A simple and effective drum kit dynamics exercise.
Dynamics can make or break a song. As a drummer, if you have full control over the volume of each limb, you have a huge sound toolkit at your disposal. Put simply, dynamics refers to how hard or soft you hit each drum or cymbal, and how loud or quiet you play overall. Here’s a quick and easy method to improve your drum kit dynamics, and you should see results quite quickly. This exercise is designed to give you dynamic independence across all four limbs. It starts out very basic, leading to some more advanced variations at the end.
This exercise is credited to the great Max Roach.
To begin, you’ll sit at the drum kit with:
- Your left hand playing the snare,
- Right hand on the floor tom,
- Left foot on the hi hat pedal,
- Right foot on the bass drum pedal.
You’re going to continually hit everything at the same time, in a steady pattern at medium volume. Written out, it looks like this:
First, you’ll increase and decrease the volume of all four limbs together:
- Slowly increase the volume of all four limbs at the same time, like you’re doing a slow build up on the snare, floor tom, hi hat pedal, and bass drum.
- Once you’re at maximum volume, slowly decrease the volume of all four limbs together, until you’re playing as quietly as possible (your sticks should be no more than an inch from the drums at your quietest).
- Return to medium volume. It should take around 30 seconds to cycle from medium, up to high, down to low, and back up to medium volume.
- Repeat this cycle a few more times, then move onto the next part of the dynamics exercise below.
Now you’re going to do the same increase and decrease in volume, but this time with one hand or foot at a time, while keeping the other three limbs always at medium volume:
- Start with the snare drum, and slowly increase your snare volume until it’s as loud as you can play it. Keep the floor tom, hi hat, and bass drum at medium volume.
- Now bring your snare volume all the way down until you’re playing extremely light ghost notes.
- Slowly return to medium volume on the snare.
- Repeat this for the floor tom, then the hi hat pedal, then the bass drum. Remember to always keep the other three limbs playing at medium volume, and take around 30 seconds for each cycle.
You can practise this drum dynamics exercise anywhere, even without a drum kit. Tap your hands on your thighs, and your feet on the ground. Don’t worry about the strange looks people give you…
Once you’re comfortable shifting the volume of each limb, there are a lot of intermediate and advanced variations you can try:
- Add in random heavy accents, and light ghost notes, as you do the above exercise.
- Increase and decrease the volume of two or three limbs at same time.
- Increase the volume of one limb, while decreasing the volume of another.
Now try the same exercises with your drum beats, fills, and patterns:
- Cycle through the same volume increases and decreases for each limb.
- Add hard and soft accents with different limbs, go through as many combinations as possible.
- Increase the volume of one or two limbs, while decreasing the volume of others at the same time.
From here you have some great tools for taking full control of your drum set dynamics – both within a single beat when focusing on each limb, and across whole songs with your overall volume.
Drum set dynamics: what are the benefits?
- You can play the same beat countless different ways (see the video below!) depending on the contrast in volumes around the drum kit. Make simple 4/4 beats groove in the right places, or highlight the best moments in complex patterns. Think about how the volume of each drum and cymbal contributes to the drum feel, and the song itself.
- Your stockpile of fills will take on a whole new life depending on where and how you accent them.
- You can make very simple patterns sound a lot more complex and interesting.
- You’ll be able to blend your drum volume perfectly with other instruments in any situation, and on any drum set.
- Quiet sections will seem more intimate, and louder sections will pop out much more. Working on your whole-song dynamics can draw the audience in, and make your tracks explode at the perfect moment.
Need some more ideas?
Practise until you hallucinate like JoJo Mayer!