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Programming Beats in Ableton Live

This is going to be an introduction to electronic music production, specifically Lo-Fi for those who are new to it. You may not know much about it. That's fine. We've all been there. I thought that the best way to begin this series of articles would be to explain the basics of drum programming.

This is what I'll be making as a full example with melodies:

This is the drum beat on its own:

In spite of the fact that many people may not be familiar with music theory, drum programming is a much easier subject to learn than chords and harmony since it does not require a direct understanding of it. 

In the presence of a rhythm that sounds odd or not right, even for the inexperienced ear, you will be able to tell if it is not the right rhythm.

In this tutorial, we are going to introduce you to the basic tools you will need to get started. So, let me show you the software first, and then we will talk about the different things you will need…

The DAW Software

ableton live daw

As far as producing the sounds of drums on a computer is concerned, two of the most widely used methods are drum sampling and drum synthesis.

There are many types of drum synthesizers available in the world today. Most of them are polyphonic synthesizers that come with preset parameters that you can change a certain amount. 

The drum synthesizers are similar to regular synthesizers in that they generate (synthesize) a drum sound from scratch, live. Some of these parameters could include drum pitch, waveform, noise amount, saturation, etc.

As a rule, drum synthesizers differ from regular synthesizers in the manner in which they have some preset parameters that can be changed only to a very small degree in comparison to regular synthesizers. 

For instance, the pitch envelope of a kick drum can only be changed slightly. This is because it will completely destroy the basis of the sample otherwise.

When a kick drum drops from a high pitch to a low pitch very quickly (in a matter of milliseconds), it creates a very ‘punchy' effect in the sound as if it is suddenly dropping from a high pitch to a low pitch…

In short, drum sampling means taking a sample (a recording) and playing it back whenever a certain note is triggered or a certain switch is triggered within an audio program, such as when a snare sound is acoustic or an electronic hi-hat sound is produced by a drum synthesizer. 

It is usually possible to adjust the volume, pitch, length, pan, etc., of samples in drum samplers.

The difference between a drum sampler and a synthesiser is – with a synthesiser you can create the sound from scratch using a certain number of pitching techniques and filters, as well as layering real sounds with processing and enveloping to create real-sounding drums.

However, with a drum sampler, you use already created and recorded samples to play back using MIDI.

Ableton Live's drum rack is what we'll be using in this tutorial, it has 16 pads for each octave and you can load a number of samples into it.

By loading samples, the drum rack will open separate samplers and you can all individually alter the settings of each sample. You can mix volumes, pan, and additionally add effects to particular sounds using buses to do so. 

I personally recommend creating a drum rack and then separating the chains using Ableton's dedicated chain separator function. 

This will create multiple tracks as part of a group you can then process individually. It's just nice to have all the MIDI in one place so you can mess around on your drum sampler and create beat ideas then edit them later in the MIDI roll.

The parameters can be later edited and also set to random values with every new note, and some can be influenced by velocity. I find it best to use Ableton's randomizer and then play around with the velocities later on.

When you are looking to put a little variety into your beats, you will find that these things can come in really handy.

The Drum Creation

We're going to go through the steps of developing an Lo-Fi drum kit sampler from scratch.

The samples I've used in this can be found on our free downloads page. Some of them are included in our paid packs, which you can find in our shop.

Step 1 – Open Drum Sampler

Open Ableton, make a new MIDI track and drag a drum rack on it. You can find this in “Instruments”. Now you need to open the samples. So, navigate to the place you saved the samples. The best way to do this is to find your sample folder, then drag it into the Ableton sample browser window.

On the left hand side you can drag your samples in the sample editor.

Step 2 – Load Your Sounds

This way you'll never have to leave your DAW to drag samples in. To start with, let's select a Kick drum from the Purple Slush Lo-Fi pack

I'm going to choose Kick 9.

It sounds great, but I want deeper sub-bass from the kick, with a deeper sound, so I'm going to add a frequency shifter and dial in a lower frequency, as well as apply a low pass to give it more of a Lo-Fi feel.

Top tip: frequency shifters allow you to change pitch without stretching the audio and introducing potential artefacts, however you have to be careful not to overuse them or it will sound awful.

To do this, you select the LP1 filter and turn the frequency down to about 800Hz – 1kHz. You can play around with the resonance here to give the kick more of a ring effect. For the Snare, I'll choose Snare 17. I also want to get a snap/clap sound so I'll choose one from the pack too. 

Important note: make sure you're setting volume levels as you go. Give it a rough mix, so that you have the drums sounding at a decent level. Afterward you can go into more detail mixing when you separate the chains.

For the next couple pads, I want to load some foley or effects.

So I'm going to choose some different effects, and I will set the loop on the sampler to a smaller section of the effect so it acts as percussion.

If you want to alter the sound to fit your beat, I highly recommend using a frequency shifter here as it will change the pitch without stretching the audio and affecting the quality of the sample.

Make sure that all your sounds are in tune with each other. You can tell this by listening and hearing if a snare or drum sounds too high or too low. Does it stick out too much? Does it sound like it's from the same drum kit? If not… you need to change the pitch or frequency shift it.

We are left with some empty slots on the drum rack, so let's add some hi-hats. I'm going to add a plethora of hats, with different panning styles and add velocity randomizers to each, to help with the real feel of the drums.

For extra depth, you can layer these sounds with each other, and later in the MIDI editing stage, for each snare, you can add the MIDI in for the layer at a lower velocity. 

As you can see in my drum kit, I have layers for my kick and snares. I will copy and paste the kick and snare pattern in later and process these differently. For instance, the snare will have a longer reverb tail and will only play at certain intervals to add variation.

For the hats, I'm going to use another frequency shifter to change the tone of them, and I'm going to change the decay of them to shorten the sound and give the drum kit a tighter feel. 

I'm also going to add an EQ filter to the drums, filtering out all the lows and a few of the highs. This will reduce some harshness and also stop the hat from being over-powering in the low-mids. I want a thin sound, so this is how I'll create it.

Finally, I'm going to add a crash effect with the drum kit on a different octave. I will use this for effect later in MIDI editing.

I additionally want to set all my drum samples to “gate” mode.

This is a preference I have. It means that when you stop pressing the MIDI, it will stop the sample. It gives you full control over the length and snappiness of your drum kit and allows you to have a really tight sound.

I'm also going to litter in some FX after as audio files. I find FX better to drop in as audio because you can easily envelope, reverse and add effects to them.

This is easy in the sampler too, but for mixing purposes, I like to keep SFX separate from drums, because SFX in my books are different to drums.

They add variety to the drums, but also are there for immersion and not a tight, snappy groove.

You can now save this drum rack as an instrument for future use. However, I don't advise doing this. I recommend starting new drum kits everytime you start a new track, because it will add variety to your music.

If you have your folders organised in a good workflow, and have selected favourite drum samples, it's easy to keep your same signature sound, because you will always pull from a similar sound set. 

But making a different drum set each time will give your music more flavour and add to your creativity. It's better than just opening presets all the time.

And honestly, opening presets might be one of the signs your electronic music sucks.

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