How to Use a Drum Machine & Create Beats...

Creating beats on a drum machine or on a sequencer can often seem overwhelmingly difficult for the newcomer at first. But learning to sequence drum patterns can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time with only a little practice. In fact, most introductory level music students can start inventing beats to practice against the first session they sit down to try it.

Drum machines and sequencers use a grid system to map out where the different parts of a percussion kit will attack the hits. In 4/4 time signature, the measure is divided into four segments, (quarter-notes). Each of these four segments are again divided into four sub-sections, (sixteenth-notes).

The grid is 16 across and represents, "16," sixteenth notes across the entire measure. Each of these 16th-note areas of the measure are running horizontal and only represent the place across the measure where an attack will occur. But, traveling down vertically, we will find up to 12 more boxes, (depending upon your own programs /systems /machines layout and options), where you can assign different percussive attacks. These can include any amount of different percussion tools, such as the; snare, hi-hat, kick (bass drum), toms and symbols as well as, claps and cowbell. The more advanced design, the more options!

To create a "beat" we would simply add any particular percussive attack into whichever area of the measure where we'd want the attack to occur. Different drum styles will have different patterns across the percussion instruments. For example, a jazz beat would have less kick and snare but more cymbal. A shuffle would tend to have more snare, and kick along with a lot of cymbal. Every style will be different however, so spend time experimenting.

Look at the example below. It was taken from a "" sequence track of a rock style drum beat. Notice the use of the grids to create a closed hi-hat, kick and snare idea.


In "Soundation" (shown above) the drum tracks can be tested with the keyboard keys to the left of the sequencer grid. You can add in whichever part of the percussive kit makes the most sense for the style and the part that you're creating. Soundation provides a handy drum machine users guide on their site to help get you started.

In the popular "One Motion" flash based online drum machine, we have a much simpler grid (see example two below). In this online drum machine, we only have the option of five pieces of a percussion kit at a time, the OneMotion drum machine is very limited.

(keep in mind that the One Motion online drum machine is flash, and it will not operate on most mobile platforms. For a more "mobile friendly" option, try out the HTML5 Drum Machine at


When practicing the creation of your sequences, just keep in mind that each box of the grid represents a unit of time as a sixteenth-note. If the box is colored, it represents an attack. If it isn't, then that location of the measure is considered to be a rest, (silent).

Since most drum patterns are 4/4, this grid is highly effective for many styles of music. However, if the time signature changes, we can adjust the drum sequencers horizontal grids to match the time signature. In example three below, the grid has been modified in the "One Motion" online drum machine to establish the time signature of 3/4.


Essentially there's no "wrong" way to create beats... just beats that perhaps don't sound very good. So, you'll never go wrong with your first try. Begin by getting started on creating beats with 4/4 time (since it's so popular).

A simple rhythm using a closed hi-hat on every second 16th, along with a snare drum on beats 2 and 4 will always be a fun and simple start. Then, add in your kick on the 1st, 7th and 9th sixteenth-note. This will establish a great basic rock rhythm for you. In fact, this is the default rock beat on the "" website.

Start sequencing your own drum ideas today, it's a lot of fun and will provide hours of great jams after you build your favorite arsenal of drum loops. Have fun!

- Andrew Wasson


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