Tutorial

Three Ways To Program Drums In Ableton Live


Overview

Layering kick samples is one of the first things I learned how to do in Ableton Live. Since then, I have spent many late nights thinking and rethinking the way I program drums. Probably too much.

Why was this iteration process so important though? Because programming drums is something you do in 99.9% of your tracks. And for me, the rhythm is an extremely important component during the composition process. Among all of the hours spent tweaking synth patches and twisting effects knobs, laying down a drum pattern should be fast and easy.

In the video, I explain the two techniques I used in the past to program drums and the current one I use today, which for me, is the most efficient way to program drums in Ableton Live. You can be the judge of what works best for you! 

Technique #1: Audio Samples

Like I mentioned, laying down kick audio samples was my introduction to drum programming. I used this technique for quite some time in the early days of my music producing endeavors. If you’re a new producer, it is a fantastic starting point.

If you’re someone who likes to work in the arrangement view and visually likes to see the relationship between your drum hits and all of your other instruments and synths, this technique might be for you. Although my least favorite, I will admit that using audio samples to program drums provides the most control over the sonic quality of your drums.

For example, when layering kick samples, you’ll be able to nudge samples ever so slightly to make sure that the waveforms of the kick samples are “in phase” and producing the desired sound you want.

Pros

  • Complete control when layering samples
  • Very visual WYSIWYG-like workflow
  • No MIDI involved (prompting a less rigid more natural pattern)

Cons

  • Layering requires more tracks
  • Layering introduces a ton of redundancy copying and pasting the same pattern
  • Not a very fast way to audition different drum sample combinations

Technique #2: Drum Rack

Ahhh, the drum rack. Drum racks are awesome! If you’ve never used a drum rack in Ableton, stop reading this post right now and go use one!

(Wait… keep reading!)

Drum racks open up an entire world of possibilities beyond what audio samples can do. This introduces the use of Ableton’s Sampler and a very visually pleasing workflow with MIDI. The use of MIDI gives you the ability to control the velocity of every drum hit, allowing you to create more realistic and natural sounding patterns with ease.

A drum rack also provides a lightening fast way to lay down your drum pattern. And after doing so, unlike working with audio, if you decide to alter your samples in any way there is no need to redundantly reprogram your entire drum pattern over and over. For this very reason, I LOVE using drum racks!

Layering samples within a drum rack is not only possible, it’s actually more efficient! You can do this by creating an instrument rack full of Samplers (watch the video above for a demonstration). Although this might not be as precise compared to the way it’s done in audio, it does allow you to quickly audition complex sample combinations very quickly.

Pros

  • Program a drum pattern once and you’re good to go
  • With the use of MIDI, auditioning and layering different samples is easy and fast
  • The ease to edit the velocity of each drum hit (makes drums sound more natural)

Cons

  • Automation lanes can add up and get confusing under one channel
  • Not as visual as using audio samples (stuck inside the midi clip)
  • Layering too many Samplers will eat away at your CPU

Technique #3: MIDI Ninja Drums

If this technique had a theme song… it would be THIS! Cool, but what is it? Basically, I’ve taken the visual benefits of using audio samples and the efficiency of using drum racks. Watch the video to better understand!

This technique is conducted with segmented clips of MIDI. The length of each MIDI clip represents the length of each drum hit (1/16th, 1/8th, 1/4th, etc). These clips provide data for a Sampler(s), similar to how a drum rack works. The cool part about all of this is I’m mimicking what is traditionally done inside of a drum rack with blocks of MIDI and bringing that out into the arrangement view and laying down drum patterns much like I would do with audio samples.

With this approach, you get the best of both worlds. As long as you save these various MIDI clip lengths in your User Library, you can drag, drop, copy and paste all you want. You’ll be laying down patterns faster, auditioning samples more efficiently and you’ll never have to leave the arrangement view to do it!

Pros

  • The efficiency benefits of a drum rack
  • The visual benefits of audio samples

Cons

  • Not as easy to edit velocity of each drum hit
  • Dragging and dropping different MIDI clip lengths can get tiring

Conclusion

I encourage you to try every single one of these techniques out. It will help you understand firsthand what works best for your workflow. Technique #3 is what I use today and is my personal favorite, but you may end up hating it. You’ll never know until you try.

As with many other workflow topics, always be looking out for more efficient ways to program drums. I know I will!