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

Filtering by Category: Programming

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.

Refining the drum track

Let's say I have a project, built by a template that follows my work flow, a tempo for my project, a timeline with markers indicating the various points and movements of my song, a scratch guitar track, and scratch vocals. 

Often, it's easier for me to get a good run through on guitars if the click track I am playing to isn't actually a click track at all. Instead of a lifeless robotic click noise denoting the downbeat, I'll replace it with a Battery drum track that drops a kick drum on the down beat. It gives my playing a nice little backbeat to play along with.


Sometimes I already have a good indication in my head as to the basic beat of the song. At this early stage it's about getting the general idea down enough to allow me to continue forward, but not getting bogged down in the details. And I almost always find programming drums to be easier done with live performance as opposed to straight up MIDI note editing.

...which is kind of odd when I consider the years I spent programming house music under the Raygun moniker. Almost every note in that project is created manually editing MIDI piano rolls as opposed to live rhythm performance. It's simply a different approach lending itself to a different sound. House music is by nature electronic and very robotic, so having a human feel can actually be frowned upon. Not in every case, but non-quantized beats can be tough for a DJ to manage during a live set, so it's definitely a consideration that is followed rather closely.

The music I produce as Yellowgold is always far more organic... at least it is in my head. The problem is always the simple fact that A, I am not a drummer.... and B, I don't have a drum set to try to become one. I'd certainly love to be able to do it, but from a space and noise perspective, it's simply not that possible.

So my approach with MIDI drum programming usually follows like so:

1. Click track or very basic 2-4 bar loop of programmed drums. As simple as a kick snare combo with some super light hi hats. I don't want the drums to be too detailed at this early stage, I merely want a backbeat that I can groove to while I play. If I create something too creative, I might end up accenting certain parts of the beat that might clash with the other elements I have in mind that hit the track at a later stage.

2. Once I have this, lay down my scratch tracks that give the track a beginning-to-end structure, the skeleton for my entire song.

3. Once I have a sense of the twists and turns, some fills and a more detailed drum sound start to take shape in my mind. Certain parts seem ripe for a particular tom fill. Suddenly crashes on particular downbeats feel appropriate. Once I have an idea for all of these things, I'll create an entirely new region for Battery and start to perform the foundation, live, with the Keystation Pro-88. I've gotten pretty used to the key mapping for drums on the keyboard, so its become much easier for me to play the kit freestyle.

The thing to realize here is I don't expect this pass to be 100% perfect through to the end of the song. I am hoping to nail, with little need for quantization if possible, the feel of the song for around 16 bars, 32 would be great. I want a long enough block of solid drums  that I can feel comfortable copying that throughout the rest of the track as need be, once I've done what's next.

4. When I have that solid block, I treat the notes, sometimes on an individual basis, with select quantization. I don't blanket quantize unless I'm lazy. (Hey, sometimes it happens.) And quite honestly, the material doesn't always NEED that kind of attention. But I find that it feels alive if you treat it with more precise attention than it does if you throw a straight up 8th or 16th note quantize onto the whole block of drums.  I almost always quantize the downbeat kicks strictly, so the downbeat is always dead on. I usually quantize the hi-hats with a light randomization (somewhere in the 6-8% range) so they don't sound too robotic. Snares usually hit very close to down beat, though I might randomize those around 2-4%. I also take a lot of time refining the velocity of these hits... particularly in the hi-hat line. When hi-hats hit as frequently as they can during a drum session, having them all hitting at the same or nearly the same velocity is a surefire way to spot MIDI drums, so I really try to take some time getting those sounding as natural as possible.

I'm exhausted typing this cause I realize how much time I spend on these things and yes, it's tiring. It's by no means my favorite part of the process, but I feel its essential to producing the kind of sound that I'm looking for. It would be way easier to just do blanket quantization and be done with it, but I'd hear the robotic nature of those drums every time I heard that track and it would eat me up inside.

Up next: What do you do when you've recorded an acoustic guitar as your very first track in a project, to no click track, then later decided you want to make that un-timed track the foundation of a production complete with drums and everything else? I did that for Heavy Bones, and I'll share with you what I did.