Tips for Transcribing Drums

Posted on December 10, 2023

 transcription tips

So... I like transcribing drums. The first time I ever transcribed something was a simple drum groove I did just over 10 years ago, and at this point, I’ve done over 50 songs to varying lengths. Why do I enjoy it so much? Well, that’s a topic for another day, but I want to share some pointers if you’re interested in deconstructing drum parts on your own.

Do Your Research

Before I start a transcription journey, I always do some Googling to see if anyone has tackled the song in question. Aside from generic Google results, I also check out Google images, since that can be more relevant for finding sheet music, as well as YouTube, since some people like to share sheet music on YouTube.

There are also tablature sites like Songsterr, which started using proper drum notation a couple of years ago, although these tend to be quite inaccurate. And that’s something to keep in mind: just because you found some sheet music doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.

In my “Little Wing” post, I brought up a transcription of the tune that I found back in high school which was, to quote myself, “Pretty not great.” I ended up using it as a starting point for my score, which required me to redo a good chunk of work, and because of the many inaccuracies in the older score, I ended up checking every last note for other mistakes.

The tough part can be knowing where to draw the line — just how many inaccuracies justify doing your own version? I had to consider this when I did “Cafo”, as Troy Wright’s transcription is the reason why I shelved that project for a while. 

Aside from redundancy, there are a couple of other reasons why you shouldn’t transcribe a song someone else has already done. For one, it’s better SEO if you’re the only person who’s written about the topic at hand. Also, it’s hard to not come across as someone who just stole another person’s sheet music, re–engraving it to pass it off as your own with no real changes to improve accuracy.

Ethically, I actually don’t know what it means if you still have to scrutinize every note of another person’s transcription — that’s basically the process of transcribing since you need to have an ear for it. But there’s an easy solution: when another person’s score gives you inspiration for your own, just be honest about it, which is what I always do.  

One last thing to look into is an isolated drum track. They’re rare, but some exist, mainly thanks to games like Rock Band. Be warned though, as there’s now a glut of AI–generated isolated drums passing themselves off as proper multitracks, and while the technology is promising, what we currently have is a far cry from a proper isolated drum track (more on that in a bit).

Know the Drummer

The most important tip is perhaps the most frustrating, but it really helps if you’re familiar with the style of the drummer you’re dissecting. 

For instance, anytime I hear Steve Gadd play a hand–to–foot triplet thing, I know it’s probably LRK, since that’s the way he likes to play those. Knowing a drummer’s signature moves can cut out a lot of the guessing.

While this is very helpful, there’s of course a big problem: it can take a while to get that familiar with a drummer’s style, and perusing a drummer’s discography just because you want to pick apart one tune isn’t very reasonable.

This is one of my biggest hurdles to transcribing, and I sometimes find myself in a situation where I’m hitherto unfamiliar with a drummer’s style and I need to get up to speed in a couple of weeks (or less) to make a transcription deadline.

Something that can be a life–saver (and is an extension of doing your research) is trying to find a live video of the drummer playing, maybe even for the song at hand... if the video exists, which becomes a bigger and bigger problem the farther back in time you go; some of the biggest bands of the 20th century didn’t film themselves much. Moreover, you can’t assume the drummer is doing a note–for–note recreation of the studio performance, but a video can clear some things up.

Instructional videos have been another tool I’ve used to help get familiar with a drummer in a concise manner, and they can especially helpful if the video was produced around the same time as the song you’re trying to analyze.

More than just licks, it’s important to at least be familiar with a drummer’s setup, so you’re not confused about how many toms they use, or whether or not they’re slipping in a double pedal for fills. This can be a frustrating rabbit hole though, as even the most famous drummers in history can have some puzzling kit situations. For instance, John Bonham long used two floor toms on stage, but I remain convinced that he only ever used one to record. I don’t have an explicit source to confirm this, however.

One of my enduring struggles is deciding to what extent I should trust my ears when I notate something that seems unintuitive, awkward, or even impossible when it comes to actually playing. There really aren’t many licks that are truly unplayable, it just becomes a balance of “Can this particular drummer play what I’m transcribing?” Again, I have to do what I can to cut down on the guessing.

We Have Technology

My artsy thumbnail is just a joke — I don’t actually do any transcribing by hand. MuseScore is my notation software of choice, and while it’s becoming an increasingly buggy mess with out–of–whack priorities, it’s the only reasonable option. 

How about software to make things easier to listen to? Most of the time, I just use YouTube to slow down the music; the site lets you slow things down in 25% increments. 

It’s helpful, but things will sound quite garbled when you get down past 50%, so I only go past that if I’m really desperate.

I’ve used Logic here and there for processing audio, and it can be helpful to use Logic’s EQ to try and fish out kick drum hits, as well as for looping parts of a song. If the tune was recorded to a click, you can set up a project with the proper BPM and time signature to visually track where the beat is.

If you don’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on a full–fledged DAW, there’s a $40 program out there called Transcribe! that works like a stripped–down DAW, with features such as an EQ and spectrum analyzer that will try to map frequencies to a piano keyboard, as well as abilities for slowing down audio. 

You can change the speed with or without preserving pitch — not preserving pitch keeps the audio from sounding as mangled, and is uniquely useful for drums since a snare drum pushed down an octave will still sound like a snare drum. 

Transcribe! even lets you load up videos if you prefer, and I tried out a demo version of Transcribe! when I did “Take It!”, using Snarky Puppy’s official “live” video.

I recently found something called the Amazing Slow Downer that can slow down audio by a factor of 200% with some disturbingly good fidelity; I think it might use FFT re–synthesis à la Paul Stretch. Paul Stretch could theoretically be used like this, although Paul Stretch is meant for extreme time stretching (by a factor up to 1000x slower) and it does distort the audio, so I don’t think it’s a good fit for transcribing. 

One thing I think I might be seriously missing is the ability to sync up my sheet music with the audio of the song. Soundslice can do this, but it might be problematic for songs that weren’t recorded to a click, and Soundslice also seems annoying to use. And yes, I know Logic is technically a scorewriter, but it’s really bad at it. 

I should also circle back around to those AI–powered stem generation applications like Moises and Lalai.  They’re kind of cool, but the technology isn’t there yet — the “isolated” drums are quite garbled with a lot of aliasing. 

Since a drum kit occupies the entire frequency spectrum, it’s a very difficult instrument to isolate. It’s for this reason that we might be years or even decades from software that can auto–transcribe drums when given a full band mix (if mankind can ever produce such an app).

Ultimately, I haven’t been making regular use of these apps, especially because they tend to be kind of annoying to use. 

Working in Chunks

My typical process for transcribing drums is to work in one or two measure chunks, picking apart the kit piecemeal. For grooves, I’ll usually figure out the kick, then the backbeats, then the cymbal pattern, and finally ghost notes. 

For whacky time signatures, I might fill a measure with kick drum notes and set them invisible (I did this for “11 Nights” the other week). That way I can keep track of the beat, and the invisible notes let me know what kick drums notes I added for my own convenience (i.e. notes that aren’t actually on the track).

Fills are always trickier, and for fills, I often have to chug through the measure beat by beat, although starting with identifying accents and or kick drum hits can still be helpful. 

Start Small

I’ve transcribed some gnarly stuff on my site, but it all got kicked into high gear my senior year of high school with a Led Zeppelin tune, which took me months to do properly. 

If you’ve never transcribed a drum part before, don’t start with something intense. Heck, if you’ve never done any kind of rhythmic dictation before, try doing some online drills. If you want something more engaging, big band music is a great source of syncopated rhythms — spend time figuring out the ensemble figures. Don’t worry about drum set orchestrations, just focus on transcribing the rhythms. 

Once you get more comfortable, start with grooves or fills, and then longer stretches of music. In these early stages, don’t be too afraid to tackle something that’s already been done; you could use someone else’s work to check your own.

Let me be clear about something: don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Spending months transcribing AC/DC tunes won’t do much for your ear. 

At the end of the day, practice makes perfect, and the more you do this, the easier it will get. That’s not to say it will always be easy period — that Plini song I did last week took me a full week just to produce less than 30 measures of music. 

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