Drums are a different beast than most instruments. They don’t really rely on chords or melody. Instead, they solely lean on rhythm to create interest and catch ears.
But, just because drums are simple doesn’t mean drum programming is easy—creating interesting and complex drum patterns is a huge challenge that takes time, skill and practice.
You need to have a sense of groove, good taste in sound, an idea of how you want to arrange your track and where the drums will fit in to carry your track forward.
Drums are the driving force behind every song. The rhythmic backbone holds everything together and is ultimately what makes people dance.
So learning drum programming is super important if you want to write good music.
Drums are the driving force behind every song.
In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about drum programming and we’ll take a look at some of the various iconic drum patterns from different electronic music genres.
Let’s get started.
How to program drums
Drum programming is easy to learn but difficult to master.
DAWs like Ableton, Logic and FL Studio come with well-developed drum plugins that make it easy to see the pattern of a beat, make changes to samples, arrange and edit.
But clicking in a beat is just the first step of programming drums in a DAW or drum machine.
Clicking in a beat is just the first step of programming drums in a DAW or drum machine.
To make a custom beat you need to do much more than add a simple MIDI clip—even if a MIDI pack is incredibly useful as a starting point.
Here’s a few things to think about beyond clicking in drum patterns when programming drums.
When you punch in a drum beat on a MIDI roll, every note you put in gets the same velocity or dynamic level.
If you don’t change the velocities of the notes you punch in, you’re going to get a very static, robotic and boring sound.
It’s critical to adjust the velocity level of your notes, especially for any syncopated parts in the higher end—hi-hats, crashes, snares, toms and any other auxiliary percussion.
The best way to get the velocities right is to listen to a loop of your beat and adjust velocities as you go or, play the notes in with a velocity-sensitive MIDI controller or pad.
Either way, you’ll need to take your time to make sure the velocities are right so that everything gels and truly sounds groovy.
Sound design and ADSR envelopes
In most cases, if you’re working with a DAW or a drum machine you’ll be using samples.
But whether or not you’re working with a sample or a drum synthesizer, putting some time into sound design to make your samples or your drum synths sound unique is worth it.
Ultimately, the other parts of your track sound unique to your style of writing and your production sound—so throwing in a drum sample or using a preset likely won’t result in something that truly matches your sound.
Make sure to go over your samples and tweak ADSR envelopes. Add filters, saturation, compression, bit reduction, distortion, gates or whatever else it takes to make your samples sound like they fit into your track’s vibe.
Because modern drum programming offers you so much ability to customize the effects chain for each sample with a ton sound design tools, you really can take your drum sounds to new, more interesting places.
So, don’t shy away from sound design on your samples or drum synths.
Variations and arrangement
Both Ableton and Logic offer fairly intuitive clip views that make it easy to try different arrangements for various parts of your track.
To program a good drum arrangement you’ll need variations with parts of your kit muted as well as rhythmic variations.
Sorting out how variations will sound in your drum programming can help you decide what’s needed for the build-ups, breakdowns and other changes in your track’s arrangement.
Timing, groove and feel
Sometimes, a mechanical drum part is just what the doctor ordered. Many genres, like glitchy techno or pounding EDM trance require a very robotic, perfectly timed beat.
But in a lot of cases, using slightly imperfect timing creates a pleasing human, off-kilter feel that adds a degree of groove and funk to a drum part.
Slightly imperfect timing creates a pleasing human, off-kilter feel that adds a degree of groove to a drum part.
Creating authentic human-sounding timing with drum programming in an electronic format can be incredibly difficult.
The best way is to manually play your beats with a sensitive MIDI pad—like I’ve done in some cases for the making of this drum MIDI pack.
But, if that doesn’t work for you, consider moving snare and claps slightly off the grid, or use an LFO to subtly oscillate the attack time of your hi-hats and snares.
Adding a bit of imperfect variation to your beats is an excellent way to humanize your drums and add some extra, imperceptible grooviness to your music.
15 classic patterns drum MIDI pack
Alright, now that we’ve explored a little about how you can make drum patterns your own, let’s take a look at some relatively simple drum patterns that are perfect to get started with drum programming.
These are designed to get your creative juices going, they’re definitely not intended to be a finished beat—even though you’re welcome to use this article’s accompanying free MIDI pack however you like.
I’ve broken my thoughts about drum patterns into various genre sections. Here’s the basics for a handful of popular electronic genres that’ll help kickstart your drum programming
House drum patterns
There are a few staples in house drums that unite most house tracks.
Number one is the predominant use of the TR-909 drum machine sound—this set of drum sounds defines this genre so get a good sample pack of this iconic machine.
Rhythmically, house music is very much inspired by disco music. It’s no surprise that disco’s four-on-the-floor kick pattern is heavily used throughout.
Beyond that, house producers tend to use simple hi-hat patterns and lean on lots of auxiliary percussion like crashes, rides, claves, toms, congas, bongo, triangle and beyond.
Here’s a few basic house grooves to get you inspired.
1. 90s house drums
Here’s a very basic 90s influenced house drum pattern. It’s a single 4/4 bar looped and subdivided into 16th notes.
I’m using 909 samples and have added some afro cuban style rhythms to the toms and a clave style to the ride to make things interesting.
2. Tech house drums
In my tech house inspired beat I’ve opted for a subtler arrangement, with a closed hi-hat on the offbeat and some syncopated 32nd note hi-hats off grid.
3. Minimal house drums
Arguably, minimal house is much more about the sound design and tones used than the rhythmic arrangements—but stripped-down rhythms that make space for this genre’s more ambient and washy synths are necessary to keep the mix clear.
Here’s a simple rhythm that cuts the hi-hat to a single off-beat hit, and features a small fill at the end of the loop.
4. Deep house drums
Moving in the opposite direction, I’ve got a longer, more fleshed-out deep house-inspired drum pattern. It uses some more complex fills on the snare drum and some groovy hats.
Again the samples, sound design and mix choices you’ll make are what will really make this groove hit hard—but this rhythm is an excellent starting point for making a convincing deep house track.
Techno drum patterns
It’s easy to say that techno drums are basically just house drums but faster—and in a lot of ways that’s true.
But techno drum patterns depart from house in the low end. They typically use much more intense, pounding kicks and usually leave the high end to synths and sparse high hats.
Again, sound design and sample choice are key for success with techno production. Not to mention tasteful arrangements that make space for buildups and breakdowns.
Here’s some basic ways to start with techno drum programming.
5. Rumble kicks
In this fairly simple techno drum pattern, I’ve outlined the rumbling kick pattern heard in hard-hitting warehouse techno.
With respect to the MIDI, the main key is getting the swing amount and velocity signals right.
6. Glitchy toms
In this slightly more built-out techno drum pattern I’ve got an extra rumble kick plus a tom and clap fill.
It’s another example of how you can quickly build out a techno arrangement and start adding simple elements that immediately bring out various rhythms.
Trap drum patterns
The hallmarks of trap drums are its lightning-fast hi-hat patterns, booming 808 ostinatos and the predominant use of TR-808-inspired samples.
Here’s two basic trap-inspired drum patterns.
7. Fast 32nds
8. Open hats with triplets
Here’s a trap drum pattern that incorporates some groovy eighth notes triplets juxtaposed against some three-stroke sixteenth note rolls and some open hats.
Mixing and matching these two patterns is definitely a good place to start finding inspiration for your own trap beats!
Hip-hop drum patterns
Hip-hop drum programming is a bit looser and funkier—mostly due to the genre’s roots in manually sampling actual soul and funk drummers, and then programming in basic drum beats.
That’s why I manually played in hip-hop these hip-hop drum patterns in through my MIDI drum kit and tried to keep as much human feel with minimal quantization.
9. The drunk snare drum
For this one, I got inspired by the legendary producer, J Dilla. He’s famous for using a trailing, late snare drum that’s heavily behind the backbeat of the song.
Listen to how the snare comes in well before the 2 and 4 beats.
10. Boom-bap funkiness
Here’s a pretty classic boom bap groove that’s inspired by the kind of drums you might hear on an early Nas or Biggie Smalls track.
11. 16th note funk hats
I’ve got another groove here that uses a 16th note pattern on the hi-hats and some funky boom-bap kick and snare to make it really hip-hop.
DNB Drum Patterns
Drum and bass music or DNB, are very drum focussed—they usually feature incredibly busy, sped up drum break samples backed by spaced out synth pads and chiming arpeggiators.
Most drum and bass music is made using samples from old-school soul and funk records.
But today you definitely can get the same effect using MIDI—plus all the control over sound design and sample choice that sampling gives you.
12. The Amen Break
Perhaps the most legendary break of all drum breaks—the amen break is heavily used in DNB music.
Producers love to chop it up and bend it into many variations. Here’s what it looks like on a MIDI roll.
13. Speed up the break
If you want to make DNB music you need to get really good at chopping up drum break samples.
Producers will often speed them to near inhuman speeds, creating a high-pitched snare drum and grating hi-hats and cymbals.
Aside from working with MIDI, your best bet might be to grab some royalty-free drum breaks and start chopping up some breaks of your own.
Other EDM drum patterns
There are so, so many genres of electronic music and each comes with considerations of its own.
And while many genres are very similar, it’s the subtle differences that make each variation special.
Let’s take a look at some more obscure but in-demand sub-genres with unique drum considerations.
14. Trance drum pattern
Trance drum patterns take a lot of inspiration from house drums—but they tend to feature rolling hi-hat patterns and syncopated tom or conga hits.
Here’s a starting point and some inspiration for what a trance drum pattern could look like.
15. Eurodance drum pattern
Eurodance drums are also very house-inspired, but they typically feature a bit more variation on the high hat and will use auxiliary drums like rim shots and tambourines instead of congas and toms.
They’re very prone to using a rolling hi-hat pattern with a choked open hat on the two and four.
16. Synthwave drum pattern
Synthwave music takes its cues from punk music—just listen to Joy Division or The Ramones and you’ll see what I mean.
Most synth wave beats are stripped-down rock grooves with simple tom-tom set to Linndrum or TR-909 samples.
Here’s an example to try out.
17. Dubstep drum pattern
Dubstep drums are difficult to describe, but in short they use influences from hip-hop and trap to make a heavy groove.
Here’s an example of something I consider to fit within the dubstep canon.
Drum up your next track
Now that you know some of the basics needed for good drum programming and you have some patterns to get started with, download the MIDI and start making beats of your own.
Get creative and have fun creating your own drum ideas for your tracks!
Alex Lavoie works as a staff writer at LANDR by day and moonlights as a drummer for folk-rock outfit The Painters.
Gear guides, tips, tutorials, inspiration and more—delivered weekly.
Keep up with the LANDR Blog.