Quick background

The 90s saw a big divergence between pop and rock — this rift had been forming for some time, but for the first time there was a clear distinction between ‘bubblegum’ pop and grungier punk rock. On the pop side groups like The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC emerged, while bands like Nirvana and Green Day opted for a more distorted, rebellious feel, which brought punk rock into the forefront. We’ll focus more on the rock front, but it’s valuable to make this distinction from the beginning; however, their production styles had a similar evolution despite creating very different sounds.

Bands were experimenting with more edginess, both lyrically and musically; they brought all their angst and frustration out of the woodwork and into their music, creating an aggressive sound that didn’t quite have the darkness and drive of metal but plenty of its power. This manifested in the form of punchy, unpolished drums that looked, tasted and smelled like they came straight out of a garage (as we’ll cover later in the article, that even contributed to the mixing and production styles of 90s rock drums).

If you look at the end of the 90s and the early 2000s, this angst gave way to what would become true pop and skate punk, the likes of blink-182 and Good Charlotte. This presented a more carefree, escapist style to contrast the heaviness of 90s punk rock, cementing its predecessor as a unique moment in musical history with a particular sound that largely disappeared in the new millennium.

A ton of intense experimentation was happening at once, including with recording and production technology — all of this came together to build a new genre that shaped a variety of genres from rock to metal and even to EDM … starting with digital audio.

Tech limitations

The physical recording medium of the time also had a huge impact on the sound of the 90s as well: CDs. The most popular distribution medium for albums in the 90s, it significantly influenced the decade’s mixing and production styles — digital encoding presented particular limitations not present with tape recordings. For example, they were (and still are) limited to a bit depth of 16, as opposed to the modern 24 and 32 bit norm.

This raised the noise floor by introducing quantization distortion, which became more noticeable the quieter the music was. As a result, music started to become more compressed, raising the volume and creating a more heavily processed feel; even after CDs became an outmoded technology, the tendency toward louder music had already been established. This is part of the reason why today’s music is so loud (and why you can often ignore recommended ‘commercial loudness’ recommendations)!

It was also an age of experimentation in digital music tech, with the rising popularity of DAWs and the conversion of analog effects to digital — this change was gradual, but there was a growing tendency toward recording everything squarely ‘on the grid,’ leading to more measured, rigid grooves, especially approaching the 2000s.

Common drum grooves

90s rock guitarists loved to give it 110% in the chorus and dial it way down in the verses — these back and forth extremes capture the emotional, rebellious feel you want to emulate. Generally, you’ll get the best results with a tight hi hat rhythm in the verses with a strong kick and snare, followed by crash or splash cymbals in the verse. This way, you’re opening up the sound in the song’s most intense moments.

A perfect example of this is the chorus of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit — notice the consistency of the snare hits (plus a few ghosted notes here and there), plus the aggressive kick rhythm and frequent cymbal crashes. The hi hat even opens up very slightly, creating a longer release that adds more intensity to the beat. (You can find a similar pattern in Soundgarden’s Fell On Black Days, along with many other songs from around the same time.)

You can also create a double time feel like Hole does in Violet — instead, the snare falls on the ‘and’ of beat 2 and on 4, while the hi hat is played loosely open and the kick often happens twice in a single beat. Syncopation and pushing the snare off the beat immediately gives the impression of more frantic action, giving you permission to go crazier with your rhythms and drive forward with faster tempos.

You’ll find similarities in 90s rock ballads, but with less active drum grooves and less intensity and power behind each hit. Each kick and snare hit feels more deliberate, in part to leave room for the vocals. Once you internalize the role of each part of the drum kit and how they all work together, you can break out of the need to use specific rhythms and instead trust your own instincts based on experience and everything you listen to over time!

To distinguish and reproduce different types of 90s beats more easily, you can use BRUTE and switch between the pre-programmed verse and chorus phrases — it will only help you to understand what’s going on and why, and BRUTE can help you put them into practice even faster! Listen to the subtle differences between verse and chorus phrases, down to slight nuances in sample choices and overall leveling, and you’ll get a handle on this very quickly.

Production and mixing techniques

To get the grungy, rebellious feel of 90s rock, be prepared to slam the drum kit. Heavy compression on everything, hard transients on the kick and snare while pressing up against an aggressive limiter. When you get the compression right, the crash cymbal will feel like it’s exploding out from the snare (which is an amazing sound when thrown on the chorus of a hard-hitting 90s rock tune!). Use a high ratio (4:1 or higher) with a short attack and release to accentuate the natural curve of the drums. If you want to get granular, you can also apply a gate to the cymbals so they get out of the way for the kick and snare to cut through — all things that UJAM’s Virtual Drummer BRUTE does even upon loading the very first preset, The Raven. Try it out to instantly add some 90s punk grunge to any track!

EQ is useful for taming the low mids — while 90s rock isn’t high end-focused, it shouldn’t sound boomy, and mix engineers often need to cut out a bunch of that mud in the kick to give it to the snare (cymbals can get a high pass filter starting in the mids or above, because those lower frequencies can clash with the kick and snare without adding anything useful to the mix). The cymbals will sometimes need some harshness cut in the 1-3 kHz range, which is also true of many genres beyond 90s rock.

Depending on the sound you get from the overheads, you may want to add a little room reverb. Nothing too big, since you want the sound of a small studio or even a garage (for some extra punk feel) — creating the space of a small room will make it less ‘pro’ sounding, which when done in the right way will actually give things a more authentic feel. For starter settings, go with a small size, short delay time, high diffusion, and filtered high end, then adjust from there!

Play around with distortion as well — what works for guitars won’t work for drums, and there are some considerations to take into account. You’ll likely want to avoid fuzz modules and anything that raises the noise floor of the high end, as the cymbals and snare will become ‘hissy’ … which isn’t what you want. It’s better to have a midrange-y, thumping distortion that doesn’t interfere with the guitars and vocals. You can get a lot of these types of distortion from Finishers like RETRO and VOODOO, or with a dedicated distortion plugin like Predatohm from Ohm Force.

Wrapping up

If you can create driving, straight punk rock beats and apply audio effects in just the right way, you can master the sound of 90s rock drums and give a unique flair to your music — other musicians (especially outside of rock) have long forgotten this style, so bringing it back and making it your own will do wonders for your creativity and brand as a producer and writer. This is true of every period genre and subgenre you learn to produce; the combination of all of them together is how you iterate upon your own approach to music as you take bits and pieces from each!

You’ll find tons of commonalities between the drum beats of different 90s rock bands, especially in regards to the kick / snare / hi hat patterns. Pay attention to them, because incorporating them into your music is part of how others will identify the style you’re going for! Keep listening to the drum mix to make sure you’re in line with the optimal compression, EQ, reverb and distortion approaches to truly sell your music as being straight out of the 90s!

And if you want a helping hand to nail the subtle nuances between verse and chorus, closed vs. partially open hi hats, and everything in between, it doesn’t get easier than using Virtual Drummer BRUTE. Everything’s there for you — all that’s left is to create.