I've been spoiled by using acoustic drum loops (by Chris McHugh) for my mostly rockish music. Even drummers think someone's actually playing drums to the music.

So for my latest EDM-oriented project, I needed electronic drums. I'd forgotten just how boring they can sound. What to do? Well, Here are a few tricks that made a huge difference.

The Snare

The snare is the giveaway that you’re in robo-land because it’s going to get hit a lot. Render the snare audio to its own track, then try the following.

Vibrato plug-in.
This is a fast, simple solution that adds just enough difference not to have every hit sound the same. Finding a true vibrato effect is not that easy; most of the time you'll need a chorus or flanger that can be set to one voice, with a mix for only delayed sound.
Volume shifts. This takes longer to edit, but remember that each hit on a snare will play at a slightly different level and at a different place on the drum. Alternating slight volume variations helps considerably in creating realism, even with individual hits—not just rolls.
Minor pitch shifts on different hits. We’re not talking transposition in semitones, but shifts that are more on the order of 20-40 cents.
Very short attack times. In addition to lowering the overall level, adding only a few milliseconds creates an effect that's somewhat like ghost notes.
Layer a sidestick sample with the snare for emphasis. This increases the level, and helps give the snare a more percussive feel.

It seems it's not so important that these changes duplicate what happens with a real snare, but rather, that they just keep the electronic ones from sounding all the same. That seems to satisfy the ear-brain combination.


Back when memory was expensive, cymbal samples...well...let’s just say they weren’t very good. So I got into the habit of playing real cymbals over electronic drum parts, and they added an undeniable air of authenticity. Even if you’re not a drummer, you can probably hit cymbals at the right time.


Pro drummers are able to control their timing extremely accurately to lag and lead the beat in strategic ways. While those who play drums from keyboards or controller pads often have the right intention for timing, they just don’t pull it off with the required accuracy. Try 85% quantization, which should tighten up your drum parts without strangling them. (However, I do make sure the kick is right on the beat—see if that works better for you as well.) I also like even just a little bit of swing, because it’s amazing how even a little bit of swing can make all the difference in the world when you want a drum part that grooves just a little bit better. ​

But Wait—There’s More!

To humanize hi-hats, check out the tip for Week 141 in the original 
Friday’s Tip of the Week thread in the Cakewalk SONAR forum. Also check out the tip in Week 145, “No More Boring MIDI Drum Parts.” It’s SONAR-specific, but the concept translates to many other DAWs.

Friday's Tip of the Week

 Tip #168: More Expressive Electronic Drums

So let’s make your life easier—a much better way to introduce that pause is to drop the tempo waaaaaaaay down for just a fraction of a second in a beat (different note values can work too), which will create a pause before the music returns to the beat again.

It’s of course best if the section over the pause sustains—something like a pad, held note, and the like. Delay with feedback works well, and with MIDI, if you choose a math-friendly tempo change (e.g., drop it to half-speed), you can compensate mentally and add MIDI notes where they make musical sense.

Several people have commented that the keyboard bass parts in my music sound like “real” bass. Although I do play bass, most of the time I prefer keyboard bass because I’ve sampled so many basses it’s always possible to find a suitable bass sound.

Part of the realism is due to playing parts that a bassist would (and could!) play, which means including credible slides. Slides are an important bass technique—not just slides up or down a string, but over a semitone or more when transitioning between notes. For example, when going from A to C, you can extend the A MIDI note and use pitch bend to slide it up to C (remember to add a pitch bend of 0 after the note ends).

Unless you’re emulating a fretless bass, you want a stepped, not continuous, slide to emulate sliding over frets. Quantizing pitch bend slide messages so they’re stepped is one solution. In the screen shot below, the first slide goes in half-steps from tonic to an octave higher. The second one slides from G to E and steps down over three semitones. The pitch bend then returns to 0 before the next E plays.

 Tip #170: Tempo Change "Time Traps" for Extra Drama

 Tip #169: Better MIDI Bass Parts

If you use Cakewalk SONAR, the Midtown guitar patches for Rapture Pro/Rapture Session in the 2017.08 update include artificial feedback, so just follow your Rapture variant with the CA-X “Hard Rock” amp (assuming you don’t run into TH3/TH2 related issues...that’s another topic), or use something like a Marshall emulation from the Line 6 Helix, Native Instruments Guitar Rig, IK AmpliTube, etc. But also remember that you need to think like a guitar player—the pitch wheel becomes your virtual whammy bar, and use the pitch wheel for vibrato—not the mechanical mod wheel vibrato, because that’s not how guitars roll.

Happy feedback...and don’t forget the ‘60s light show!

Got comments, questions, or want to discuss this tip? Please visit my Sound, Studio, and Stage forum on HarmonyCentral.com, and let's talk.

official site

This is a follow-up to the previous tip, because people who listened to the song (see above, click, and of course, like!) wanted to know how I got that delicious feedback guitar sound. Well...it wasn’t feedback guitar, it was synthesizer—and you can get the same kind of effect. It’s really quite simple; there are three elements:

  • Use unprocessed guitar samples. The base program I used was a sampled Gibson Midtown guitar, with no effects or other goodies.
  • Process it through an amp sim. I used the CA-X “Hard Rock” amp sim in SONAR, but any amp that floats your boat all work. Distortion, baby!
  • Add artificial feedback.

The latter is the key to this technique. Simply layer two sine wave to produce the “faux feedback.” I transpose one 19 semitones (octave+fifth) above the fundamental, and the other 31 semitones (2 octaves+fifth). The low-pitched one has an envelope that builds up to a peak in about two seconds (see the screen shot), and then decays while the higher-pitched feedback appears over about 3 seconds. It’s important to set these envelopes for a believable attack time—long enough to that the feedback shows up with a long, sustained note; not so long that it never shows up; and not so short that it shows up all the time. Having done a lot feedback guitar in my time (ahem), it doesn’t happen instantly—you have to coax it into happening. The attack time represents the time needed to coax it into happening, and to jump from one harmonic to a higher-pitched one.

And since you’re probably curious as to what this sounds like, my latest song showcases it. Listen to the following song—a dance remix of “To Say 'No' Would be a Crime” from my “Simplicity” album (click on the Music tab)—and listen carefully around 1:48 and 3:03, where I’ve inserted "time traps" to draw things out a bit. Fun stuff!

Got comments, questions, or want to discuss any of these tips? Please visit my Sound, Studio, and Stage forum on HarmonyCentral.com, and let's talk.

Sometimes doing just a little bit of a pause before a section of a song comes crashing in can add a major element of drama...the listener expects the section to start on the beat, but even a tiny pause can add significant tension before the release.

Most programs let you insert measures to “open up” the project via ripple editing, but you can also insert something a lot shorter to add the needed dramatic pause. However, there’s a major downside because this will throw off your timeline timings.

Even if they’re not exact half-steps, they go by fast enough to be perceived as non-continuous. For example, with a virtual instrument’s pitch bend set to +/-12 semitones, quantizing the bend to 1/32nd triplets will give exactly 12 steps in a one-beat octave slide up, while a 1/16th note triplet gives 12 steps over a two-beat octave slide. Make sure there’s no smoothing enabled for the pitch bend function.

For precise slides, the following table shows the amount of pitch bend change per semitone. For example if an octave is a pitch bend value of 8191, and you want to start a slide three semitones above the note where you want to “land,” start at a pitch bend value of +2048 and add equally-spaced events at +1366, +683, and just before the final note, 0. This assumes your virtual instrument has a +/-12 semitone pitch bend range, which is what I use for bass to make these kinds of slides possible.

See info on the previous 167 tips at the original Friday’s Tip of the Week thread, which was mostly about tips for Cakewalk SONAR. This latest  incarnation will delve into a wider variety of topics for a variety of platforms. Come back every Friday to see what’s new!

 Tip of the Week #171: Synthesizer Meets Feedback Guitar