How to Become a Master of Hi Hats
Create the perfect hi hat patterns and rolls in any genre, even without a huge collection of samples.
JULY 19TH, 2020
What types of music come to mind at the mention of hi hats? Perhaps Trap (often containing borderline-excessive rolls too fast to produce any discernible rhythm) or Drum & Bass (rapid rhythms and rapid switching between open and closed hats)--but they play a vital role in nearly every genre (outside of traditional world and orchestral music). Funk, R&B, Jazz, you name it--getting your hi hat rhythms just right will greatly level up your production skills, because most producers don’t take the time to work on something so specific.
But that’s what separates a ‘good’ producer from a ‘great’ one.
Attention to the fine details that other producers ignore. Your listeners probably won’t compliment you on your excellent use of hi hats...but they will definitely hear the difference--albeit subconsciously--and enjoy your music that much more!
Difference Between Open and Closed
What is a hi hat?
In the simplest sense, an acoustic hi hat is a set of two cymbals with two positions: open, when the two cymbals are slightly separated; and closed, when they’re pressed together. Open hi hats typically ring out for a couple of seconds, while closed hi hats are short and crisp. Experienced drummers intuitively know when to open and close them, and with a bit of practice you will too. Of course, when you’re making beats at home, you probably won’t be using a physical set of cymbals--but you may already have a plethora of open and closed hi hat samples on your computer (most DAWs come with a fairly detailed virtual drum machine and sample set).
Most of the time, you’ll be using closed hi hats (90% of the time or more) with the occasional open hit (less than 10% of the time). Why? Because successive open hi hats slow down the perceived tempo and make your music sound sluggish. Tastefully inserting open hits adds intensity and variety to your drum groove as long as you show a bit of restraint. Once you can create hi hat rhythms with little effort, try writing a section that uses 25-50% open hi hats and follow it with a section that has almost no hi hats--this jump from ‘splashy’ to ‘crisp’ hi hat rhythms is a great way to engage listeners! That dramatic change shakes them awake just when they need something new to stay engaged.
If you need to hear an audio sample to fully grasp the difference in sound between open and closed, check out this excellent primer on YouTube.
Acoustic Vs. Electronic Drums
Naturally, anytime you want to mimic an acoustic drum set, you probably won’t reach for electronic samples. As you grow more comfortable with experimenting, however, you might enjoy layering electronic and acoustic drum kits together to achieve a richer, more complex sound--in that case, you’re welcome to reach for odd combinations and invite a bit of chaos, because you’ll eventually come across something fun! Pro tip: make sure the timing of every layer you add syncs perfectly with the others, otherwise your percussion will quickly become a mess!
Many hi hat samples found in electronic kits are recorded--that being said, you’re likely to hear a wide variety of hi hats that don’t sound natural. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into detail on this particular topic, but it’s valuable to know that many electronic hi hats are created from white noise and a lot of processing. Genre plays a huge role in determining whether acoustic or electronic samples are more appropriate (or a mixture of both), which is why you almost never hear Trap-inspired hi hat rolls played by acoustic hi hats: electronic ones are generally simpler and cleaner, and it’s far easier to control their attacks and releases.
How to Create Hi Hat Rolls
Generally, repeating the same note in 32nds or faster constitutes a roll--it’s no longer about keeping tempo, but about adding drama. As mentioned above, Trap is the most infamous example of this--often containing multiple hi hat rolls within the same measure. You can use them to fill in the spaces between kicks and snares, and they’re a highly effective way of adding a ton of energy to a beat that wouldn’t otherwise have it.
The quickest way to achieve this effect is to line up multiple 32nd notes at the same note velocity (just copy and paste the first note in the roll). Very often this ‘machine gun’ effect is perfectly serviceable--but if you want to ‘humanize’ the hi hat performances, slightly tweaking individual note velocities will have a tremendous impact. Then you can copy your roll and paste it in as many places as you like.
A word of caution: this is very, very easy to overdo. Using too many hi hat rolls will make your tracks sound frantic and unfocused. Play with this a lot, until you discover the right placement and balance--the effort will be well worth it! You actually might find it easier to purposely overdo it at first and then back off; this way, you can separate your creation and editing phases and make the process flow a bit smoother.
Hi Hats and UJAM
Hands-down, the best way to improve your hi hat production is to experiment with HUSTLE 2. You have a range of hi hats from clean to grungy, and you can use existing patterns or create your own for Trap, Hip Hop, and multiple other genres. And to get a taste of heavy hi hat fills, load up the ‘Banga’ preset and turn the Micro Timing up to 2x! The quickest way to learn is to dissect, rearrange and create--and it’s much easier to do that with a specialized Beatmaker than with a hi hat sample pack containing hundreds of free files to sort through (which makes it nearly impossible to pick out just a couple to use).
If you’re partial to Drum & Bass, VOID is a must-have for creating your own patterns--it contains the same boldness and flexibility as Hustle, but the rest of the drum kit is better suited to breakbeats and syncopated rhythms. Try out the ‘Omar Santana’ preset, once again at 2x speed--you’ll fall in love with the hi hat Fills! 1x speed gives you some excellent grooves, but cranking up the speed gets you those nice, juicy hi hat rolls.
Hi hats are often an afterthought for many producers--it’s fun to pick out your kick and snare because you can immediately feel the dramatic effect they have on your music. That isn’t always the case with hi hats--they’re ‘background’ percussion, typically used to fill in the space between the kick and the snare. But when you take the time to craft great hi hat patterns and rolls, you’ll clearly feel the difference. Your beats don’t seem so empty. They have more oomph. You learn to build tension and release it, bringing listeners deeper into your music.
Your kick and snare are the most vital parts of your beats--but by giving the hi hats a star role, you gain immeasurably more control over the dynamics of your music. Give HUSTLE 2 and VOID a try, and most importantly: have fun creating as many new hi hat patterns as you possibly can!
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