Posted 9th January 2023

How to Program Drum Machines

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The Programming Process

Drum machine programming is the process of creating and arranging drum patterns and rhythms using a drum machine. Drum machines are electronic devices that mimic the sound of a drum kit and can be programmed to play a variety of drum sounds and rhythms.

There are several different approaches to programming drum machines, ranging from simple step sequencing to more complex methods that involve multiple tracks and the use of software.

Step Sequencing

One of the most basic methods of programming a drum machine is through the use of step sequencing. With step sequencing, you can input a series of drum hits on different tracks, each representing a different drum sound. You can then specify the timing of each hit by assigning it to a specific step in the sequence. This allows you to create simple rhythms and patterns by specifying which drum sounds are played on which steps.

Drum Machine Pads

Another method of drum programming or rhythm programming, involves the use of real-time recording. With this method, you can play drum patterns live on the drum machine's pads, and the drum machine will record your performance in real-time. This is a more intuitive and expressive way of programming drum patterns, as it allows you to create rhythms on the fly, rather than having to input them step by step.

Your DAW is a great place to start

There are also several software programs that can be used for drum machine programming. These programs often come with a wide range of drum sounds and allow you to create and edit drum patterns using a computer interface. Some of these programs also offer advanced features such as the ability to automate parameters and apply effects to individual drum sounds. Drum loops are of course another option where the drum programming has already been done for you and the loops is supplied as an audio file.

Consider the structure

When programming drums, it's important to consider the overall structure of your drum pattern. A well-designed drum pattern should have a clear structure, with each drum sound having a specific role in the rhythm. The kick drum is typically the foundation of a drum pattern, providing the steady pulse that drives the rhythm forward. The snare drum is often used to add accents and emphasis to the pattern, while the hi-hat and cymbals can be used to add texture and create a sense of movement. The snare drum provides a higher, punchier sound than the kick drum and can often be replaced by Electro claps or clicks if so desired.

Trouble shooting the sound

If your hi-hat sound is not coming out as desired (for example), there could be a few different reasons for this. One possibility is that the hi-hat sound you are using may not be well suited to the type of music you are making. In this case, trying out different hi-hat sounds may help to improve the overall sound of your drum pattern. Another issue could be that the balance between the hi-hat and other drum sounds is not correct. Make sure that the hi-hat is not too loud or too quiet in relation to the other drums. It's often possible to load alternative samples into a drum machine or DAW to swap out any sounds that you're unhappy with. Try Macdrum's Electro Pack or Electro Loops Pack for some killer sounds.

If your drums sound bad in general, there could be a few different issues at play. Is the programming or type of beat pattern correct for the composition? Is the track glued together correctly with the correct use of effects in the mix? More often than not the track will start sounding good well before the mix stage if the correct drum beat has been created along with sound selection in the step sequencer itself. In this case, trying out different drum sounds may help to improve the overall sound of your drum patterns. Another issue could be the way in which you have arranged the drum patterns. Make sure that the different drum sounds are balanced correctly and that the overall structure of the pattern is solid. If you create drum patterns that are interesting and fit with the rest of the track it will go along way.

Classic Electro Drums in music production

Simple 808 patterns are a type of drum pattern that is characterized by the use of a Roland TR-808 drum machine. The Roland TR-808 was one of the first drum machines to use synthetic sounds, and it has become iconic for its distinctive, punchy drum sounds. Simple 808 patterns often consist of a repetitive, four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern, with snare drum hits on the backbeats and simple hi-hat patterns. These patterns are often used in electronic dance music and hip hop.

There are many different reasons why someone might choose to program their own drum patterns. One reason could be to have more control over the drum sounds and rhythms in general. Loops, although inspiring can sometimes be limiting. Using the right sample packs can help take things up a level, particularly when you have mastered the drum programming basics and are looking to expand your options and even create your own sampled loops.

Successful drum programming basics

It all depends on what you're trying to achieve and forward planning can be essential here. Genre is of course a significant consideration with musical styles such as hip hop requiring a different approach more often than not than say rock or indie. Although a cross over of styles can yield some interesting and innovative results. For example hip hop beats can work really well with jazz or even classical for example. However It's probably best to stay within the refines of a certain style whilst your getting to grips with the drum machine or DAW software.

More on step sequencing

Step sequencing is a method of creating drum patterns and rhythms by inputting individual drum hits into a grid or matrix. These drum hits can be either percussion sounds that are generated by a synthesizer or drum samples that have been recorded from real drum kits.

In step sequencing, each column of the grid represents a different drum sound, such as the kick drum, snare drum, or high hat. Each row of the grid represents a different time division, such as a quarter note, an eighth note, or a 16th note. By placing a "hit" in a specific column and row, the drum sound associated with that column will be played at the time division represented by that row.

Basic beats

For example, if you wanted to create a basic drum beat with a kick drum on the first beat and a snare drum on the third beat, you would place a hit in the column representing the kick drum on the row representing the first beat, and a hit in the column representing the snare drum on the row representing the third beat. It's possible to program like a composer thinking along the lines of quarter notes, the fourth beats and how they transition into the second bar as one example. If you're not comfortable with traditional bars then the grid works just as well if not better depending on preference.

The Grid

Good drum programming involves not just placing hits in the grid, but also considering the overall flow and groove of the drum part. This can involve adding variations, such as ghost notes or additional percussion sounds, or layering different samples to create a more complex sound. It can also involve adjusting the velocity (volume) of individual hits to create a more dynamic drum pattern.

Adjust the pitch and effects

In addition to placing hits on the grid, step sequencing often allows for the manipulation of individual drum hits, such as adjusting the pitch or adding effects. This can be used to create new and unique drum sounds, or to add an extra level of detail to the drum part.


Overall, step sequencing is a powerful tool for creating and fine-tuning drum patterns and rhythms, and can be used to add a wide range of percussion sounds and samples to a musical production and provide a great sounding rhythmic backbone to your production process, that will create interest, create variations and provide a good groove to lay instrumentation and vocals over.