Using Randomization in Drum Programming for More Character

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Leaving things to chance can be an excellent way of injecting life into your drum layers

When early electronic instruments and drum machines such as the Roland TB-303 and TR-808 were introduced, they were all the rage. The ability to program patterns and rhythms that would remain in perfect time was a huge breakthrough for many artists, and music as a whole. Over the years though, producers came to miss the character and groove that is inherent in performed music rather than sequenced music.

Fast forward 40 years, and technology has gone full circle. Many DAWs, samplers and hardware instruments now have functionality that is designed to add some randomisation to patterns in order to make them feel more human. Introducing randomisation to your drums can add vibe and character that would otherwise be missing, and in this article we’ll explain some creative ways of doing it.

Before you start reading, check out this free snippet taken from Eelke Kleijn’s Track from Scratch course, in which the DJ and producer shows how he uses Cubase’s randomize quantize feature to create unique interactions between his drum layers.

Eelke Kleijn randomising hi hats

Velocity

One simple way to add movement to your drums is with velocity randomisation. While you can manually adjust each hit’s velocity on an arbitrary basis, this can be time consuming and won’t be truly random. Thankfully, features such as Ableton’s velocity range adjusters allow you to set a minimum and maximum velocity for your drums, and the software takes care of the rest.

Alternatively, most modern software samplers feature random modulation that can be assigned to a variety of parameters including pan, filter cutoff and of course, velocity.

Failing that, assigning a sample and hold LFO to velocity or volume will have the same effect.

Timing

Adjusting your drum hits’ timing is another great way of adding movement and character to your track, as evidenced by the Akai MPC60 and MPC3000 grooves which are famed within the worlds of hip hop and house music. As with velocity randomisation, manual adjustment is likely to be a tedious approach, but there are other methods to achieve this sound.

Ableton Groove Pool

While Ableton’s Groove Pool allows you to add grooves from a range of sources (including the MPC60 and MPC3000), there is a little known use for this feature that allows you to randomize your drum’s timing without applying a specific groove. First, apply a spare groove in the groove pool to your drum track, then reduce the timing to 0% and increase the random amount to taste.

If this method isn’t an option because you’re not using MIDI or you’re in a different DAW, you can also use a delay and an LFO. First, add a 100% wet delay to your drum track, turn the feedback down to 0% and put it in time mode. Then use either an inbuilt or external LFO to modulate the delay time between 1ms and 10-20ms to subtly move your drums’ timings back and forth.

Probability

Random probability can also help to add character and feel to programmed drums, particularly for layered drums when some of the layers are only triggered occasionally.

Ableton Chance

It’s now extremely simple to add trigger probability to your drums using Ableton’s Chance feature. The probability editor is tucked neatly below the velocity editor, and works exactly the same way. Select the notes or triggers you want to edit, then click and drag the nodes in the probability editor.

For those not using Ableton, there are options in Logic Pro X using Scripter, and many hardware drum sequencers now ship with probability options, including the Korg Volca Drum, Roland TR8-S and many of Elektron’s machines.

Other Parameters and Effects

As well as randomizing the velocity, timing and probability of your drums, there are a near-endless number of other parameters and effects that can be adjusted to keep your drum programming interesting and varied.

ADSR envelope

Assign a randomizing modulator to the attack, decay, sustain or release of your drum sound to vary each hit’s volume shape. For example, subtly modulating a hi hat’s attack time can cause some of the hits to contain all of their transient information, while others will ease into their volume and sound more like a shaker.

Drive or Saturation

Modulating the drive or dry/wet amount on one of your drum layers will introduce some interesting and ever-changing characteristics to your sounds, which helps to add variety and slightly differentiate your drum layers from one another.

Reverb or Delay

Setting up a delay so that each of your drum hits has a different dry/wet amount will not only add space to your drums, but will add movement and diversity too..

Sample

As well as randomizing a drum sound’s characteristics, you can also randomize the sample itself for truly unique and unpredictable drum patterns.

MIDI randomization

A quick way to randomize the drum that’s being triggered is to use MIDI randomization devices. Using a drum sampler such as Ableton’s Drum Rack, create a pattern with your main sample, then add as many sample variations as you’d like into the sampler..

In the example below, we’ve used an 808 rim shot as the main sample, then added four more rim samples in the following slots in the sampler. Then, we added the randomization device and configured it to add anywhere between one and four notes to its input 45% of the time. This means that nearly half of the drum sounds will be randomized.

Once again, there are Ableton-free methods of doing this that include assigning LFOs to sample selectors, using an arpeggiator, or using a third party sequencer or sampler that has randomization functionality built into its architecture.

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