This week we will look at producing and programming hi-hats. It is essential that you get your hi-hats correct, use good source content, EQ like a pro and know what Ableton plugins to use to add presence. To get the dancefloor going, your hi-hats need to pop. Hi-hats are often played endlessly and hypnotically - tying the song’s rhythm section together.

The hi-hat was not always part of a drum kit setup. Spring-operated cymbals only appeared on record in 1931. Even as its popularity grew, jazz musicians were reluctant to add it to their set up as it interfered with the snare. Today, it is one of the backbones to any driving track. Both soft and hash hits of the instrument create dynamic change that is so important when producing electronic music.

Standard hi-hat programming

Most drum patterns consist of open and closed hi-hats. In a physical drum kit, the closed hi-hat is when both cymbals are on top of each other with no space in between. When hit, the sound is short. An open hi-hat is when you use the foot pedal to open the cymbals and create a gap in between. When hit, the sound resonates.

It wasn’t until the hi-hat became a staple in a drum kit that musicians began to explore playing hi-hats in different rhythms and times as well as the effect of playing both open and closed hats. In standard hi-hat programming, the hat is often placed on the upbeat of a 4 bar loop.

Create duplicate hi-hat patterns

A great habit to get into is clip duplication. This allows you to change the rhythm of your hi-hats on the go while you play live or jam around before deciding on how you want your track to be arranged.

Create a standard hi-hat loop. Take your open hi-hat sample and place 4 notes on the upbeat of a 4 bar loop. Duplicate the clip and add another 4 notes, but this time on the downbeat. You can now move from the first version of your clip to the second version and easily change the dynamic of the track while you play. You can duplicate the clip as many times as you like and change the position of the beats to create multiple different rhythms. Your track will never get boring.

Change the hi-hat velocity

It is always important to change the velocity in hi-hats and percussion to create a human feel, otherwise it will sound robotic and monotonous. The velocity bars range from 0 to 127. These numbers are equal to the strength a drummer hits the instrument - 127 being the hardest a drummer can hit. If you think of a drummer playing, it is pretty much impossible for him or her to hit the instrument at the same velocity every time.

The velocity section is under your clip view at the loop bar. Drag the section up to see the velocity bar - dark, red bars - more clearly. To change the velocity, hold command - select the note, and drag the velocity up and down.

You can also go to your midi effects library on the left-side of your Ableton interface, select velocity, choose Add some Random and drag it to your hi-hats channel. This way, you create randomisation to your velocity without manually dragging down the red velocity bars. You can change the sensitivity of the effect in your effects rack.


Create your own hi-hats with white noise

Ableton Live offers a powerful tool called Operator. It is great for creating bass lines, but also for creating your own hi-hats. Operator opens in default mode when you drag and drop it from your instruments into your effects rack. The default setting is a sine wave and we can change the wave of the oscillator to White Noise (Now).

White noise is multi-band frequency - basically every frequency in the spectrum. It isn’t the nicest of sounds, so remember to bring down the volume. Make sure you have some notes added into your loop so that when you hit play, you can hear the white noise happen on the upbeat. Select the envelope in operator, bring it down and press play. The sound is shortened and you will hear the difference immediately.

Without adding any extra plugins, you can continue to shape the sound in Oscillator. Click on the filter section and active the new interface on the oscillator. Click on the shaper area and set it to soft. You can also add shaper drive by changing to numbers in the area below the shaper.

Check out the full tutorial from the Artist Development Program where we also take a closer look at synthesis, creating our own hi hats from scratch, automating envelopes and we introduce Ableton's groove templates.