How many times can I say “drum” in one post?

Yesterday morning, with help from maybe four coffees, I started drumming.

Drums are a big obstacle for me. I am, if anything, a guitarist. I used to play the piano, too, and I’m quite familiar with music theory. But drums – well they seem so unfamiliar, so untameable! I’ve never really taken the time to deconstruct a drum beat and think about what’s going on.  I’m starting to feel like I’ve never even listened to drums before. How, then, am I supposed to put a decent drum beat together?

My understanding of the anatomy of drums is as follows: there’s the bassy kick drum, the rattly snare drum and the crispy hi-hat. I think they generally do most of the work. Then there’s some tom-toms and cymbals; and there’s that joke that two drums and a cymbal fall off a cliff (badum-tssh). That’s everything I know about drums.

Alas, my song needs drums, so that’s what it’ll get. I’m composing all the drums digitally, using the MIDI sequencer that I mentioned in my last post. Even if I had access to a drum kit, the idea of me playing it is laughable – but you’ll have figured that out already. The digital stuff sounds really professional anyway. Crafting a rhythm in this way is a lot similar to inputting a melody: I even worked with my MIDI keyboard to plot out the beats. When I press a key on the keyboard, it corresponds to banging a particular drum or cymbal, and the computer plays the sound for me.

The software I’m using actually comes with a built-in drum machine containing hundreds of ready-made patterns that you can use. At some point a few days ago, I picked out one or two of those presets to see how the music sounded with an actual beat. It wasn’t bad, but I felt uncomfortable about using someone else’s work for my music. I guess that ties in with the all-by-myself ethic of the project. I’d rather have my own feeble attempt at it!

So I came up with my own rhythms. I had to keep reminding myself that there are no rules here. The limit is my imagination. I needed to tell myself to stop worrying about how physically playable the patterns were (ie, would you need three hands?) or how sophisticated it would sound, and focus on building up a rhythm, one layer at a time. As it happens, I’ve kept everything in Track 1 incredibly simple – I need to keep reminding myself that that is okay, too. I’m not writing a fugue.

For the briefest moment (again, in keeping with the DIY approach) I considered recording a bunch of everyday noises and digitally sequencing a drum beat out of them, inspired by the La Dispute song “nine”, in which the rhythm part was made up of “3 books, a pencil sharpener, and a Sharpie brand permanent marker against paper”. What I mean is that I could record, for example, the sound of me stamping once on the ground – or you know, whatever – and tell the computer to replace, say, the bass drum sound with that audio clip. I’d repeat this with the other drum parts and then stitch everything together in the same way that I did with the digital sounds. It would be a lot of fun, but I quickly scrapped the idea. Maybe one day, for some other song.

In any case, I’ve pretty much got the drums finished now. To be honest, I feel like I was really quite lazy with it. Maybe you’ll be able to tell when you hear the song, but I hope not! I’ve had a busy few days and there’s still lots to do before I more on to Track 2 on Thursday. The clock is ticking!



  1. You should listen to Steve Reich’s piece Drumming (available on youtube; its nearly one hour long but absolutely worth it!) and have a wee think about how one thing – one bang of the drum, one stomp of the foot – can have an impact on everything else, how it all blends together to create a “sound world” (to use my lecturers’ term heh). Reich studied drumming in Ghana so he has a pretty interesting way of looking at rhythm!

    Also someone in my year did a module where you had to record sounds and make a piece from them – one of the sounds he used was a recording of him stomping his feet in wellies filled with water!

    Keep up the good work, and the blogging! I’m excited to read more! 🙂 xxx

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