You’ve got some killer riffs, nice chord progressions, and some solid lyrics. You fire up your recorder or software, start a generic drum beat going from a keyboard or from some loops, lay down your parts, and then release it to the world. What you thought was the greatest thing ever ends up getting very little attention. Is the world just not ready for your awesomeness? Maybe, but let’s look at that “drum” track you used.

Most songwriters tend to be keyboardists or guitarists and they structure their songs accordingly. Drums are thought of as something to keep time or provide “a beat”, if they’re thought of at all. Unless that kind of minimalism fits your style, you’re sucking the potential life out of your songs. Drums, even programmed sampled drums, can elevate your track instead, if you think like a drummer.

How do you think like a drummer? First you need good tools. I’m not a loops guy, but there are plenty of good loop packages to use. Most recording software comes with tons of loops these days. There are also excellent software drum solutions, such as EZ Drummer 2, which is what I often use along with my Roland electronic drum set. Old fashioned hardware drum machines are still viable, too. I have an Alesis SR-18 that gets used from time to time. Whatever you use, learn how to use it. There are tons of videos on Youtube that show you how to use loops and how to build MIDI drum patterns, so spend time learning these things. It can be frustrating at first, but it’s vital if you’re ever going to move past having your drums sound like they came from a broken Casio keyboard.

Now that you have a source for drums sounds, next up is “playing” the way a real drummer would. A real drummer doesn’t usually use the same patterns for verses, choruses, bridges, etc. and you shouldn’t either. Listen to the drums in popular songs in your genre to get ideas for patterns. A real drummer also doesn’t play at the same volume all the time. Bring the drums up during the choruses and bring them down during the verses. They don’t even have to play all the time. Leaving them out during a bridge and then having a big fill lead in to the final chorus can really give your song a huge kick right when it’s needed.

You’ve got good sounds and a decent drum track, so whats next? Processing. Just as you process vocals, keys, and guitar, you’ll probably need effects on your drums. A little reverb can go a long way, as can a little chorus or even distortion. Compression, a little or a lot, is often useful on drum tracks.  Don’t bury your drums in the mix; be proud and bring them out front.  Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Here’s an example from a section of my own song, “Fading Dream”. The first clip is the way I released it and the second is using the same drum sounds, but unprocessed and playing a static pattern.  I bumped up the volume a bit on the drums in the second one to compensate.  The static, lifeless drums just kill the chorus.

 

“Fading Dream” – Original recording

“Fading Dream” – Unprocessed, static drum pattern.

 

Incidentally, poor drum tracks aren’t just a problem for amateurs. The pros sometimes fall victim to this. Boston’s “Life, Love, and Hope” was roundly criticized for it’s poor drums. The album isn’t that bad, but it’s really let down by the weak electronic drums that sound like they came from an early 90s drum machine. The music deserves much better.

 

 

This could all easily apply to bass guitar too, since that often gets neglected. Maybe I’ll write about that in a future article.

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