No Drums? No Problem: A Solo Artist’s Guide to Recording Alternative Percussion Parts

If you’re like a lot of pop- and rock-oriented songwriters, you’ve probably got a working home studio set-up going that allows you to pluck away at guitars, add vocals, and overdub keyboards to projects you’re working on. You’re lucky to have this sort of rig at your disposal, and it works pretty well for most thing with one glaring exception: tracking those pesky live drums.

After all, space, equipment, and skill limitations can often limit the prospect of adding full drum kits to your home-studio productions. And if pop or rock (especially folk and other acoustic-based genres) is your thing, simply throwing electronic drums into your mix might not fit the bill either. So let’s explore a few alternative ways to go about adding cool rhythm tracks to your songs without going the traditional route of using a full drum set.

Rhythm Philosophy 101

When you think about it, a “kit” of drums is really just a convenient way of standardizing the sounds used to keep time in a song. The only real requirement for these devices is that the precise pitches they produce don’t overshadow their timbres. In other words: your “drum kit” could consist of any collection of things that when you hit them, pluck them, or vocalize them satisfy the following:

  1. Make interesting noises that have big attacks (relative to their sustains, decays, and releases).
  2. Sound unique enough to be differentiated from one another and from the melodic and chordal instruments.
  3. Aren’t fatiguing when they’re heard repeatedly.

Everything But The Kitchen Sink (And Maybe the Kitchen Sink)

Armed with this knowledge, the first thing you might want to do is look beyond the ubiquitous “auxiliary percussion” options (tambourines, maracas, claves, etc.—which you shouldn’t discount, by the way), and ask what other things “sound cool” when you hit them? Just think in terms of timbre: things that sound booming or deep make good kick sounds; things that sound sharp or chunky make cool snare options; and things that sound light and quick work well for cymbal duties.

For instance, I’ve had a lot of fun and success using wire brushes on the body of a steel guitar for a “snare track” while stomping a hard instrument case with a heavy boot for a “kick track,” and then later overdubbing clinking forks in place of “hi-hats.” Or, consider the variety of sounds you can get out of your own body: smack your thighs, clap your hands, snap your fingers, even try a little beatboxing. You’ll be surprised at what seemingly absurd stuff actually sounds damn good once it’s treated with an effect or two and nestled in a pop song.

Once you open up to the concept, the list becomes almost endless, but other great found-sound percussion fodder that I keep returning to includes—

  • frying pans (try two different sizes hit with mallets for contrasting pitches; they sound like roto-toms!)
  • metal water bottles half-filled with uncooked rice or pasta (instant shakers!)
  • filing cabinets (punched with an angry fist for the biggest snare sound you’ve ever heard)
  • a deck of cards (quickly flipped for an incredibly tight snare)
  • cardboard boxes (I hitched a kick drum pedal up to one of these once, and it was an incredible—albeit very temporary—solution),
  • a bowl full of spare change (shaken to sound like the “chk” of hi hats)
  • carrots (chewed, “in-time” into the mic, a la Brian Wilson!)

Sampling and Looping in a Pop/Rock Context

An important corollary to the points raised in the previous section is the use of sampling and looping in your songs. Even if you’d prefer to avoid “electronic” drum sounds in your music, there is no reason why you can’t take a sampling approach to any and all of the percussion options discussed above. Not only will this allow you the flexibility to manipulate your composite kit’s “parts” one at a time, but you also gain the advantage of not necessarily needing to possess phenomenal drumming skills in order to build an impressive drum track.

Basic samplers are plentiful and affordable, and once you get your hands on one, you’re open to a world of possibilities. On most devices, any of the found-sounds described above can be imported and assigned to keys or buttons. This allows you to sequence them into very unique drum parts that, while still essentially composed and performed by you, would otherwise be incredibly challenging to produce.

For example, you could record and load your cardboard box kick drum, deck-of-cards snare, frying pan toms, and water bottle shakers into one of these boxes, set a tempo, and then construct—either all at once or one piece at a time—a looped sequence that you can record into your DAW. (In fact, if you’re recording to a click and using a grid, you could technically do this directly in your session, though it’d take a bit more cut-copy-paste work.)

Or, if you’re looking for something a bit more traditional, you could try isolating and sampling some kick, snare, tom, and cymbal tracks from other multi-track sessions that you may have on your hard drive and follow a similar sequencing procedure. This common practice allows you to use drum sounds recorded somewhere else, under different circumstances, for new and future songs.

Again, the possibilities for making your own drum sequences are nearly endless. I once used only a guiro, recording different hits and scrape sounds before pitch-shifting and sequencing them, to make a drum track for an instrumental piece. Another time, I just recorded myself vocalizing the words “boom,” “gok,” “tick,” and “pssht,” loaded them onto the buttons of an old AKAI MPC1000, and made the drum track for a psych pop song out of the results. Not only did this save me the headache of trying to record a “real drum part” for this song in my apartment, but it was just plain old fun to do.

So, if you’re a home studio mastermind, but you’re stumbling on this part of your creative and/or recording process, I urge you to give some of these alternative percussion methods a try. You’ve got nothing to lose other than the headache of trying to record live drums in your one-room studio.

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