August 17, 2015

Programming Drum Grooves: From 4/4-time to odd time signatures

Programming Drum Grooves: From 4/4-time to odd time signatures

By: Chris Nothdurfter

Programming drums for mainstream hit songs

When you are working on a song in genres such as Pop, Rock, and Metal chances are it’s going to be in 4/4-time. What that means is basically that there are four beats in each measure (or bar). We don’t have to get to technical but if you are not sure about the concept just turn on a mainstream radio station and count along to the music: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, and so on. I’m sure you’ll instantly feel how it works. Now, when you are trying to program a groove for this kind of music but you don’t know where to start there’s a little trick you can use: Just put a Bass (Kick) drum hit on beats one and three and a Snare drum hit on beats two and four. Add the accompanying element (Hi-hat or a Ride or Crash cymbal) of your choice to each hit and you’re good to go. Now you can start refining your groove from there. The screenshot below shows how that might look in your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).

Figure 1: A simple groove in 4/4-time.

The example above is taken out of a Cubase session but it should look pretty similar in Pro Tools, Logic, and all the other DAWs as well. If that looks unfamiliar to you or if you don’t know how to navigate to the equivalent of the above window in your program of choice check out this post about setting up your DAW for drum programming to get you started.

Drum programming beyond 4/4-time with odd time signatures

While a vast amount of music is indeed written in 4/4-time there is, in fact, an infinite amount of possible time signatures available for you to use creatively in your songs. You might not regularly hear anything else but 4/4-time on the radio, but there is a whole other world of groove possibilities beyond the limitations of four beats in one measure. The next sections of this article will show you how to program grooves in odd time signatures, particularly 5/4-time. However the techniques you’ll learn can be applied to any time signature, including 4/4-time or any odd time signature.

Programming drums in 5/4-time

While we can use a simple rule to build grooves in 4/4-time (explained above) in 5/4-time (and when working with odd time signatures in general), we can’t make these general statements anymore. As a result it may seem like it’s overly difficult to program drums in odd time signatures. The opposite is true! We are totally free to put our Bass and Snare drum hits wherever we think they might fit. As a matter of fact, we are free to do that in any time signature, but this is more relevant in odd time signatures.

Accented grooves in odd time signatures

When working with odd time signatures, most of the time the underlying music will have a very distinct groove. So in order to fit the drums to the rest of the music in any given song the following technique has proven to be very effective.

First, spread out your Bass and Snare drum hits somewhat evenly across the measure. You can start with the Snare drum on beats two and five or, if you’re headed for a half-time feel, try putting it on the offbeat of beat three. Fill up the measure with Bass drum hits as you see fit. This could be 1/16-notes double Bass hits all the way through if you are working on a Metal track, or just 1/4- or 1/8-notes here and there in a Pop or Rock setting.

Once you’ve set that up start listening to the rest of the music in your song. Most of the time when a song happens to be in an odd time signature, there is a pretty obvious reason for it like a very distinct rhythm on a guitar or vocal riff that involves a lot of accents. In most cases this is the element that drives the main groove of the song.

In your head, try to figure out the rhythm of the element that you just identified as the main groove driver in the last step. If you are having a hard time with this, try clapping along to the riff with your hands. Once you can clap it you can then slow it down in your head and slowly piece it together one hit after another. It might help to mute the drum track and keep the metronome/click going in your DAW for an additional point of reference throughout this process.

Once you’ve figured out the rhythm of the main groove driver it’s time to modify your initial drum groove accordingly. Go ahead and add Bass and Snare drum hits along the rhythm of the song’s main groove driver. Trust your gut feeling when it comes to deciding whether a particular hit in the groove driver’s rhythm should have a Bass or a Snare drum hit. Or just try both options to see which one fits best. Delete any drum hits that don’t correlate with an accent in the rhythm of the main groove driver. See what you did there? You just transferred the rhythm of the driving element into a 5/4-time Bass and Snare drum pattern. Great Job!

In the last step add the accompanying element (Hi-hat or a Ride or Crash cymbal) of your choice to your drum groove. When working with odd time signatures it’s worth trying to vary the accompanying element a little bit. So for example, if you were going to use 1/4-notes on the Ride cymbal along with your Bass and Snare drum, try adding two 1/8-notes instead of one of the 1/4-notes in your groove. This seems to work quite well before or after the Snare drum hits, but feel free to experiment with other positions within your groove as well.

Drum programming examples for 5/4-time

This whole field of 5/4-time grooves (as well as odd time signatures in general) calls for a very customized approach to drum programming. Nevertheless here are a few groove examples to give you an idea of how grooves in that time signature can sound. Set your grid to 1/16-notes to program these examples. Tempos that work best for them are shown in brackets.

Figure 2: 5/4 groove example No. 1 (Appropriate tempo: 90-150 BPM)
Figure 3: 5/4 groove example No. 2. (Appropriate tempo: 90-150 BPM)
The following examples are particularly well suited for Metal songs.
Figure 4: 5/4 groove example No. 3 (Appropriate tempo: 90-180 BPM)
Figure 5: 5/4 groove example No. 4 (Appropriate tempo: 120-180 BPM)
Figure 6: 5/4 groove example No. 5 (Appropriate tempo: 100-220 BPM)

If you want to further get into odd time signatures as well as into drum programming in general you can check out the book #HitIt – The Ultimate Guide to Programming drums. In it you’ll find everything you need to know in order to take your grooves to the next level. Starting with the basics of drum programming it covers all the necessary techniques to program professional sounding grooves and fills for Pop, Rock, and Metal. The book also details how to make your grooves sound more human in order to avoid the robotic feel that’s often negatively associated with programmed drums. Last but not least you’ll find countless examples to inspire your own grooves and, to top it off, mixing tips to make your drum sound amazing.

Check it out at


 #HitIt - The Ultimate Guide to Programming Drums

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Cubase   Drum mapping   Drum Programming   Midi   Musical Drums   Writing Drums