How to do mpc pad finger drumming from Brandon Murphy on Vimeo.

Composer, musician, and drummer Brandon Murphy has put together a how-to video on playing and programming beats with a 4×4 grid. One reason to pay attention: he’s a real drummer, and had been just as skeptical about the value of all this as you probably are:

I’ve been using an MPC longer than I’ve owned a computer and something that never appealed to me was “finger drumming”. It evoked thoughts of s***ty 80’s outdoor music festival wankery, dudes with offensive looking devices strapped around their necks and lots of synthetic “tom tom” fills. Even recently speaking, “live MPC” usually implied super played out “battle” routine style stuff. Fortunately, a new generation of talented producers and performers decided to reclaim the drum machine’s potential as a realtime performance instrument (right around the time MPC’s were kind of running out of steam I’ll add).

What changed his mind? Artists doing things drummers can’t, and making production more productive in the process. (Check out the video and his full blog post for more.)

The resulting technique he uses isn’t so much about the MPC or even his tool of choice, Ableton Live, as it is finding a comfortable mapping that makes composing and performing beats more ergonomic. After sharing various tips at the Chicago Ableton Users Group, Brandon has put together the technique above.

To me, it suggests ideas not only about making quick drum breaks, but also assembling pitch generally into arrangements that help you play. Coming from a piano background, I do believe that arrangement and layout of keys can be important, and that even a simple (12-tone equal temperament? black and white?) configuration can turn out to have incredible potential. Of course, this does also reveal why a 4×4 grid is valuable, even as 8×8 or larger monome-style arrays catch on.

Got tips or techniques of your own? Find you can play Javanese slendro a whole lot faster on your custom hexagonal keypad on your dodec-o-phone? Let us know in comments. (Comments currently under moderation, but they’ll appear after a short delay.)

  • Right on! Great demo.

    As a fellow finger drummer, I can attest to the fact that sound/pad mapping is key to fast, fluid, and natural sounding finger drumming. It's tricky to play fast alternating finger strokes on a single small pad, so dual mapping of primary sounds as Brandon has shown helps out a lot (especially if the two cymbal/drum sounds have a slightly different pitch to them).

    Pair that with great physical pad layout ergonomics, and you can play drum riffs with your fingers that Buddy Rich would have had trouble replicating. I think that is the key benefit of the Zendrum ZAP's hexagonal pad arrangement over the more conventional 4×4 grid. The ergonomics are more like a computer keyboard, which allows easier and faster finger strokes.

    But ultimately, as Brandon has shown, it's just about what you rehearse on and are comfortable with…

  • Jel is seriously an inspiration to anyone who has ever thought about using drum pads. How "tight" he plays is not even that easy to do with a drum kit unless you practice, practice, practice.

  • Andrew Zero

    I find I can really get into finger drumming with the nanopad. something about 2×6 and the size of the thing really works for my hands.

    There is definately something to be said about finding an ergonomic balance with these types of things.

    There do seem to be some extremes to this as well. Like those axis 49/64 controllers.

    Good video.

  • I'd like to see some comments about how people are using these pads melodically. Using Ableton and my nanopad, I've sent up simple chord progressions, set up on arpeggios using a similar set up, or just simply set scale constrain in ableton and went to town. But that's kind of a simple set up. Has anyone does anything more elaborate?

    (Download Covert Operators free Able10 Live pack for neat midi racks for setting up scales/chords:… )

  • dstroud

    As a new MPD owner, this couldn't come at a better time. I'm an accomplished steering-wheel drummer πŸ˜‰ and this actually comes pretty close to replicating what I naturally do.

    Any thoughts on the best way of going about this mapping? Should I just remap the hardware to output what seems to be commonly used by Ableton or should I actually try to remap the pads on Ableton's drum racks so that I can have a visual 1 to 1 mapping?

  • Brandon

    wow, thanks for the kind words everyone!

  • nick

    brandon bro!

    could you do a longer more in depth and better rez version of this? or failing that a series?!

    it looks pretty intuitive and there's something to be said by just DIY for yourself but man, i would PAY to get you to slow it down a touch and go into more detail. PAY!

    grat vid.

  • Pingback: How To Drum On Your MPC » Synthtopia()

  • Great skill there. Sounds great.

    I was asking about this exact question in ye olden days of CDM Message Board v1 and this is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Everyone always says, "what works for you!" which is true, sure. But it's great to see the setup of someone who knows what they're doing and have them talk about WHY exactly they do what they do.

    These kinds of videos are great, and are exactly what the producer community craves. Thanks for sharing!

  • Brandon

    Again, thanks to Peter and everyone for the feedback. I'll definitely be doing a series of these (melodic stuff, chops, psudo-generative things, etc.) with a proper camera or 2 and accompanying sample packs. Feel free to let me know what you would like to see πŸ™‚

    I use a bunch of different mappings depending on what I'm doing, but I just wanted to give an example on how to approach something that's open ended. I like the idea of taking what you already do (what your hands are already good at doing and how your brain is already wired) and applying it to your controller.

  • Brandon

    @ dstroud: I recommend making a preset on the mpd where the pad notes default to a chromatic layout across al 4 banks starting with C1 (note 36) on pad 1. This is how drumracks are laid out by default as well.

    The midi effects in live are a lot of fun, so definitely experiment with those too!

  • AA

    Nice! I've always wanted someone to explain the layout like this. I got to try it out.

    One question to Brandon: how do you use velocity on the pads? Is there a fixed velocity (I assume someone like Jel does this) or are there two, three velocities (or more!) for each pad? I don't own an MPC, so I'm sometimes struggling with the velocity on my Trigger Finger…

  • Geert

    Great instructional vid! Thanks for that!

    I would have thought though you'd play the hats and rides with your right hand, because it's what that hand does on a real 'analogue' drum kit. At least it's the way my brain is wired. πŸ™‚

  • @Geert Judging by his basses in the background, I'd say that Brandon is left handed, so he would drum in a mirrored way, even on a real kit, as well as on pads.

  • Geert

    @Birds Use Stars Of course! Well spotted!

  • I agree that it's best to give your thumb easy access to the kick, because it moves slower than your fingers. I keep the hats under my ring finger, and the snares and toms halfway, so that I can hit them with either the thumb or the other fingers.

    I also have found that it's nice to have a foot-closing-the-hi-hat sound near the thumb. Keeping a quick quarter-tone pulse on the closing-hat gives that bebop drum solo sound. Also, keeping the bass tom near the thumb seems natural, since often you'll want to substitute one for the other.

    If you play with only your left hand, rotating the board so that the lower right corner is pointing at your stomach, and keeping the thumb in that region, can be helpful.

    I'm unwilling to duplicate drums entirely, because it reduces the number of sounds available. However, if you've got enough pads, say, to have two different-sized crash cymbals, then you can have one of them in one place and one in the other.

    Good drummers don't need a lot of drums, but they play the ones they've got in numerous ways. It's more important, I think, to cover a wide variety of sounds than a wide variety of drums. For instance, I use 3 snare sounds from the same drum (a ghost hit, a normal hit, and a rimshot), and for each cymbal I use a splash (cymbal edge) sound, a ride (bell) sound, and something in between. Taking numerous sounds from the same drum gives the kit a more natural, wholistic sound.

    A good set of drum samples even includes such things as scrapes. I wish I had room for them. It also often has rolls, but without being able to tell the software when you want the roll to end, I don't think it's possible to play them well.

  • Oh, one more thing: There's a serious tension between grouping similar sounds near each other, so that they're easy to contrast with each other, and far apart, so you can reach one of them no matter where your hand is. For instance: One easy way to change the feel of a drum passage, usually in a way that seems to increase tension, is to simply switch from riding on one cymbal to riding on a different one. That's easiest if the cymbals are next to each other. But if all your cymbals are next to each other, it may be that you can't always get to them in time.

    I keep the toms next to each other, because I almost always play them in quick succession. Ditto the snares. Cymbals, on the other hand, I tend to spread around, so that I can always grab a bell to ride on or an edge to crash, no matter where my hand is.

    There's really no way to get around the advice that you'll have to do what works for you, because the optimal layout of the drums depends on what sort of phrases you intend to play.

  • Oh, and yet another thing: Keeping the crashes (as Brandon does) at the edges is a good idea for two reasons. (1) It minimizes the chance that you'll hit one accidentally. Hitting any other drum accidentally isn't a big deal; hitting a crash accidentally will almost always sound terrible. (2) Because they are used so infrequently, placing them far away means the drums that you play more frequently can be closer, which means less strain on your hand.

    I'll shut up now.

  • Kimotei

    @Jeff Brown: That was great!! πŸ˜€

    Brandon: You've inspired me to start using the midi pads. πŸ™‚ I got an APC. There is a preset which assigns the APCs pads as Ableton Drum Rack pads:

  • Brandon

    Great tips Jeff!

    @ AA: Are you referring to velocity layers (soft sample plays when you hit the pad, soft, hard sample plays, etc.)?

    I am left handed (should've given better warning, sorry!).

  • AA

    @ Brandon: exactly! How many layers do you use?

  • Brandon

    If I'm making the drum kits, usually 4 or less, and often just 1. Sometimes I use pre-made kits in Battery that'll have something crazy like 10 or 12 layers though…

  • FWIW, I just posted an entry on my blog showing my note mapping layouts on my Zendrum ZAP, with a bit of information about how I set up my Battery kits in Kontakt, hosted in Ableton Live. Check it out and let me know if you have any questions!

  • Brandon

    Nice, Hypnolsapien! Digging your stuff a lot! That zendrum looks like an absolute pleasure to play on.

  • much love to you Brandon for sharing this. I think the best part was how you said that an instrument is something that is unchanging. It really makes sense to map sounds according to that axiom. …. i know ive changed my mappings more than my underwear…

  • If you want to see the pioneers in this I would check out Jeremy Ellis and John Arnold of Detroit. Jeremy is an accomplished jazz pianist and John an amazing guitar player, both degreed in their arts. They were doing this art form of finger drumming starting over 8 years ago. They call it "freestyle" and basically do an entire live set composing on the MPC (or MPD lately) in over record mode or sequencer completely off. It is is really stunning to watch in person. There are plenty of videos on youtube and Jeremy has recently began doing tutorials on it via youtube.

  • Brandon

    Yup! Gave shouts to Jeremy in my video. No question, he's the man.

  • Very cool.

    I really like your configuration — I used to do everything horizontally ( kick 1 pad 1 | kick 2 pad 2 | hat 1 pad 3 | snare pad 4 | ) think this makes a ton more sense!

    Thanks for the idea — will be trying it out soon.

  • Niall

    While I understand the thought behind a consistant, systematic layout, isn't there something to be said for changing mapping too?

    Rotating the pad usage would help with eventual wear and tear. It also exercises your fingers in different ways, leading to greater flexibility on the whole. That said however, I am an mpc novice and wonder how valid these ideas are. What do you think?

  • Brandon

    @ Nail: I totally agree. There's no single mapping that'll suit all of your needs. I just wanted to give some folks a jumping off point. It works for a lot of styles, but not all. I love seeing what other people come up with in the finger drumming paradigm.