To Program or Not to Program

Music brings people together which has been replaced by musicians sitting in their bedroom interacting with drum machines et al. Has music lost its novelty? Or is it just a means to an end?

Ultimate Guitar

A couple of days back, I invested in the "Sound City" documentary. Needless to say, it made me question some things. Programming, being the main question. Now, let me clear this out before I go any further, I am, what you call, a "bedroom producer." I have been shifting continents, from Australia to India and now in Singapore, I haven't exactly had a stable band ever. So, for me, the only way to make music is to sit with my laptop and MIDI controller and "click" in notes to where I want them to be. I like it.

At least it gets my ideas and mood across, right?

In this article, I will be referring to one particular genre of music and metal, not because I dislike it, some of the bands that fall into that genre, inspire me a lot, but mainly because I know more musicians into that scene, so I kind of know how they work usually.

Now this genre I talk about is lovingly referred to as "Djent." To a musician, its "Progressive metal." Either way, you know what I'm talking about (hopefully). Now this is a genre that is slick, polished and it can get really technical. The staple sound of this genre is the kick drum syncopated with the guitar chugs. To achieve that, you need a REALLY good drummer. Or wait, a really good DRUM MACHINE!

So, musicians playing this genre of music, found it easier to program the drums according to their sound. It might sound simple but there's a LOT that goes into it. Its a bloody talent, I think, to be able to do that perfectly and make it sound good. So, now you have this musician, sitting in front of his/laptop programming drums to the tracks. And after a couple of hours, this musician puts up the track on websites like Soundcloud and fans of this genre, dig it.

Everything is perfect. True fans of this genre appreciate the tight quality and slick production of this genre. And here's where my questioning started.

Where did the human aspect go? Does music really have to be perfect today to be appreciated?

With the advent of technology and the ever growing range of electronic instruments that we can use for our music, slowly and steadily, the human aspect of dynamic and emotion, I feel, is wearing out.

I also know that some or most of these musicians that play this genre of music (Djent/Prog) eventually find other talented musicians to fill the void and that of course, nullifies the point of this article. Right? Maybe not.

Even though, I appreciate music in all its forms, I really miss the days when musicians would actively be looking for musicians. When you'd go to a bar/club that plays your kind of music and you go there with the sole intent of possibly connecting with your future bandmate. I miss seeing a bunch of musicians in a room, that as obviously small to accommodate everyone and their gear, sweating it out, making mistakes and keeping it raw.

Maybe I'm wrong and things have changed for the better but for me, personally, I'm a point in my musical journey, where I want the sound of a real drummer, a real guitarist, a real bassist etc coming out of my speakers.

What's your take?

P.S. I'm not bashing any musician/music. This article is just a thought :)

30 comments sorted by best / new / date

    @GhostPlayground- Before i say anything, could you please tell me where you got your information regarding drums being programmed into metal music in the 80's and especially AJFA in particular? I would like to know how reliable your sources are because tbh, that would change a lot of things and will be good to learn more
    Drum programming existed in the eighties, and was used fairly often on popular recordings at the time. Of course, it didn't quite work the way it does now. What producers would do back then is use a sampler device (kind of like a modified keyboard) and sample certain snare/kick/hi-hat-cymbal sounds and essentially press the right button on the keyboard and trigger the sound at the time when the drum was supposed to be played (or was played in the recording by the live drummer, but the sound recorded didn't satisfy the producer). I suppose a famous example would be the 'gated reverb' effect used on the snare in most mainstream-eighties glam metal recordings where the producer would literally record the drummer playing the snare onto his/her sampling device and use it to create a separate track featuring only the snare drum with the gated reverb effect added to it. I believe that this effect was used on 'Rock you like a hurricane', as well as quite a few Def Leppard songs. As for the AJFA, that wasn't entirely accurate. The man who was producing the album admitted to programming the drums onto 'the shortest straw' and 'harvester of sorrow' but it is unknown about the rest of the album. A few stories that i've read about the album don't seem to match up with other stories i've read, with some people claiming that session drummers were hired to play on the album while some people have claimed that Lars played all of the drums on the album.
    That gated reverb on the snare is fully possible to make even live. Just send the snare to an aux and play both what comes from the aux and what comes from the real snare. It's quite a lot easier to do it that way than to start messing around with sampling. Then the only thing there is left to it is to mute the aux whenever you don't want the effect.
    Def Leppard had a one armed drummer who largely relied on a semi-electronic kit. As far as I know, he had an electronic snare, or at least one of his snares were, possibly the one he triggered with his foot.
    That is the most-acceptable excuse for "cheating", so to speak, that we will ever have, IMO. The guy has one arm!
    i wouldnt call programming and triggering the same things. people have been triggering drums for while now. programming them? not as long. programming is easier for a lot of people and bands because their drummer (no matter how good) WILL be quantized and be triggered whether it be samples from the kit being performed on or otherwise (for metal). so as far as that goes if its just gonna be "fixed" afterward to be 100% perfect, dont even waste the time to record and just program things in. That being said, plenty of other genres do this (easycore or even plain old pop punk) when there are even decent production values. With a good midi ediotr and drum sampling software (drumagog) you can change the velocities of each drum hit (so long as you have different velocity samples) to sound more natural. There are still places where programming and fixing doesnt sound as good as a naturally good performance does however
    1. Nobody wants to hear a bunch of kids with zero budget recording something in their garage. 2. Using drum samples and amp simulation gives you an opportunity to learn all about recording and mixing without spending ridiculous amounts of money on amps, mics, drums and room treatment. What used to cost thousands and thousands of dollars can be bought for a couple hundred bucks, and people can make "raw" sounding records with digital equipment just fine. A guy playing through a MIDI drum kit will have just as much of the human element in the recording as on a real kit. 3. Music has ALWAYS been about perfection. The idea of music NOT having to be perfect is a very, very new thing. What do we call a drummer who tries to play sixteenth blasts at high speeds but can't quite nail it on time? We call him a sloppy drummer, who's trying to play faster than he can. There's nothing "human" or "raw" about it, it's just sloppy playing. A drummer who can provide a nice, "groovy" feel to a beat can do so because he has a feeling for when he has to hit. It's not at all random, it's knowing how to break the rules. It's still all about hitting the right note/drum at the right time, and is still all about precision. If you're programming drums and you can't get the feel of a "groovy" live performance, that just means you're not good enough at programming drums, because you don't know where you have to place the hits.
    Personally, I think that some instruments sound a lot better when they're programmed into a song. Drums for instance have been programmed in to a song since the eighties, and most of the metal recordings we enjoy from the eighties were programmed, with one good example being 'and Justice for all' where the drums were programmed in without the band's knowledge after the producer was unhappy with Lars' performance. And the keyboard, which is an instrument that was probably original designed to be used in tandem with a computer and layered numerous times, sounds quite amazing when alters through digital effects or programmed into a song using MIDI software. That being said, there are some instruments like the guitar/bass, saxophone and the violin (to name a few) that have a certain timbre/tone that i've never heard successfully re-created using entirely synthesized notes. Really, the entire debate isn't entirely black and entirely white. There's a lot of grey area in between that makes it impossible to say which is better, programmed music or live music. I suppose that in the end it just depends on personal taste.
    I guarantee you almost 100% of all integral death/thrash/metal in general from the 80s was played for real. A lot of seminal records were created on a micro budget, leaving absolutely no room for stuff like drum programming. Anything you couldn't replicate live just didn't cut it, and that's an ethos shared by both metal and hardcore at the time. Unless we're talking about a band like Godflesh who used drum machines, or glam/hair metal or something, we could play this game going through every major metal album of the decade and barely find instances of this. Of course, Metallica are a different beast at their, and what's mistaken for metal from the 80s can be totally artificial, but 'most' metal recordings from the 80s? Not even close. Slayer, Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden, Death, Morbid Angel, Celtic Frost, etc never programmed drums on their recordings, and I'd like some citation for your Metallica claims. I've heard the kick on Dyer's Eve was in fact programmed, and Lars can't pull the verse section off live, but the recording process for that album, including Lars' kick sound is documented. This isn't to sound antagonistic or anything, I have absolutely no problem with programmed anything, and there's plenty of modern metal that relies on what I would consider to be an overuse of drum triggering, but unless we're talking about glam bands or bands that were intentionally going for a sterile/perfect/artificial sound, in no way was drum programming a large part of metal. It's a huge genre, largely driven by the underground, and the oversaturation of the genre and the various styles means even the most artificial metal albums of the 80s are hardly representative of anything. That raw aesthetic was a major part of the metal in 80s, almost all across the board.
    I will continue programming synths, strings, orchestral instruments and so on and so forth because the sounds you can eke out are great and also infinitely modifiable for a much cheaper price than hiring an orchestra or buying a top-notch synthesizer and lots of effects. I program drums only because I can't mic up my kit. If I could, I would never program drums again, because if you ask me, imperfection is what makes music (to a degree). The ability to change a roll on the fly, or have it trailing by milliseconds can add to the song rather than detract from it. I like analogue, but the sad truth is digital sounds better for less.
    Don't be discouraged to program things. Look at Nine Inch Nails, Porcupine Tree and Rammstein. They've all used Pro tools and drum machines in the past but they've made amazing music. Great music is great music regardless of how its made. Rules are meant to be broken. If you just fell in line and did what everyone told you too they'd be no point in making music. Eventually recording drums is a good idea though.
    On #2. there, Corey, some of the free amp sims sound better than some of the paid ones. Although, commercial drum samples seem to be better (in general) than free drum samples. If you know how to mix them properly, you can get decent sounding drums using free samples though.
    EzDrummer, Superior Drummer and Addictive Drums are good examples of that. EDZ can be bought for under $100 and sounds completely realistic because it randomizes the sample being played to really give it a human sound.
    "Now this genre I talk about is lovingly referred to as "Djent". To a musician, its "Progressive metal"." As a musician, I don't see Djent as Progressive Metal at all. In fact, the bands in the Djent scene that are somewhat progressive are really the ones that have broken out of the trends the rest of the scene embraces. Anyway, I agree with mostly everything else you said. I too have been looking for a real drummer, real bass player (in fact, even though I know an actual bass player would be MUCH better; I actually bought a bass myself, so I could at least have that human element to it), etc. It's really cool to program all this stuff, but the human element is a lot cooler to me. Problem is, I'm a university student. I don't have time for a band, my fiance, planning our upcoming wedding, AND forming a band.
    Well Djent does qualify as Progressive Metal since it has those elements such as odd time signatures, technicality, ambient soundscapes etc. Each to his own really. And yes, i think so too. Like i'd said in the article, this wasn't written to bash anything, merely a thought.
    Odd time signatures and technicality don't mean it's progressive. Here's a basic definition of "progressive metal": This category represents the core movement of what is called "Progressive Metal" in the literal sense. It is a subgenre of progressive rock as much as it is a subgenre of heavy metal, and this is how its sound is defined: a blend of heavy, guitar-oriented metal music enriched with compositional innovation and complex arrangements, usually expressed through diverse instrumentation and often (but not always) with odd-time signatures. Common, but not essential to define the movement, are the frequent use of keyboards, high-pitched vocals, concept lyrical themes and tracks of longer duration. Similar to progressive rock, progressive metal draws influences from other genres, such as jazz/fusion, ethnic, classical and symphonic music. (Taken from .) Djent generally lacks "compositional innovation and complex arrangements". There a few bands in the "Djent movement" (the ones that aren't really Djent) that do fulfill those, however. (I'm not hating on Djent here, btw. I'm just saying it's not Progressive Metal. I like a few of the bands in the "Djent movement".) Anyway, if you want to debate this further, PM me. If not.../shrug
    Recently, i had done a short presentation on music in the 80's and you are correct when you say drum programming did exist back then. Also, of course, it was far more different and considering it was just introduced, it was used sparingly at the start. Eventually, bands/artists would use samplers for 'coloration' more than anything. It became more obvious in the 'rock' field like you mentioned too. But, sampled drums were more popular at the time, in electronic pop music such as Depeche Mode, Cyndi Lauper, Prince etc. About AJFA, I've heard stories too but never about drum programming being used. I do know that the drums were heavily edited on the album. Anyhow, that doesn't matter Yes, there are some instruments that sound better when programmed. Like you mentioned drums and synths etc but as long as they are used to 'color' or add another 'dimension' to the sound. What i'm seeing, personally, today, the same instruments are being used as crutches which is what the problem is for me. Not saying, that one should using programmed instruments altogether but i feel, more people should try and incorporate some live elements into their songs for dynamics. The human element basically. Thanks for reading my first article here btw
    Leather Sleeves
    I've used programmed drums myself just for practicality. It's extremely difficult to record drums well as an amature. Part of what's lost is the human factor, but for me, and most metalheads it's still important to be super tight. My issue is modern production in general, and triggered drums go along with it. I don't know if it's because more musicians these days don't tailor their sound for the live setting or what, but this "Djent" stuff just sounds fake and lacks the rawness that made metal what it is... or was.
    It was a pretty interesting article and I enjoyed reading it, i also enjoyed having this discussion with you. As a solo artist I tend to rely on drum-programming, sound manipulation and keyboard programming virtually whenever I decide to record a song. So it's kind of interesting to read an article that relates to me and the recording/producing aspect of music, rather than the technical aspect of playing guitar and structuring a song.
    Thanks, im trying to play this video but its not working for some reason. I wonder why. I did check out some of your other stuff too and i dont know if the off beat nature of it all is done on purpose or is it just latency issues? Not quite sure, but i like the vibe of what you're trying to get at. Im an audio engineer/bedroom producer (although still learning my craft, have a very long way to go), i use MIDI drums all the time as well. But actively looking for a real drummer haha. I play the piano/keyboards so i don't really have to MIDI that really. You can check out my soundcloud Cheers buddy
    Lol, people usually have a few complaints about certain aspects of my music, such as the spoken-word vocals and the normally out-of-tune/sync keyboard that I play. Everything I do with my music and everything I post is done for a certain reason. One of my ideologies is that in this day and age where auto-tune and pro-tools fixes are the norm it's sort of refreshing to hear a guy like me who is willing to allow a few mistakes in his music, a few spikes of distortion in his mixes and a slightly alternative vocal style. That's just my opinion though, and it's fine if you don't share it. Personally, I prefer to program my drum-beats using drum samples and a metronome on audacity and then export them to pro-tools/garageband (whatever i'm feeling like using) rather than using MIDI drums. For some reason, the fact that it's nearly impossible to time the drums exactly right using this method seems to add a bit of groove to the drum beat. This approach doesn't work for everyone, but I would recommend that you try it at least once to see if it suits you. I checked out your soundcloud and I found myself enjoy a lot of the music you've created. I especially like the instrumental tracks you've created which sound kind of like a cross between blues guitar and ambient electronic music. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the conversation.
    Program everything if you want, Seriously don't listen to anyone. No one should tell you what to in music. What makes music great is the expression behind the music not the physical sound of someone playing it. Admittidly there is a warmth you get from everything being done live but the music is the only thing that matters so if its better for the music program it.
    Certain elements of electronic would allow more strictly programmed instruments. In almost all cases of me using programmed instruments (due to also being a bedroom player) I tend to like the sound better when it's not as quantized to the grid. Also, somewhat related, but hearing that new "dubstep" Muse song got me working with using a MIDI controlled whammy and there's definitely a lot of cool stuff you can do with programming the effects.
    Dude, if you're happy with what you do, i say keep doing it Best of luck to you with your musical ventures man. It was nice having this conversation with you. Keep an eye out for more articles from me, i think im going to get slightly more active here. haha
    I like my music to be a little sloppy, fast and raw. but obviously most programmed drums or what ever are tight. I like all kinds of music and can play tight but I prefer a looser feeling to the stuff I do for myself. Granted when I want music to sound real tight its a big headache and my family gets mad because I'm on edge lol
    Sam Rulez D00d
    Used to use triggered drums and MIDI for all keyboard parts, etc. but it always ends up sounding fake. Now I'm harshly against programming unless it's something where there's no difference- like electronic drums, or synth that doesn't have any velocity change. I can't stand when music sounds fake and fit to a grid, but that's just my opinion.