There are quite a few options out there for generating drum tracks these days. From loops to AI, it seems that just about every DAW comes with a way to get rhythm tracks up and running at a record pace. But what do you do if none of the pre-played options match exactly what’s in your head? While programming using the piano roll or drum grid may be an option, it can really speed up your workflow if you have the ability to play in drum patterns using a MIDI keyboard. Here are a few tips that will help you get from idea to finished rhythm track quickly!
One of the first and most obvious ways you can make a drum pattern a little easier to play is to split it up into multiple tracks. If your keyboard skills aren’t quite there yet, why try to play the hi-hat at the same time as your kick and snare? Split your drum part up into two tracks, or even three, and play a small portion of it on each track. You can always layer it back together later if you like. Heck, I’m a pianist and I still split my kick and snare off from my hi-hat. Sometimes I want individual volume control of each element, and sometimes I just want to try something that’s a little more complex than I can play without significant practice—and when inspiration strikes, you don't always have the time to get a complex pattern ‘under your fingers’.
When working on a faster or more complex pattern like a funky hi-hat part or an impressive fill, many techniques of traditional drum set playing can be brought over to your keyboard playing! When playing a fill, I’ll often find myself utilizing a paradiddle to switch the ‘lead finger’ (as opposed to the ‘lead hand) and to give certain strokes a stronger accent. You don’t always have to alternate between left and right hands consistently. Take a look at a few drum rudiments such as paradiddles, flam paradiddles, and patafla-flas (no, this isn’t english, it’s drummer language) and try to execute them in a simple rhythmic phrase.
While General MIDI is the universally accepted ‘drum map’ with the kick drum on C1, the snare drum on C2, etc., it is not always the most effective! Plenty of instruments like BFD or Polyplex offer alternate mapping—and in many cases using an alternate mapping can make it easier to execute certain stylistic fills. I find that for electronic beats, when using Polyplex, I prefer the 1 octave ‘all white keys’ setup and don’t overly complicate my patterns. When I’m playing funkier, more acoustic stuff, the General MIDI setup helps me ‘feel’ a little more like a drummer.
The most important tip I can give you is a bit cheesy, but it’s not said enough. Practice makes perfect. Call up a tune in the style you love and try to identify the drum pattern. Play along with it! Try to replicate the fills, the feel, and the style. Learning how to play drum patterns that are convincing is like learning any other instrument, and it’s not going to happen magically. Dedicate yourself to playing along with 1 song a day for a week and you’ll see your keyboard drum skills take a sharp leap towards authenticity!