Drum machine programming

This post has been superseded by my giant collection of rhythm patterns, which you can see here.

I wrote a general post about what makes a hot beat hot. As a followup, here’s how to program some generic patterns and a few famous breakbeats. The basic unit of dance music is a sequence of sixteen eighth notes, two measures of four-four time. Drum machines like the Roland TR-808 represent the sixteen eighth notes as an ice cube tray with sixteen slots, with a row for each percussion sound.

Software like Reason and Fruityloops have drum machine emulators that follow the look and feel of the 808. The loop cycles from slot number one across to the right. When it gets to slot sixteen it jumps back to one.

Here’s how you’d count the basic loop. Above is the standard music notation method of counting two bars of four-four time. Below is the drum machine representation, with the eighth notes numbered one through sixteen.

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |

The key to the patterns below:

  • bd = bass drum or kick drum
  • sn = snare drum
  • hh = closed hi-hat
  • oh = open hi-hat
  • rd = ride cymbal
  • – is an empty slot

Genre boilerplate

Generic rock

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd -- bd -- -- -- bd -- bd -- bd -- -- -- bd -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- |
| hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- |

Generic hip-hop

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd -- -- -- -- -- -- bd -- -- bd -- -- -- bd -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- |
| hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- hh -- |

Generic techno/house/dance “four on the floor”

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd -- -- -- bd -- -- -- bd -- -- -- bd -- -- -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- |
| -- -- hh -- -- -- hh -- -- -- hh -- -- -- hh -- |

Some famous breakbeats

The Funky Drummer

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd -- bd -- -- -- bd -- -- -- bd -- -- bd -- -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- sn -- sn -- sn sn -- -- sn |
| hh hh hh hh hh hh hh -- hh hh hh hh hh -- hh hh |
| -- -- -- -- -- -- -- oh -- -- -- -- -- oh -- -- |

Impeach The President

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd -- -- -- -- -- -- bd bd -- -- -- -- -- bd -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- |
| hh -- hh -- hh -- hh hh hh -- -- -- hh -- hh -- |
| -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- oh -- -- -- -- -- |

When The Levee Breaks

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd bd -- -- -- -- -- bd -- -- bd bd -- -- -- -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- -- -- -- -- sn -- -- -- |
| oh -- oh -- oh -- oh -- oh -- oh -- oh -- oh -- |

Cold Sweat

|  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  +  1  +  2  +  3  +  4  + |
| 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 |
| bd -- -- -- -- -- -- -- bd -- bd -- -- -- -- -- |
| -- -- -- -- sn -- -- sn -- -- -- -- sn -- -- sn |
| rd -- rd -- rd -- rd -- rd -- rd -- rd -- rd -- |

Notice that all these beats have a kick on the downbeat of the first measure. When P-Funk sings that everything is on the one, this is what they mean. Notice also that all of these beats have loud snare hits on beat three of each measure. This beat is called the backbeat, and it’s the defining sound of American dance music across every genre.

Hip-hop styles usually leave the kick drum off the downbeat of the second measure, slot 9 on the drum machine. Instead, hip-hop beatmakers anticipate the second downbeat by placing the kick in slot 7 or 8. Sometimes they delay it by putting it in slot 10 or 11. Sometimes they omit it altogether.

The odd-numbered beats are called strong beats, and the even-numbered ones are weak beats. Putting drum hits on the weak beats is called syncopation, and syncopation makes things sound hip. Experiment, and use your ears.

If you have requests for more breakbeat transcriptions, hit me in the comments. Happy programming!

13 thoughts on “Drum machine programming

  1. Hello Ethan

    Just wanted to say THANK YOU! I found this extremely usful.

    I’m a novice I have been looking for something like this for ages!!

    Just wondering if you had any other breakbeat transcriptions you could send me. Also any other genre transcriptions would be greatly appreciated.

    once again thanks alot

    • Hi Mark, glad to be of service. This is all the transcriptions I’ve done so far, but I’d be happy to do more if you have specific requests.

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  4. Interesting stuff. However, you say here that the backbeat is the snare on the third beat. Don’t you mean the second and fourth beats?

    • Depends how you’re counting. If you think of the basic cell as a bar of four quarter notes, then yes, the backbeat is beats 2 and 4. However, if you think of it as two bars of quarter notes at twice the tempo, then the backbeat falls on beat three. I like the second way of thinking about it because then you snap your fingers on 2 and 4 in each measure — sort of a hyperbackbeat.

  5. i would love to see a post about people that took these breaks even farther (aphex twin, venetian snares, square pusher) and how exactly they are able to take it to the extremes they do. Thanks!

    • I’d love to post about the techniques used by Aphex Twin, Squarepusher et al, but I have no idea how they do it. I know they load individual drum hits into the sampler. play them back with pads or some other MIDI controller, and then speed them up like crazy, but more specifically than that I don’t know.

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