5 Tips for Better Rock/Metal Drum Programming

You want to play rock or metal, but you can’t find a drummer!

Maybe you live in Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas, maybe you’re a total control-freak when it comes to your art, or perhaps you’re just too damned shy to leave your bedroom studio?

Thankfully, the art and technology of drum simulation in music production has come a long, long way in the last ten years.

With a little know-how, you can create convincing drum tracks for your projects, and realize your musical goals.

MIDI Basics

Your DAW’s MIDI track capability will be used to trigger the drum software of your choice (Battery, Superior, Steven Slate, etc.).

If you arm a MIDI track and hit record, you can play your drums manually by tapping away on your MIDI keyboard or drum pad controllers.

You’ll find the keys on the MIDI track correspond to different pieces of your virtual drum kit. The ubiquitous default mapping of MIDI keys to drum kit components is usually:

  • C4 = kick
  • D4 = snare
  • E4 = snare (alternate)
  • F, G, A = toms
  • F# = closed hi-hat
  • A# = open hi-hat
  • etc …

The little colorful squares you can place on the MIDI track’s sequencer are formally known as events.

Each event corresponds to those keys on your MIDI controller.

You’ll notice the MIDI track’s “background” is divided up into beats or other measures, displaying this grid for you to place any events you want.

If you learn to navigate the layout of the MIDI grid, you can sequence or program drums at any level of complexity, from simple four-on-the-floor dance beats to prog-metal poly-rhythms.

Cautious Quantization

On the MIDI grid you can place an event at any time-point, and any DAW will allow you to automatically shift the notes to “perfect” time by quantization.

For instance, you can snap all of your snare hits perfectly to the 2nd and 4th beats, so that the timing is absolute and mathematically correct.

Sounds convenient, eh?

Just be careful with quantization because it is one of the easiest things to overdo on simulated drums, and one that is most likely to hold your production back.

Many artists will program their MIDI sequences by hand, clicking in events that fall squarely onto the divisions of the grid, fully quantized. These drum hits are 100%, mathematically on time, but often feel rigid or emotionless in the context of rock and metal productions.

In fact, it is the subtle and purposeful imperfections in a live drum performance that give it a human quality and groove; a drummer playing the hi-hat a little ahead of the beat can create a sense of urgency or aggression, for example.

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 9.37.54 PM
The MIDI grid in Logic, with several events representing hits from the kick drum, snare, ride cymbal, and crash. Logic’s MIDI events are colored to represent the notes velocity.

5 Power Tips

As with anything in music production, there are no rules, but here are 5 tips I’ve arrived at through years of trial and error that can help clean up and focus your simulated drum tracks!

1. Lock in the Kick

I follow only one guideline for mapping the kick drum—the kick must hit 100% on time at the start of every bar!

This means the kick is quantized fully on the first hit of a new bar.

But quantizing or snapping the kick to the grid stops there.

The kick is not just the “bass” drum, it’s the “base” drum—it forms the foundation for your rhythm section.

While you have a lot of wiggle room with snapping the snare, toms, and cymbals to the grid, the opening kick hit for every measure must be right on the beat.

2. Free the Cymbals

Nothing screams “fake!” like a hi-hat snapped totally to the grid.

Programming a perfectly quantized hi-hat or ride is the quickest way to get your tracks sounding robotic, lifeless and sterile.

My favorite way of tracking simulated drums is to lay down the kick and snare first (with my kick on point). Then, using my DAW’s feature to record and integrate new MIDI notes on top of the kick and snare information, I track in the cymbals and even the toms.

I do a few takes to get my hats, rides, crashes and splashes in the right groove, to flow correctly and accent appropriately.

I’ll do very little—if any—quantizing or grid-snapping for these pieces of the drum kit, leaving them perfectly imperfect goes a long way in convincing the casual listener.

3. Ghost Notes

A live drummer with any level of finesse makes heavy use of what are called ghost notes. These are lightly struck, subtle hits of a drum that are more “felt” than heard.

All MIDI sequencers give you the ability to control a note’s velocity, which is “how hard” each note hits.

Most drum simulating software will have an immediately noticeable change in the quality of a sound sample based on the velocity of the note triggering it.

The lowest velocity values represent the ghost notes of that drum sample.

Ghost notes can bring a lot of dimension and feeling to a beat, especially to slower, more mellow passages like a verse.

Just have a listen to these drum sequences:

Without ghost notes:


… and with ghost notes on the hi-hat:

4. Dynamic Velocities

Machine guns belong in The Expendables films, not in your drum tracks.

A 16th note snare roll where each hit is perfectly on the grid and all of the same velocity will be a dead giveaway to the casual listener that these drums are impostors!

The same is true of double-kick sequences in metal productions (although I do love the mechanical Fear Factory-esque thing).

A DAW’s velocity editing function lets you easily tweak the velocities of all notes/events using one convenient overview. In some DAWs, simply clicking and dragging the mouse across the velocity bars allows you to shape them.

This capability is especially useful for hats, cymbals, and toms to bring about a more organic feel.

Screen Shot 2018-10-21 at 9.39.10 PM
Logic’s convenient Hyper Editor, showing the velocity levels for all notes/events in your MIDI sequence. Each bar is an event and the height of the bar corresponds to the velocity of that note or drum hit, in this case.

5. Think Like a Drummer

Unless your favorite drummer is an eight-tentacled alien from a distant galaxy’s exoplanet, you probably have never seen someone play 16th notes on the ride while blasting out 16th note snare hits (well, outside of drummers like Alex Rudinger).

In more human terms, a drummer has two feet and two hands at his or her disposal at any given moment. Extremely dexterous, fast and agile drummers can do some amazing stuff, but keep your approach realistic.

One newbie mistake that I myself was guilty of when I started with drum programming was to have cymbals and hats going steady over complex fills on the toms.

Watch some YouTube videos of drummers and get at least a basic sense for how the artist uses their hands and feet so that you can begin to envision how the notes you are programming may actually be played live.

Try to imagine yourself behind the drum kit when you program your beats!

Nothing Holding You Back

While there is no substitute on Earth for a devoted and skilled drummer, many musicians and composers find themselves dead-in-the-water on their musical odyssey when they are without the means to lay the very rhythmic foundation of their music.

Investing in a high quality drum sample library/software for your project studio is a must. It’s quite easy these days to scope out these libraries and even download fully functional trials. For the rock/metal sphere, a few great options are:

Now get to it and start banging out those tracks!

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