Q: “I normally use drum loops in my songs. Now I have a plug-in drum sampler and I need to “compose” my drum parts in MIDI. But when I quantize the drum track, it’s not only out of sync with the other parts, but also just sounds “wrong:” it lacks groove and consistency. What can I do?”
A: This opens up the door to a number of issues that we’ll have to cover in parts. Today we’ll focus on basic concepts and drum parts in specific.
“Quantizing” is sometimes misunderstood to mean, “fixing rhythms.” It actually moves MIDI data (mostly note ons and note offs) in line with a specified grid of note values. The grid can be based on whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes, and beyond (including triplets). However, if your playing is too far off the mark rhythmically, quantizing won’t be able to help, or can even make things worse by moving a note event the wrong direction.
Natural sounding playing is not mathematically precise. All drummers, no matter how accomplished, have variations in both the timing AND dynamics (that’s “velocity” in MIDI) of their playing. This is what gives them a musical personality. Even drum loops are not actually “quantized;” though the loop might start and stop at precise points, the notes inside the loop follow their own groove. Here are some drum-related tips:
1. Don’t try to quantize your entire drum track in one pass. It usually won’t sound right. You need a sequencer that lets you select individual notes (snare, kick, etc.) to quantize (or else record individual drums to separate MIDI tracks). Most current sequencing programs offer this option.
2. Start with the Kick Drum. Listeners’ ears gravitate to this; if it isn’t solid the whole song can be shaky. Locate the Kick hits and select just those notes. What’s the shortest note duration you’ve played? Always choose the shortest note value you’ve played as the quantization grid. Quantize and LISTEN. Is it rhythmically tight? If not, look at the downbeat kick notes: 1, 2, 3, 4. If necessary, move them manually to match the sequence downbeats. Do you want your kick to “push” the song? Use the “Shift” or “Offset” menu to move the hits earlier by a few ticks – at 480 PPQN, 15 to 20 ticks ahead can make a significant audible difference.
Now for dynamics: does one (or more) note sound weak? Check note velocities; again, you don’t want everything to be exactly the same, but keep velocities within 5 or 10 steps (in the 128-step MIDI velocity range). An exception: if your downbeat is preceded by a “grace note” you might want to stagger velocities so you get a pronounced “buh-BUM” sound.
Now you can move to the Snare. Do you play a consistent backbeat? Try shifting the quantized quarter notes a few ticks later to bring this into focus. Watch for dynamic consistency on the 2 and 4 while adjusting velocities up or down on off-beat notes to enhance the drive of the snare. James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” is a great example of solid backbeats mixed with different off-beat accents and fill notes.
These are the two vital drums in most pop music; we’ll address toms, cymbals and percussion at a later date.