The five secrets to better drum programming

Tags: Drum Programming, Producing Music

This is a guest post by @marksman

Hailing from London, Marksman is a progressive force in the melodic house and techno scene, rapidly gaining a reputation with his innovative productions and DJ sets. His signature style combines genres to create a sound that’s profoundly dark, emotive, and powerful. He has played at events all over London, including frequent club sets at XOYO, The Nest, and Rolling Stock. He also regularly plays on Bloop. London Radio.

Marksman is currently working on an exploration into ground-breaking new genres. his future plans for production are to merge the live instrumental musician world with electronic music.

Very curious to see what you have coming up and thanks for sharing with everyone @marksman!

You can choose to see his video tutorial or read it down below:

The drums are the most important part of dance music, or arguably even all contemporary music for that matter. It’s worth putting in the extra effort with drums –  often the subtle processing that adds consistent interest which turns a good track into a great track. 

This holds true for all instruments, but drums are commonly overlooked as it’s the melodies or that huge ornate sound that’s the focus right? 

Wrong. The secret to great productions is to make every element interesting, albeit very subtle. Cumulative combination of many, small, but significant details paints a truly beautiful picture for listeners.

Whilst it might only be producers and engineers that pick up the niche specific details, an average listener picks up subtle changes to instruments subconsciously, captivating interest for longer. This can be time-consuming, but the more effort you put into subtle details, the better your overall product. It’s all about the bigger picture – most people will not notice the minor details, but they add up.

Tip 1 – Sequencing in Drum Rack

As digital producers, sequencing is a fast-track way to building a drum groove, particularly through using Ableton’s Drum Rack.

Drum rack is great for getting grooves together quickly. I start most tracks with the kick, perhaps a tom groove or bassline. I spend time making sure these elements sound great together before moving on. It may vary from track to track which element to go with next However in any case, defining a basic rhythm is essential for composition.  

Once I have a basic groove, and perhaps a bassline/chord sequence etc.., I will use Drum Rack to audition drum sounds by category that fit the vibe of the track. Bear in mind you may have to do some processing before they perfectly fit. Drop any ones that sound good in and tune to your track!

Figure 1 – You can have up to 128 sounds triggering from one instance of Drum Rack. Try saving kits that work well.

Start with a 2 bar loop and add the ‘base’ sounds such as snare, claps and hi-hats in. As a four-to-the-floor producer, this usually involves an off-beat hat and a snare/clap on the second and fourth beat.

Tip 2 – Call & Response and Variation

Once you have a basic loop, begin adding to the loop with other drum hits. Try playing some off-beat rhythms over your basic groove. Use the ‘duplicate loop’ in the clip editor (Figure 2)

Figure 2 – This four-bar hat loop now has accents inserted, try duplicating the loop, found under the ‘Notes’ tab, and editing hits for an eight-bar variation.

Call & Response is a great tool for catchy beats. The best rhythms, like melodies, tell a story or ‘talk’. Imagine two people talking in morse code, where one person sends a message and the other one responds. Picture your sounds having a conversation – imagining in this way is really game changing. The ‘call’ will be your main focus for the rhythm, the variation comes from the response. You can then double this loop and add additional hits, change the timing or sounds.

Figure 3 – A simple two-bar Call & Response pattern. Try changing when the response comes over longer loops

Experiment with rhythms on different sounds to create complex polyrhythms. Continue to add variation over thirty two bars, then sixty four and so on.

Tip 3 – Get the live groove

Drums can sound robotic and predictable if we merely ‘click’ notes in with the mouse. If drum hits fall directly on the grid every time, there is no groove.

We must not forget that electronic music came from non-electronic influences, ie. live instrumentalists and bands. A live drummer playing an eight bar pattern would never play it exactly the same each time. Each drum hit may be louder or quieter, more off-beat or of a different timbre to the last and every so often the drummer may add a drum fill. Injecting some ‘human feel’ can prevent repetitive grooves from getting boring. 

There’s two ways of doing this:

  1. Playing sounds by hand. Natural groove but requires some coordination. Then quantise between 20-60%, depending on how good your timing is. Press cmd+shift+U to access the quantise settings. Never have it at 100% not even if there’s a fire.
Figure 4 – Ableton’s Quantise settings – adjust based on your timing
  1. Using Ableton’s groove pool can add pre-existing grooves to your midi and audio clips – changing timing, quantisation and velocity, alongside randomness. To access the groove pool:
    • Click the ‘refresh’-looking button next to ‘Groove’ on the left of the clip editor.
    • Choose a groove that suits your style
    • Click ‘Commit’ once you’re happy
    • Make sure you apply the groove (to some extent) to all elements in the track.
      Figure 5  – Play with ‘Timing’, ‘Velocity’ and ‘Random’ sliders in the groove pool

Tip 4 – Using LFOs in Drum Rack

Before you go off and change every single drum hit to be infinitesimally different to each other, I can tell you there’s a much quicker way to getting similar, and arguably better results

Use Drum Rack’s (well technically Simpler’s) LFO to map to pitch, volume and panning, choose a waveform then dial in to taste; my personal favourite is Random/Noise. The settings are found in the ‘Controls’ tab of Drum Rack/Simpler (see Figure 6 ). Make sure ‘Retrigger’ is enabled (I think this is default anyway) and set to 1/16th notes. 

Figure 6 – For ‘background’ sounds you can use more extreme settings – this is taken from a shaker sound

From doing this, each hit is slightly different every time. Listeners try to make sense of sounds and if there is inherently ‘no sense’ to them, they are continuously interesting. It goes without saying, this is only a subtle, tasteful amount of ‘no sense’.

Tip 5 – Focus and depth

By now we should have a nice sounding drum groove. It’s time for the fine details for each element. We must define where hits sit in the mix. Naturally we want some to be the focus and right at the front, with others providing ambience, atmosphere or transitions etc.. 

Choose some ‘background’ sounds and add depth using reverbs and delays.

Figure 7 –  This sound creates atmosphere through a delay and large reverb.

You should also set up a number of delay and reverb busses for automation. Try sending sounds to long-feedback delays to bridge sections together and add tension.

Now go forth and get groovy baby.


If you want to learn more about or contact Marksman, of course just check out his profile. We also asked him the same questions we do for every Artist profile in our Resources section and here are his thoughts on 2020 and collaboration:

What I’m up to & hopes for 2020

Currently furloughed from my day job and with lock-down for the foreseeable future, I’m using this time productively to make as much music as possible. I try to hit at least one, usually two new tracks each week. By dedicating the majority of my time to music, I’ve seen a noticeable improvement in my tracks.

I’ve got two releases coming out this year on Onism, one of which is being remixed by the label bosses OIBAF&WALLEN. I have a couple of other tracks to self-release and working on an EP to get signed.

I really believe this is the time of opportunity; it doesn’t matter if you’re a small fish or superstar DJ right now – no one can play at live events. I think this has leveled the playing field and now it will be truly about the music and not about hype.

What I can help with:

I’m also looking to give back to the community, through making production tutorials on Youtube – where I’ll deconstruct some of the tracks I create and potentially do live production sessions. 

In addition, I’m looking to start offering professional mixing and production services. I’m versatile to a number of genres, not just electronic music

What I need help with:

For me, I find it most difficult getting people listening to my music and really don’t enjoy social media, although I have to have it. I just don’t know what to post, when and would rather spend my time doing production or performing than promotion. 

When people do listen to my tracks or come to my shows, without sounding super arrogant, they say it’s amazing. I’ve got a reasonable following, but I’d like to grow it out as much as possible, so I can get more gigs, target my fans properly and hopefully quit my day job one day (I do actually quite like my job, but it’s not rock & roll baby)

A lot of the time, I’ll look to pay for promotion but there are too many overpriced, shady and useless offers out there; I need to find the right people for the job.

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