How to make/program TR-909 drums for EDM

The TR-909 drums are very popular in the world of music. You can hear those sweet drums even in the not EDM genres, for example, Madonna – Vogue. These sounds have some unique characteristics, and for that reason, many artists still like to choose for TR-909 drums.

The original drum sounds come from the Roland TR-909 drum machine, which Roland Corporation released in the year 1983. Roland produced only around 10000 original units of this device and stopped the production in the year 1985. At the time of writing the real Roland TR-909 drum machine costs between 2 en 3 thousand euros.

Luckily for many of us, there are alternatives, and the most common and practical ones are available as a plugin in your favorite DAW. For example the two plugins, AudioRealism Drum Machine and D16 Group Drumazon. My personal favorite is Drumazon since it sounds great and the interface looks a lot like the Roland TR-909.

Almost at the end of this tutorial, there is a short guide about Drumazon. That guide is of course only for people who also like to use Drumazon.

The main purpose of this post is to make you better at programming TR-909 drums. However, I give you also a few brief introductions about some topics around programming drums.

If you want to be sure that you can fully understand this post, then you can also first with the bare basics of EDM production.

Understanding the TR-909 knobs

Each TR-909 drum is “obviously” modified by knobs, and knowing what these do, helps a lot to make these drums work in your music. Moreover, every tool I know which can make TR-909 drums has its own set of knobs, which is not a problem.

It is not a problem since we will only use the original Roland TR-909 set of knobs here, with three extra. These extra knobs are the tune knobs for the hi-hats (open and close) and the rim shot.

The ‘Tune knob’ section explains the reason why we probably want to use the extra knobs. Plus, not all tools have these three knobs, which is not a problem. Moreover, the section ‘The other and missing knobs’ explain what to do with the tool specific knobs and what to do when it misses some knobs.

Level and volume knobs

You configure each TR-909 drum with at least two parameters, the level knob, and the volume knob. Also, both knobs are for adjusting the volume (sound level).

Every drum has a level knob, which you can use for changing the sound level of the drum. Furthermore, the volume knob is an extra increase or decrease in the audio volume of the whole machine/plugin. Only by adjusting or forgetting these two parameters, it can be pretty easy to make mistakes.

The first mistake that you can make is to set the sound level too low.

When a producer plays the drum in his track, then there is a chance that the drum is not hearable enough while other elements are also playing. So maybe he tries to fix it with things like equalizing, compressing, or distortion. These “fixes” are extra work with the possibility of making mistakes, which could have been avoided by turning the volume up.

Additionally, this can happen in every track where he is using the drum.

The second mistake that you can make is that the drum sound is clipping.

Clipping means that the sound level of the audio is too high, which result in a decrease of sound quality. Your DAW and plugins show this most of the time as meters in the red and as an audio level bar crossing the 0-line.

The volume knob on the maximum.


So try to export/use the drum at the highest volume possible. However, if there is clipping happening, turn the volume down until it stops.

Tune knob

The tune-knob is for adjusting the pitch of a drum. On the original Roland TR-909 you find this knob for the drums:

  • bass drum
  • toms (low, mid, and high)
  • cymbals (crash and ride)

The clap does not have this knob, which is pretty logical. A clap is not a drum, it is a handclap, so it does not have a pitch. However, I never understood why on the original Roland TR-909 the cymbals have the tune-knob, and the hi-hats haven’t.

In my opinion, most of the time everyone should pitch all the drums/percussions he or she uses, to a pitch that is part of the key of the track. When you do this, then your drums sound more in harmony, which also gives your whole song more harmony.

The only reason not to pitch your drums like this is for creative purposes.

So for this reason, it can be a good idea to use the tune-knob for your hi-hats. To give you an example when I have chosen G minor for the key of my track. Then I pitch my bass drum is to pitch G and my hi-hats have to pitch A♯.

Decay knob

The decay knob does what it is assumed to do; it is for adjusting the decay of a drum. Furthermore, on the original Roland TR-909 you find this knob for the drums:

  • bass drum
  • toms (low, mid, and high)
  • hi-hats (open and close)
  • cymbals (crash and ride)

The only way to extend the play time length of these drums is with the decay knob. So you can see the decay knob as a knob for adjusting the play time length of the drum.

When I adjust the decay of the drums, then I use almost always the same guideline, since it helps me a lot. So as a guideline:

The more elements I want to use simultaneously, the shorter the decays I use. Plus, I don’t use this guideline only drums/percussions.

Drum specific knobs: Attack, tone, and snappy

You find the attack, tone, and snappy knobs on the bass drum and the snare drum. So if you do not want to know at the moment how to make these TR-909 drums, then it makes sense to skip this section.

Attack knob

You only find the attack knob on the bass drum. You can use it to make the initial click sound of the bass drum more or less hearable.

Moreover, this sound never becomes too present, even at the maximum setting. However, this doesn’t mean you should always use it at the maximum setting.

I also have a guideline for using this knob, which looks a lot like the one at the decay knob. Which is the guideline:

The more elements you want to use at the same moment with the bass drum, the more attack you should use.

Tone knob

You find the tone knob only on the snare drum. I have never touched an original Roland TR-909, but to cite this knob explanation from the manual: “This is to change the timbre of the sound. As you rotate this knob, the sound will become brighter.”.

In all the tools I have used, like Drumazon, the tone knob works more like the decay knob. So you can use it to extend the play time length of the snare drum.

It is common that producers play the snare drum at the same time with a bass drum. If you also want to do that, then it is a safe practice to complement the bass drum with the snare drum. In this case complementing means that, the shorter the bass drum is, the longer the snare drum should be, and vice versa.

Personally, at the moment all the snare drums I have made with Drumazon are on the setting 0.400 or 0.500. These settings are probably on 40% or 50% on similar plugins/machines, but I don’t know that for sure.

Snappy knob

The snappy knob is also only found on the snare drum. It is used to make the noise of the drum more or less hearable. In my opinion, this knob is almost always unnecessary.

The reason is that I always use the setting 0.100 in Drumazon. This setting is probably on 10% on a similar plugin/machine, which I don’t know for sure.

All other settings sound worse to my ears. However, a different setting can be useful for the more creative purposes, but I still never use it like that.

The other and missing knobs

There are many plugins/machines similar to the original Roland TR-909, but they are not the 100% the same. One of the common differences these have is that they don’t have all the knobs as the original, or they have other extra/different knobs.

However, all of those similar tools I know have presets. A preset is a list of every knob linked with a setting value, and when it is activated every knob get the linked value.

In all of these presets those tools have, there is probably one which has TR-909 settings. If you choose that one, then the drums in the tool sound presumably very close to the authentic TR-909 drums. Also, it is a fast and easy method to configure your drums.

The plugin Drumazon names this preset as: ‘Native 909’.

With such a TR-909 preset active, the other knobs have the right settings. So you probably don’t have to change these.

Two of the same buttons makes it a hard choice.

Practical settings for every TR-909 drum

This section is about giving practical settings, and not about providing good and right settings. Moreover, that would be impossible to do, since there are no wrong settings. Every setting is correct.

You can see those practical settings as guidelines, with why it works in a situation. Furthermore, maybe it is good to know that I found these settings over the years, in a combination of theory and experience.

The settings in this section will work in the plugin Drumazon. However, you can use these settings also in other similar TR-909 plugins/machines, and then they are probably still practical. The reason is that all TR-909 tools probably try to emulate the original TR-909 as good as possible, which also means how to buttons work and react.

Over the years I have tested a few TR-909 plugins/machines. All of these have an own way of displaying the value of a setting. Moreover, to provide in this section a uniform manner of giving these setting values, I present them in percentages.

In Drumazon is the value of a setting a number between 0.000 and 1.000. So this means, for example, that value 0.400 in Drumazon is then the value 40% in this section.

Since I am still learning about the TR-909 tools, this section is not complete. At the moment I haven’t used all the TR-909 drums enough, and I do not know enough about these drums, yet. However, when I find some practical information about such settings, then I will update this section with it, and that is a promise.

Practical tune knob guideline

I made many snares, hi-hats, and crashes over the time. For these TR-909 drums, I noticed that for the tune-knob the setting values under 50% and above 74% do not always work well in my tracks. So these values are not that practical, which is also the reason I don’t mention them here.

In this section, there are multiple tables. In these tables, each row shows the settings for a particular pitch. The tune column shows the value of the setting in a percentage and which pitch it is.

Bass drum

I almost never use a TR-909 bass drum in my tracks. For this reason, I only have a practical setting for the attack knob.

attackdecaytunelevelvolume
Use the guideline from the ‘Attack knob’ section, or else just set it to 100%.

Snare drum

snappytonetunelevelvolume
10%*68% = G100%98%
10%*58% = F♯100%
*: Use the guideline from the ‘Tone knob’ section, and set it to 40% or 50%.

Open hi-hat and closed hi-hat

When I use both open and closed hi-hats, then I like to have them on the same pitch. I have two reasons for this, which are:

  • It just sounds good and stable.
  • A drummer can use in his drum kit hi-hats which can be open and closed. I don’t think they have a different pitch when they are open or closed, but I don’t know this for sure.
  • It is easier/faster since only have to choose one pitch, which makes it also more practical.

When you choose the same pitch for the open and closed hi-hats and tune-knob setting values from 50% to 74%, then there are three possible pitches. These pitches are A, A♯, and B.

A closed hi-hat

Open hi-hat

decaytunelevelvolume
58% = A♯100%100%
62% = B100%

Closed hi-hat

decaytunelevelvolume
64% = A♯100%100%
74% = B100%

Crash

tunelevelvolume
58% = D100%100%

Toms (low, mid, and high), rim shot, and ride

There are a few TR-909 drums skipped: toms (low, mid, and high), rim shot, and ride. I have not mentioned them because I don’t know settings for practical using these drums. Maybe you find these settings here in the future.

Hand clap

This TR-909 drum (technically not a drum, it is a handclap) has only one knob, the level knob. Furthermore, in my experience, the volume (sound level) of the clap varies a lot every time it plays, way more than the other TR-909 drums. This varying means less control over the sound, and it is impossible to have the same volume as the other drums without that it is sometimes clipping.

I prefer to fix this volume problem by adding a limiter effect direct after the TR-909 plugin/machine. Also, this limiter should have at least have a threshold on 0 dB (I use -0.1 dB) to stop the clipping. So when you have a correct configured limiter in place, then you can turn the volume and the level knobs to 100%.

The settings I use such a limiter are always the same, which does not have a good reason, besides that it sounds good. These settings are:

  • Set the threshold on the value of -0.1 dB. The reason for this value is that it 0 dB maybe (you never know for sure) is not 0 dB, the value could be like 0.0001 dB or something like that for example.
  • release on 100 ms
  • lookahead on 1.5 ms

Beyond the original Roland TR-909 sound with effects and layering

Roland Corporation designed the drums sounds from the original Roland TR-909 to work straight from the device. So you do not need processing with effects or layering to make those drums work in your music. This fact is probably also true for similar plugin/devices, at least it is for Drumazon.

Also, this post is only programming TR-909 drums, so effects and layering are out of scope. However, I will still explain both a bit.

Effects on TR-909 drums

When you use an effect on a drum, then it is not the original drum sound (can be a good thing) anymore. So maybe you need to use one or more extra effects to make the drum work in your music. For example, when you make heavy use of a distortion effect on a drum, then you probably need an equalizer effect after the distortion effect.

Using effects on your drums can be hard. For this reason, I have two tips about using them:

  • Only use them when you do not want the original sound.
  • If you like what you hear, but you want it louder, then use a limiter-effect, which is a type of compression.

Layer TR-909 drums

Layering a drum with another drum also can be hard. The reason is that frequency parts in the layered drums stack, and these stacked frequencies can become too loud in volume (sound level).

For example, layering two drums with both having a lot of mid-range frequencies can make the layered sound, sound too muddy. However, you can fix this problem with an equalizer effect on the layered sound.

For the mentioned reason, I suggest only to layer a drum with another one, if the sound of a layer adds value to the layered sound. Also, layering the same drum type is harder is than layering two different drum types. For example, layering two snares is harder than layering a kick with a closed hi-hat.

Exporting or recording finished drums

You have a TR-909 drum that sounds just the way you like it, which is probably the result of a repeating sequence of judging and fine-tuning the sound.

You probably want to use your finished TR-909 drum in future projects. Furthermore, you likely don’t want to configure your plugin/machine everytime you want to use it. The reasons you don’t want to do this are:

  • It costs time and effort.
  • You can make mistakes with copying settings.
  • You can forget and lose settings.
  • Some TR-909 tools can make your computer unnecessary slower.
  • Sharing the exact drum sound with other people can be hard.

Moreover, if you have used one or more effects on the drum or layered the drum, then the reasons become even more apparent.

Drum sampling

A solution to the problem reuse problem is to make a sample of the drum sound. Such a sample is just an audio file (like a .wav), which is usable in multiple projects and various DAW’s.

Sampling works differently in every DAW. However, as far as I know, making a sample of a drum is always done with exporting or recording the drum to an audio file. Also, all the DAW’s I know have a record function, but not all have an export function.

The export function automatic plays and records the drum, and then stops the recording. Moreover, the recording length gets most of the time determined by the length of a pattern. Furthermore, such an exporting function is fast and most of the time almost instant, and then your sample is complete and usable.

The recording function is like the export function, but you have to do the playing, the recording, and the stopping of the drum sound yourself. Which means you can record unnecessary silence, which you have to cut afterward. So the recording function costs more time, and you can make mistakes easier.

Choosing between exporting or recording is now pretty easy.

As a rule of thumb, use the export function when it is available, or else use the record function.

Last but not least, giving the finished sample a logic name that makes sense will make it easier to find when you have many samples.

Short Drumazon guide

This section is a short guide about the plugin Drumazon. So if you don’t use it, then it probably makes sense to skip this part.

Some find the interface of Drumazon overwhelming, which was also a problem for me. If this is also the case for you, then remember that you do not even need to use all the knobs which the original Roland TR-909 has.

When you open Drumazon in your DAW as a plugin, it starts in the ‘Internal Sequencer’ mode. You can also see this by watching the LED on the ‘Int.Seq’ button. If the LED is on, then that mode is active.

In the ‘Internal Sequencer’ mode, Drumazon can play his internal drums patterns. If you turn this mode off by pressing the button, then it will switch to ‘External Sequencer’ mode, and the LED turns off.

I prefer this mode as good as always since it uses MIDI notes to play drum patterns. Because I can use Drumazon now only for configuring drums, and it works now in the same way as many other plugins with MIDI note support.

However, Drumazon linked some notes in MIDI to some TR-909 drums in the plugin, which we call “MIDI mappings.”

Default MIDI mappings

When Drumazon is in ‘External Sequencer’ mode, and you play in your DAW the MIDI notes from B0 to D♯2, then you should hear the corresponding TR-909 drums. Moreover, in the DAW’s I know, you can view MIDI notes on a piano roll. A view like that is helpful in my opinion since you have now visible in an overview of how you can play the drums.

Drumazon has default MIDI mappings, which you can find in the table below. Furthermore, a good thing to keep in mind is that in some DAWs the piano roll notes are an octave wrong. For example, C2 can be C3.

drumMIDI note(s)
bass drumB0, C1
snare drumD1, E1
low tomF1, G1
mid tomA1, B1
high tomC2, D2
rim shotC♯1
hand clapD♯1
closed hi-hatF♯1, G♯1
open hi-hatA♯1
crashC♯2
rideD♯2

Browsing to the ‘Native 909’ preset

I have already mentioned it the ‘The other and missing knobs’ section. A preset is a list of every knob linked to a setting value, and when it is activated every knob get the linked value. Also, choosing a TR-909 preset is a fast and easy method by which you can get authentic TR-909 drums.

In Drumazon such a preset is named as ‘Native 909’, and my Drumazon starts in this preset. Furthermore, you can also use the ‘prev’ and ‘next’ buttons in the ‘preset’ section to change presets.

Conclusion

You can read here what all the knobs do of the original TR-909. Also, I gave you some practical settings for making TR-909 drums, with the reasons why these settings are practical.

Moreover, I explained briefly how to add some effects to your TR-909 drums and how you can layer them with other drums. Furthermore, I gave a brief explanation of why and how you should export/record your finished drums. As an extra, you can find here a short Drumazon guide, since this is one of the best TR-909 plugins and my favorite.

If you have read this, then you maybe have noticed many links to the bare basics. For some, these basics can help to understand this post more.

I hope you can now program some TR-909 drums. Also when you know someone who likes to program TR-909 drums, then feel free to share this post. Additionally, do you have some tips to make TR-909 drums?

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