How to Use Drum Fills

Utilizing Drum Fills & Variation Changes in Live Performance

The discussion below is taken from a thread launched by "xxx" on the Synth Zone General Arranger forum. Click here to go to the original thread.

11-18-2002 09:57 PM

OK, how many of you fully utilize drum fills when performing? Do you just hop from variation to variation when changing song sections (or worse yet, just stay on a single variation through the entire tune) or do you trigger a drum fill lead in before each new song section & variation change? Aside from the rare tune that requires only one simple style with no fills or drum variation changes at all, good drummers mix up the rhythms (variations) and include drum fills that lead into the next section.

This being said, I'm curious just how you guys trigger drum fills and variation changes.

  1. Do you utilize a foot controller pedal to trigger changes, or manually press the fill button and/or variation buttons by hand?
  2. At what point(s) in a song do you routinely trigger fills and/or variation changes?
  3. Do you use the mulitpad drum assignments to add additional drum hits (cymbal crash, snare, etc.) to even more of a live feeling?
  4. On exactly what beat of the last measure preceding the variation change do you try to trigger the fill to begin?
  5. Any tricks to share re: drum fill/variation change arranger KB playing techniques?

Here's what I do: For casual performances, I just use my left (and sometimes right hand) to trigger the variation change/auto fill buttons. For songs that utilize registration memory, the fills automatically take place at every song section variation change (registration sequence advance).When I utilize the MFC10 multi-foot pedal controller, I have more flexibility to trigger fills at will, while my hands are playing the keyboard. Because of this, I can more easily add fills not only at the section changes, but sometimes at 4-bar or even 2-bar intervals in some circumstances. There are even some places where I will just hold the fill button (pedal) down continuously for a dramatic loop fill, which can last 2 to 4 measures. This is especially useful for a dramatic section or buildup in a song. I also like to add a drum hit (crash) occasionally to add more spontaneity, but it gets difficult when you're trying to juggle everything else at the same time. It sure would be great if the Mulitpads could be triggered via foot pedal controller instead of only manually. I've suggested to Yamaha that they implement this in the dedicated foot control assignment or via midi activation via the MFC10.

Also, I usually attempt to trigger the drum fill on beat 2 of the previous measure before a variation change, especially when doing this with my hands, because I need to be playing the chord on beat 1. I then depress the damper pedal to hold that chord before reaching for the fill/variation button. Mastering these techniques both manually or by foot is a unique arranger playing specific technique that requires practice.

OK, I'm interested now in hearing how you guys utilize the fills & variation changes in performance. I'm curious how others have mastered this. Looking forward to getting some discussion going about different people's arranger keyboard "playing techniques" etc. Hopefully, we can use this opportunity to share arranger playing secrets as well. -- Scott

11-18-2002 10:02 PM

If I tell you my secrets, I have to kill you. Softly, of course, with my song.

Seriously, I don't really think about when to add the fills anymore. My hand just goes up there and hits 'em when it's supposed to. I always use the left hand, never the right, never the feet, or nose (makes the buttons slick). Maybe that's why I need a new keyboard -- I'm too comfortable with the Yammy. -- DonM

11-18-2002 10:20 PM

Don, hmmm. I guess I'm going to change my mind and keep all my secrets to myself!

Actually, I don't think about how or when I do these things either, at least not until I consciously decided to initiate this topic. Most of us seasoned players do all this subconsciously, but I think it's good every once in a while to take a look and analyze what we've been doing all along (in our sleep). Kind of provides a fresh perspective and helps some of the newer arranger players out along the way, too.

I personally don't think I need a new keyboard, but perhaps just a fresh perspective playing the one I got, after all, 95% of the music should be coming from us, not the arranger. -- Scott

11-19-2002 02:28 AM

Usually, I use fills at the end of a verse or a chorus to introduce the following part of the song, but this is not a strict rule. Sometimes, like in Big Band styles, a fill is useful even in the middle of a section (especially the chorus) to recreate the feeling a real Big Band has; other times (like in my rendition of Wave) I didn't use any fills at all, because the style I used (SD1 Soft Bossa) has fills that IMO are way too emphasized for that kind of music (the break fill even uses timbales!) Besides, I didn't want to distract the listener from the music flow. To think that, for that song, I was (friendly) criticized because I left the fills out!

An important issue, to me, is the right timing to trigger a fill and that depends on the keyboard you are using. I have seen that the 9000Pro is quite tolerant, from this point of view, while with the SD1, I have to press the fill button slightly before the end of the bar to trigger the fill in the following bar. The VA7 is yet another story, but I cannot say how many beats before the end of the bar I have to press the fill button: only experience can make make you perfect.

11-19-2002 02:43 AM

One of the most impressive parts of the Tyros demo was, when using the BeBop style, variation 4 (32 bars long!) plays several bars then goes into a full drum solo! Quite impressive! It would be nice if Yamaha put more of these solo's into the break feature of the styles, as usually the break's are rather short and simple. -- Simon

11-19-2002 03:13 AM

Simon, I heard that style and I agree with you that it's impressive. However, how many times in a song and for how many songs can you use a variation that has a drum solo every four bars?

11-19-2002 03:21 AM

I agree. So back, maybe, to the question, "How many styles do we need?". Drum solos are rarely used except in big band and jazz, but given we have four variations, perhaps a few styles could reserve one exclusively for a percussion solo! Or, how about a separate style with bass, drums and guitar solos ....Oh, dear, I am dreaming again!! :-) -- Simon

11-19-2002 03:23 AM

In my work, the best I can say is that I put fills or solos were appropriate. Because of the structure of most of my work, i.e. not necessarily a traditional structure like AABA or whatever, I may use a fill or solo anywhere. I use them all very sparingly though. If you listen to my stuff (at least as of late), I am taking more of a minimalist approach to the compositions. Meaning, less is better and what I don't play is as, or more, important than what I do play. Jam on, -- Terry

11-19-2002 03:25 AM

I'm different than most, I guess, when it comes to the fills. When I'd perform, I'd sequence everything. I don't like having to move my hands from the keys or the pitchbend wheel.. I do so much extensive work with the pitchbend, I really wear that thing out, too, that it's often impossible for me to hit a fill while using the pitchbend and playing the keys. Notes are often bent during fills and it's really complicated at times trying to use the pitchbend, play the keys, and press the fill button. A lot of my songs start off with a drum fill. I just like having the drums open the music. Scott, like you, I, too, would hold the fill in for several measure to get a good break down, but again that was always recorded, and not done in a live situation.

Currently, I no longer use the drums on my PSR, and all my drum tracks are now done with a drum machine. When I was using the keyboards drums, and when I was in the mood to really get into a song, I didn't record my drum tracks with the style recorder.. I'd stay away from the loop recording because it just took the natural feel away, and was obviously looped. I recorded everything in real time, even the drum tracks. Of course, this is time consuming, but, boy, you sure do get that natural feel. Keeping good time isn't an issue for me either since I'm also a drummer. No need for the metronome, I just record all my other tracks first, and then lay down the drums manually because that way it's not the other instruments following the drums, but the drums following the instruments (if that makes any sense).

As far as multipads, these I never use. It would be different if they could be recorded into the sequencer, but I can't find any use for them other than playing around with the presets. Although my drum machine utilizes loop recording to get that natural feel, all I do is set the "quantize" to HI. Plus, with the drum machine, a fill can be recorded with the pattern eliminating the need to record a separate pattern just for the fill. The problem I had with every Yamaha arranger I've owned is that you couldn't move from one variation to the next without using a fill. That's what I miss on the MZ-2000. You could program four variations (and record the fill in the variation) and by pressing another variation button in time with the beat, you could move to the next variation without having to program a fill in. That's what drove me crazy with the PSR-550. First it only has two variations, and to get to variation 2, you must activate the fill first. It would be nice if you could bypass that by pressing the variation 2 button and having separate fill 1 and fill 2 buttons. -- Squeak

Uncle Dave
11-19-2002 05:40 AM

I use the fills on an "as needed" basis and it's intuitive, not planned or researched. I learned from my teachers long ago, that most of the energy of any ensemble performance needs to come from within the sections, and not from the drums. The rhythm is generated from the individual parts interacting as one to create a groove that has "power" and force.

I do use the fills, but it's more important to use notes to make transitions. A straight ahead, time keeping drummer is all you really need. The real energy and sizzle comes from the arrangement itself, and how the parts all interact, including the drummer of course.

Point is: fills are only as necessary as the placement of notes that create the accents as well.

11-19-2002 12:43 PM

I have a foot pedal that has five pedals. I have one for start & stop, one for the stop sync start for like a Rockin' robin tune, one for fill-1, one for fill-2, and one for full keyboard on & off. I use them as needed. There are a bunch more I can assign to the pedals, but I seem to use these the most. Do other keyboards have a foot pedal with five or more pedals for this purpose. I can't handle looking at the keyboard to push these buttons. I haven't been doing this for 30 years.

11-19-2002 01:06 PM

Yes, but multi-pedal units are typically optional accessories. The Yamaha MFC10 multi-foot pedal controller has ten foot switches (pedals), but it doesn't stop there. It also supports multiple banks so you can have a total of 100 foot-switch assignments. Frankly, I just stay with the one bank of 10, that's more than enough for me to handle.

11-19-2002 02:24 PM

Uncle Dave: I use the fills on an "as needed" basis and it's intuitive, not planned or researched.

I totally agree with Dave's approach. I only use two Boss pedals, 1-Vocalizer, 2-Sustain. All other fills, controls, multipads, etc., are done manually on the keyboard when I feel like using them during a song. Makes for a more spontaneous, live sound letting the performer be more creative every time. Less is More IMO!

11-19-2002 03:00 PM

I'm playing a lot of notes at a time usually -- probably four in each hand -- so you can't hear too much of the rhythm anyway. I tend to stick to one variation (A). The fills on the PSR740 (at least in the styles I use) are two bars long. So, probably on the last chorus, I trigger the C variation two bars before the start of the chorus so I'm back in the regular rhythm as the last chorus starts. Bit old-fashioned, I know, but then, I'm an old square. So, I am an almost worse but not quite.
-- Bryan

11-20-2002 07:26 AM

Halloos, Scott,
Like you, I use the MFC10 to trigger fills. During the various sections of a song, I typically trigger the break fill on either the 2nd or, sometimes, on the 3rd beat in the measure. I like to save the larger fill to introduce or end the chorus. I also use the large fill for the last section of most songs. To my ears, it just makes the last section sound climactic. I also like to close a song by pressing the large fill and then quickly hitting the fade button. Fading drums is an interesting sound and my old drummer used to end some of our songs in a similar manner (I always liked it).

I move through a variation with each new section of a song. Sometimes, I'll start with variation A, then move to B and C as the song progresses, then (depending on the song) move to either D or back to A for the ending stanza.

Scott, thanks for sharing your "style" of playing with the forum. I always find your tips and ideas useful and intuitive. Don't even think about stopping the sharing of your ideas! That's what makes this forum great and keeps everyone coming back. I'm still waiting for your "tips" guide.

Regards, -- Steve

11-20-2002 07:44 AM

Scott, I've been really trying to think about how I use the fills and how to explain it. It mostly depends on the song. I use the Break button and the Intro-1 a lot on songs that have real breaks. Examples are Blue Suede Shoes, Tutti-frutti, Kansas City, Mustang Sally, Boo's Rockin' Robin, etc. Sometimes, the Rock n Roll style in the 2000 lends itself to certain of these songs and then you can also use the Variation 1 and 2 for some of the breaks. Examples are Your Mamma Don't Dance, Ain't That a Shame, Don't Be Cruel (intro).

On other songs, I almost always autofill to the variations as the song builds to chorus and back. Some fills and variations, of course, work better on certain songs. The Yamaha fills are very intuitive and almost always sound as if they fit. It is still a pain to have to manually remember and select which endings to use, but it has now become almost automatic also.

I don't find myself using the fade in and out very much. I can think of a couple of songs only. Fade in on Susie Q, Fade out on Amarillo by Morning. There are surely a couple more, but most of the time, I like the song to have a finality to it, especially with dancers.

Lately, mostly out of boredom, I have experimented with some of the Multipad settings to augment or vary the styles. I find myself using Guitar Strum on some of the 4/4 country and blues ballads. For Hank Jr.'s Blues Man, I use the Love Song style, mute the style piano part (bring it in later) and begin with the drums, bass and Guitar Strum multipad on. This changes the style in effect from a piano style to a guitar style.

Just some examples if anyone cares to experiment. -- DonM

11-20-2002 09:00 AM

Hi, I do not know how this functions on Yamaha, but on the PA80 there is a useful feature (at least for me): you can assign the starting of a fill-in to the velocity on the keys. So if I want a fill, I just play a chord a little harder and the fill goes. Moreover, each fill can lead on any variation. And each type of sequence can be different in each performance. This all depends on the programming of the performance. Generally, I use the fills between the musical parts (higher variation) and the singing parts and when I change song.

Multipads: NO, for me they can remove this function. I use them generally on the first beat of the last measure. I prefer good drum fills rather than musical ones. -- STAM

11-20-2002 09:14 AM

Hey Steve, thanks for the thumbs up. As far as tips go, Joe Water's PSR2000 page is where you'll find most of mine, and many of them are applicable to the 9000 and Tyros as well. By the way, speaking of the Tyros, I'm looking forward to upgrading to it (from the PSR2000) in order to gain increased MFC10 functionality, specifically MFC10 foot pedal control of the Yamaha multipads, which, unfortunately, the PSR2000 doesn't support.

Everyone: I'm thoroughlyenjoying reading about everyone's unique approach to arranger keyboard playing and hope we can continue talking about arranger keyboard playing itself, and not just about what keyboard to buy next. Regardless of what specific arranger keyboard brand/model you own, arranger keyboard playing techniques pretty much universally apply across the board, so we can all benefit. Please keep this 'drum fill & variation' topic flowing. Still a LOT of people to hear from. -- Scott

11-20-2002 11:29 AM

...The PA-80 can trigger fills based on key velocity??? What an awesome feature! Why doesn't Yamaha do this? That's so cool. You can keep your hands on the keys. That's a really good feature. I'm surprised Yamaha hasn't done this yet. -- Squeak

11-20-2002 11:40 AM

STAM: I echo Squeak here! Please tell us more about the key velocity activated method of activating fills on the PA80. How do you determine which fill (assuming there are different fill options available) gets played. Also, how about the fill itself, I've heard some reports about fills not syncing up (coming in) at the right time on the PA80/60. Has this been a problem or not for you? -- Scott

Graham UK
11-20-2002 11:43 AM

Squeak, Korg did it long ago on the i30. It's a good feature. I could also bring in and out ACC parts depending on velocity. -- Graham UK

11-20-2002 01:38 PM

Scott, Squeak: four functions can be controlled by the velocity: break, fill1, fill2, start/stop.
The only disadvantage is that the control of velocity is saved in "global mode." The "global" is the place where all the higher functions of the pa80 are saved. The global setting is superior on all others (styles, performances and sounds(programs)). There is one global for each set. So, 1 set = 1 global + 3 user styles (16 styles each) + 160 performances + 3 user programs (64 each if I remember + drumkits).

So, for the velocity you have to choose between the 2 fills, the break and the start/stop function. I usually assign the fill1. Most of time this is enough for me. Obviously, you can have several sets, each with other global settings

With regard to the quality of fills, personally I have no problem with them even if I admit that sometimes I ask myself which amateur created them. Here it is not a question of the quality of the fills themselves but of their integration in the style. Sometimes the timing is not good. However, this concerns only a minority of styles. Most have good, or at least sufficiently good, fills. And, most of time, you have absolutely no problem with them.

Break is ridiculous and useless for me. Some bad fills and break are the two weak points on PA80. Regards, -- STAM

11-20-2002 04:58 PM

I use custom styles most of the time and do all the dirty tricks to have the fills I need. I started as a drummer -- maybe that's where the obsession comes from. On PA80, I program even intro1 and intro2 as fills. I like it because then I have two fills that I can jump into at any time of the measure (fill1 and fill2) and two fills (intro1 and intro2) that can be synched with the start of the next measure. If needed, I would program end1 and end2 as intro and end. If I need a fill just before a perfect cadence, I would hide the fill in a chord variation and assign it to 7sus4 and try to hide 4th note with right hand playing; doesn't work always, but most of the time. Sometimes, I put percussion in the drum track, put the fill in the percussion track, and mute the percussion track. At the right time I unmute it to get the drums-only fill and mute it back. I do not do all the tricks all the time, but as the need arises. I know this is really nonstandard, but when the fill-ins are very specific and generic fills wouldn't work, these tricks really work for me. -- Shiral

11-21-2002 08:59 PM

Brilliant! I wish I'd have thought of doing that when I converted some of my favorite Yamaha styles to the PA80. Shiral, I'm glad to read this and glad you thought of it. I actually did do something like that with a few of my styles for the PA80 but it was to add and or change a few parts for extra original variations, actually mixing and/or re-recording some parts of the originals. I just never thought of doing it for fills though. I never use the intros and endings that change keys or chords anyway ... hmmmm good going, Shiral. -- AJ

J. Larry
11-21-2002 12:46 PM

Scott: In creating backing tracks (not live performance), I generally use the pianist mode (to get the bass line right), which prevents easy access to the fill buttons. So, I manually try out the different fills in real time as I bounce to a hard disc recorder. That way, I can be more precise and selective about the fills throughout the song.

11-21-2002 10:59 PM

So many nice ideas being posted on this Topic. Thank you, Scottyee, for starting it. Like most, my approach is basically to use a Fill (and change in variation) to mark a transition to a new section of a song. On the Ketron X1, however, I sometimes introduce a change by activating Intro1 instead of a Fill. Intro2 and Intro3 may not be suitable because they can be too fancy and may sound unrelated to the music theme if activated in the middle of the song.

Another technique is to use the KeyStop followed by pressing a Fill. On the X1, with the KeyStop on, the rhythm stops if the left hand quickly strikes the chord and is released immediately. After the music stops, you can just press one of the Fill buttons and then, when you resume action with the left hand the music starts again with the selected Fill.

Finally, my old Technics KN1000 has a button for so called "Dynamic Accompaniment". (When the button is active), the idea is that depending on some key velocity/chord/right hand combination, the instruments introduces a random fill or variation. To be honest, I have not been able to determine exactly what combination triggers the event, but it works and would be nice to have something similar on the X1.