Technological Terror - Drum Programming Via Cakewalk: Part 1

So, after my synapses recuperated from a week of drum programming, this voice spoke to me and said, "Writes a tidbit about drum programming in Cakewalk!"... well, actually my cat told me.. okay, my stuffed cat... but it was a good idea nonetheless. Those who know me know that my "tidbits" can be quite involved, so they sometimes weigh in over the tidbit limit, and get into the pamphlet category.. but bear with me- it'll be worth it.

I've written other articles on drum programming in the past, but nothing strictly devoted to Cakewalk Pro Audio/Sonar and it's hierarchy. Furthermore, I'll take it a few steps further, and discuss (well, discuss would mean you and I would have a dialogue happening.... maybe the term "blab" is better) how to get those programmed drum sounds to really stand out in the mix.

Enough of my yappin, let's go!


Double click your Cakewalk icon, and open a new file. At this point, I'm assuming that your hard and/or software is configured, and you know which notes trigger which sounds, MIDI ports, etc. If not, time to crack open those manuals and work the migraine! For sake of argument, I'm going to just reference note values (C3, D3, etc) as KICK, SNARE, etc to avoid any confusion (my setup uses a few different sound devices, so my note values overlap depending on port/unit)... but this may be irrelevant. Oh well, onward!

Project should use a timebase of 120, for sake and ease of programming (we'll tweak it later...); tempo is irrelevant- whatever works for you; let's stick to 4/4 time. Configure track 1 as a MIDI track, and name it "click". Open the EVENT window. This is where I do 90% of my drums.... note by note. Insert a note @ 01:1:000, and configure it as a closed hat, velocity of 127, and duration of 0 (unless your modules require a duration for the sound to trigger). Do the same @ 1:2:000, 1:3:000, and 1:4:000 - quarter note click track! Copy and paste the first measure about 8 times (or however long you want it to go). Combine the pieces in the TRACK window (select the entire track, right click, and combine). If you want 8th notes, just select and copy all the notes, slide the existing notes by 60 ticks, and paste the old notes over the "slid" notes!

This is the basis I use to create drums. It may be a bit tedious for some of you, but in the long run, it's the most detailed place to assemble and tweak drums. Sure, I could bang on a synth controller (ie: keyboard) and record the patterns into the software, but then I'd still have to quanatize the performance.. so I'd be in this window anyway. By the way, I HATE TO QUANATIZE! I try to avoid that command (albeit sometimes a misaligned paste can be easily fixed by using it) for drum construction.

Now we've got a steady pulse to play off of. Insert another MIDI track. Let's name it "d" (for drums... geddit?). We're only going to program kick, snare, and toms in this track. Hats, rides, and crashes will all have separate tracks. We're going to stick to a basic drum beat for example's sake. Back to the EVENT window: Insert a note @ 3:1:000 (I like to give myself 2 measures of start time before the song begins). Assign the note to the kick drum. Now insert a note @ 3:2:000 and make it a snare. The trick to making drums groove is in the kick and where it's placed. So, let's insert another kick (from now on, I'll refer to inserted notes as their final assigned value, and their velocities will be 127 and duration of 0) @ 3:2:060, 3:3:060, and 3:4:060. Insert a snare @ 3:4:000. Play back and presto- a basic drum pattern! Now we're going to tweak it a bit...

Adjust the velocity of the first snare to about 121. Can you hear a difference in timbre? If your drum sampler/module is set up for velocity boundaries adjust the value until you hear a difference. If not, then bring the value down anywhere between 111 and 121. This puts the accent on the 4 (being the second snare hit). Now, set the velocity of the second kick to 121, the third to 111, and the fourth to 121. This puts the kick accent on the 1. Loop it and listen.. hear the difference? Copy and pase this measure 7 times.

TRACK VIEW: insert a new MIDI track and name it "hats". Mute the "click" track. EVENT VIEW: insert a mid hat @ 3:1:000, 3:2:000, 3:3:000, and 3:4:000. Pretty stale, eh? Adjust the velocities to: 127, 121, 127, 121. Better? Okay, how about inserting mid hats @ 3:1:060, 3:2:060, 3:3:060, and 3:4:060, and make their velocities about 96. Sometimes making the "060" notes open hats (or vice versa when open hats are used as quarter notes) gives a sloppier sound to the hat. Play around and experiment... okay, copy/paste this measure 7 times.

TRACK VIEW: insert a MIDI track and name it "crash". EVENT VIEW: Insert a crash @ 3:1:000 and 7:1:000. Unless the drummer is an octopus, then he's not likely to play the high hat and crash at the same time. Open the "hat" EVENT VIEW. Change the velocity value of 3:1:000 and 7:1:000 to 0.

So it's pretty basic, but it's a groove. Can you hear how the velocity changes affect the feel? Now we'll get a bit more into the nitty gritty...

A Bit Of Blam!

Let's create a drum roll/fill before the second crash. Open the EVENT VIEW on the "drum" track, and scroll down to about 6:4:000. Change the kick @ 6:4:060 to 6:4:090. Insert a snare @ 6:4:030 and a tom @ 6:4:060. Nothing spectacular, but hey- I've got to type this thing out. Now let's add a snare flam: Insert snare notes @ 6:3:100 and 6:3:110 with velocities of 78 and 88. The placement of the notes with the low velocities will give the impression of "rolling" off the snare, and adds a bit to an otherwise uneventful fill. Open the EVENT VIEW of the "hats". Once again, this is an octopus-free zone: delete the hats @ 6:4:000 and 6:4:060. Adjust the hat note @ 6:3:060 to be an open hat with a velocity of 127. It'll make the illusion that the "drummer" is winding up to flam, and just couldn't give a rat's 'nads about that last hi hat note.

120 vs. 960

So we've got ourselves some drums to work with... now to get those triggered MIDI sounds into the computer as wav files. But first... even more tweaking!

Let's separate each drum into its own track. In the TRACK view, select all of the notes in the "d" track. Using the event filter, select only the kick (C3) notes; copy them, and paste them into a new track. Name it "kick". Now, do the same for the snare and tom(s). You would repeat this for each tom, if you use multiple tom sounds.

So by now, we should have tracks named: kick, snare, tom, hat, and crash. Go into the OPTIONS pulldown, and select PROJECT. Change the timebase to 960. Select the kick track, and its contents. Now, run the CAL routine "RANDOM TIME". Set the value to 1, and press enter. Do the same to the other tracks, and use the value of 2. This will shift the selected notes +/- 1 unit from its original starting point. It's a great way to get rid of the rigid structure of sequencing. Listen to it and try it out. If you moved a track too much (or too little), you can always Quanatize the track back to 0, and start over.

Want to humanize those hats a bit more? I've written a CAL routine called "Random Velocity", which will take selected notes, and change the velocities to random amounts within a specified range. Select all of the notes in the "hats" track with a velocity of 96. Run Random Veloicity CAL routine. It will ask you for a maximun value: enter 100. Now enter a minimum value: enter 92. Click OK. Now all of the notes that had a velocity of 96 have been changed to values between 92 and 100. Now do the same to the notes with velocities of 121. Instant feel!


Now it's time for some patchwork.. I'll use generic terms, as everyone's system/studio is different. Take the audio outputs of you drum machine/module and connect them to the input of your soundcard. Mute all tracks except for the "kick". Add an audio track, and configure it to record the output of the drum module, and record just the output of the kick track into the new audio track. Rename the audio track "kick-wav". Do the same for the snare, hat, tom(s), and crash. Remember to mute the other tracks. When you're done, you should have 5 audio tracks containing wav files of your sequenced drums. Now you can tweak each track separately (gate, compress, eq, etc.), and mix them within Cakewalk.

Laborious ASCII Abuse

Well, maybe it does seem a bit on the tedious side to do ALL of this stuff. It all depends on how hardcore you want to be with your recordings. It's your music: be creative.

Joe Bochar is an original guitarist originally from Rhode Island. When he's not playing with his guitar or Lego's, Joe can be found wandering the streets of Los Angeles, pedaling crack to lonesome, down and out 3-legged mice who suffer from fromagaphobia.

His latest project is "X", a self-produced instrumental guitar CD release.

Joe Bochar