we are confronting. Most hip hop and techno songs still work with a quantized beat. I listen to quite a bit of electronic music myself. The music is effective. The music is effective because the music was created with a quantized, ruler perfect drum beat as the foundation. The writing of a synth part in techno works a bit differently than the writing of a punk rock guitar part.

Of course, not all songs are meant to speed along. Some songs should sit back and take their time. There is a big difference between Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On The Dog of The Bay” and anything on the Offspring “Smash” album. To take it further, there are certainly tunes in electronic music that do speed along at breakneck, race car speeds. Sometimes, these songs will be programmed with the snare pushing, but this is the exception. In the mega fast techno type songs, the “feel” used to imply speed and intensity is replaced with raw BPM (beats per minute). In techno, you don’t have to worry about a human being actually being able to play a given part. You can record a tune at 120bpm (or draw in the notes with a mouse) and then change the tempo to 240bpm if you really want to. Also, the fast feeling techno also uses other tricks to make songs feel faster. (The snare drum pushing trick is just one of a billion tricks to make a medium tempo song feel fast). The most popular technique in techno (besides the 1/16th or even 1/32 note hi-hat) is the use of arpeggiated sections.

Sometimes there is no excuse for a human drummer. If you are using drum samples like DFH, BFD, Addictive drums, etc and playing music where a human drummer is required, you need to be aware of as many drummer tendencies as possible. While I don’t have a clue about monkeying around on a ride cymbal and I’ve never found a use for rudiments on the kind of noise I like to make, I think every drum programmer could benefit from understanding “feel”. Few factors have a great effect on the feel of the song than the snare drum!

Brandon Drury

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

6 responses to MIDI Drum Sample Programming: Perfection Doesn’t Work

  1. BRAVO! In my 35 years experience ALL of this article is exactly true.

  2. Wow! I’ve never even got 15% of an article to be exactly true! I’ve achieved the goal. It’s now time to try out major league baseball or bass fishing.


  3. I have found the same thing.

  4. Good points. I’m working on improving my drum programming skills and I found a great article here:

    He goes in and analyzes the placements of beats and velocities within a bar of drumming. It was a bit hard to follow at first but sitting down and applying some of this to my own grooves greatly improved the natural feel of my programming.


  5. Wow. Great article. With everything that can be done now digitally and electronically, you still have to keep that human element. I definitely have more to learn to get away from that mechanical too perfect sound to something more authentic.

  6. Really great. I linked this article back to my blog because it’s so good.
    I’ll maybe add thoughts around HH playing and moving kick drum timing during one measure later.