software drum machine

Fig. 1 - HammerHead main screen - Pleasantly designed, every function on this drum
machine is logically laid out and easy to understand at first glance.

Drums are a very important component of today’s sound, and since they are also famously very difficult to record for the average home studio guy, many musicians prefer to use a drum machine, or drum samples within their audio/MIDI sequencers.

Dedicated hardware drum machines are still being produced by several manufacturers, and the same goes for software: examples include ReDrum (part of Reason) and ReBirth from Propellerhead, Battery from Native Instruments, and even M-Audio’s iDrum, a plug-in for Apple’s GarageBand.

But there is a little free software drum machine that’s been a favorite of mine for several years: HammerHead is freeware and readily downloadable from threechords.com/hammerhead/.


Like the shark it takes the name from, HammerHead is not a clean, pop-oriented drum machine such as - say- the Alesis SR-16, but an aggressive beast aimed at techno, jungle/d ‘n’ b, trance and other modern dance styles. Bram Bos, the creator of this program, intended it to be “a simple TR-909-like drum computer program aiming at the dance-scene. You can use it to create perfect Techno loops, Jungle patterns or House beats, but it’s also suitable for Hip Hop, Triphop, Rap, Industrial and almost any other music you can think of.”

HammerHead’s install file is only 1.5MB and setup is very quick. Click on the newly created “HammerHead 1.0″ icon on your desktop, then on the obligatory “Groovy” button, and you will be greeted by this screen in Fig. 1.

Notice how the front panel recalls the classic Roland x0x grid-programming style. Click on “File” and “Open Track” and you can choose from ten preset patterns that give you a hint on what’s possible with HammerHead (.hh is Hammerhead native file extension).  Let's give a listen to the presets exported as .wav files, then converted to .mp3:

· ACID.HH - a classic Roland TR-909-style techno pattern;

· CHEMICAL.HH - a syncopated beat reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers big beat style;

· COOLHOP.HH - clean, well-produced hip-hop rhythm;

· HARDCORE.HH - super aggressive, distorted gabba pattern;

· HIPHOP.HH - classic, old-school rap pattern;

· JUMPDUDE.HH - ultra-fast, mid-90s happy house pattern;

· JUNGLE.HH - excellent jungle/drum ‘n’ bass rhythm;

· LAY_BACK.HH - clean rock pattern;

· MELLOW.HH - unobtrusive house style;

· SHARKY.HH - classic ’80s gated drum pattern.


You can modify any of these patters to come up with your own, or just select “New Track” from the File menu and start with a clean slate. If you have had experience with any Roland TR or Boss DR-series drum machine, you won’t have any problem programming HammerHead, but even if you have never used a drum machine before, the set of instructions that comes with the install file is very easy to follow and will get you up to speed in no time.

As you can see, six channels are available: you can pick a sample from the drop-down menus, turn the channels on and off, and mix the volume of each via the six sliders. The REV(erse) and DIS(tortion) buttons add spice and variety to newly created patterns although I wish the distortion were more pronounced. The REV button plays back the sample reversed, from finish to start - a common effect heard in commercial dance tracks.

Next to the volume slider, a useful feature is the inclusion of the “shuffle” effect; this allows to impart some swing to patterns, and its amount can be set and saved within a pattern. Patterns can be from one to eight bars long, so it’s possible to create fairly complex rhythms, even if the polyphony is always limited to six channels.

This drum machine is pretty flexible just with it own preset drum samples, of which there are 29 built in, ranging from classic TR-808 and TR-909 sounds, to acoustic, rock and high-tuned jungle drums, and even classic breakbeat loops like “Funky Drummer”. The loops are automatically stretched to tempo - this is particularly useful when you are programming drum ‘n’ bass styles.

HammerHead can sound like a classic Roland TR-909: ACID (226KB MP3)

Or like the beat from The Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy: SHARKY (211KB MP3)

This pattern reminds of the drums from “Walk This Way”: LAY_BACK (142KB MP3)

But really is for heavy electronic styles that the evil shark gives the best of itself: JUNGLE (208KB MP3)

Tthe great thing about HammerHead lies in the six user sample slots: yes, you can add your own samples, and at the Three Chords website there are many, many user banks to choose from. Contributions from users are encouraged, and there’s a forum and database that holds many HammerHead related files.

I downloaded the Groove user bank from the 50+ available, and came up with a cool dance pattern: Groove (286KB MP3″)

I also enjoyed the Human Beatbox user bank: Human Beatbox (173KB MP3)

Now take a look at this paragraph on their website:

“HammerHead is not a Bossa Nova tool. This means that you won’t find any Tom-Toms, Shakers, Cowbells, Congas or Bongos in this box. What you will find is cool 909 stuff, bad overdriven bass drums, lots of snare drums, claps, and complete breakbeats to spice up the lot. Buckets-o-fun for making Jungle. A must-check-it-out for everyone who has always wanted to make his own block-rocking beats!”

What?! No Bossanova?? I beg to differ. I downloaded the Univox Micro-Rhythmer 12 user bank and went back in time to the Space Age Pop era: Micro-Rhythmer 12 (150KB MP3)


Note: for easier downloads, I converted all audio examples to .mp3 - however HammerHead renders to standard 44.1kHz, 16-bit mono .wav or .raw format.

To conclude, I really like this software drum machine. Sure, it might be limited: only six channels, no mute buttons, or the ability to “paint” the notes like you can do in similar programs. No MIDI or on-board effects. But it’s also easy to use, flexible, and expandable thanks to the user bank slots. Once you have saved your patterns as an audio file, you can tweak them in your favorite editor, and build your customized loop library very easily and very quickly.

Give the drumming shark a try and watch those teeth.