How to make Synthwave Drums

I. Introduction to synthwave drums [ 0:00 ]

At the heart of any synthwave track lies its drum beat, driving the rhythm and setting the tone for the entire composition.
In this synthwave tutorial, you’ll learn the process to create synthwave drums using Logic Pro X’s Drum Machine Designer.
We’ll go through a few simple techniques to write a drum pattern, while also exploring additional music production techniques such as making the classic gated reverb sound and setting your first drum bus effects.

II. Setting up the Drum Machine in Logic Pro X and selecting synthwave drum kit samples [ 0:29 ]

After setting up the project to your desired tempo (I chose 90 bpm here), load the sampler you have in your DAW.
If you don’t have one (which I highly doubt :o) ), I suggest a free sampler VST like the Sitala Sampler.
In Logic Pro X I’ll use Drum Machine Designer and I chose to use free samples from Bvker in their Free Vaporware Drum kit, as they sound great for an 80s synthwave drum kit type of sound.

1 - Listen to and select samples you like for your kick, snare, hi-hat, cymbals, etc… and load them into the sampler.
2 - Try playing with your samples and maybe tweak them a little : in my example, I chose a kick that kind of worked but trimmed the noise I didn’t like at the end of it.
3 - Put all your individual tracks in a bus so it’s easier to control the volume of the entire drum kit, and later apply some processing to it.

Note that I took a snare samples that didn’t include reverberation, as I want to show you a trick a bit later.

III. Creating a Simple Synthwave Drum Pattern for your song [ 3:11 and 9:09]

Let’s try to do a simple synthwave drum beat for our song. First, create a MIDI region. We’ll start with a 4-bar loop as our foundation for the beat.
The drum beat is the foundation of a synthwave track and should be kept simple and repetitive to maintain the genre’s characteristic style.
Writing the drum pattern directly in the piano roll of the DAW allows for precise control and flexibility in creating the desired rhythm.

1 - Create a MIDI 4-bar loop.
2 - For a classic type of programmed beat, place the snare on the 2nd and 4th beats of each bar.
3 - Place the kick on the 1st and 3rd beats of each bar. Here, you can experiment with kick rhythms by adding some on every 8th beat or so. This will make your loop more entertaining. You can also place the kick on every beat of the bar for a more "dance" vibe.
4 - Write a hi-hat on every 8th note, and voilà, your first 4-bar loop is complete!

Synthwave music often follows an eight-bar pattern, with four-bar beats being the building blocks, and variations and transitions occurring within these patterns

For that I chose to add some tom drums to create those transitions :

1 - Do the same as you did with your kick and snare samples. Go through the ones for the toms and find ones you like and that go well with your drum kit.
2 - Try to emulate what you can find on a real drum kit and find a high tom, a medium tom, and a low tom.
3 - Write a tom pattern at the end of your loop so it transitions with an eventual next section of the song. In my example, I also removed the hi-hat pattern in the last bar to let this tom break breathe (also, a real drummer probably wouldn’t be able to play both at the same time).

Variation in the drum beat, such as introducing fills or breaks, can add interest and create transitions between different sections of the song.

With our 8-bar pattern, we now have a foundation for a section of our song, maybe a chorus, or a verse. Do a few more variations, and you’ll end up with a few ideas that you can use for the whole structure.

IV. Making a Gated Snare Reverb like an 80s drums [ 5:39 ]

A gated reverb is a distinctive audio effect commonly used in the 1980s’ music production.
You can hear it in famous 80s songs, one famous example being Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight", where the gated reverb on the drums during the famous drum fill creates a dramatic and atmospheric effect.

The effect involves applying reverb to a sound source (in our case, a snare drum, but try experimenting with it on other sources or instruments) and then using a noise gate to abruptly cut off the reverb tail. This results in a tight, punchy sound with a quick decay, but it gives the impression of a larger-than-life sound while maintaining clarity and definition.

The way I show you how to do it in Logic Pro X can be replicated in other DAWs, you’ll just have to adapt the workflow if needed.

1 - Create an auxiliary track and send your snare sound to it. In Logic, you can create the auxiliary bus so you can move it next to your audio track.
2 - In that bus, insert the reverb of your choice. Try a retro-style plate reverb with a long decay around 4 seconds, and set the wet signal to 100%.
3 - Not mandatory, but you can add a compressor after the reverb to flatten the dynamic and make it fatter.
4 - At the end of your effect chain, finally add a noise gate.
5 - In the gate, set the snare track as the input for your side chain. That way, the gate will react to when the snare plays, and not to the reverb. Set the threshold accordingly so the gate opens when the snare hits.
6 - Set the release of the gate to your taste for the final effect. Your reverb should sound short, but big.

And don’t forget to organize your session and name your tracks correctly.

V. Quick Tip: Drum Bus Reverb and Compression [ 11:30 ]

Applying effects such as reverb, compression, or EQ to shape the drum sound can help achieve the desired tonal balance and fit within the overall mix.
We’re not at the mix stage yet, but maybe those few tips can help to make the drum sounds a bit better right away and give a better idea of how they will sound during the composition process.
So don’t take all of it for granted, and come back to all that during the mix process to adjust everything.

- Add some depth :

1 - You can do that manually, but Logic Pro X’s Drum Machine Designer automatically creates buses for your drum reverb and delay.
2 - Try sending your drum track individually to them to enhance your sound. In my case, I ended up with a subtle reverb to begin with, keeping in mind that I will probably modify it later in the song process. It glues things together a bit.

- Add some compression to the drum bus :

1 - Add a compressor to your drum bus
2 - To add some glue and a bit of punch, try a ratio around 2 and 4, set the attack between 10ms and 30ms, and use an auto or quick release..
3 - Set the threshold and aim for around 3dB of gain reduction.

- Add some EQ :

1 - Load an EQ onto your drum bus.
2 - Add a low-shelf to improve the bass of the kick.
3 - Add a high-shelf to boost the high frequencies of the entire kit.
4 - Experiment with a low-cut to eliminate unnecessary sub-bass.

With those quick adjustments, the drums will sound more lively and more fun to hear, rather than the dry version we had before during the composition process.

VI. Conclusion

There you have it for our synthwave drums, we went from setting the project, selecting our samples, and loading them into our sampler, to making a simple beat with a transition and adding a few effects to our drum bus to make everything sound a bit better. We also took a look at a classic 80s drum production trick with the gated reverb snare.
As you embark on the composition journey for your song, remember to experiment with your own rhythms, tools, and ideas.
After all, drums are the heartbeat of the song, giving synthwave the energy it needs to keep us living in a nostalgic era we enjoy.

You can watch the whole video tutorial on this YouTube playlist or keep reading the next blog article to learn how to make a classic synthwave bass.

Hear the final result in my song « Rewind » here.
Find more about She Died in a Parking Lot here or on Youtube