Elements of a Drum Kit

Jun 10, 2020

While a drummer has to buy real drums and cymbals to build their kit, the dance producer's kit is almost always virtual - even though it follows the same paradigm of a genuine kit.

The modern drum kit has been recognizably standardized for the best part of a century: bass drum, snare, one or more toms, hi-hat, and a selection of cymbals.

Some drummers add more to their kit, but there's a reason the simple setup has endured for so long and through so many stylistic upheavals: it works, filling the frequency spectrum, and deploying a range of tones together can be used to create many grooves.

The mighty kick drum (aka the bass drum) occupies the lowest frequency space of all drums. It delivers a punchy sound heavy on low-end energy and has a short, fast attack time with a clicky transient at its start. The kick provides the rhythmic backbone for nearly all dance tracks - the driving pulse upon which all other elements rest.

In some dance music styles, kick drums play rigid 'four to the floor' patterns (a kick drum at the start of each bar). While poor kick drum timing may sound like it could loosen a groove, it rarely works in practice.

The clap and snare fulfill similar roles in most dance tracks, providing mid-range contrast to the low thud of the kick. The range of tones and tunings is extensive, from entirely organic samples of real snare drums and human claps to unrealistic but immediately recognizable synthesized sounds from the likes of the Roland TR-808 and 909. Producers with a taste for the unique often layered claps and snares together to produce hybrid sounds sculpted to their tracks.

Hi-hats or 'hats' are the most commonly used sounds from the cymbal family, typically propelling the beat forward with a series of regular hits throughout a bar or upping the groove on the off-beat. A real hi-hat has a pedal used to adjust the tightness of the two cymbals. Synth and sampled drums mimic the effect by offering 'closed' and 'open' hats, the latter with a longer decay tail. Choke, or mute groups model a real hi-hat's mechanics, only allowing one sound (open or closed) to play at any one time. Some drum machines also offer a 'pedal' hat sound, which imitates the sound of the pedal being closed.

The ride cymbal has a more obvious tuned sound with a longer decay but works similarly to hi-hats. Other cymbals such as the crash and splash are used more sparingly, generally at the start or end of a bar to smooth transitions.

Drums such as toms, bongos and congas (the latter two are hand-drums) occupy high frequencies than the kick drum and have clearly defined pitches. As with snares, you can either use a real sampled sound or a synthetic take on the real thing, with many drum machines offering toms and bongos. They're useful for adding character to a beat and can be tuned to the key of the track to play in harmony with other elements. Down-pitched and envelope-tweaked toms can be used in place of kick drums.

Percussion is the catch-all term for a range of other sounds, including everything from claves, woodblocks, and cowbells to shakers, tambourines, and maracas. These add character to a beat, often interacting with the hi-hats to create rhythmic patterns that emphasize the groove. Finger clicks and rim shots also are included in this category as similarly short percussive hits used to embellish a beat.

Synthesized drums of the type found in genres such as s retro disco and '80s influenced electro - zaps, lasers, and synth toms - form a category in their own right. Even the best attempts at mimicking real drum sounds are likely to be unsuccessful with limited synth architecture, giving synthetic drum sounds a character of their own. They add color, personality, and genre authenticity to a beat.