Book Review: The Drum Programming Handbook

When recording began in 1977 on Fleetwood Mac’s zillion-selling  album Rumours, Mick Fleetwood watched with frustration as his engineer-producer struggled to obtain a decent recorded version of his drum playing. During the process (which obviously worked itself out in time), he quipped, “God knows, if the drums aren’t right, then the song is not survivable.”

Ever since the first cassette four-track recorders appeared in 1979, drums have been the element of home recording which often vexes those crating their own music at home. Fortunately, there’s a new book, The Drum Programming Handbook by Justin Paterson, an excellent tutorial for working with physical drum machines, analog drum machines, sampled drums, and pre-recorded drum loops.

Both drum machines (and their virtual equivalent) and drum loops have their place in the arsenal of the average home recordist, even if you have the space and know-how to mic up a full drum kit and access to a drummer with the chops to tune and play it properly. The title of Paterson’s book might be taken as something of a misnomer, as “programming” implies (at least to an old school guy like me – old school meaning in this case, 1985-era technology) programming beats into drum machines. But Paterson also spends plenty of time discussing using pre-recorded drum loops. Later chapters of the Drum Programming Handbook cover working samplers and working with audio, including slicing up audio loops. This is followed by a look at synthesizing drum and percussive sounds from scratch.

The Drum Programming Handbook begins with an interesting history of the drum machine, covering examples to be expected (The Roland CR-78 ticking away on Phil Collins’ ur-‘80s song “In the Air Tonight,” until Phil’s legendary tom-tom riff dramatically changes the mood by introducing real drums) and not so expected. (Did you know there was an early drum machine on Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On album? I didn’t.) The book contains 345 spiral bound pages, plus a serial number that allows the purchaser to download audio clips of its many examples off the Hal Leonard Website; hearing these clips will be essential for making sense of the book’s many tutorials.

For some background, I started recording my own demos in 1984 on a Fostex 250 four-track cassette recorder. My first drum machine was a Roland TR-606 Drumatix, a pitiful sounding analog device, which I sold a year later and purchased a Roland TR-707. (Today, those “pitiful” analog sounds are now well-regarded by many electronic musicians.) At the time, the only book I could find on programming drum machines was called the Roland Drum Machine Rhythm Dictionary, written in 1985 by veteran music instructor Sandy Feldstein—and I was extremely glad to have it. Today, anyone who programs drum machines for most pop genres would be extremely wise to pick up a copy of Justin Paterson’s The Drum Programming Handbook.

Paterson’s crash course in the history of the drum machine in pop music is followed by a brief history of drum machine programming, and then a series of chapters beginning with the basics—note values, MIDI grids, basic MIDI programming, and then increasingly more detailed drum programming.

This is followed by a chapter on drum loops. While Sony and other companies make loops of real drums (in some cases superstars such as Mick Fleetwood, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, and Joe Walsh’s veteran drummer Joe Vitale), these loops can be endlessly edited in a digital audio workstation (DAW) to customize their patterns to tightly fit new songs.  This is where programming, audio editing, and having a knowledge of percussion and dynamics all starts to merge into one unique art form. And one that can be incredibly addicting. I found that much like programming the TR-707 back in 1985, adapting Acid loops of existing drum patterns to fit my own songs to be lots of fun, once I understood the process.

And that’s where the Drum Programming Handbook really shines. It has a very immersive feel to it, unlike some music books where the reader is encouraged to skip around and pull from it what he wishes. The book is fairly technical and in-depth (though no knowledge of traditional music notation is required), so those skipping to later chapters may have difficulty getting up to speed.

If there are drawbacks to the book, I wish there were more chapters devoted to specific genres, as the drumming that supports say a medium-tempo Al Green-style R&B song or a Beatles-style pop/rock song is very different from a complex trance-techno groove, where a busy drum pattern might be the star of the song.

Speaking of in-depth and immersive,  I felt like the book’s 345 pages were at war at times with their slightly-too-tight spiral binding. Returning the book to its pristine flat state is somewhat of a challenge once you begin perusing it, and feels like it risks damaging the book unless care is taken. In a related issue, I really hope the book is available soon in an online format. I would love to access it in say, Amazon’s Kindle for PC format in one computer monitor with my drum loops and virtual drum machines in the other.

But however the medium in which it’s presented, the Drum Programming Handbook is a highly recommended and long overdue immersive look at the world of drum machines (virtual and otherwise), drum samples, and drum loops. Anyone who spends any length of time using a DAW will likely have several examples of each of those media; here’s how to make the most of them.