Drum patterns. Drum programming. The fun part of electronic music production.
But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that drum programming isn’t always the easiest part of the process.
In fact, it’s quite often the most frustrating. You find it hard to pick the right samples, and your patterns just don’t sound as good as those in the songs you listen to every day.
Fortunately, it gets easier—especially if you put in the time and effort to learn drum programming. Which is exactly what I’m going to teach you in this article.
In this comprehensive guide (~6,000 words), you’ll learn:
Following that, there’s a section titled Genre Studies. This is where we’ll analyze a track in each major genre (Trance, House, Drum and Bass, Future Bass, and Dubstep), studying the style of drums and giving a breakdown of how those drum patterns are programmed.
And finally, before we start, if you find this article helpful in any way, I’d love if you could share it around. Sharing on Facebook and Twitter help immensely, but even letting a producer friend know about it is just as helpful.
Enough of that, let’s get into it.
Drum programming is essentially composing with drums. You’re not playing live, you’re plotting out sounds in a particular sequence.
It differs from drum synthesis in that you’re not actually creating the sounds you’re using (though one could argue that drum synthesis is a part of drum programming).
As a result, you create drum patterns, which you can loop, create variations of and arrange.
There’s one musical element that’s fundamental to dance music…
Without a solid groove, dance music is not ‘dance’ music, it’s just some other weird experimental form of music.
Groove should be the basis for all your tracks, assuming your goal is to make people dance (by dance, I mean anything from tapping a foot to spinning with all limbs flailing everywhere).
People get hung up on this because they think groove means lowering the tempo to 125BPM and make a funky tech house track. This isn’t what I mean here.
Groove can take on many different forms; a 175BPM drum and bass track can have groove, just as a 140BPM tech-trance banger can.
Groove does not mean swing, it just means the track has a solid rhythm that people can identify with.
All instruments and patterns in a song should contribute to groove, but there are two in particular that lay the foundation for it: drums and bass.
Though the two work together, there’s a significant difference between drums and bass in terms of their contribution to groove.
If you solo your bassline, it’s not going to have much of a groove. It needs to work in relation to something, i.e., drums. However, if you solo your drum section, then you’re going to have a groove.
So, we can argue that groove is formed first and foremost with drum patterns. In that case, don’t you think we should put a fair bit of effort into programming them?
At its core, drum programming is easy. It’s not difficult to create a basic kick-hat-snare drum pattern.
When you go deep into drum programming, however, you find there’s a hell of a lot to learn. It might be a certain technique, the use of polyrhythms, programming complex hi-hat patterns, trying to make your drums sound more human, and so on.
Learning how to program drum patterns, like anything else in the field of music production, is a lifelong process.
But there are key benefits to being a good drum programmer:
Why? Because the skills you learn through drum programming also apply to other facets of music production.
If you didn’t notice, the heading for this section is called The Importance of Good Drum Programming.
Good drum programming stands out. There are some beautifully composed tracks out there that fall short when it comes to drums, and it’s noticeable. It doesn’t mean the track isn’t great, but it’s just somewhat of a disappointment.
Which begs the most important question, how do you become good at programming drums?
You can’t draw a house if you don’t know what a house looks like, just as you can’t program good drum patterns if you don’t know what good drums sound like.
Nine times out of ten when producers come to me with a problem, I respond with “You need to listen to music.”
The problem might be that they can’t come up with an idea for their drop. No worries, go listen to some drops.
The problem might be that their intro sounds too boring. Okay, go listen to some intros.
Listening is essential. You need to listen to tracks that have good drums. Not only do you need to listen, you need to analyze them. Take down notes, question why they used particular sounds, think about how strong the groove is and what sounds are contributing to it the most.
In other words, it’s active listening. Treat it as production time and spend 30-60 minutes listening to tracks, specifically the drum patterns in those tracks.
If you need a starting point, here are tracks that I consider to have fantastic drums:
Drum and Bass/Breaks/Dubstep
Good sounding drums starts with good samples. As the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.
The better your source material is, the less work you have to do. There’s nothing wrong with layering 7 claps together, but sometimes one clap is all that’s needed.
The same goes with kicks. Layering kicks is a complex process in and of itself, and often it’s better to find just one quality kick sample.
Obviously using good samples still means you have to actually sequence your drum patterns. Samples don’t do the work for you.
What they do is increase the odds of your drums sounding great from the get-go, and unlike bad quality samples, they don’t need as much processing in order to fit with the rest of your drums.
I’m not going to tell you how to pick the right samples for your drum section, because that should be an intuitive process. There’s no method or technique for picking good samples, it’s about using your ear.
One thing that helps, of course, is to develop your ear to listen for samples that will fit well. The best way to do this, other than to practice, is to again listen to other music.
Unfortunately there are a lot of low quality sample packs out there, free and paid. A good quality sample pack should last you many years and allow for the production of many tracks, but they’re hard to find.
Fortunately, I’ve wasted a lot of money on these things, so I’ve got a fair idea of what’s good and bad. I’ve listed a few good sample packs for each major genre below:
Dubstep/Drum and Bass
If you’re thinking of buying a particular sample pack, I strongly recommend you download a free taster pack or demo pack if it’s available. This is a good way to test the quality of the samples and decide whether you think the pack is of quality.
Another tip that I wish I’d been told is to keep your sample collection to a minimum. You really only need a few good packs and that’s it. The more samples you have, the more time you’ll waste looking for the right sound. Save money and get creative with what you have.
One of the most popular websites to download drum samples is Splice Sounds. It’s a monthly subscription service that let’s you choose from over 1M sounds across all genres.
It includes artist packs for artist such as KSHMR, Deadmau5, KRNE, and more, and you can be selective with the exact sounds you want.
I’ve only linked a few premium sample packs above. I highly recommend buying at least one sample pack, because the quality is generally a lot better than free sample packs, but that doesn’t mean that good free sample packs don’t exist.
There are a number of places you can find free samples, including our list of free sample packs:
When you have too many sample packs, you tend to look for the perfect sample. In fact, this can happen regardless of how many sample packs you have.
Sometimes you’ll be looking for a particular sound, say a clap, and you’ll come across one that fits perfectly without any adjustment. This happens from time to time, and it’s great.
Most of the time, it doesn’t happen; you’ll come across samples that sound like they might be able to fit, samples that are okay, samples that have minor flaws, and so on.
These are the samples you should be using. Do not waste your time browsing for the perfect sample, it’s an ineffective use of your time. Look for the sample that works alright, and then process it so it becomes the perfect sample.
For example, you’re looking for a meaty snare that has a nice thwack around 200Hz and a crisp high-end. You come across one that has a nice thwack, but not enough high-end. Use it. It’s not the perfect sample, it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, but it will do the job.
After that, you can either boost the high-end with an EQ or add some distortion, or you can layer it with another snare that contains the high-end character that you want.
Instead of listening to the sample as it is, listen to what it could be. Do this, and you’ll find that the samples you own are far more usable than you think.
Problems require creative solutions, which is why it’s a good idea to use a sample you absolutely hate from time to time and do your best to make it fit with the rest of your drums.
You’ll probably fail the first time you try this, but that doesn’t matter. Using a sample that you hate forces you to think outside-the-box to fix it. You might have to add reverb in a certain way to cover up a horrible artifact in the sample, or do complex surgery with an EQ.
It’s not something I recommend doing with every track, but if you’re in need of a creative challenge, then it’s definitely worth doing.
I don’t want to spend too long on this section, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.
Essentially, there are two main ways of programming drum patterns: drawing in MIDI notes, or dragging in audio samples directly.
Both have their pros and cons, which I’ll briefly cover.
MIDI is great if you’re working with more rigid, 4-on-the-floor type music, like trance, house and techno.
Working with more acoustic genres, or maybe you like to add manual swing? Audio might be better for you.
Play around with both ways of working. Perhaps you might like to work in MIDI, but prefer using individual tracks then a drum rack-style workflow. Or maybe you’re like me, and use both for different applications and sounds.
Drum programming seems simple, but isn’t.
To get a cohesive sounding drum section, you might need to spend ludicrous amounts of time adjusting the velocity on your hi-hats, or the reverb decay tail on your clap. It’s the minor intricacies that reflect your taste and add complexity to a seemingly simple part of your song.
Many producers, however, feel they need to focus on complexity more than anything. They feel their drums need to have at least 15 different channels, and that the more percussion they add, the better.
The problem of over-complexity or over-producing is a big one. It’s such a topic that I’d rather address it in a dedicated post.
The important thing to note here is that the simple solution is often the best. This means if you’re making a Deadmau5-like progressive house track and you’re not sure if you need to add an extra percussion sound, you should err towards not doing so.
The other reason for avoiding complexity is that your drums, while essential, only make up a single part of the track. You need to leave room for your basses, synths, FX, and other bits of audio scattered around the place.
If you work on your drums early on in the production process (and I recommend you do), you should think ahead about what you’re going to add afterwards, and make room accordingly.
In addition to all that, the more simple your drums are, the more impact they have.The hard-hitting dubstep that was popular a few years back had incredibly simple drum patterns, as did a lot of earlier trance. What stood out was that each drum hit punched through the mix.
When your drum sections are too complex, the main features (kick, snares, claps, toms) of your drum section often become hidden.
No one wants to listen to the exact same 1-bar drum loop for 16 bars. It’s boring.
Yes, you should have a core drum loop: in most dance music this will be your kick, clap, hat, and maybe toms or other percussion—the sounds that play every bar.
But you also want to add material to make the drum loop more interesting.
I recommend following the 2/4/8 approach, which goes something like this:
In practice, this might look like:
Doing this turns what would be a boring 8 bar loop into a far more interesting one. It’s also a good way to incorporate micro-tension into your track.
You don’t need to add extra samples to do this though. What you can do is simply vary the sequence at certain points to create interest.
For example, instead of having a reverse clap before the last clap every 2 bars, you have the last clap hit twice (one hit on the beat, and then another straight after on the offbeat).
Instead of having a low tom on the last 16th of the 4th bar, you add an extra kick in. And instead of having a gated snare on the last beat of the 8th bar, you remove everything apart from a clap.
Not sure where to start when adding interest and variation to a drum loop? Analyze the drum loops in your favorite songs. Learn how they change and develop, and apply the techniques to your own productions.
Beyond picking the right samples, laying out a drum section, and adding variation, there’s one other thing you can do to make your drums sound better.
Swing adds a “human” feel to the rhythm of your drum loop. It’s defined by subtle variations in timing and velocity that enhance the groove and rhythm of a loop.
Below is an example of groove being applied to a basic drum group. In the first bar, the drums are very static and rigid. In the second bar, there are subtle variations in the timing and velocity of the snare and hi-that.
Typically, it’s under the quantize section of whatever DAW you’re using, but some DAWs will be different. For example, Ableton Live has a dedicated groove pool as shown below.
I like to use subtle swing on almost every track I make. It’s unnoticeable, as in, if someone listened to it they’d be hard-pressed to hear the swing doing its work, but as soon as it’s turned off, you notice its absence.
I encourage you to experiment with swing. There’s no way to really “teach” you how to use it, because it’s so subjective.
You might produce funky tech house where using heavy swing will make sense, or you might make 138BPM uplifting trance in which case heavy swing won’t work as well.
It’s generally a good idea to add swing to all your drums, but you can also apply it to individual instruments.
For example, you add a shaker that plays every 16th note to your drum loop, but you find it’s a little too straight and boring. At the same time, you don’t really want to add swing to everything else, so you add swing to just the shaker.
This doesn’t always work, and depends largely on the strength of swing you add as well as the other drum sounds you’re using, so it’s wise to experiment.
Trance isn’t a genre that relies on drums as much as others do (such as house or drum and bass). That being said, there are still many interesting things about drum patterns in trance which we’ll take a look at.
We’ll be looking at the drums in two main strands of trance music: uplifting and modern.
By uplifting, I mean tracks from artists like Ian Standerwick, ReOrder, Photographer, and so forth.
By modern, I mean tracks from artists like Beat Service, Mark Sixma, and Shogun.
Uplifting trance is heavily focused on melody and progression. In more recent times, however, the drums in uplifting trance have become somewhat more important, especially the kick.
There are a few things you notice when listening to the drums in uplifting trance. The first is how powerful the kick is. Uplifting trance tracks typically use a very heavy kick that has a lot of power, sometimes this can even sound overpowering, but it works in the context of the track.
The second thing to notice is how important the off-beat is. Often there’ll be an open hi-hat on the off-beat to help move the track forward, which works in unison with the pumping sidechain that most uplifting trance features.
Another thing to point out is the claps used in uplifting trance. The claps are often very simple compared to other genres, and tend to have a long tail which leverages the “pumping” effect. This can be achieved by adding a reverb with a long pre-delay to a basic clap.
As a whole, uplifting trance is quite basic in terms of drums. If there’s complexity, you’ll find it in the high-end with the hi-hats and ride cymbals.
There’s rarely any low-end percussion due to how the bassline is arranged, and also very little percussion in the mids due to the bassline taking up that area of the frequency spectrum as well.
The modern trance sound that’s become more popular over the last couple of years is much harder to define. On one hand, you’ve got the Enhanced-style electro-influenced trance, and on the other hand you’ve got a smoother sound that’s still considered modern.
I’m going to stick to the sound that artists like Beat Service and Shogun produce.
Compared to uplifting trance, modern trance drums tend to be more broken. Short percussion sounds break the flow and make the pattern sound more complex and interesting.
Electro-influenced trance tends to feature more toms and percussion.
Transcend by Z.E.R.O is a good example of this: Because modern/progressive trance is generally a lot slower than uplifting, you can program drums in a certain way (a complex way) and it won’t sound as bad as it would at a faster tempo.
For example, if the above song was playing at 138BPM, the drums wouldn’t work anywhere near as well.
House is very diverse. I’ve used the term house to encompass a wide range of sub-genres from deep house to modern big room, festival-type music. We’ll be looking at the following sub-genres:
Before we look at drum patterns in the electro house genre, I want to clarify what I mean by electro house. I don’t claim to be an expert on genres and what’s what, so you may disagree with how I categorise things, but that’s not what matters here. What matters is learning how to program drums.
When I talk about electro house, I mean artists like Wolfgang Gartner, Feed Me, Mord Fustang, and so on. You could call it complextro. The reason I’m doing this is because of how many different styles of music “electro house” encompasses.
If I’m going by Beatport’s standards, which I don’t think are the best, then I’d have to put Melbourne Bounce, Big Room, and many other styles under the same umbrella, which is far too difficult to do.
That being said, if there’s enough demand, I will update this post to include genres like Melbourne Bounce. Just let me know in the comments if you’d like this to happen.
One thing to note about electro house drums is the incredibly simple patterns. The track above is literally just a kick, hat, and snare pattern (though there is a hi-hat layered with the kick).
Why are they so simple? I would argue that it’s to provide contrast to the complex arrangement of basses and synths, but that’s just me.
Another thing worth pointing out is the sound of the drums. This correlates to mixing rather than programming, but generally electro house drums are very dirty and “rock” like.
A good way to achieve this is by using parallel distortion or simply picking samples that have a rough characteristic.
Now for the hot genre at the moment, deep house.
I’ve included future house too, just because I don’t want an elitist to come along and tell me that what I’m calling deep house isn’t deep house.
I’m talking about style of drums used by artists such as Tchami, Gorgon City, Disclosure, and Oliver Heldens. Call it what you want, I’m going to stick with deep/future because the drum style in both is very similar.
The key thing to note with deep/future house is the use of swing. It’s not always used, but most of the time it is, and it’s heavy swing.
It also generally only affects the 16th notes, so the open offbeat hi-hat isn’t being affected. It’s the closed hi-hats and the snare drums that contribute to the swing.
It’s also interesting how loose the drum patterns are in most deep/future house songs. It’s much different from trance, for example, where the drums are tightly quantized and clean. This certain style of music also allows for samples that sound a little more dirty than usual, similar to electro house.
And finally, the drums are quite simple in terms of samples and layering. Many deep house tracks use a standard 707 clap, for example. The bassline is the focus, and the drums are there to support it. Not the other way around.
Tech house is very similar to deep house, but there are obvious differences when you listen closely. Drums tend to take precedence over the bassline, for example.
There are tech house tracks out there with complex drum patterns which I could use as an example. However, due to the size of this article, and it not being tech-house specific, I’m going to use a track with a relatively simple yet classic tech house drum pattern; Coffee by Guille Placencia.
Tech house can be quite diverse, so the drums in one track may sound a lot different to another. However, there are a few key takeaways.
The first is that there’s a big focus on the offbeat. In the example above, there’s a strong ride cymbal coupled with an open hi-hat that drives the song forward.
Secondly, tech house tends to have a lot more percussion than say, deep house. You’ll often hear tribal percussion, toms, snare rolls, and more.
Another thing that I haven’t touched on yet is that tech house, along with other genres including deep house, often uses a double kick before the start of a phrase (every 8-16 bars or so).
This means that instead of the kick playing… X – – – X – – – X – – – X – – – on the last bar, it plays… X – – – X – – – X – – – X – X – This often adds a bit of energy and is an effective way to bring a new element in.
One of my favorite genres at the moment, and for good reason. This type of music is always enjoyable to listen to. It’s very creative, and the drums are always amazing.
Unlike other genres, there isn’t really a common drum pattern in the genre. That being said, there are a few key things to notice, especially with Kygo’s track.
The thing that most stands out, at least to me, is the amount of reverb on the drums. Barring the kick, every hit has a tonne of reverb on it. You could argue that this is part of Kygo’s style alone, but a lot of artists in this genre do the same thing.
The use of samples also stands out. A lot of melodic house songs will feature the clap on the second beat, but not the fourth. Or they’ll use a different sound for for fourth beat. In the case of Firestone, Kygo has a very interesting pattern, with a snap on the second followed by a sidestick/snare on the third.
Ah, big room. The most controversial genre of our time.
What am I talking about?
I mean the festival music. The big hardstyle like kick, the supersaw melodies, and simplistic drop. It might not be considered house music, but it’s worth covering, especially considering how popular it’s become.
The first thought is, why is this drum pattern so simple?
It’s simple because it works. Festival music isn’t made for listening at home and lavishing in its artistic complexity.
It’s purpose is to make people jump up and down, go crazy, and enjoy themselves. The average festival-goer doesn’t care much as to whether a producer puts in a few extra shaker hits here and there.
Typically, big room will feature a subby, distorted kick. This is obviously a key element. Often it’s layered with a clap, which often has a lot of reverb added and is sidechained to the kick. Also, it’s not uncommon to hear a ride cymbal on top of this also.
Occasionally you’ll hear a tom playing the same pattern, or similar pattern to the one above. This can drive the track forward and add extra energy after the initial 8 or 16 bars in the drop have played.
When it comes to choosing samples and programming big room drums, you need to think BIG and keep it simple.
Alright, we’ve looked at the four-on-the-floor stuff, so it’s time to branch out and look at two other popular genres, starting with drum ’n’ bass.
To be upfront, I’m not a drum ’n’ bass producer and never have been. My knowledge is somewhat limited, so just keep that in mind as you go through this section.
Drum and bass is fast. I would argue it’s the hardest genre to program drums in, not only due to the speed, but the importance of the drums themselves. After all, it is called Drum and bass.
One of the key things that stands out in drum and bass is the snare. It’s absolutely essential that you get the snare right. In house and trance music, the snare or clap is a supplementary sound. In drum ’n’ bass and dubstep, it’s a foundational sound (like a kick would be in house music).
Another thing that stands out is the use of hi-hats. There are often many different layers of hi-hats going on at the same time. The above example is relatively simple as far as Drum ’n’ bass is concerned.
Like trance, there’s sort of a disagreement on what “real” dubstep is. You’ve got the original sound being pushed by artists like Benga and Coki, and the more modern sound that Zomboy and others are proponents of.
The drums in dubstep are supporting elements for the bassline, and therefore are quite simple and straightforward. One thing to note is the laid-back feel of the drums, especially in this particular track. The shuffle-like rhythm of the hi-hat makes for a very loose groove which works cleverly with the bassline.
The other thing to notice in this track is the subtle percussion. I didn’t notice it at first, but after listening more closely it becomes clear.
Trap is an very diverse genre. There are multiple different styles across several BPMs, each carrying its own groove and feel. There are classic trap tracks at 140/150 BPM, as well as higher energy tracks around 80-90 BPM.
The drums of nearly any trap song are defined by the kick, snare, and hi-hat. Hi-Hats are extremely important to the feel of trap songs, accounting for variations to the rhythm and swing of a track.
The percussion sounds used in modern trap songs are quite diverse. They’ll often include obscure and unusual sounds that add character to a song.
Listen to your favorite artists to hear what types of percussion sounds they use, and whether or not they use the same sounds in multiple songs (odds are, they do).
This song features a classic half time pattern, with the snare on the 3rd beat of each bar. The kick pattern is moderately active for a trap song, featuring a hard hitting double kick at the start of the loop. The hi-hat is very active, regularly switching between 1/8th, 1/16th, and 1/32nd notes.
As you can hear in the audio example, this helps to drive the drum loop forward, making it dynamic and interesting. As mentioned above, you don’t want to make your drum patterns too distracting, but it’s much easier to build a melodic section when your drum section is solid.
Further, the hi-hat in this loop is played at different velocities. This is common technique in trap/hip hop drums. In this track, when the hi-hat is first brought it, the velocity is slowly increased. This gives creates a “hi-hat swell” that pulls the listener into the third beat of the first bar.
Similar to Trap, Future Bass spans across multiple different styles and tempos. Both the drum samples and the drum patterns in Future Bass are similar to those in Trap. Further, Future Bass songs will often have more “acoustic” sounding drum samples.
The drum pattern for this song is fairly straightforward. The kick/snare rhythm is simple and static. The only variation in this loop is via the claps, which have a slightly different pattern in the second bar of the loop.
The last element is the ride, which is played on every quarter note. While it doesn’t add much to the loop, it helps keep the rhythm and fill in the space of the track.
While the drum pattern in “Can’t Hide” is fairly basic, it works for the track. The chorus in this song is busy; other than the drums, there’s a trumpet, plucks, 808, and vocals. Keeping the drum beat simple leaves room for all the other instruments.
Make sure while programming your own drum loops to keep the rest of the song in mind: complex is not always better. Make decisions that help the track as a whole.