How To Program Beats and Build Drum Kits Using Ableton’s Drum Racks

As a drummer I am biased, but in a lot of music the drums and percussion are some of the most if not the most important part of a song. The rhythm provides a base foundation, however simple or complex, to build upon and add layer after layer. A lot of producers begin their songs with beats for this reason.

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Ableton’s “Drum Racks” allow you to get as creative and complex with your drums as you want. Not only can you edit drum samples individually but you can create drum kits, sequence them into clips, and apply effects to them as if they were a single instrument.

In this tutorial, I’ll walk you through some of the basics of drum programming in Ableton Live, and give you the knowledge you need to start producing beats in Ableton. I’ll also touch on a couple tools used to edit sounds and samples individually, and tweak certain parameters using macro controls, and effects.

First thing’s first. We need some drum samples, or a drum synth. For this tutorial I’ll demonstrate using pre-made drum samples. Once you have found some samples you want to use, it’s time to search in Ableton’s browser either under the “drums” or “Instruments” tab. Under both of those tabs you will find an instrument called “drum rack.” Click and drag the drum rack onto a track, or double click on the drum rack button to create a new track. At this point you should see a small plug in with a set of 4×4 (unassigned) sample pads. Like this:

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Notice that in addition to these sixteen visible pads we have seven more sets of sixteen pads each at our disposal. You can see those unselected on the left. For now we’ll stick to a basic four by four drum set. The next step is to import your samples onto the pads individually. You can do this a couple ways. Either simply drag and drop your samples onto each pad individually (you can drag them from you desktop or from Ableton’s built in browser), or enter “hot swap” mode by clicking the button on the top right of the module next to the save button. Once hot swap mode is enabled you can click on a pad then click on any sample in Ableton’s browser and it will automatically load onto the pad; this is great for testing out different samples on the fly.

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Your standard drum kit will include few basic sounds: kick, snare, hihat, toms, clap, cymbals…etc. Once you’ve got your samples loaded up you’re ready to start sequencing some grooves. To do this we first need to create a clip. This is done by double clicking on an empty clip slot located on your drum rack track. You can see the clip created below, shown in green.

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Click on the clip and you should see the sequencer view pop up, shown below.

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You can see all your drums lined up vertically on the left. Now simply set your grid by right clicking (you can choose from a number of subdivisions from quarter notes to thirty-second notes) and then click and draw in notes as you please. To do this you can either double click and create a note that way or you can press the letter “b” on your keyboard and point and shoot. Many producers will tell you that for sequencing drums it’s better to use a control surface like an Akai MPC or an Ableton Launchpad, this way your groove will feel more natural and real, as if a proper drummer were playing it on a drum set.

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For the purpose of this tutorial we’ll stick to techniques within Ableton’s software, however if you’re interested in production you should look into getting some control surfaces, especially if you’re interested in live production. If you’re using a control surface to play notes in, you may need some help if you can’t play in time perfectly. The quantize function will automatically snap you notes back to whatever grid you’ve selected. To access this feature, simply select the note(s) you want to move and right click.

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So now you’ve got some notes drawn in that you can play with. Within the sequencer window you can control a couple key things. Firstly, velocity control (how hard/loud a notes hits). You can control velocity by clicking on a note and selecting the corresponding velocity fader below the note (at the bottom of the sequencer). This is a great way to add more feel and dynamics to your grooves.

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We can also turn off the grid in order to move notes slightly out of time to apply swing. This can also help humanize your grooves a bit more and give them some feel. Drum Racks also provide us with built in Macro Controls which can be used to assign different FX to samples individually. Ableton will automatically plug in a high and low cut, a tone knob, attack, decay, pitch, and volume controls, in addition to their “glue” compressor into the Drum Rack macro slots, but you can also add your own FX.

Below, we can see the sampler showing a rim click sound (as a waveform) that I have plugged into my drum rack. There are tons of control parameters that you can customize and change to shape each sound individually and get it sounding just right. Play around with these!

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Now you have a groove going with samples that you have hand-selected and edited so they sound just the way you want. The final thing I’ll demonstrate in this tutorial is how to add an effect to an entire drum rack in order to effect the groove as a whole. Luckily, this is super easy! All you have to do is select your drum rack track, and simply drag an effect onto the track. Then, you’ll see it pop up in your chain, next to the drum rack. For this example I used Ableton’s Vocoder effect.


Experiment layering different effects and plug-ins onto you drum grooves, you can make some pretty awesome stuff just using the effects that come built into Ableton. Hopefully now you have a good understanding of how to sequence and edit drums and drum grooves using Ableton’s Drum Racks. If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments below. Or better yet! Come take our music production classes at MMMMAVEN! You’ll learn this as well as everything else you need to start producing and finishing your own tracks. Please use the form below to schedule a studio tour.

by: DJ FF

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