Conquering the Hi-Hat Stiffness Problem
|By BRANDON FEINSTEIN|
One thing many beatmakers struggle with (myself formerly included) is getting their drums to sound more live and not so stiff. I specifically struggled with the most commonly repetitive element in a drum pattern: the closed hi-hat. This is a topic frequently brought up among beatmakers, and it has taken a long time for me to understand some of the more subtle techniques to add feel and groove to a drum pattern effectively and purposefully.
Here is a list of techniques I learned and used over the years in previous beats to achieve a more live and less repetitive sound with hi-hats:
• Layering hi-hats over each other.
• Using a few different hi-hats and alternating the velocity and pitch a little between hits (usually a little higher pitch on the harder velocity notice and slightly lower pitch on the softer velocity notes).
• Playing them in live no quantize.
• Quantizing them and then shifting them forward or backward.
• Sampling a breakbeat and filtering out the lows so you are left with a just the hi-hats and laying the filtered break over your programmed hi-hats.
These are all effective techniques especially when used in the right combination together. However, one of the more elusive techniques, which I discovered a few months ago, has turned out to be one of the most effective.
I started making beats on Propellerhead’s Reason 4, mostly using the Redrum virtual drum machine for my drums. Redrum is a great machine for adding feeling and dynamics to a drum beat quickly, as its user interface makes it very easy. A short while after using Reason, I transitioned away from the computer environment and moved to the Akai MPC 2000xl and then later the MPC 5000. One thing that caught my attention was how different the drums sounded, not only sonically but the feeling and groove of them, particularly with the closed hi-hats. In the MPC, my hi-hats seemed stiffer and un-alive compared to Redrum. I decided to do a comparison between the two to try and understand why Redrum was sounding more alive.
I loaded a drum kit I into Redrum, and then loaded the same kit into the MPC. The drum kit contained three drum samples: a kick, a snare, and a hi-hat. Then, I programmed into Redrum a simple drum beat (all events at the same velocity) and then used the same drum beat and programmed it into my MPC at the same tempo with quantize and no swing or shuffle (knowing this is going to sound robotic, but making any differences more obvious). As I noticed before, there was a very subtle difference, Redrum seemed a bit less stiff than my MPC in terms of the hi-hats. The hi-hats in Redrum sounded like they had more groove. I recorded the MPC’s output and Redrum output into Pro Tools and lined up the waveforms. They lined up perfectly and the waveforms looked just about identical.
I then returned to the MPC to try to figure out how to get a similar groove like the one in Redrum. I started looking around in the MPC’s Step Edit window on my hi-hat track. I reviewed all the options I could use to edit the hi-hat events. There are filters, pitch, velocity, and then attack and decay. I knew Redrum didn’t automatically adjust the pitch or filtering to give it more groove, it seemed more subtle than that. Then I contemplated the attack parameter. I started to adjust the attack on the hi-hat events inside the MPC making the attack slightly less steep on random hi-hat events. Then when I played back the MPC it suddenly had that similar kind of feel as Redrum, but it had even a bit more with some bounce. My guess is, at the standard medium velocity Redrum slightly rounds the attack, whereas the MPC leaves it up to you to adjust the attack and velocity separately. Following this comparison between Reason and the MPC, I discovered how effective it is to adjust the attack time on hi-hat events.
After discovering this attack technique, I used it on the next beat I made. I played in the hi-hats on the MPC quantized to the beat with varying velocity. Then, I went into the step edit window on the hi-hat track. I looked at the various velocities I had recorded and started adjusting the attack time. I made a steeper attack for harder velocity hits and softer attack for lower velocity hits. I then adjusted the decay to shorten the duration of the lower hits to add more variety.
This hi-hat adjusted attack technique is one of the most effective techniques for livening up programmed hi-hats. I encourage beatmakers to try this technique when encountering stiff sounding hi-hats or other drum elements; it works great on kicks and snares as well. These subtle differences may seem small but they really add up when it comes to the groove and feel of a beat. If done properly these techniques can make a drum beat much more interesting, lively, and less repetitive.
Below are two audio clips of a drum beat. The second clip has the hi-hats with adjusted attack and decay.
The music below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.