Check out the upsides and downsides of real-time versus step drum programming

If you're just getting started with drum programming or are either real-time or step programming phobic, this column presents some of the pros and cons for both styles, as well as a few tips for each. The terms “real-time drum programming” and “step programming” are fairly self-explanatory, but there are a few varieties of step programming. One was made popular by classic drum machines such as the Roland TR-808 and early step sequencers like the Moog 960. On those, a given number of steps, typically 8, 16, 24 or 32, each trigger a specific sound (or musical rest) and the steps loop. The advent of samplers and keyboard workstations birthed a second type of step programming in which individual drums map across a piano-style keyboard with one or more layered drum sounds per key. In that setup, one can either notate each drum in the way a traditional composer would (for example, “place kick drum on bar 25, beat 2”), or you can pencil in drum “notes” along a song's timeline. While purists may not consider the latter two types true step programming, their pros and cons are similar, so I included them.


Given enough time and overdubbing patience, as well as velocity-sensitive gear, real-time drum programming is capable of churning out drum tracks as fresh and live as the best real drummers. A few advantages of real-time programming are that you get to use your hands instead of just your head and some fancy technology; that leaves more room for your beat to be a “feel thang” instead of just a cerebral chore. Furthermore, if you want a certain personal swing, especially if you are not quantizing at all, real-time drum programming is clearly the way to go. Finally, I argue that real-time drum programming is much faster than step to get a basic groove started, not to mention the drum parts for an entire track. However, unless you have diligently trained chops, it may be harder to achieve really complex patterns in the way you hear them in your head. Depending on the MIDI input gear or drum machine at hand, you may need to do some post-recording, steplike editing to nudge or reposition specific drum hits, shorten or lengthen their respective sustains or manually alter their levels.


Whereas real-time drum programming will likely appeal to producers who come from a rhythm-oriented drumming background, step programming may be the way to go for traditional sheet-music composers and mathematical types or cats who are creating looping-pattern music, such as four-on-the-floor tracks. For you traditional composers whose weapons of choice are staff paper and a sharp pencil, your best friend may be step programming, wherein you manually place each drum sound exactly on the bar and beat that you want. Applications such as Apple Logic simply lay these notes out in chronological order, and as the sequencer runs each note is highlighted as it plays. Similarly, drum machines with step sequencers loop through programmed patterns, and as each drum plays, it is usually highlighted. At the press of a button, each drum sound in the sequence can be turned on or off like a switch in real time. The process is simple and arguably the easiest way for newbies to begin programming drums. With timeline-based, asynchronous programming, you can create the most complex patterns and meticulously edit them. That may appeal to all the Virgos out there who get their pleasure out of diving into the infinite details. One advantage that all step approaches share is that they don't require any manual drum chops. Despite the flack that drum machines often receive for “having no soul” (I've even seen this on a bumper-sticker), many drum machines have excellent adjustable swing features that are quite funky. Also, many sequencers include randomize functions that can instantly generate endless varieties of new rhythms.

The main downside to step programming is obvious for drumming types, who may find it too stiff and frustratingly nonreal-time to enjoy. And although you can create ultracomplex drum tracks, as compared with real-time programming, step programming requires plenty of patience; it is generally a much slower songwriting, or even loop-composing, process that can be tedious. Also, because drum machines typically string together a number of different patterns or sequences, it may be impossible to get a bird's-eye view of the drums in your songs the way you can in timeline-based sequencers.


Pros and cons aside, take these tips for better drum programming. For classic 808-style step programming, if the drum machine or sequencer in question doesn't have a swing feature, then use a MIDI out from a different machine that does have swing to trigger the sounds of the first. I suggest checking out ReDrum in Propellerhead Reason; its swing feature is adjustable and fantastic. Another basic MIDI trick is to set up your drum machine to trigger other sounds in tandem — such as a bass line, synth or gate — to achieve a rhythm-locked arpeggio of sorts. If timeline-based programming is your choice, try playing around with each drum hits' length (legato); you may discover new sounds you didn't know you had. For example, by shortening a snare's length to the minimum allowed in Logic or Reason, you will often end up with interesting glitchy clicks or sharper-sounding snares. If you are a real-time buff, turn off the quantizing. You may discover a certain swing to your beats you never knew you had. For some styles of music such as house, you may have to quantize, but don't apply it in real time; instead, record without it and try out different quantized feels after the fact. Once again, you may discover a brand-new funk that you prefer.