Any producer who has sat down with a sampler and tried to programme a groove knows how tricky it is to create satisfying hi hat patterns. The first approach attempted by many a novice producer, simply drawing in some sixteenth notes and hoping for the best, typically results in the kind of stale, mechanical patterns decried by all lovers of truly expressive electronic music. Now, in certain musical contexts the mechanical impression arising from the repetition of exactly the same sound can work very well, such as with the rolling hi hat patterns heard in Trap beats. In a great many other situations however, this approach just sounds plain dull. So, how do we go about improving our robotic, basic hi hat pattern' Well, we do what all clever students do and learn from the best in the business!
Learn From The Masters
What this means in the context of the present discussion is paying attention to how actual drummers play. There are a great number of musical factors at work in even the most basic acoustic drum playing, all of which contribute to the impression of those sought after descriptors 'groove' and 'feel'. I would like to examine a small number of only the most crucial of these factors in the paragraphs below, that we can borrow from acoustic playing and apply directly to our electronic rhythms.
Firstly and most importantly, drummers don't play with a consistent energy or velocity for every single drum hit. There are natural changes in the amount of pressure applied when playing a hi hat or snare drum repeatedly, providing a subtle but noticeable ebb and flow in the volume of the resulting pattern. Good drummers also play with accentuation, meaning they focus on particular points in a groove to play louder as well as certain points to play more quietly. This creates internal rhythms and patterns within the overall context of the drum groove.
To apply this to your electronic productions, you need to spend a bit of time with your DAW's velocity tool - as a first step, I recommend modifying the velocity of each hit in your hi hat pattern so that each velocity falls within an overall range of between 5 and 10 (assuming your velocity range is the 0 to 127 MIDI standard). Next, experiment with accents by choosing certain points to boost in velocity - try accenting 'on' beats (the whole-note beats of 1, 2, 3 and 4) to reinforce your tempo and the stability of the pattern, or 'off' beats (the half-note beats falling in between the on beats) to spice things up and produce a groovier impression. Once you've established these points of accentuation, you can use the other hits in your pattern to create and dispel momentum, by leading up to or away from them in velocity terms.
The second thing we can learn from the playing of acoustic drummers is that micro fluctuations in tempo contribute greatly to the overall feel of the given groove. These subtle changes in hit placement are arguably the largest contributing factor to the lazy, laid back feel in certain Hip Hop tracks to the organic, lively vibe of particular Deep House tunes and many styles in between.
An easy implementation of this technique is to programme in your basic hi hat pattern, quantize it tightly, then push and pull a number of the samples out of position by hand. Don't go too far or your groove will just sound messy - zoom right in and nudge a number of your hi hats off of the grid by just a fraction. Then, listen back to your pattern and tweak each sample position till the groove feels right. Flying Lotus in particular is an expert at implementing this technique in electronic music - check out his peerless '1983' for a perfect case-in-point!
Mixing up different note durations is another tip we can pick up from acoustic drumming. Beyond the more obvious use of both closed and open hi hat samples, dialling in subtle changes in the length of each hit can work wonders in producing a more natural groove. If your sampler has a 'gate' function, use it to modify duration by lengthening or shortening your MIDI blocks. Otherwise, you'll have to go in and manually edit the length of each sample (or pick up a copy of our Power Tools - Drum Samples & Patches pack, featuring sets of closed, mid and open hi hats). Try mirroring the velocity pattern you've already programmed in by making the louder notes longer and quieter notes shorter, or make your groove more complex by creating a distinct pattern for your array of durations.
A final trick you can use to create groovier hi hat patterns is to use a number of copies of the same sample or sound and to modify the pitch of each by just a small amount. This helps to reflect the changes in timbre achieved in acoustic playing by hitting different parts of the hi hat cymbal or applying more or less pressure to the stand's pedal.
Find the sample you want to use and drop it into 3 to 5 different slots in your sampler. If you're using straight audio, simply drop the same sample onto 3 to 5 different tracks in your DAW. Then, alter the pitch of each sound by cents - semitones will be too much and will produce a much more melodic effect than the subtle impression we want to create here. A pitch range of 15 - 30 cents should do the trick. Now, simply alternate between the different samples when programming your hi hat pattern and reduce the pitch range if the effect is too obvious.
Often, it isn't necessary to use all of the above techniques to get your groove sounding more natural but it is nice to have a selection of different approaches to try from track to track. Good luck and have fun using these gifts from the gods of the drum!
Spice up you hi hat library and check out our full range of hi hat, drum and percussion samples here.