Most popular music of the past century, from top 40 to Drum 'N Bass, is centered around a basic 4/4 rhythm. The challenge, of course, is for electronic producers to make drum tracks appropriate to the genres and tracks that we make. In this tutorial, I will describe how to produce basic rhythm tracks without reliance on pre-recorded loops. To begin, you will need to have a sequencer or DAW and some way of producing percussion elements and combining them with other musical elements.
Many producers start with a beat at the beginning of the writing process. While this is certainly essential in some genres, this can be a hindrance when composing music in most other genres, as most of the musical decisions will be based around the drum pattern, as opposed to the other way around. If you listen to some of your favorite popular music, you'll notice that many of the basic elements of the song, such as the melody, an active bassline, or upbeat chord changes are what excites the listener, and the rhythmic elements such as drums and percussion only enhance the rest of the track.
As stated before, it is recommended to have your basic elements of the song in place, with main melody, possible counter melody, and bassline. Once these are completed, you can begin to put together the rhythm track. At this point, set your sequencer to loop mode, and begin to put together track elements. Usually the kick drum is a good place to start, as it lines up typically with the bassline. After that, you can begin to add your downbeat, which, depending on the genre and style of song, can be a snare drum sound, a sidestick, or any sort of sample. You have the option to quantize.
Once the kick and snare pattern has been created, it's time to do a couple of things. First, if the track is already quantized, you can alter the timing of the kick and the snare (depending on genre) so that it doesn't necessarily fall on the exact downbeat or backbeat, but a little before or after, as a real drummer would. We've all heard "canned" preprogrammed beats from toy keyboards, and no one wants that! After you've got your timing down, feel free to add some percussion elements like cymbals or hi-hats. Something fun to do to add the human feel would also be not quantize, for realism.
Once more rhytmhic elements have been added, you can further add excitement to your drum track by overdubbing your main snare pattern with "ghost notes," little MIDI notes that add the impression of reverb or early reflection to your drum pattern and further introduce the illusion to the listener of a real drummer playing parts to your song. One other way to accent your drumming is to overlap another MIDI note of your snare sound being struck to add an artificial flange, due to the nature of MIDI timing. Break up your patterns by adding fills for transitions, to liven up your patterns.
Once your pattern is established, start playing it with the rest of your tracks. If you are doing music that has a specific dance edge to it, feel free to add more percussive elements to spice up the track. Remember, drummers in real life only have two arms and two legs, so go easy on your extra patterns and fills if realism is your goal. Remember, drums can sit nicely in the mix or they can be upfront, depending on genre. Apply effects as needed, but remember, it's easy to overuse reverb and delay, as they tend to wash out many of the transients that make drum patterns exciting. Good luck!
Once you've incorporated your drums into the rest of the song, there are a variety of options to bring them to the next level. Listeners should never have to think about the rhythm of the song, they should feel it. Remember not to muddy your drum tracks up with too many elements. Digital workstations have the potential for hundreds of rhythm tracks sounding together. While that sounds great in theory, in practice one should keep it simple, and remember to serve the song. If you can strip away all the rhythm elements of a song and it's still emotionally moving and exciting you're on your way.
Making drum tracks can be a very exciting process, and like composition and arranging, it is a constant source of learning as you improve your skills. Also, there are no hard and fast rules to constructing the drums, adding fills, etc. While I mentioned the creative options of MIDI drum tracks, loops can be used to great effect to enhance your tracks. The tools you have at your disposal today offer nearly limitless creative control. It is important to remember, however, that drums and percussion are something that mankind has had in our soul for millenia, and technology does not replace soul.