How To Add Life To The Machine
“And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels ... upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the [drum] machine will be prevented from working at all!”
— Mario Savio
No, Mario Savio, the famed activist of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, wasn’t actually referring to a drum machine, but pretend for a minute he was. In the last 25 years we’ve witnessed a massive songwriting shift toward drum machines and programmed beats. Left and right (and right right left), drummers continue to lose work to the machine, yet some have embraced thy enemy. These drummers have evolved, and instead of hating what is calculated perfection, they’ve learned to program and nurture it, thereby rerouting more work their way that would have otherwise fallen into the hands of “producers” and beat makers.
The truth is that programmed drums have specific qualities that are quite difficult to achieve with an acoustic kit. There’s the perfectly quantized rhythms, the 100 percent volume consistency, the ease of editing patterns
in post, and the infinite range of tones. Furthermore, drum machines don’t show up late, they don’t get drunk, and they don’t try to steal your girlfriend. It’s a tall benchmark for us mere human drummers, and yet what makes us imperfect is exactly what also makes us valuable. It is these imperfections that drum machines lack that make them both perfect and flawed at the same time.
Now bear with me on this minor side note, but if it is the human’s imperfections that are the primary difference separating man from machine, then are these imperfections not the key ingredients to soul? This is assuming, of course, that drum machines have no soul.
There are all sorts of reasons folks use programmed rhythms. Maybe your singer fell in love with that cheesy beat from the Casio keyboard because he spent months writing a song around it. Worse yet, maybe the producers convinced the rest of the band that synth drums are the only contemporary way to make hits and that your outdated drumming services won’t be needed on the upcoming album (happened to yours truly). Regardless of the circumstances, sometimes these programmed parts need a little work, a little more life. This is where you come in.
It’s time to forge a truce with your ego and get over the fact that programmed beats are here to stay. It doesn’t make you any less of a drummer if you help gussy up the binary, so swallow your pride and start working with the machine instead of against it. It’s still drums and you have the home-team advantage.
Machines don’t make mistakes, and as such, programmed drums are perfect. Unfortunately, perfection can be extremely boring. In the case of programmed beats, perfection can make a rhythm suffer because of its lack of variation; every note becomes predictable, sterile, and lifeless. Without diminishing the seeming quality of perfection, one of the first steps to livening up a programmed beat is to introduce some variation. If it’s a one-bar pattern, start by making it a four-bar pattern with minor changes to either the kick or the snare. Then dissect the hi-hat pattern and adjust the velocities so they are no longer all at the same intensity. (See Fig. 1) You can aim for a typical loud-soft-loud-soft accent pattern, or shoot for something a bit more random like a Stewart Copeland hi-hat experience.