The official website showcasing the music of Yellowgold, produced by Jason Howell.

Adding a drum track to un-timed guitar

In an earlier post, I told you about how I wrote Heavy Bones thanks to a dream I had. After everything that I wrote about in that post, I opened up Pro Tools a few days later and hit record. I simple played the guitar part start to finish, no click track guidance at all. My thought was that I'd have the bare bones scratch guitar part to play around with vocal harmonies over the top. All of this was in an effort to find out how I wanted to approach "the real project."

Only, after a few days, I was really attached to that guitar part. Most of the vocals as well. I liked it and considered keeping the song as a simply Guitar/Vocal affair. But over the course of the next few weeks, drum tracks started to appear in my head, a dramatic reveal of the bass and drums being a key part of that idea. I couldn't shake it.

So. I decided, what the heck. How hard could it be to create a drum track around the freestyle guitar? I could tell that, for the most part, though I wasn't playing to a click track, I had kept myself more or less pretty steady tempo-wise. So I felt confident that I could get it sounding nice if I had the time to focus on it.

I'm sure there are a number of ways to approach this. And I'll be completely honest in saying I've never needed to do this before, so I saw it as a way to discover how I might do such a thing and learn in the process. Here's what I did.

1. I played the track from the beginning and on every perceived beat, I dropped a marker on my timeline. When I was done, I had a four minute track with a shit-ton of markers, all signifying a roughly defined downbeat (after all I wasn't perfect on these.)

Dropping markers to the beat

2. I zoomed in at the top of the song to analyze where each marker was dropped, comparing it to the waveform for of the guitar (rectified view gives, imo, an easier way to see when those sounds begin.) I shifted each marker so it hit close to each strum on the guitar, if it lined up with an obvious strum. It didn't need to be dead perfect, but close enough so that, once the drums were programmed and matched to the marker locations, the downbeat of a kick or a snare would hit at nearly the same time as the strum.

3. I recorded a MIDI track from the beginning  and performed a basic Kick/Snare/Hi-hat combo track using my MIDI keyboard. I knew it wouldn't be perfect, but it gave me a starting point to mold the beat around. I kept my playing simple enough to get it right, but added a little variation depending on what each section called for.

3. Here's where it gets tedious and time consuming. Starting at the top of the song, taking the first bar of four beats, I first shifted each drum hit that is supposed to land on the beat to its appropriate place on the down beat, leaving me with the other drum hits that land between those hits to place almost ENTIRELY by feel. I set the playback to loop between the two bars and shifted until they sounded right. Remember, there is no grid to go by. So you are shifting them around to try and keep it all sounding as human and normal as possible.

4. Repeat this on every bar throughout the song.

5. Once I had everything placed, i played through a number of times and the second something jumped out at me, I stopped, zoomed in on the bar in question, and tweaked. 

I spent a few days getting that drum track to sound right, and in the end, it totally worked. There are only one or two times in the track where I can tell that the guitar playing slowed or sped up slightly, and at one point in the track, the guitar slowed down too far for my liking so I actually edited the guitar to make it time correctly and shifted everything down to compensate. I have to say, after all that work, it sounds pretty solid and I'm SO happy I spent that time. I notice in playback that it isn't to a rigid tempo and it almost sounds MORE organic because of it.