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How to humanize drums

Drums dictate the rhythm of the majority of modern and contemporary music. Also, drums can make a difference among genres and subgenres.

Most remixes nowadays mainly consist in adjusting the BPM and changing the drum pattern, especially when the song is flipped into an EDM or Hip Hop-sounding track.

While most standard patterns are known to most producers, there’s more work to do to make them sound authentic.

It’s not as easy as drawing the MIDI triggers, placing the drum samples, and leaving them without further tweaking.

The risk of getting a robotic-sounding drum kit by doing so is guaranteed.

Here’s a list of simple tricks you can apply to make your drums sound more engaging:

Velocity

You can’t expect a real drummer to hit a drum two times at the same intensity, at least not in the short term.

You want to play with velocity in several situations, especially cymbals and other percussions.

Kick drums and snare drums are optional and mostly genre-dependent. On heavily quantized genres like House music or Trap, you mostly want to keep them at a fixed velocity. However, if you’re programming some notes playing quickly one after the other, then making the prior or the latter softer than the rest can enhance the rhythm.

On unquantized rhythms, like Boom Bap, you want to play with velocity a lot because you want to impart bounce that way too.

Panning

Don’t keep everything at the center of the stereo image.

Make sure each or most sounds have their place in the mix so they can make the whole groove enjoyable.

You generally want to pan cymbals, claps, toms, and other percussions while keeping the kick and the snare drum at the center.

If you have different hi-hats playing altogether or alternating each other, consider spreading them across the stereo image, so you have a “bouncing” high end that moves from one side to the other.

You might consider panning secondary snare drums.

Un-quantize

If the genre doesn’t require quantizing, then don’t do it. Truth is that most genres don’t require quantizing every single thing.

4-to-the-floor patterns might sound like they’re entirely quantized at first, and in fact, the kick and the snare drums are, but hi-hats are where you can shuffle things up.

On non-4-to-the-floor patterns, moving away from quantizing is often welcome on kick drums, especially on the hits not placed at the beginning of each bar.

Basically, playing with grooves is all about moving earlier or later drums that are “in the middle” of the core hits dictating the rhythm.

Flams

This technique is a derivate from unquantized stuff.

It consists of making two drum hits play so rapidly that they mostly overlap, with the transients creating a flammed sound.

It works wonders on claps, shakers, and hi-hats. It sounds really bad on kick drums and toms.

If used well, it can enrich your drum patterns, making them sound imperfect, which is pleasant to the ear.

Choke hats

A real drummer doesn’t have hi-hats hits overlapping because they all come from the same piece of metal.

That means that at every new hit, the previous one is stopped, just as it‘d be with a monophonic sampler or synth.

It’s easy to overlook real-world behavior like this when you’re working inside a DAW, but emulating it ensures that your cymbals’ tails won’t play back unnaturally, injecting an exciting layer of realism.

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