How to program authentic live disco hi-hats

The greatest disco grooves were played by real drummers on real kits, so if you want to create something in that style, adding a human-sounding element is a must.

Here, we’ll show you how to take your hi-hats to new heights by giving them an authentic live feel.

Click here to download the audio you need to complete this tutorial. You can listen to audio examples of each step at the bottom of the page.

Step1: Live hi-hats can make the difference between your beat sounding like a drum machine-style house beat and a real disco groove. We’re going to program the hats for a modern disco-inspired track - think Todd Terje or Daft Punk. To begin, load the WAVs beginning “DiscoDemo...” into a 115bpm project, and put D16 Group’s Frontier limiter on the master bus.

Step 2: Load a drum kit ROMpler. We’re using the Classic EZX for Toontrack’s EZdrummer and Superior Drummer 2.0, as it has convincing vintage sounds and a good range of hi-hat articulations. Program a one-bar rhythm as shown, on the closed hi-hat, F#1. Now let’s bring it to life with a little human flair.

Step 3: Strategically move certain hits onto different hi-hat articulations. We’ve moved the first hit onto the pedalled hat, the seventh onto a half-open hat, and the final one onto the open hat. Vary the velocity of each hit slightly for a more human feel, then make some hits noticeably louder to create accents.

Step 4: Next, turn off snap-to-grid and move each hit a little earlier or later to emulate the way a real drummer never plays with 100% accuracy. One trick is to move every other 16th-note (ie, those on even-numbered subdivisions) a bit later, giving a slight shuffle, mimicking natural human groove - we’re talking a very small amount, not noticeable ‘swing’.

Step 5: Duplicate the beat to bar 24. The lead synth comes in at bar 25, so let’s up the intensity with a different hat groove. Program the pattern above, alternating between pedalled and open articulations, giving us a classic disco off-beat hat. Mix up the velocities and timing again to humanise it. Have this beat play until bar 33, then leave the outro hi-hat-free. 

Audio examples

Computer Music

Computer Music magazine is the world’s best selling publication dedicated solely to making great music with your Mac or PC computer. Each issue it brings its lucky readers the best in cutting-edge tutorials, need-to-know, expert software reviews and even all the tools you actually need to make great music today, courtesy of our legendary CM Plugin Suite.