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Drum Fills - Let's Get Rolling!

If you're using midi drum tracks, maybe you're struggling to create your own drum fills. Or maybe you need fills that aren't so busy or complex? Either way, this article is for you.

Drum fills serve a few basic purposes: they break up the beat momentarily; they add a bit of interest; they help the song flow from section to section.

When dealing with drum fills, less is often more! Some of the most common, useful and effective fills are short snare rolls.

Before discussing the specifics, here's how I typically think about drum fills.

Three basic elements of a fill:

  1. rhythmic patterns
  2. individual drums involved (orchestration)
  3. volume levels (soft, normal and loud)

With snare rolls, we only need to focus on rhythmic patterns and volume.

Rhythmic Patterns 

Learn these simple patterns because they occur frequently. In 4/4 time, they start on beat 4. The following 1-beat patterns can be mixed and matched to form 2-beat rolls (starting on beat 3). For convenience, the patterns are displayed using a simple code:

x = snare hit

o = no hit

  1. x x x x
  2. x o x o
  3. x o x x
  4. x x x o
  5. x x o x

Learn by doing! Open your DAW (Cubase, Sonar, Reaper, Logic, Pro Tools, Garage Band, etc.) and try program these basic examples. Next, we'll experiment with volume levels.

Volume Levels

Let's start with 2 levels by ignoring the soft hits for now. We now have 3 possibilities in our code:

X = loud snare hit

x = snare hit

o = no hit 

Programmer's tip: In terms of midi “velocity”, accents are usually a minimum of 10% louder than regular hits. Play around with your drum samples and find your preferred ranges for regular and accented hits. If it's for rock music, don't be afraid to crank them all the way up!

It's common to accent the first note as follows.

  1. X x x x
  2. X o x o
  3. X o x x
  4. X x x o
  5. X x o x

Finally, we can add soft hits into the mix. How soft ? They are often barely audible and typically played by lifting the stick about only an inch or two off of the snare and lightly tapping. These hits are often called “ghost notes”.

Programmer's tip: In terms of midi “velocity”, they're often somewhere between 20 and 40.

X = loud snare hit

x = snare hit

s = soft snare hit

o = no hit

One common example using a ghost note is:

  1. X s x x

2-Beat Snare Rolls

You can combine the 1-beat patterns into longer rolls. Here are some common examples:

  1. X x x x X x x x
  2. X x x o X o x x
  3. X o x o X x x o
  4. X x x x x x X X
  5. X o x x X x x o

Experiment and create your own rolls by combining rhythmic patterns and using different volume levels.

Programmer's tip: Save these rolls as midi files and add them to your tracks whenever necessary.

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