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Adding “groove” to your quantized drums – Part II

This is Part Two of our discussion on quantizing sequenced MIDI drum tracks, which is somewhat of a lost art in the age of drum loops (see TTOTD 05/07/04). But with more software samplers and soft drum synths around, many musicians are back in the business of “composing” drum tracks, and quantizing is an essential element of this.

To review: in MIDI quantizing you often must touch every note to get a convincing sound. We last focused on Kicks and Snares, the foundation of most modern drum tracks. Listeners’ ears gravitate to the Kick: it must be solid and reflect the rhythmic identity of the song. The downbeats can “push” or “pull” the beat (achieved by shifting Kick notes earlier or later); and Kick patterns can dramatically change the rhythmic feel by striking with different velocities.

A strong Snare backbeat can be emphasized by shifting the notes slightly later than the mathematically correct beats (a classic Charlie Watts technique). A solid backbeat demands consistent velocities among the notes. Off-beat notes (eighth or sixteenth notes in between the 2 and 4) can vary in velocity; they’re usually softer than the backbeat unless they are supporting an accent played by the band. Again, James Brown tracks from the mid-to-late 1960s are outstanding examples of these concepts.

Now we can move on to Tom fills. The rules here change dramatically! All drummers, no matter how accomplished, have variations in both timing AND dynamics, and these become most obvious during Tom fills. Calling a drum fill “hot” is often a polite way of saying the drummer rushed a bit while playing it (more on this in a moment).

Sampled toms, especially many of those found on workstation synths, can have drastically different acoustic properties than their corresponding Kicks and Snares. Often they are over compressed, which leads to a “squashed” attack sound that can be perceived as late timing or a velocity problem. On some software samplers the Toms might suffer the latency issues shared by low strings and brass instruments. The solution to these problems is to first quantize the fill to the appropriate note value (the shortest note you’ve played) and then shift the entire Tom fill – all the Toms – ahead a few ticks to compensate. Of course, if you want a “laid back” (behind the beat) feel, you can shift the fill later instead. Remember that low Toms take longer to fully resonate; you may need to move these notes individually to get a consistent sound.

Back to the “HOT” fill: a sequencing “secret” from the 1980s and 90s, which worked well for Steve Gadd-style fills and would be just as effective for Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band) emulations, is this: at the beginning of the fill, increase the tempo of the entire track by just one or two beats per minute. This will make your whole “band” follow the drummer. After the ending downbeat of the fill, reset the tempo (you might want to make this happen over the span of a beat or two to emulate a live band’s natural tendencies). Don’t overdo this! If there’s a fill every other measure, you’ll end up with a shaky feeling track.

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