Let's start with a simple pattern at 120 BPM. As you're probably already aware, most DAWs allow you to work within a grid, whereby each beat can be broken down into a number of sub-divisions. By default, this grid will usually be in 1/16th notes, meaning that there are four places you can input an individual note from one beat to the next.
However, while the pattern is now more complex, it still seems extremely flat and predictable, due to every note playing back with the same velocity. In most samplers and bespoke drum instrument plug-ins (such as Battery 3, Stylus RMX, Geist and Punch), velocity will trigger level changes. As you can see from the screenshots, the same colour is attributed to each note at the moment, showing the evenness of levels from one hit to the next.
You can hear the power of velocity editing, and this is particularly worthwhile for tracks where you're looking for a more human feel in your programming. However, if you're drawing notes into a grid, not only will velocity be even by default, you'll also end up with perfectly quantized patterns too, with each note snapping precisely to the start of its grid space. Often some swing or shuffle can make life more interesting. You can dial some swing in (if your plug-in which allows this) or select a swing quantize value, which will overrule the drawn position of each beat.
In order to develop our programming understanding further, let's go back to a simple 2-bar pattern. One way we could bring more life to our loop would be to enhance it with effects. Doing so will show us the benefits of splitting our sound sources up onto separate tracks.
As all three sound sources are playing back from the same instrument, we're stuck with a single reverb treatment for all of the sound sources at present. The reverb works nicely on the snare, but it's a little too fizzy on the hi-hat. And it's doing even less favours for the kick, whose sound has become very unfocused. If we duplicate the drum track twice, we can then separate the kick, snare and hi-hat onto separate tracks and then we'll have independent control over their effects sends. Once we've duplicated the tracks and ensured that only one sound is playing back from each, we can then set up appropriate send levels.
Now that we've separated our sounds, we can apply insert effects to each one, too, rather than just work with a single effects chain..
An easy way to thicken up the sound of your beats is to have each hit point trigger several samples at once. This is often called beat layering, and it's a hugely popular technique that can add plenty more weight to your programming.
Another really effective technique can be to bounce down your drum tracks as audio files and reverse them. Used alongside the original hits, this can be effective as a way of fading up into your beat hits.
If you like the idea of this effect, be aware that a couple of subtle tweaks can make a big difference. It's a good idea not to use the whole file of a reversed sound leading up to the main programmed hit. In particular, the very end of the reversed sound (which, of course, is the start of the programmed hit) is usually worth cutting off, just before the main attack portion. This avoids a double-sounding hit where the reversed audio turns into the programmed note. Once you've clipped the end off the file and moved it into position, a second suggestion would be to put a short fade out (of 10ms or so) on the end of the audio file to ensure it doesn't click.
Another effective trick, if your DAW allows it, is to substitute this fade-out with a slow-down effect instead, otherwise known as a record-stop trick. If your DAW doesn't allow this, simply sample the reversed snare you've made and set up a pitch-bend range of -24 semitones in your sampler. Draw in the reversed hit and then create a pitch-bend ramp downwards to achieve the slow-down effect.
These reversing techniques have the effect of adding length and weight to snares (or whichever combination of sounds you're using) to highlight the back-beat of your drum patterns. You only have to listen to commercial dubstep tracks to realise how popular elongated snares are, and it's no surprise, as they add plenty of power and drama.
There are other ways of lending additional length to these hits, such as using gated reverb or, if your plug-in list extends to one, a transient designer. Let's start with gated reverb. To achieve a long snare sound, you'll need to start with a long reverb, ideally one which carries plenty of energy from the main hit into the down-beat which follows it. Then, after the reverb, insert a noise gate and experiment with the threshold level. This determines when a signal is loud enough to open the gate and be heard, and when it's quiet enough to close the gate and abruptly cut off.
Transient designers are devices which intelligently stretch sounds in real-time. They do this by analysing an incoming signal and breaking it into attack and sustain portions. Then, using envelope generators, they stretch the perceived length of a sound by apportioning more energy from the attack of a note to its sustained section.
Once you've separated sound sources and treated them to bespoke, in-channel effects, there's nothing to stop you re-combining elements by setting up a drum bus and then applying group treatments to sounds. For instance, snap, power and energy can come from a group compression treatment, as we'll hear in the below clip. We're adding some new elements now, in the form of a pitched tom and some glitchy percussion zaps from Geist.
You can take this approach further by setting up different busses for different layers of your drum programming. If you've got a pattern that adds more percussion tracks to the core drum parts, you could set up one group bus for drums and a separate, complementary group treatment for percussive sound sources. This is exactly what's happening in the below clip.
To the core beats, we're adding a shaker part and an additional percussion loop from Rob Papen's Punch. Added to the Geist percussion loop and the tom part already present in the mix, that provides four percussion layers. We're also adding a clap and a new lower snare to add some extra weight to the drums. As the percussion tracks feature plenty of natural acoustics, it's nice to bring these forward with a squashed compression treatment. This squeezes the dynamics of the hits and also emphasizes the natural space in the samples. In addition to the main drum bus, we're setting up a percussion one, too, using FabFilter's Pro-C compressor to bring these natural acoustics forward in the mix.
It goes without saying that producers rely on a whole range of techniques to make their drum patterns stand out. Some of these are genre-specific, and others are simply born of a desire to experiment. While we've explored some key techniques, we've only scratched the surface of what's possible. Honing these techniques alone, you should be able to radically improve the quality of the patterns you program but adding your own techniques into the mix will, of course, enhance the sounds of your tracks even further.