Understanding the Fundamentals of Drum Rolls in the Beatmaking Process
In beatmaking, there is perhaps no "artificial" sound event that can be made to sound more natural or more ridiculous than the ubiquitous drum fill (commonly known in beatmaking as a drum roll). Part of the reason is because some beatmakers recognize that Drum fills come in an assorted variety; while others inaccurately assume that all drum fills are pretty much the same.
But all drum fills are certainly not the same. Indeed, there's the standard classic rock drum fill, where there's a straight-forward progression from snare, to tom-toms, to floor tom. There's the Southern Bounce drum fill, where the snare fill is augmented by heavy syncopation. There's also the "sweep" drum fill (a type of drum fill native to beatmaking) which is more of section change than drum fill. Most beatmakers develop their style of drum fills based on some sort of combination of the drum fill types I just described. However, if you listen closely to how different beatmakers use drum fill, you will notice an interesting variation there as well.
Drum fills can be used for a number of reasons. They can be used to setup impending changes in a beat. They can be used to highlight specific events in a beat. They can be used to temper the pace (tempo) of a beat. They can be used to resolve and/or add tension to your music. Drum fills can even be used to shield and/or cover up unwanted sounds and loop glitches. They can even be used simply as a "filler element" when you've exhausted ideas for a dope groove that could stand just something a little extra.
Since drum rolls come in a variety of styles and can be used in so many ways, it's important to know several things about creating drum fills in the beatmaking process. First, although some may swear by the time correct, whenever you want to create the most basic, standard, garden variety drum fill—that is, something like the classic rock style—, I recommend turning off the timing correct (if applicable to your gear) and/or any quantizing value (if applicable to your gear) before you begin. Since it's a simple drum roll style, you can really make it sound more natural without the note correction of your sequencer.
Second, whenever you go for the Southern Bounce drum fill sound, it's best to keep the timing correct on. Moreover, it's a good idea to adjust the value to between 1/8, 1/16 (TRPLT), and 1/32, depending on your use of this style of drum fill. The thing to keep in mind here is: The more "stutter movement" that you want to create within the fill, the more adjustments you may want to make with varying time correction values as well as the note repeat function (if applicable to your gear).
Finally, it's important to remember that when creating drum fills in the beatmaking process, mismatched drum fill timbres (sounds) almost always undermine the overall sound and texture of your music. Therefore, when creating drum fills, be careful of the "velocity nuance" (tonal feeling generated by velocity) that is created when you play snares and toms in progression and in a rapid succession. In fact, when making drum rolls, I recommend turning off the default velocity level (if applicable to your gear) and playing the drum fill with velocity levels that match the pressure of your pad hits. If you're not using drum pads, but instead, drawing in your drum hits in a software program, a good thing to do is to alternate the velocity levels of the beginning, middle, and end of the drum fill hits by a level that looks like an arc—that is to say, from low, to highest, back to low.
Editor's Note. Initially, this article appeared with the prominent use of the term "drum roll(s). A regular—very educated—BeatTips.com commenter, i the t, reminded me that drum "fill" is the term commonly used among traditional drummers. Therefore, so that we may all avoid confusion in the future, I've made the decision to defer to the drum "fill" term (the correct term for the drum activity being described in this article), even though among beatmakers the term drum "roll" is often used. —Sa'id