Drum Sequencing Tips

Sequencing a drum track can be made much easier by simply putting yourself in the
shoes and sticks of the drummer. What do I mean? Put simply, when
sequencing your tracks, subject yourself to the same constraints that a
real drummer would have. These include:

How many hands and feet?

I can't tell you how many drum sequences I've heard that couldn't (or wouldn't) be
played by a human drummer. It's important to remember that a drummer can
only strike 4 instruments at once. Most drummers will not try to hit their
hi-hat and ride, while simultaneously hitting a crash cymbal, snare, and
kick drum. Realism in programming stems from an understanding of the real
world constraints a drummer is under, which leads us to the next section.

Learn the layout

It's helpful to visualize the layout of an average drum set when sequencing
drums. While there are a million exceptions, I think it is fair to say
that the average right-handed progressive rock drummer has a kit much like
the following (lefties use a mirror image):

  • Kick drum(s) - Usually in the center of
    the kit. Double bass drummers often place their snare between them and
    the kick drums. Usually played with right foot (for single bass), or
    both feet (for double bass).
  • Snare - Placed either in the center, or
    slightly to the left of center. Usually played with left hand.
  • Pedal hi-hat - Placed slightly to the
    left of center. Usually played with right hand. Also played with left
  • Ride cymbal - Placed to the right of
    center. Usually played with the right hand.
  • Toms - Layed out from high pitched to
    low pitched, left to right. Played with both hands.
  • Floor Toms - Placed right of center.
    Played with both hands, though right hand is more predominate.
  • Crash Cymbals - Arrayed throughout the
    drum set, wherever they fit and are easily accessible.


  • 2nd Set of Hi-hats - Placed
    right of center, often near the ride cymbal. These are often set closed,
    or partially open, and are used when the drummer needs access to hi-hats
    on the right side of the kit, or when the drummer is playing double
    bass, and can't hold the standard hi-hats closed with his left foot.

Why go through this in such detail? Visualizing the layout of the drum kit while
sequencing drums will help you to determine whether a given rhythm can
actually be played. When I'm sequencing a drum track, I grab a pair of
drum sticks and "air drum" (pantomime) each section, to see if
it can be played. I've found that playability in the real world equals
increased realism in sequenced world.

Drop a hit?

No, I'm not referring to drug use! Dropping a hit is something that drummers do
all the time. It can also be called replacement. As an example, let's say
a drummer is playing eighth notes on the hi-hat as part of a basic 4/4
rhythm. If the drummer wants to hit a cymbal on one of the eighth notes,
he/she would simply replace a hi-hat hit with a cymbal hit. In other
words, the drummer drops a hi-hat hit and replaces it with a cymbal crash.
The drummer has to do this as a simple matter of physics. You can increase
the realism of your drum parts by dropping those hits that are being
replaced with other hits.

Velocity, Velocity, Velocity

PEOPLE THAT TALK IN ALL CAPITALS GET BORING VERY QUICKLY. SO DO DRUM SEQUENCES THAT HAVE NO DYNAMICS. Adding dynamics to your sequences dramatically improves their feel. Except for the very worst pounders (who shall remain
nameless), most drummers learn from an early age to use dynamics. They
learn that alternating loud and soft beats adds feel and energy to a drum
part. Drum sequencers can approximate this by using velocity.

On some
drum machines (and samplers), different velocities trigger a different
drum sound as well as a different drum volume, just as a drum sounds
different when hit at different levels of force. Many other sound sources,
like computer sound cards, and many General MIDI tone modules, don't have
this feature. Instead, they simply increase or decrease the volume of the
sound based on the velocity. In either case, you approximate the dynamics
of a real drummer by using changes in velocity.

examples of using velocity, try this example.
In the first four measures of the example, all the instruments use the
same velocity for each hit. In the second four measures, I vary the
velocity. For example, the hi-hat alternates between loud and soft hits. I
think you will see that the first four measures sound stilted and
mechanical, while the second four measures seem to have a more human feel.

alternate those velocities! Using dynamics in your drum sequences will
help them come alive.


I could
write for days about timing. Keeping time is certainly an important aspect
of playing drums in rock music. The rest of the band often relies on the
drummer to establish and maintain a song's tempo. As you delve deeper into
drumming, you will learn that many drummers purposefully play with tempo
in order to create certain effects. Learning about these drummer-centric
effects will allow you to introduce some looseness and feel into your
sequencing, and help get away from the dreaded "perfect-time drum
machine" sound.

first effect to talk about is dragging. Drummers will often drag (slow)
the tempo of one drum while playing the rest of the kit in tempo. This is
most often done on the snare. Listen to your favorite slow songs, and you
may be able to hear the drummer dragging the snare. Really great drummers
seem to be able to play the snare just a little late, but not enough to
confuse the tempo of the song. In sequencing drums, you can achieve this
effect by sliding all the snare drum hits forward a few ticks (also known
as pulses-per-quarter-note or timing resolution, ticks are divisions of a
quarter note; most sequences use a resolution of 120 ticks per quarter
note). Other instruments can be dragged as well. I sometimes hear the
hi-hat or ride dragged, and sometimes the kick drum. The key is to drag
one or two instruments, while keeping the rest in tempo.

next effect is rushing (or leading). In fast songs, or to build tension or
excitement, drummers will often play one instrument ahead of the beat
while keeping the rest in tempo. The tips and techniques for this are the
same as dragging, except you would slide instrument in the opposite

drummers will speed up or slow down the whole tempo of the song. The
entire band follows these tempo changes. This can be heard in ballads,
where a drummer might slow the tempo down temporarily (1 measure or so)
when transitioning from a verse to chorus. This can also be heard in
progressive music, where new sections of a song may have an entirely
different tempo. Changes to the entire tempo of the song require you to
alter the tempo map in your sequence. Most sequencers provide a way to
alter the tempo, either gradually over time, or instantly. When slowing
down or speeding up for one measure (as in the ballad example) keep the
change subtle (change only a few beats per minute). Any more than a few
beats and the change may stand out too much. Of course, this is music, so
be creative! Try everything!

General Randomization

specific technique for sequencing drums is to compose them in perfect
time, apply any timing effects (see above), then apply a timing
randomization to the entire drum kit. The key in randomization is to be
subtle. Apply too much randomization, and your track will sound sloppy and
amateurish. Again, just a few ticks in either direction (ahead of the beat
or behind it) will do the trick. I've noticed that randomizing the track
helps separate the individual drum sounds since less of them are occurring
at the exact same time. This also seems to increase the stereo image of
the drums as well. I could be way off on this, but I trust my ears. Trust
yours too!

Last thoughts

I hope
these tips will help you create more realistic drum sequences. After a
decade of sequencing, I've learned what works best for me. I encourage you
to experiment and find what works best for you. I believe there is not
just one, right way to create music. Instead, find the way that works for

I look forward to hearing your work, and of
course, contact me anytime with your questions or suggestions.

Keep on creating!

Jeffrey Ryan Smoots, a guitarist and composer from Washington, has been playing guitar ever since being turned on to the music of Rush.

His latest instrumental CD (under the project name JRS) is entitled "Loss For Words".

Jeffrey Ryan Smoots