How to program live drums. Pro music production techniques for creating realistic drums. Make your drums samples sound real.
Struggling to make your drums sound real?
Follow my tips and techniques for creating realistic drum tracks
One of the first skills every producer develops is the ability to program a drum loop, whether through a virtual instrument like Battery or by simply by importing audio into a DAW. Most producers will be familiar with selecting sounds, positioning drum hits and creating rhythms; all fundamental skills regardless of genre. Therefore, I am going to make the assumption that you have a basic understanding of these processes and I will instead focus on how to add depth and realism to your programmed drum tracks. Specifically, the techniques I use to create drum parts which sound like they have been performed by a real drummer.
If you have the budget, there are plenty of amazing virtual drums out there that can provide really convincing results, noteworthy examples include Superior Drummer or Steven Slate Drums. Software developers have consistently responded to the ever-increasing demand for more realism with powerful new algorithms, intricate sampling, multi-mic set ups and extensive levels of detail. But occasionally I find myself wanting to be more selective over the drum sounds I am using, because (like most producers) I have sample packs I have bought that I would like to incorporate into a production. Plus, I love creating my own custom drum kits, just as a real drummer would do; being able to choose what brand of kick, snare, toms and cymbals I would like to combine to create the perfect rhythmical accompaniment.
So, you have an awesome Zildjian cymbal pack and the perfect Mapex snare samples, but how can you turn these into a convincing live drum track? Well, first up, and it sounds obvious but, it’s worth taking some time to understand the instrument you are trying to emulate. You will be surprised how many people don’t do this and then struggle to create realistic drum tracks! Watch some videos of drummers performing; take note of how they play, the position of the drums in the kit and how they combine the various drum sounds to create a textured pattern. It’s also worth understanding how a full drum kit is recorded in the studio; the close, overhead and room microphones and how these are blended on the desk. Afterall, the better your understanding of the subject the more realistic your programming is going to sound, because then you will be making decisions based on knowledge rather than guesswork.
The foundation to a successful drum-track
One of the reasons programmed drum parts often sound artificial is the lack of variety between hits and how uniform this sounds. When a drummer strikes, for example, a snare drum, each hit sounds slightly different – even if they are trying to play precisely. This is because such things as; the velocity it was played, the position it was hit and whether it was the left or right stick that struck, will affect the timbre of the sound. When I am selecting my live drum samples, I always go for packs that offer a reasonable number of hits and velocities. This way I can switch between the samples I have imported to help it sound more natural. I also tend to gravitate towards samples that are recorded dry with minimal room ambience. This is because it can be quite a challenge to get overly wet samples to sit well with sounds that have been recorded in an entirely different space. Plus, I prefer to add my own room reverbs to make the whole kit feel cohesive.
Selecting the right sample from your pack for each hit is also something to pay due diligence to. Choosing a softer hit to play the quieter parts and a heavier strike for the louder parts is really important for an authentic sounding pattern. And don’t forget, with something like a hi-hat there is also the choice of open, part open and closed to throw into selection process, as the following clip demonstrates.
Hit me slowly, hit me quick
Once you have selected your samples and programmed a pattern, with a good variety of different samples, it’s time to think about the velocity of each individual hit. The velocity is the power the drum was struck and this directly translates to the volume we hear it; the harder it is hit, the louder it is heard. Of course, compression will affect how dynamic a performance is, depending on how much you use, but the volume difference between the loud and soft parts plays a big part in making a pattern sound real. Please note, I will be explaining a bit more about drum compression later on.
If we use a drummer playing hi-hat as an example, sometimes they will emphasise a part of the rhythm or maybe throw in softer ‘ghost’ hits and this is something we definitely want to capture in our programmed performance. Be sure to select the right sample to match your intended velocity and if it is not quite defined enough adjust the volume of individual samples to give them more variation.
The following example demonstrates how adjusting the velocity can pay dividends in programming authentic sounding drum parts. For this drum fill I adjusted the volume of both the snare and kick to create the crescendo.
When a drummer is playing live, they will never be able to time their hits as precisely as the grid-based systems of our DAW. I always turn the snap-to-grid option off when I am programming live drum patterns to ensure everything is not perfectly timed and too regimented. It’s incredibly effective in humanizing your drums to move some, or all, of your samples slightly before or slightly after the beat. Some DAW’s even have the option to ‘unquantize’ selections but personally I prefer to do it manually. This way I can choose how loosely to place samples in order to make it feel as natural as possible.
Slam it to the left, shake it to the right
As I mentioned earlier on, getting the drums positioned correctly is essential for a convincing emulation. If you’re not too familiar with how a drum kit is laid out it is definitely worth looking at some images to make sure you understand the traditional placement. The general rule when it comes to panning is to have the kick and snare centred, with the remaining drums panned dependent on whether you would like it from the perspective of the drummer or from somebody watching. If I wanted my drums to sound like the drummer would hear I would pan my hi-hat out to the left, the crash a bit less and the high tom slightly less than the crash. Then I would pan my low tom out to the right, the ride slightly less and the mid tom slightly less than the ride. These would, of course, swap over if you instead wanted it from the listeners perspective.
In the following example you will hear the same loop played with everything centred and then with them panned to their correct positions. Notice how it opens up the mix and makes the loop sound more genuine.
GROUPING & SENDS
Together we are stronger
I find it beneficial to think of the drum parts like you would in a recording set up and group them as such. When drums are recorded in a studio the standard set up is to have individual microphones for the kick, snare, hi-hat and sometimes toms and a set of overhead mics to capture the crash and ride cymbals. There are variations around this and this is not the only set up used but it is a great starting point. Sometimes a pair of room mics positioned further away from the drum kit are also used to capture more of the room ambience.
I set up my project in my DAW taking this into account, as demonstrated in the following image. As is shown, I have my audio tracks grouped into kick, snare, hi-hat, cymbals and toms. These groups have their individual processing, such as EQ and compression and usually a little saturation too. I then have two reverb sends, one with the room reverb and one with a plate reverb (which was a stylistic choice for this particular song). All these groups are then sent to my master drum bus.
Grouping in this way has a number of benefits. Firstly, I can control the level of the ‘drum room reverb’ which in this instance represents the overhead mics and, secondly, the level of my audio groups which represents the close mic signal. That means I can ride the faders just as an engineer would do in the studio, balancing the various signals to the desired amount. Using a bus emulator, such as Waves NLS (opposite), on these groups is also a great way to give it the analogue feel of a real mixing desk.
Having the room reverb as a send effect also has a great impact on the authenticity of the mix. I generally use more on the crash and ride to simulate the roomy overhead sound, with lesser amounts on the remaining drums (even at times the kick) to simulate bleed. These sends can then be processed as you would with real overheads; heavier compression which smooths the high end of the crash and ride but also squashes the simulated bleed, almost like ghost parallel compression. And don’t forget these channels can be EQ’d to taste too, I find rolling off the low end from around 120hz is great for creating more space for lower frequency drum sounds.
Give it some character
A great deal of the character of a live drum beat comes from to the space it is being recorded in. Epic ballads need bigger spaces whilst intimate pop may need a smaller room. As I mentioned earlier, I often set up a roomy reverb to emulate the overhead microphones. My go to for this is a plugin called Altiverb, a convolution reverb with a vast array of impulse responses which faithfully recreate genuine spaces ranging from famous studios to legendary halls. If you don’t have this particular plugin you can still achieve fantastic results with even with stock reverbs. Try using small to medium sized rooms on your send and then blend to taste.
Another good trick is to use multiple reverb sends, such a room and something more effect based like a plate. The room reverb places all of your drum tracks in the same space and then the plate reverb adds the presence. And with it being a send effect you then have control over how it interacts with individual tracks, so you may for example not wish to send the kick or you may want to push the reverb higher on the snare.
In the following example you will first hear the dry snare, then with the addition of a room reverb, then a secondary plate reverb. Notice how these two layers add more depth and realism to the sound.
Treat 'em right
Processing your drum sounds is heavily dependent on the sounds themselves and the style you are going for – pop drums will likely need different treatment to say rock. My general chain on kicks, snare and toms is saturation followed by EQ and compression. The hi-hat and cymbals often require some additional treatment, sometimes using a dynamic EQ to tame harsh frequencies and I also tend to cut anything below 100hz to free up the low end for other drums.
On the master drum bus, I will usually have some form of parallel compression to add some extra energy. Occasionally I EQ this to enhance complimentary frequencies or soften the high end. After this I will tie everything together with a nice bus compressor, the Waves SSL Compressor is great for this.
So that's how I create realistic drum sounds for my tracks. I hope you find this useful for your own projects.