The snare is too loose. The hi hats are too tight. The crash doesn’t sound natural. The wrong drum kit can throw off your entire track, regardless of how good the verse is. Even if you can’t put your finger on it, you can tell that something is off.
Drums are the dynamic leader in a band, & are front & center in any hip hop beat. Making sure that the drums not only sound good, but fit the feel of the track, is essential. So how do you find the right drum kit?
We can’t speak for other producers, but we generally like to add a “skeleton” of the drum track behind the melody, find a pattern that fits the feel, then look for the perfect kit and sound.
Start with the snare, just to give the track a back beat. Pick a snare you like; it doesn’t have to be a perfect match. Set the verse to loop, sit back, and listen to it cycle through a few bars. Does it feel right, or does it stand out too much? Needs more punch?
Throw the kick drum in there! Adding the kick will really start to give you a feel for how the track will sound. The kick should accent the bass line and fill in space between the melody. Are you nodding your head yet?
Four on the floor (kick on every quarter note) is a quick pattern to get started with. If the bass is a major part of the track, make sure that the kick follows it. Adding the kick behind vocals is a great way to make them stand out and sound powerful. Find a pattern that works with the melody and is unique to your track. Again, it doesn’t have to be perfect, as it can all be changed later.
The snare and bass are the most important part of a drum track, so if you’re feelin’ what you’ve got so far, we can add icing on the cake: hi hats. Faster hi hats (like 16th notes) will really push the song forward and give out a driving feel, especially if the lyrics are delivered in step with the high hats (4 per beat). A good example of this kind of beat would be “Since ’84” by Mac Dre:
Remember that the actual sound of the snare doesn’t matter as much as finding the right pattern for your beat, because there are a million drum kits that you can try out later.
If you think 16th notes are too busy, try 8th notes. 8th note hi hats are probably the most common drum pattern in rap, and music in general. That’s because they’re a nice balance between 16ths and quarter notes, and give a laid back feel. There are tons of great examples, like “Mass Appeal” by Gang Starr:
If your track needs more space, try quarter notes. These give plenty of room to make your vocals stand out, and let the track breathe.
If you’ve found a hi hat pattern that works, let’s revisit the kick. We could write an entire article about selecting a kick, because there are so many options. Super drum machine-sounding kicks, like an 808, are really common in hip-hop. Again, choosing between a live or electronic kick is just a choice you’re going to have to make, and depends on the type of sound you’re going for.
All in all, the drums should work well together and complement the rest of the track. Once you’ve found a drum pattern that works, try putting some new sounds in there. Using live instead of processed drums (or a combination of the two) is a great way to change the feel of your track. Sub out the hi hat for a ride cymbal, giving the track a jazzy feel. Personally, I love the drums that Big L uses because they just sound raw. He uses a lot of ride cymbals, which is pretty uncommon. Check out “All Black” by Big L for some really dope live sounding drums.
When it comes to the snare, there are a million options, but three are most common: a live snare, drum machine, or a clap. Layering a clap, side stick, or flam on top of another share is a classic producer trick to make the back beat more “meaty”.
Once you’ve finalized the drum pattern and kit, try splitting it up. Removing a single hi hat note, adding one in, adding an extra snare on the 4&, etc. can really make your track stand out.
Need more room? Take the hi hats out completely, either for the last bar of the verse, part of the chorus, or the whole song! Go wild. Experimenting is the best way to make your track original, so don’t worry about making it sound perfect until it’s time to master it.
Can’t find the right drum kit? Get some inspiration from another song! “Funky drummer” by James Brown is the most sampled drum track of all time and has been used more than a few times in rap. If that doesn’t work, buy professional quality rap beats from us!
Drop us a line if you’re stuck, need a custom beat, or want us to master your track.