The most crucial part of creating a successful sounding drum beat is that of dynamics; how a note behaves over time when struck.
Every note has an attack, a decay, a sustain and a release. This is most commonly known as the ADSR (attack, decay, sustain, release). When a note is struck the initial response is the attack, the time it takes for the attack to die down and settle at the body is called the decay, the sustain is the body of the note and how long it continues, and the release is when the note is released.
We can shape the ADSR of any sound thus changing its dynamics, i.e. its shape. By using the ADSR of a given sound, we can dramatically alter its velocity (how quickly the note is struck to optimum level), we can alter the gain (volume) and we can alter the length. By shaping the sound we can customise its properties to our own needs. I have often changed the attack of a snare to either give it a more pronounced feel or to give it a softer feel. Hi hats benefit the most from dynamic changes as they are usually played with varying gains and lengths, unlike snares which tend to be more consistent in gain. There are no hard and fast rules here. You adjust a sound’s dynamics based on what you require from it within the song’s context.
In terms of midi information, you are not dealing with a sound as such but the information used to trigger and release that sound. You are altering the dynamics of the sound through the use of midi messages. Midi is not sound, Midi is a way of messaging note information to the software being used, and a way of communication between midi devices (MIDI: Musical Instrument Digital Interface).
Example: you use midi to input notes via a controller keyboard and then you use midi to process and edit those notes within your software sequencer.
In terms of drum programming, dynamic control is crucial in shaping the sequence and the notes within it. How many times have you played a hi hat pattern at full velocity (speed of attack and gain) and then wondered why it sounds so rigid? How many times have you played a drum beat using 3 different kicks only to find that there is no dynamic relationship between the kicks and they all sound the same volume?
Using dynamics can alter all the above and make sounds sound more natural or flowing.
Let us take a simple example of a hi hat playing over 2 bars in 16th quantise. I have played this at full 127 velocity (0 being silence and 127 being max velocity).
Hi Hat at full velocity
hi hat 16 velocity before.wav
The lines directly below at the bottom of the key editor denote the velocity of each note. In Cubase I have the ability, as almost all software do, to alter any midi event available. On the left hand side right next to the first velocity bar, you will see that the word ‘velocity’ has been selected. This is the event I am going to change. I could select any other even available from the drop down menu (expression, pan, pitchbend etc), but for this exercise I am staying with velocity.
If you listen to the audio file provided you will hear that the pattern is not flowing in any sense, but rigid in its velocity and not fluid.
By ‘drawing’ in a new velocity shape for all the notes, or manually changing each, I am able to allow for more dynamic changes to take place. This allows the listener to remain interested and the brain keeps active instead of switching off due to repetition. Look at the image below with the velocity editing.
Hi Hat with velocity changes (pencil tool dynamic)
hi hat 16 velocity after.wav
By using the pencil tool (draw) from the menu I have ‘drawn’ the new shape for the velocity of each note. You can do this note at a time or drag the pencil across all the velocity lines at the bottom and shape to taste.
If you listen to the audio file above you will notice the velocity variances allow for a more natural sounding pattern.
Altering the dynamics of a single sound in a pattern will alter the overall sound of the whole pattern. The best drum beat producers go to extreme lengths to get the timing and feel right for a given beat. Even after I have played in a drum beat that I am happy with, I still go into the editor and alter the dynamics to get it exactly right.
For those of you that use hardware sequencers, the thinking and application is exactly the same, only the interface and application might be different.
For example, those that use an MPC will also have velocity control within the unit’s tools. In fact, most dynamics can be controlled.