Synthwave Hi Hats Masterclass

The essential guide for programming synthwave hi hats

drums hi hats synthwave basics

The Hi Hat is a crucial percussive element that contributes to the overall energy, momentum and feel of the groove.

I have listened to tons of tracks where the hi hat is an afterthought and sounds dead and lifeless; most likely because the producer didn’t know any better. So much wasted opportunity!

First a Rule of thumb: Big gaps between hi hat hits, such as ¼ notes make the groove feel heavier and slower than it actually is. Conversely, small gaps such as 16ths makes the groove feel faster, lighter and more energetic.

For realistic sounding hi hats, assign the closed and open samples to the same mute, voice or exclusion group in your sampler. This way, both sounds can never play at the same time, just as in real life. For example, the open hat tail will be cut off by a closed hat hit. This will allow you to program very intricate and interesting patterns.


Essential Hi Hat Patterns

1/4 Note Hi Hat

    1. Set your grid to ¼ (quarter notes) and enter a note on every beat
    2. This pattern will make the groove feel heavy and slower than it is, so use it with that intention
    3. At tempos below 110 you can really feel how it slows down the beat. At very fast tempos, upward of 160bpm, it is a great choice for a hi hat pattern that doesn’t clutter up the groove.
    4. Try an open hi hat sample to give the groove more power. Just be aware that depending on the sample length and tempo, the open hi hat sound may not last until the next hit. If that happens and you want it to fill up the space, then you’ll need a more advanced sampler where you can set loop points


Off-beat 1/8 Note Hi Hat

    1. Set your grid to 1/8 notes and enter a note on every second line (between the beats)
    2. This pattern will make the groove feel faster than it is without using a more complex pattern
    3. Offbeat 8 notes work great at any tempo. For additional energy use an open hi hat sample, and for another variation, go with 1 hit close and the next open. To make the hi hat close by the next downbeat, simply program in a closed hat and reduce its velocity to 0


1/8 Note Hi Hat

    1. Set your grid to 1/8 notes and enter a note on every line
    2. This pattern will inject energy and momentum to the groove. However, without any accents, it will sound robotic and drum-machine-y but that’s ok if it’s what you’re going for. To groove harder and make it sound human, either accent the downbeat or the upbeat and slightly move the note starts earlier or later.
    3. To accent the downbeat, reduce the velocity of the upbeat until you’re happy.
    4. To accent the upbeat, reduce the velocity of the downbeat, and adjust to taste
    5. Most DAWs have some kind of groove or humanize function you can use to change the note starting times randomly. In the case of my DAW Studio One, there’s a feature called Humanize which lets you not only change the start times of notes, but also their velocity values.
    6. If you don’t have a Humanize function available, you can always turn off grid snapping in your Editor and move the notes manually. It’s advisable to edit the notes via keyboard shortcuts instead of using your mouse because nudging the notes too much will make the groove sound out of whack and amateurish.
    7. For variation, program an open hat on every off-beat or at the end of every 2 or 4 bars. Also experiment with low velocity on the closed hat so the open hat sounds accented


1/16 Note Hi Hat

  1. Set your grid to 1/16ths and enter a note on every line but delete the notes that overlap the snare. This way the pattern will sound human
  2. This pattern will give energy and momentum to the groove, more so than 8ths. But without any accents, it will also sound robotic and drum-machine-y. Same as with 8 notes, we can improve the groove by accenting the downbeat or the upbeat and slightly moving the note starts earlier or later.
    • First let’s edit the note start times while leaving alone the first downbeat
    • Now let’s accent the downbeats
  3. 16th hats work great below 130 bpm and above that, be careful they don’t clutter the track too much. If that’s the case, switch over to 8th notes
  4. Amplitude shaping for groove
    • Instead of programming the accents on the downbeats or upbeats by hand, you can use an amplitude shaper such as the paid plugin LFO Tool or a free option like STFU or FluxMini2. By the way, this is just like using sidechain compression.
    • Let’s start with accenting the upbeats. We’ll use STFU and adjust the default sidechain curve if needed. Then while playing the hats, we’ll change the mix or intensity until we hear the downbeats lower than the upbeats.
    • By the way this is also a great technique to use on tambourines playing 16th notes


In Practice

  • Don’t be lazy and use the same hi hat pattern throughout your track
  • Just as your track should build up in intensity, your hats can contribute to that goal
  • To this effect, you could use a sparse pattern during the verse, for example 8th notes and switch over to 16th notes during the chorus.



You now have the knowledge to program hi hats like a boss!

Remember, your choice of notes, accents and timing can produce dramatic changes so use all of this to raise the level of your productions

Experiment and have fun!

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