Some of hip-hop’s most innovative producers share the secrets of the drum
If drums were people, they might be the hardest working people in the music biz. Timekeepers, storytellers, motivators, fighters and occasionally mind-alterers, drums are arguably tasked with more jobs and do more of the heavy lifting than any other single element of modern music. This unequal division of labor is only intensified within the realm of hip-hop, a musical culture which from its very inception has measured creative excellence via originality in using Other People’s Percussion. Appropriately, drums have earned a unique level of reverence within hip-hop, frequently commanding pride of place in the mixdown and consuming the most time in any conversation between producers or connoisseurs.
Those immersed in hip-hop love to make drums talk and then talk about drums: their timbre, their pattern, their national origins, their spiritual powers, their distance from the microphone and the emotions and visual associations they summon. They can instantly conjure the dust of a record library, the sweat of a dancefloor or the steel of an assembly line. They can rush the beat, drag behind to provide a lazy swing, stutter drunkenly or snap flawlessly to a robotic grid.
The number of functions drums perform and qualities they evoke, in fact, is matched only by the variety of ways in which they can be made and manipulated, from banging on cans or lunchroom tables to meticulously layering the attack, decay and sustain from different recordings or digital files into the ultimate Frankenstein’s monster of a snare hit. It’s not surprising, then, that drums represent a sort of holy grail for fledgling producers as well as perhaps the most complex, even esoteric aspect of making a track. The possibilities are endless, yet achieving the perfect crack or thump is a matter of almost life-or-death importance. That’s why we chose to inaugurate this new, hip-hop-focused edition of RBMA’s Modern Approaches series with a discussion of drums as thorough as the creators who commit them to tape. We spoke to live drummers, digital experimenters and everything in between to understand their points of commonality, as well as their idiosyncratic tricks for creating, sampling or mixing drums. Without further preamble, let’s talk drums.
(New Jersey – Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller)
The majority of the time I do drums after I get some kind of melodic idea down. Sometimes it’s the other way around, but mostly I start with getting a vibe and a mood with a sample or something I’ve recorded melodically. Once I get that to where it’s in a good spot to become something, then I go and find drums for it. Sometimes I just have drums that I’ve saved, patterns that I really like that I haven’t been able to use for something, so I put them away and months later pull them up again and add them to something I’m working on currently. So drums are not the first thing I work on, but usually the second thing.
When I first started, it was like 100% finding samples, for the first five years or even more. In the past four to five years, I record a bunch of my own drum sounds – for a lot of different reasons, but mostly getting samples cleared and legal issues; things that I was not able to get released and getting frustrated with that. I figured out how to work around it. It took probably two years to figure out how to get what I want, but now I know how to and I can get it quickly.
Somebody in the background that’s making noise? That’s exactly what I’m going for. I don’t want any clean recordings.
I go to studios that have drum kits and record... Just kinda freestyle, play one or two beats of something so at the end I have 45 minutes of a bunch of different drum beats or patterns. I’ll play a bunch of different types of rhythms to cut loops of, but if I hear something and think, “I might want this just by itself,” I’ll make sure to have the sounds separated. I’ll just hit the kick drum for a little bit in different ways or snare in different ways. But mostly I’m recording breaks and then chopping little pieces out of that, not just one hit at a time.
The first thing I did musically was playing drums, but I never really kept up with it. Once I started getting into producing beats – I was about 14 – I went full in on that and I never really kept up playing drums. Now I play them just enough to record myself; pretty rusty but I can do enough to chop it up and make it sound good.
Mostly I like to use actual drum kits, but sometimes I also use sounds from drum machines that I’ve effected; running around to studios, finding different drum machines and making loops on there, then stashing those as well. On “All Nite” with Vince Staples, every sound in that beat is recorded from a different piece of hardware. It wasn’t recorded with that beat in mind – I was just recording long pieces of audio, then going back, digging in and chopping ’em up. The drums I took from an old Boss drum machine – I recorded that through effects and chopped it into a loop.
For the kit drums, I usually just use one overhead mic set up somewhere, or even if I’m in a studio that has a bunch of mics set up, I usually just have one bounce of everything together, one overhead or a bunch of little ones. The only way I’m really gonna use it is if it’s all bounced down into one file, anyway. I treat it like a record or a sample that I found, so that’s how I want it. A lot of times I have a little Apogee mic hooked up to my phone or iPad and I just record it right into there, to one overhead mic – I want the atmosphere, I want the room and other stuff in the background. Somebody in the background that’s making noise? That’s exactly what I’m going for. I don’t want any clean recordings. One mic, not even up close, in the middle or other side of the room.
Georgia Anne Muldrow
(Los Angeles – SomeOthaShip Connect)
I love drums. If it’s not the first thing to come around, it’s what brings everything together. I approach drums how somebody would approach an orchestra. It has to snap, it has to communicate. I like loud drums. There’s a lot of folks that like spa drums… I don’t really do the spa drums thing. I like my drums to be loud and crack and fight. I see drums as a way I can fight; I’m striking something.
As far as percussion, my mentor was Ndugu Chancler. He played with my mom’s church band and he would always come and make sure that he would teach me something about the clave, or how African drum parts – West African, mostly – work. It’s like a puzzle of rhythm. He always took the time out to show me because I think he saw I was percussive, and I appreciate him for that. I got the chance to meet Babatunde Olatunji also when I was like nine years old, just spent the whole day at my mom’s friend’s house. He was her copyist for music before the computer times, and Babatunde Olatunji was there. It was deep, ’cause it was just him, my mom and the copyist, Doug... So I’ve always known how things go down with drums and as far as the African tradition of drums in this country, I’ve had close ties with it. Even just from dancing with some dance companies and going to Nzingha Camara’s dance class, I learned as a child a lot about the intersectionality of rhythm, like what happens with the bells... It’s like a choir. I see drums like that; it’s a very choral thing. It’s the first counterpoint in the world.
If you got people with your drums, you got they subconscious mind.
That’s really important to me, that that’s not lost on people: Drums are very important. They have to be done correctly – or don’t do drums. Get somebody else that can give you the drums that you’re really dreaming of. Because it’s binary code. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s not no petty thing to play with. If you got people with your drums, you got they subconscious mind.
I try to make sure I’m relaxed enough to be able to see time for what it is, you know? That’s how you can get the kind of detail you want in your drum pattern, if you can stretch time in your own head. You know, you got the metronome going and you can hear it fast or slow, even though the time’s the same. It’s you bending around the time. It’s a blessing and that part comes from the ancestors; they gifted me with that the ability to stretch around a phrase in all types of different ways, like The Matrix when he’s stretching around the bullets. It’s just a point of relaxing yourself.
Off the grid – that’s the way I have my system set up. Unless it’s something industrial I want to do – then I’m just gonna click them things in, I’m not even gonna hit the pads for that. I know where to put it on the piano, it’s just a way of inputting data. If it’s like a boogie, say, if I want to jam on a disco jam and I’m going at a real brazen tempo and I just want to get to the synthesizers, I’m just gonna go boom...kap / boom...kap / buduff duff kap. My snare and my kick, I can just key that in, but I’m not gonna quantize where my fills come in – my claps, or the toms? Nah, I ain’t gonna quantize that. Or if I do, the arrangement – the bassline and all that – is going to be going over the grid, ’cause I’m going for a certain sound.
When you hear certain records like the Whispers, they got the drum machine using it like a drum machine. I like that sometimes. Another time I might quantize is if I’m trying to emulate a rumba box [sings pattern] and it has to sound mechanical. I think quantization is a flavor, but I don’t think it should be what makes your beat coherent. It should only be used as a flavor. If you want your shit to sound like a machine, if you want your shit to sound like a robot, go all out with that concept. But my whole thing is go all out, but keep expanding on it. If you gon’ quantize, don’t be lazy as far what you gonna do with the dynamics of those drums. It’s still a drum synthesizer; play with them parameters, man. Automate that stuff, have fun. ’Cause you’ll come up on some stuff that’s really deep.
For The Black House project, I had a really cool Akai keyboard that had the little microphone on it [possibly the Akai MINIAK]. They recalled the synthesizer right after I finished the record… They recalled the joint, you feel me? But it was such a cool little thing, it had a vocoder in it. That thing was built like a tank, it was an all-steel chassis, or aluminum at least. I had the little Akai XR20, that thing was cute, too. That’s not usually how I get down, but a lot of the stuff [on The Black House] I was tracking out, using it like tape. “Somali,” that was a machine, going straight industrial. For that one, the patch came in first. Sometimes the whole shit happen at the same time. I always used to go to my drums first, but then Dudley [Perkins] was like, “What if you just tried the synthesizer part first? Manipulating that before you go into the drums and stuff, ’cause that’ll inspire you to try all different patterns.” So I started trying it and it really helped a lot… I love my little four-bar joints, but on The Black House, there’s things that are 50, 60 bars and that’s fun, too.
Sometimes I might do a pass on a drum track and I know I’m not going to hit it like that again. I’ll go a 6/1 little thing; I’ll hit that one last hi-hat because I got too hyper. I’m not gonna be like, “Aw, I gotta do it all over…” Nah, I’ma slide it and fix to where I need it to be. I’ma do it by hand, though. I’m gonna do it by ear. I’m not gonna say, “Hey, correct everything.” I prefer to use my internal quantization. And when it comes to correcting I don’t have the patience. I know some software has that feature where (speaking in ad-man voice) “It can become accustomed to yo’ groove.” [Laughs] I don’t got time for setting up all a’ that, I really don’t. I just slide it to my liking. It’s like taking measurements on a piece [of fabric], trying it on a person and saying: the basic measurements are right, everything’s correct, but there’s this part up under the arm I need to pin up. It’s tailoring. Refining the thing, like sandpaper.
When it come to the sound, you have to let the music guide the way you handle the signal processing, because that’s where the signal is coming from. Say I got some drums and there’s a pocket that sounds like a Delfonics-type of drums, like “La La La Means I Love You,” I’m gonna go for a tube saturation before I go for a tape. I’m gonna go for the tube, something that’s more open and airy. If the drum kit I’m gonna be using is something from the ’60s, it’s gonna be at least a jazz-sounding kit, it’s gonna have a booom [emphasizes sustain] in the kick. Musically, I’ma not be deadening the beaters or nothing like that, you feel me? I think about it like this and the only way you gonna learn how to do certain things like this is from listening and having a true joy for really listening to music, unguarded.
(Columbia, South Carolina – Drake, Young Thug, 2 Chainz)
Drums come later in the process for me. Usually I’ll find the sample or lay down some pianos that I like and I’ll do my 808s last. Anything bassy, I’ll do last because of the mixing. Sometimes when you add a sub too early, the frequencies don’t match up. So I try to do that last and anything mids and high first, anything synthy, sample, hi-hat, all that stuff comes before 808s.
Sometimes I make my own drums, sometimes I buy ’em, but I’m always layering them to get that punchy sound that I use. I like my drums to hit really hard. So to get that punchy sound I just layer stuff on top of other stuff. Sometimes I’m using software 808s, sometimes I use this thing call Maschine instead of hardware, because I’m so used to drawing ’em in and automating my notes anyway. I mostly draw ’em in and program everything according to my piano rolls. I’ll add compression and sound processing as I’m going – I like to know what the track is gonna sound like before I end it.
I have specific kick and snare [sounds] I like to use to just start everything off with, because they already sound mixed. I use those and farther down the road, if it’s starting to sound like something, that lets me know if I need to adjust, change the kick, add an 808 behind all those things. That point comes probably 30-45 minutes into the track once I have the synths laid.
I’m one of those “draw it in” type of guys. I make ¾ beats, swing beats… I can pretty much make anything because I’m a drummer and I know time signatures. Sometimes playing it is better. Playing it out and into the machine so things come out natural, but since I’m so used to using my software I kinda figure out a way to get that same effect, that same feel. And a lot of it has to do with how you’re quantizing, ’cause if you’re not quantizing all your stuff than sometimes it will sound more natural instead of super-programmed. I’ma be honest: This is a trick as far as hi-hats that I’ve learned… I’m a groove drummer and I like neo-soul a lot, and I used to notice that there’s a swing in the hi-hats that there wouldn’t be in the rest of the song. So I will draw my notes right on beat, right on key and then I’ll copy them and kinda slightly move them over to the right – this is kind of a secret, I really shouldn’t be telling you this! – just to give the hi-hat a swing or a lagging feeling. I know me and WondaGurl, a lot of Drake’s producers, do that a lot.
Lately I haven’t been drumming or sampling myself. In the beginning of my career I was goin’ to the studio, I would get on rock kits, I would get on anything to record it in. But lately I’ve been having to move so fast; it’s like tech work right now. It’s like, “Hurry up and get it done,” so I really don’t have the time to spend on the production that I would otherwise and how it sounds doesn’t really matter to me, because I can make it sound like it was on a Bluebird microphone in the software.
(Baltimore/Brooklyn – Never Normal Records)
I think any Afrodiasporic people understand drums as a form of communication, and that’s the way I approach using them, to tell a story. I also have received instruction from my time teaching beatmaking in East Africa on that more traditional approach to using drums. So even though I use electronic drums – I do sometimes sample acoustic drums or use other methods to record – I still try to approach it with that concept, to communicate a message in mind. When I started specifically on my latest project Zones 3, that’s how I’ve been thinking about it.
I have played hand drums and sampled myself, but I will sample any kind of sound. I came from the days of knocking out a beat on the lunchroom table, so I’ve sampled so many different things and made them percussive. Like a record blip, the sound of the stylus hitting the vinyl at the end of a record? I’ve taken that and effected it electronically and made that into a percussive sound for a beat. Because it’s a perfect loop, you know, it’s coming around at a certain time and it has a groove to it – it’s literally a groove! And depending on the thickness of the vinyl it might have a very deep tone, so I’ll sample that and make that into percussion as well. I’m a “by any means necessary” type of producer, who just loves sounds.
As far as process, I start with the BPM, with the tempo, versus starting with the rhythm. Say I want to make something at 130 or 140 or 160, whatever loop I start out with, that’s what I stick with and I build the drums up around that. So I start more with the tempo than a percussive concept, but knowing that there’ll be room for certain grooves that only work within that tempo.
Timbre is very important. My beginnings – the true latch for me, that I knew I was a musician – was through singing, and I have a very deep choral background. So I will naturally listen to different drums and think, “Wow, this sounds like a soprano, this sounds like a alto, this sounds like a bass.” And when I use drums, I like them to answer, for the sound to resolve itself in that context of me being in a choir. Maybe the typical drummer wouldn’t think of adding different timbres of drums in that context, but I like the different tonal qualities of the drums and I try to create some kind of revolution in them having different frequencies and different pitches. I really like exploring drums in that context.
By remembering the human aspect, it takes me away from this computerized context.
I’m a beathead, so I might lay down a groove or two just because I have to have something – it can’t just be melody forever. I have to have a real solid melody and that’s understood, ’cause I come from a choral background and instrumental background with gospel, but I have to have a basic groove that I’m feeling to build on, it can’t just be like an ambient record. [Laughs] Once I have that I’ll add more percussion and different things to the groove.
Everything I make, if I can’t move to it? I have to personally be dancing to it even while I’m sitting down and making it, so sometimes I might find myself making something that’s like, “This is head-noddy, but I want to move!” That’s my motivation at this point in time. I use quantization, but I try to get out of that programmed metric by thinking of the body, how the body naturally moves. Can I move my shoulders to it, can I move my hips? That’s actually a cool aspect of making music as a woman, ’cause I naturally think, “How could people move to this? How would I move to this?” By remembering the human aspect, it takes me away from this computerized context.
Yes, I actually dance in my home studio when I’m working on stuff. I’ll start with a loop and I’ll have it on for maybe an hour, go do stuff, dance, come back. If I can naturally dance to it, I’ll just live with it and keep it on in the background. If it’s something I can’t really do that to? I’ll just start a new track.
(Brooklyn – Surf School)
The thing that usually sparks me is a basic melody, and then I’ll add drums on top of that and flesh out the beat from there. It’ll be a skeletal melody of something that may or may not end up in the final composition, but then I’ll build the bounce around that and then go and lay my shit on top of that. Unless I’m working with a break that has a certain type of swing or grain or texture to it that I really love, then I’ll build the melody around that, ’cause it’ll give me the bounce. But a lot of times I’ll end up taking the break out and put my own drums on top of that, kind of like stealing the groove of it a little bit. Sometimes it stays in. If I hear an idea that grabs me from an older hip-hop song, then I’ll go and gather all the materials from that hip-hop song, meaning the breaks, samples, everything, and then just figure out, “How can I incorporate this, but not be married to their groove?” I think a lot of times that’s the problem – I don’t want to sample something old school and make an old-school record. How can I restructure this to sit in our world, getting really creative with the programming over it? It’s really hard to program drums over a drum break, but if you can figure out the pocket and what actually makes that drum break swing, then you can add in your elements and not get in the way of the swing. That’s the hardest thing, to not get in the way of the groove.
The guy whose basement is just stacks of comic books, but he knows exactly which stack has the issue where Superman dies – that’s how I am with my sounds.
Once I have the melody, I almost hear the whole composition in my head, so I don’t need to audition 2,000 kick drums or snare drums. I know what the beat is gonna sound like and it’s just a matter of pulling the sounds that have that texture to them. It’s really a texture thing. There are certains snares that have more grain and more decay to them: upfront, tight decay, very present high-end. Same with kicks: There are kicks that are dustier and might not have as much low midrange in them, but occupy a high midrange space better, and then there’s kicks that are more synthetic and occupy your lows and fill that in. I’m very decisive. I rarely change a drum sound once I have it. I have a lot of producer friends who hook every thing to MIDI and then audition 20 sounds for a snare, 20 sounds for kick and see what sounds good to them. But because I came up using an MPC, I didn’t have that luxury, which makes you very decisive with your choices. That’s how I’m still looking at it.
I have such a monstrous library, I literally save every drum that I ever chopped, every drum that I ever took. Every drum sound probably for the last ten years. But I also know where everything fits – like the guy whose basement is just stacks of comic books, but he knows exactly which stack has the issue where Superman dies. That’s how I am with my sounds. I’m the person who, if I hear a drum, I grab it. I don’t wait – I just filter everything onto my drives.
I’m somebody who layers sounds a lot. For instance, the track I worked on last night, I think I layered seven or eight snares for the one snare. Kicks, the same way. Mainly kicks and snares I’ll layer a lot to get what I want. But if I find that one snare that occupies the sonic space the way I want, I’m fine to use it, but I do find myself always layering minimum three, maximum seven. The important thing with that is to make sure when you’re layering the snares, you have to see the frequencies and know which sounds are gonna occupy which specific frequencies. Are they overlapping, and are they overlapping in a pleasant way? I know this is weird, but I don’t know how else to describe it: It’s like a warm thing. I see warm or cold, so when I see it’s right, frequency-wise, it’s warm in my mind. And if it’s off, it sounds cold.
My favorite is to have a synthetic drum sound and then something off of vinyl and then something out of a drum machine to lay over each other. Then you find these combinations… This snare from this break and this 808 snare lay perfect to create this new sound. Vinyl is amazing, I love it – but it’s important for your stuff to live in a modern landscape. And our modern landscape is dictated by synthetic sounds, or a lot of it is, especially in hip-hop. It’s important to find those great combos of synthetic sounds and analog sounds that lay over each other in the right way.
I have a lot of drum machines in the studio that I built to tap out things on, because I don’t want everything in every beat to be quantized, especially percussion. It’s OK if it’s not right on – no drummer is gonna play right on – so I’ll just tap it out. I also have the bank of every famous drum machine sample: LinnDrum, 808, 909, Oberheim DX, whatever.
I would never just use something straight out of a kit. I always mix and match to get a different sound. Percussion usually comes before closed hi-hats or right after closed hi-hats. The process is usually snares first or kicks first, followed by the other, then depending on what type of hi-hat I want to use, if it’s a more constant hi-hat I would lay that right there so it matches, like a metronome. But if I have a sparser hi-hat I would add the other percussive elements and let the hi-hat be the last thing that I fill in space with.
If I’m tapping it out it’s always unquantized, but I’m tapping it into Pro Tools, not a sequencer. And if it’s percussion I might tap out eight bars and then grab two bars that hit the groove that I really like. Don’t get me wrong, I use the grid constantly. Most of the time my kicks will be on the grid, my snares will be on the grid. But for percussion, I’ll tap it out live. Two bar, classic boom-bap patterns, where the most important thing is the groove, you don’t want to lay some stiff quantized drums over it, ’cause it ruins the groove of the loop, number one, but number two you may not be able to lay the drums where the drums of the groove are.
I find I’m pushing things a little later, but that’s because I’m coming from using an MPC. One of the immense benefits of the MPC was being able to control your swing, so oftentimes I’m moving a snare a little later. Kicks I keep pretty much on the one, or especially kicks that are gonna hit on the one of a measure I don’t wanna move something off, ’cause I want to keep that impact. But a kick that hits right before a snare in a bar that would hit on the 64th or 32nd note? That oftentimes I would move a little later to build a gap between the kick and the beginning of the snare. That’s what can create that groove, making things a little late. But it’s really important with all this stuff that you can’t really generalize, because it has to work with everything else in the track. What’s your bassline doing? What is the synth doing? Then you can decide if you want to keep that swing.
(Harlem – A$AP Ferg, Baauer)
For me, the drums have to come in within the melody, ’cause that’s how we determine what the bounce is. The melody could be a straightforward melody, but once the melody is there the drums can come in and change the whole feel of how it sounded without the drums. I feel the drums are the most important, and that’s why I do them last.
I’m the type of person who really could not use the same thing twice, ’cause I can’t make the same beat twice, because of how my computer is set up. But if I have a set of drums I like, I’ll use them for like a whole week, and then I’ll find some new ones and use those for a week, until I get bored and I want to use other instruments that sound different. My computer just isn’t organized, so I never went through all my drums, and I have a lot, so once I stumble upon them as I’m going through the kits, then I’ll use them for the whole week before I move on to something else. Unless it’s something I really like, and then I’ll make my own kit from it.
Sometimes with my swing, the quantize doesn’t work. Sometimes I’ll quantize the snare but I wouldn’t quantize the [kick] drum, sometimes the other way around. Because if I quantize them together, it’s too on-beat. I have a bounce and I have a swing that I want to come across, and sometimes the quantize throws it off. You can definitely move faster by quantizing than by tapping it out by hand and snapping it to the grid, so sometimes if I have quantize on, I’ll just highlight all the drums or one sound and move it over a little to the right or to the left depending on how the main melody is working with it.
I format the beat first without the drums. I do mixing and compression on the drums at the end. I’ll duplicate the drum track twice and then I’ll try different effects on it and see if it makes the drums hit differently. I use different presets because I use Logic and they have different presets for kicks and presets for snares, so sometimes I’ll just go there and manually move it into what sounds good for me. It’s not always what I think it will be, but I just go in and mess with it until it sounds like something different, something that I never did before. That’s why I can never make the same beat twice, ’cause I don’t write down what I do. Everything is going by feeling.
(Detroit/Los Angeles – Common, Erykah Badu, J Dilla)
I definitely grew up with the culture of crate-digging and it all evolved at the same time, playing drums and also thinking about sampling drums. For a long period I was sitting down at the drums to write. In the earlier stages I was starting from a rhythm, but as I’ve developed I think I approach it different ways every time.
Like the one I did for Erykah Badu, “Soldier” – that started from that drum break, but then I chopped the flutes around the break, everything revolved around whatever the syncopation was on the drums. I went to the Netherlands, went digging with Madlib and Egon, found this record in the basement of the crazy record store in Rotterdam. As soon as I got to the hotel, I chopped it up. When I got back to the States – that’s when we were on iChat daily – I iChatted the beat to Erykah and she sent it back like a week later as a complete song.
That’s the thing working with an artist like Erykah or Common: Sometimes a producer doesn’t have to be in the studio. You’ll just give them something and then get some random email with an incredible song. There’s a couple things on Common’s Black America Again LP that started from the drums. “Pyramids” started from the drums, that’s all live. “Home” is live drums and then I chopped the sample around the drums. For “Love Star” I found the 45 of “You, Me and He” by Mtume, walked in and chopped it up. I think I did three different variations of chopping it and found one sequence that worked and it started there. Before I even added anything else I sent that to Common and he started writing to the loop. He was like, “Ah, that’s it!” Then we got Marsha Ambrosius to come in and that was pretty much easy, our workflow is easy. Robert Glasper came in and did an interlude on the outro, but the chop is pretty much the majority of the work; just trying to find the right pattern. Especially for a song that everyone knows, like how could I flip this? Adding on to the artform and not just looping it.
When it comes to timbre, It all depends on the instrumentation. Certain basses don’t match with the frequencies of the kicks and it’s all like an experiment to me. If you listen to a James Brown record, the way the electric bass has been recorded, it needs like a mid-range kick and Clyde Stubblefield will bring that, like on “Funky Drummer,” there’s a midrange thump that knocks. That is stuff I play around with, really JB-influenced mixes.
In terms of keeping everything in pitch, sometimes less is more. Like on the song “Letter To The Free,” where we have Bilal and all these voices and so much going on, I had felt like the drums would be too much. So a lot of what you hear in that track is just me stomping on the ground. I sampled a stomp which gets the tone, gets the low-end, but it’s not a drum where it resonates and takes up a lot of space in the mix. Being able to hear that and knowing how to get a sound that doesn’t take up too much space away from what’s going on, ’cause there’s so much beautiful stuff goin’ on and you don’t want to take the space of those frequencies.
When it comes to quantization, I never think about it, ever. I never did think about the grid. Pretty much everything I’ve been doing for the last year has been all live. I’ve been really manipulating the sound and studying different frequencies to make the record have the same warmth and quality. It’s something I know so many people work on, but it’s an onward quest.
(Los Angeles – Indie)
I make hip-hop, like the genre of boom-bap, so drums are really important to me, the rhythm of drums, the swing of ’em. But it’s not the starting part. It’s something I build around the sample that I loop or chop. I sample first, then I loop it or I chop it the way I want to create the measure. Then I build my drums around it, so it can fit in perfectly and just be tailored, blend perfectly and sound like it’s already a part of the sample.
I definitely lean on sampled drums that I tweak out a certain way or a chopped drum break. I’ll listen to something, hear a break or a snare hit or kick hit, I’ll sample that using my SP-404 or my SP-555. Kits are also very helpful, but that’s pretty much just sampled drums from other tracks. Most of the time I sample my own kicks, snares and hi-hats to create the sound, and then I tweak them out or run a filter on them, to cater to how the sample may sound. Sometimes the sample may have a higher or a lower fidelity, it might sound a little grainy, so I want the percussion sound to match that, to sound like it’s already been there.
It’s not just funk and soul – I tend to listen to a lot of Brazilian [music]. That’s one of my favorite genres. Brazilian music from the ’60s and ’70s has a really dope psychedelic feel to it, the sound is so lush and big. It’s not only great for sampling melodies but percussion, too – like really fantastic breaks, cymbal hits and stuff like that. I also like to listen to Fela Kuti. I get more acoustic sounding drums from Afro-funk. Sometimes I even create drum sounds off the feedback from recording on my sampler. When it clips out you can grab a snare from it. Or I’ll record the feedback from the really low mic feedback, when the mic is up really loud. I can kind of simulate an 808 kind of kick, like a rumble, which is also really cool.
I keep each part individual and EQ that way. I might add a reverb to a snare, but I won’t do too much to a kick. I might add bass to a kick because I like a lot of bass – it just gives it a warm feeling. A lot of my music is what people consider lo-fi, ’cause it just sounds warmer. The fidelity isn’t so crispy, but it gives it that warmer feel. It’s the bass that makes it warm – the bass and the fidelity of the sample.
I don’t like to quantize. That’s one of my frustrations with FL Studio. FL Studio thinks they’re so smart that they’ll just quantize everything for you and I’m just like, “Don’t do that! Let me play it out.” That’s why I prefer hardware, so I can just play everything out as I hear it. It’s easier for me to hear something and play it out then to stare at a screen and drag snares and drag kicks on the screen, onto the grid. I prefer playing it out on a MIDI keyboard or play it out with SP-555 with a live tap.
I always like to try new sounds, ’cause I don’t want my music to start sounding the same. I know producers can have a signature kick or snare – like, 9th Wonder has a signature snare. Whenever I hear that snare I know it’s him, and that’s dope too. I probably should, ’cause it would make the process of beatmaking faster!
(Baton Rouge – Mikky Ekko, Autre Ne Veut)
When it comes to drums in one song I try to not change it up unnecessarily. I don’t have a lot of songs that’ll go double-time and then half-time. I usually make that straight from the start. Once I start, I’m very hell-bent on one kind of way. When it comes to completely slowing down something, I don’t usually do that with drums as much as with melodies.
When I’m starting out, I don’t use the quantize. I just go in there and do it with the mouse. I’ll just hear something in my head and try to play it in or tap it in, try to hear what it sounds like with the metronome. Usually I have the wrong BPM in my head or the wrong phrasing, but that gives it an upper edge, because I’m not restricted to having this certain pattern to this very specific BPM. It can allow for a lot of cool shit to happen in using different samples and stuff.
I use different presets on the drum sounds – I’ve done that with little parametric equalizers in FL, but something I’m really big on is just using like a basic sampler, It’s like a day and night difference if you put a sprinkle of attack on it. Just a touch of attack on it makes them completely so much better. I also use Gross Beat. When you run certain stuff through Gross Beat, if you figure out certain ways of using it, you can make it sound like a different song, just from the timing of the actual start of the sample, where it starts on a certain measure.
I’m not one to take sampled drums and break them down. I’ve done that a couple times, but usually I try to create from scratch. I have a lot of shit from iPhone videos I’ve taken over the years, not even intentional shit, just videos I’ve taken of dumb shit, me goofing with friends or stuff I’ve seen, ranging from soundbites to melodies. I recorded my friend Chris playing the piano. He did this little cover of “Can You Stand The Rain” by New Edition, and I’ve sampled things like that before, even to get percussive sounds.
(Khartoum – Indie)
I used to always start with the drums. I would start with a basic kick, like a boom-bap drum pattern, then I would add hats to it and then I would get the sample. The Pseudarhythm series was a little bit different because it’s sample-heavy and the beats are based on the sample, so even though it was simple boom-bap songs I used to chop the samples and come up with the idea of the samples, and then I would make the drums based on that.
When I’m sampling it’s mostly from cassette, and it’s important to say that we don’t have vinyl in Sudan, like at all.
Because drums, percussion and rhythms are really a big part of the production, it’s really 50/50. When I start a beat, I’ll either start with a loop, or a melodic idea – something from an oud, or sample or synth – and I go back and forth between them. I start with something small with the melody, then I add a little bit of drums, then go back to the melody, always back and forth.
When I’m sampling it’s mostly from cassette, and it’s important to say that we don’t have vinyl in Sudan, like at all. We have, but it’s rare. And back in the day it was only like two labels that used to release vinyl. The most important one is a label called Munsphone, probably the most important record label in the history of Sudanese music. They put out 7"s and 12"s, singles from the best musicians like Shar Habeel, Al Balabil, Hamad Al Rayah.
That source really affects the sound. First of all, I like to categorize drums into heavy drums and light drums. Heavy drums are kicks and snares, light drums are like the percussion: the shakers, the hats, the tambourine. When it comes to the hard-hitting drums like kicks and snares, I use drum kits from libraries most of the time because it’s clean and it’s clear and it’s easy to control. I rarely take kicks and snares from breaks, but when it comes to the percussion, I can get away with anything. The light drums I can sample from cassette or from other sources, but when I get drums or even the melodies from vinyl, I get to do less work. Some producers will run samples or digital drums through tape saturation because they want that warm element in the production. Personally I don’t care, because I’m not really into that lo-fi sound. I listen to it, I love it, but it’s not what I do. When it comes to cassettes versus vinyl, I would prefer vinyl because sometimes cassette can be really difficult. It’s more flat, it’s not dynamic enough… The dynamic range of it is really small, and depending on the cassette, most of them are used cassettes that are really old and in bad condition.
On Pseudarhythm I did not really sample drums, it was mostly sampling melodies like from Sudanese orchestra, Sudanese violins. Sometimes I would sample different elements and incorporate it all into one beat. If you notice, the drums on Pseudarhythm are very simple, and I did it on purpose. I wanted the drums to be very simple and boom-bap just like Onra, the French producer of Vietnamese background. He did a series called Chinoiseries, sampling Chinese music, which inspired my Pseudarhythm series.
The sampling in Pseudarhythm was mostly about getting the melodies and putting it in a hip-hop, boom-bap context. The drum sounds mostly came from drum kits, libraries that I bought. I use Maschine Micro MK2 by Native Instruments and the built-in library has some really cool stuff. Even though I shy away from libraries that come by default with software, some of the stuff that came with Maschine are really cool, so I use the kicks and drums from these things. The drums did not take as much time as with Ascension, where I would spend four to five hours with the drums alone.
The live element is really important to the rhythm. There are some live dynamics that you can’t mimic otherwise. Sometimes I would build a drum pattern bit by bit – a shaker from here, a kick from there, or a percussion loop that I got from cassette – and just because of the [traditional Nubian] time signatures I’m sampling from, this would be like a 3/4 loop. Then just to experiment I would get a drum break that’s 4/4 and layer them on top of each other, and what would happen is I would have a middle ground between them, an overlapping sound that I would capture and it gets really interesting. So it’s more about experimenting and happy accidents, I would say.
(Los Angeles – Stones Throw)
In terms of drum sounds, there’s nothing that I won’t use. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of live drums, like a little four-piece set, but I’ll also layer that with drum kits or sounds that I found off records. I have folders and folders full of all types of drum sounds – I haven’t even tapped into all the folders! But I also usually have a couple of good records to pull from and put on top of the kits in those folders. It’s really all about having a good balance between all those different sources.
Since I was young I was always drawn to the drums – my dad literally named me after Ringo from the Beatles.
Like Body Wash; all those records was mostly me using those drum kit folders and layering them on top of break loops, open loops sampled from records. There are different phases when I would go through records just trying to find good drum loops, especially from the ’80s, any track that would have an open break with an Oberheim DX or a LinnDrum. ’Cause there’s a bunch of those! So many songs started out that way, and I felt like that was such a good foundation for creating something completely different, so I had a lot of fun with that, layering my own sounds on top of it to punctuate the groove.
Since I was young I was always drawn to the drums – my dad literally named me after Ringo from the Beatles – but I never grew up with a set in the house. I was always living in an apartment, so I didn’t have that space. But I always did have some kind of innate gravity towards it. Now that I’m able to have the space I’m teaching myself drums, but I don’t have too much experience with it.
My approach to recording has switched up every now and then. For a while I was running the drums into reel-to-reel first, then running it back out into an old ’80s board, then running it back into Ableton and just creating my own drum breaks. That board I was using is a Ramsa WR-8210A. I need to get it fixed, so right now I’m just mic’ing the drums with one mic, which is actually yielding pretty ill results. It’s fun to have control of the individual sounds, but having the one mic, you have a little bit more of reason to just get it right the first time – or place the mic in just the right place to get the right tone. I think mic’ing it that way comes from listening to older jazz records, where the drum sound doesn’t sound as clean and isolated, there’s more of a room sound. I was recording with my friend Swarvy last night and when I was looping up the drums that he had laid down you could hear the drum pedal squeaking or somebody fiddling through their pocket or something. I don’t try to gate that stuff out, because it’s all sound, you know? It’s all in the pocket, somehow.
I’ll record drums into Ableton, and then I’ll warp the drum to – not exactly on the grid, but close enough. ’Cause I’m not a trained drummer, but I can hold a basic groove down. Being able to warp it in Ableton helps a lot, not only correcting those little things which I wish had gone differently, but also you get some crazy artifacts from the warping and the timestretching, the little background noises.
As far as quantize – it really depends on whatever the groove is. Some ideas are more on the grid and some ideas are a little more laid-back, falling a little bit later than the way you’re supposed to on the composition grid. If you listen to most of my earlier work, most of the stuff I did had that really offbeat, crazy shuffle and swing, but I feel like after a while I was using that as a crutch. It became more of a habit than really listening to what the groove calls for. If you look later in my work, things get a little more along the grid. Trying not to overuse or abuse the impact of the drums being off the grid is also a challenge that I give myself.
Header image © Johannes Ammler