Programming a drum machine can be straightforward and rewarding – here we program Reason’s Redrum as an example

The word ‘programming’ conjures up images of computer screens full of code that make little sense to any one other than those with a degree in computer science. Programming a drum machine, by the same token, is often perceived to be complex for the same reason.

However, with a little bit of knowledge, you’ll see that it’s very straightforward, and very rewarding too.

Programming A Drum Machine - Redrum

Here’s a guide to programming a drum machine, using Reason’s Redrum as an example. This ‘virtual’ drum machine uses a step sequencer for programming patterns, in a manner similar to vintage-style drum machines. This style of note entry is employed by the new Korg Volca Beats, along with countless other vintage units.

Nearly every drum machine available offers a step-sequencing mode, however, though some don’t offer the same level of easy to read visual feedback as the Redrum. The principles are the same in just about every machine, regardless.

Programming A Drum Machine - Redrum Sound Select (folder icon)

1. Load sounds

– The first step is to select the sounds you wish to use to program your drum pattern. Most drum machines (Redrum included) have a library of preset drum kits, geared towards different musical styles. Should you use one of these, all of the constituent drum sounds will be ready to use.

In this Example, however, we’ve loaded up some 808-style, analogue drum sounds, as the drum pattern we’ll be creating is in a bit of an electro hip-hop style. On the Redrum, sounds are loaded into the ten ‘columns’ that run from left to right across the front panel.

To load an individual sound, click the folder symbol at the top of one of these. This will open up the sound browser. Click ‘Reason Factory Sound Bank’ on the left, and then double click ‘Redrum Drum Kits’ in the main window.

From here, double click the ‘Xclusive Drums Sorted, folder and you’ll find an extensive library of individual drum hits. Alternatively, you can load the WAV format drum sounds of your choice.

Programming A Drum Machine - Redrum Kit Select (Folder Icon)

If you want to load up a full kit, click the folder in the bottom right (next to ‘Patch Select’), and navigate to Redrum Drum kits – then take your pick.

2. Set the tempo (in transport panel at the bottom of the screen) to 100 bpm.

Programming a Drum Machine - Setting Tempo In Redrum

3. Number of steps

– The way step sequencing on a drum machine involves creating different patterns, which can then be played when required. Patterns have a set number of ‘steps’.

This is the number of ‘divisions’ within the pattern, most typically, 16 steps are used, representing sixteen semi-quavers in a single bar. However, (as in Redrum) often both number of steps, and step note length can be set. Here, we’ll stick to 16-steps, of semi-quaver length (see image).

Programming A Drum Machine - Number of Steps and Step Length Select

Patterns are created by setting drum sounds to be played on different steps.

4. Program your kick drum part

Programming A Drum Machine - Redrum Kick Drum Select

– Click the ‘select’ button on the section that you’ve loaded your kick drum sound to (1, in this case). Adjust the ‘Dynamic’ switch to ‘hard’. This adjusts how ‘hard’ a note is played.

Along the bottom of the unit are sixteen square buttons, numbered 1-16. These are the pattern steps.

programming A Drum machine - Kick Drum Steps

Most, but not all, western pop and rock drum patterns start with a kick drum on the 1st step. Click button 1, and will glow red. Then, click steps 7 and 10. Ensure that the ‘Enable pattern section’ and ‘pattern’ lights are lit, and press play. You’ll see a light move across the top of the steps, and the kick drum will play as the light lands on the lit steps.

6. Select your snare sound

Programming A Drum Machine - Snare

– click the select button below your snare sound. Most, but not all, modern pop music has snare hits on the ‘2 and 4’, meaning the 2nd and fourth beats of the bar. These correlate to steps 5 and 13. With dynamic set to hard, click on these two steps so that they light red.

Programming A Drum Machine - Snare Steps

7. Select the clap sound, and repeat step 7.

Programming A Drum Machine - Clap Steps

8. Select the closed hi-hat sound (sound 8 in this kit)

– As previously stated, the dynamic control allows the user to play sounds at different dynamic levels (hard medium and soft). Select hard, and click step 1, then every third step after that (1, 4, 7, 10, 13 and 16).

Set the dynamic control to medium and click every step to the right of these (2, 5, 8, 11, and 14).

Set dynamic to soft, then click the remaining unlit steps (steps 3, 6, 9, 12 and 15).

Channel 8 & 9 Exclusive Select

Click the light that says ‘channel 8 & 9 Exclusive’. this means that these two channels cannot play at the same time. Select the open hi-hat sound (sound 9), set dynamic to medium, and then select steps 3, 8 and 14.

9. Hit play, and voila- your own beat.

If you’ve left the pattern section alone, this will be set to pattern 1, bank A (see image). Each bank has 8 patterns, each of which can have an entirely different pattern saved. If you’re making a song with this pattern, it makes sense to have different variations- and here’s how.

Redrum Pattern Select Section

*With pattern A1 (the one you’ve just created) selected, right click, and select ‘copy pattern, from the pop-up menu. Then, click pattern A2 (just click ‘2’ in the pattern section). Right click and select ‘paste pattern’. This copies our original pattern into the new location.

* Try adding new sounds, moving steps or adding new ones to add variety to this original pattern. Repeat this a few times, storing the results in A3, A4 etc.

Create Pattern Lanes - Reason

*In the sequencer window, select the Redrum track, and click the ‘Create Pattern Lane’ button.

Programming A Drum Machine - Tools

*Select the ‘pencil’ tool, and create a region in bar 1. Switch to the select (arrow cursor) tool, and copy this region to bar 2, 3 and 4. Each should say ‘A1’ in the upper left corner.

Programming A Drum Machine - Patterns

Select a region, and a drop-down arrow should appear next to the ‘A1’. Click this, and you’ll be able to select which pattern will play on each region. Select each of the pattern variations you’ve created on each of the regions. Hit play, and the Redrum will play your patterns, where you’ve asked it to so. Easy, eh?

Programming A Drum Machine - Patterns 2

The Redrum can also be programmed via Reason’s standard piano roll editor. Again, although we’ve used Redrum as an example, the principles of selecting a drum part, then instructing a drum machine on which step to play are fairly standard.