How to Create High Quality Drum Beats with Hydrogen

Linux is known for a lot of great things, but you rarely see it listed as a platform of choice for multimedia production. Some of that poor reputation for multimedia has long been deserved, but in recent years the quality of Linux’s audio and video applications has been steadily increasing. One of the best loved of these is Hydrogen, a high quality drum machine application. As is often the case with extremely versatile software, Hydrogen can sometimes seem overly complex to a newcomer. Today we’ll attempt to cover many of the most confusing aspects of Hydrogen so you can easily create your own phat beatz in a matter of minutes.

Most modern distributions have Hydrogen available in their standard repositories. Ubuntu users, for example, can install it from the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with

sudo apt-get install hydrogen

If you find yourself with poor audio playback when you run Hydrogen, try installing Jack, an audio connection app that can improve the playback capabilities of software like Hydrogen. If you do install Jack, make sure to reboot before launching Hydrogen.

Hydrogen works by letting you create individual drum patterns, then arranging those patterns into a song.

hydrogen-pattern-example

Once you’ve placed the drums in whatever pattern you like, you then lay those patterns out into a song.

hydrogen-song-example

The base drum kit provided with Hydrogen is pretty bland. Not to worry, the developers have made it extremely easy to install additional drum kits that have a little more style. While this can be done manually, the simplest way is to open Instruments > Import Library.

hydrogen-import

From now on, the custom kits can be found in the lower right corner of the main window, under the Sound Library tab.

To use an instrument from that kit, drag it from the Sound Library into the pattern editor.

The basic process couldn’t be simpler – just click in the grid wherever you’d like to instrument to play. It won’t, however, be long before you find the need to place a drum hit somewhere between the grid lines for a faster beat. To set a larger or smaller grid, you simply use the Res dropdown box to decide how fine a grid to work with.

hydrogen-gridres

Similarly, you may not necessarily want the 4/4 time signature on your pattern, or an 8-beat measure might not be enough. For that you use the Size dropdown. This will allow you to set the number of beats or measures in your pattern. Most drum rhythms will loop cleanly with a size set to 8 or 16. The pattern in the example screenshot is written as a 3/4 waltz-style beat, so it was set to size 12 to provide the appropriate number of beats for the pattern to loop properly.

hydrogen-size

Hydrogen wouldn’t be very useful if it didn’t provide a quality mixer, so it’s no surprise that the one included does just about everything you’re likely to need in a drum machine. If the mixer window did not open alongside Hydrogen, it can be opened manually with Tools > Mixer.

hydrogen-mixer

Hydrogen is capable of far more than could be included in a brief guide, so if you want to get in to some of the more advanced features, it’s recommended that you read the full Hydrogen Manual available on their website.

If you’ve got stories about Hydrogen or other Linux audio software, let us know in the comments!