By Strother Bullins
Most drummers would agree that collaborating with a seasoned, knowledgeable engineer and/or producer is an ideal recording situation. However, such a scenario is not feasible for everyone. To get the best out of a do-it-yourself recording session – or to be better enlightened for future pro studio adventures – Russ-T Cobb of Ruby Red Productions (Avril Lavigne, Sevendust, Default); Mike Plotnikoff (P.O.D., Hoobastank, Cold); and Mark Trombino (Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182, Finch) explain best ways to create drum tracks.
3 ways to create drum tracks
Recording most instruments these days is relatively easy in a home studio, except for recording drums. It is hard to do at home because drums are big and noisy, and you need to be a professional to get a good sound. However, there are other ways to create drum tracks, even if you are not a drummer.
You can create professional-sounding drums by pressing keys on your keyboard or using external hardware. This method is easier than it sounds, and it might be the best option for those who are looking for realistic drums but don’t have experience doing this kind of work on their own. There are many ways to create drum tracks with softwares, but here are the basic things you should know.
1. Use virtual drummer software to create drum tracks.
When you’re writing a song and want to add drums, you don’t need actual drums. By using virtual drummer software, you can create drum tracks for your songs in just a few clicks.
Virtual drum software offers a range of sample-based instruments and instruments that simulate actual drums and cymbals. The samples are recorded from world-class drum kits and played by professional drummers to perfection and then edited and tweaked to sound as realistic as possible.
There are packages available now that allow you to mix and match different drum parts with different sounds and beats so that you can create as many variations as you like.
Most of them also come with video tutorials and support so you can get the best out of your software, even if this isn’t your area of expertise. Here are some tips for getting started.
Step 1: Choose the type of sound you’d like to use.
Most programs have various types of kits available, so you can pick from something traditional or more modern.
You can choose MIDI patterns from a groove library and add them to a MIDI or instrument track in your DAW. Then, all you need to do is select grooves from the software’s built-in MIDI library and drag those onto your track in the DAW to make the drum part. You can edit them in the DAW’s MIDI editor if they aren’t quite right for you.
Step 2: Choose the tempo
Think about what kind of beat you’d like to create.
Are you looking for something slow and sultry? Fast-paced and energetic? Choosing a tempo will help guide your beat selection.
Step 3: Put your hands on the keyboard
Virtual drum software allows you to play directly into the computer. Try hitting different keys in different combinations to hear different possible sounds.
Once you find a sound combination that you like, use the program’s features to save it into one of the tracks. Many programs will allow you to view your track visually as well as hear it back in audio form. Now that you’ve got the hang of it—keep creating beats until you find one that suits the mood or lyrics of your song perfectly!
2. Create drum tracks with hardware
If you don’t want to choose MIDI patterns from a groove library, you can create them manually.
You can create a MIDI or instrument track in your DAW software.
You can manually create MIDI drum tracks by using the mouse in DAW’s MIDI editor.
Another option is to play them with hardware such as a MIDI controller (keyboard or a pad controller) and record the drum tracks, which can be played back by the virtual instrument.
The idea behind these is that they make drum sounds by hitting electronic pads.
These can be programmed to make whatever sound you want, and they’re often used by gigging musicians as a cheaper alternative to hiring a drummer. Another benefit is that they don’t take up much space, which means they’re easy to transport if you’re on tour.
Step 1: Get a DAW
You’ll need a MIDI-enabled audio interface to record your drums, and you’ll need to use a DAW (digital audio workstation). If you’re new to the world of recording MIDI drums, we recommend checking out free DAWs first.
Step 2: Set your kit up.
Once you’ve got your interface and DAW set up, you’ll need to make sure your computer recognizes your hardware. Then connect the hardware to your computer via USB cable and make sure it’s turned on. Once everything is connected, open your DAW and set the input options so that MIDI notes are being received from the audio interface.
Step 3: Load up a drum rack into your session view
This will allow you to add the sounds that are associated with each pad on the drum rack into the track that’s playing back on the clip slot where you dropped them in. Use whichever drum rack best fits what you want to record.
If you don’t have any loaded, right-click in an empty slot in the session view and select instruments > drum rack. When it’s loaded, right-click on the pads and choose which sounds you want to assign to them.
3. Use premade loops to create drum tracks
The easiest way to create drum tracks is to use premade loops.
However, the main disadvantage of using premade loops is that you do not have full control over the sound and the arrangement.
It is likely that the loop will not be exactly what you want, but then again, it might be just right!
Step 1: Find drum loops
You will find many different drum loops online in various styles and sounds, both free and paid.
If you want to find free drum loops, just search on the internet, and you will find thousands. You can download and use them for free.
Finding what you’re looking for among the vast number of loops accessible is going to be a challenge. Another option is to buy ready-made loop packages from music production websites, which often come in a variety of different styles and sounds but are much more expensive.
Step 2: Import the drum loop into your DAW
Drag the loop file to the DAW track you have made. You can synchronize the tempo of the loop to the tempo of your project.
If your project includes more than one loop, repeat this step and set each loop in the appropriate spot on the track in your DAW.
Step 3: Edit and duplicate your loops and adjust the tempo
You can duplicate and edit loops to form your full drum track. You can do the same with multiple selected parts of the track. Of course, if there is a part of your song where you only require a bit of the loop, you can clip it off.
Also, if you want to change the tempo of your project, you can do that, and the imported loop will synchronize accordingly.
Creating drum tracks – tricks and tips
Carefully Select Your Kit And Get It Studio-Ready
First of all, preconceived notions about what a complete drum kit is are best disregarded – use whatever configuration is best for the session. “We know the sounds that we want from the beginning,” tells Cobb. “We say, ‘Okay, I’ll use this kick, this snare, these toms, and this floor tom.’ It’s rare that I ever use one particular kit together.”
“No microphone or effect is going to make a drum sound good – it has to sound really good on its own first.”
Regardless of the kit used, fresh, carefully chosen, and correctly tuned heads are necessary. “If the drums aren’t tuned properly, they will not sound good,” stresses Plotnikoff. “No microphone or effect is going to make a drum sound good – it has to sound really good on its own first.”
Isolating and eliminating extraneous drum kit squeaks and rattles can be time consuming, so be sure to take care of those pre-session. Plotnikoff: “A little WD-40 will take care of most squeaks.”
In regards to cymbals, darker, warmer, less aggressive ones often provide the best recorded results. “In the studio, darker cymbals sound better and cleaner,” says Cobb. “In comparison to brighter cymbals, they resonate at frequencies that are lower and more audible.” Further, warmer cymbals often have reduced cymbal resonation, and overly loud cymbals can dramatically affect tracks recorded via overhead microphones: “Less aggressive cymbals allow the drums to sound louder,” explains Plotnikoff.
Position Your Kit Within A Prepared, Great Sounding Recording Environment.
Because recording any instrument is simply capturing what it sounds like within a particular environment, correctly positioning a drum kit in a musically complimentary room is of the utmost importance.
“Personally, I’d rather have a bad-sounding live room than a great-sounding dead room,” chuckles Trombino, who often places kits backed up against a wall or in a corner of a comparatively reverberant room. “It’s nice to have the reinforcement of a back wall instead of competing with lots of reflections.”
Plotnikoff suggests creating some uneven angles if recording in a square room: “Square rooms cause standing waves, which can cause problems. Break it up by creating some odd angles with plywood in corners, or throw a blanket on a wall. Just try to mix up the reflective surfaces a bit.”
While live, dry, or in-between recording environments may vary depending on personal preference and musical style, being comfortable while drumming is most crucial. “Many engineers will agree that the higher the cymbals are positioned, the better,” explains Plotnikoff in regards to reducing cymbal bleed in drum microphones. “However, you have to do it to a point where the drummer is still comfortable. Don’t sacrifice a performance for a sound.”
Illustrating the many variances of opinion among engineers, Cobb actually prefers to have cymbals positioned lower: “I tend to use the overhead mikes for an overall, main kit sound. I try to get the overheads in low; that way, it sounds like a drummer playing – not individual drums.”
Choose And Correctly Position Good Drum Microphones
While many microphones can yield good recorded results, meticulous, thoughtful mike positioning is the true key to capturing a great sounding kit. “Probably the hardest thing about miking drums is that when you get a bunch of mikes all together, you really have to worry about phasing,” Cobb explains. “Try to make both overheads the same distance from the snare, and at least the same distance from the floor.”
“Try setting up a couple of overheads or room mikes and then see what’s missing.”
Using fewer microphones often equals fewer headaches as well as an overall better sound. “You don’t need a ton of mikes,” Trombino explains. “For what I do, it’s almost preferred to have fewer mikes and have things more roomy-sounding. Try setting up a couple of overheads or room mikes and then see what’s missing. Add a kick drum mike if you need more kick and so on.”
Both Plotnikoff and Cobb say that they mike drums at a slight distance. “That’s the way our ears hear sounds anyway,” explains Plotnikoff. “You wouldn’t be listening an inch away from a snare drum, so I get it as far away as I can without getting too much leakage.”
So what are some great all-around drum microphone choices? “You can’t go wrong with Shure SM57s and Sennheiser 421s,” claims Trombino. “They’re relatively inexpensive, too.”
Cobb says that he often uses SM57s on everything – from kicks to overheads – but a pair of overhead condenser microphones is preferable. “Neumann KM-184s are great, but there are lots of good and inexpensive condensers available, too.”
Use Signal Processing Wisely
Simplicity rules when it comes to using signal processing while recording, whether it’s compression, equalization, or various effects including reverb. In other words, don’t use ’em. According to Trombino, the best method of equalization while recording is simply moving the microphone.
“Personally, I don’t do anything going in,” he plainly states. “Just move the mike until it sounds good and leave it alone. You can always apply things later, and it’s non-destructive at that point.”
Cobb agrees: “The best way to do processing is to not do it. Especially in Pro Tools and the software world, there are enough compressors, EQs, and effects so that you can do stuff after the fact and not destroy your tracks. If you compress something the wrong way or a little too much while tracking, you’ll never get the sound back. It’s gone.”
If you must process while recording, Plotnikoff suggests doing so with an “effect” mike, but not with your main microphones: “If anything, I’ll compress a mono room mike and just blend it in as an effect later.”
Record And Mix With The Complete Musical Product As Your First Priority
No matter how great – or how mediocre – your results may be from a recording quality perspective, getting ideal drum tracks is primarily about capturing well-executed, appropriate performances. “Get what you want going in,” explains Cobb. “When it comes time for mixing, be sure that you have the best performances and best sounds to represent you. Just realize, though, that you have to mix for the song.”
Also, comparing your results to major recording acts may not be the best means of success measurement. Plotnikoff: “You have to remember that after we’ve recorded the drums, they are edited in Pro Tools and the best takes are put together. After that, we add samples on top of the real drum sounds. Obviously someone on their own isn’t going to get that same quality or level of detail, but do try to get things sounding as good as you can.”
Beginning his musical career as the drummer for influential early ’90s band Drive Like Jehu, Trombino can certainly empathize with drummers he records and produces. Through firsthand experience, he clearly knows how hard it can be for drummers to keep the “big picture” in mind. “When I recorded myself with Jehu or Aminiature,” he explains, “I would often be overly fixated on the kick drum sound, the cymbals, or something really stupid. When it’s your playing, it’s hard to let it go. Once it’s all within the context of a song, however, that stuff ain’t that important. Sometimes it’s a hard thing to realize.”
You can create drum tracks using either a live drummer or a software program.
If you want to record drum tracks with live drums, you will need to get a lot of things right.
You will want to make sure that you have a good drummer who knows how to record. You will also need to be comfortable with how to mic the drums and how to get the sound from the drums into your computer. The sound of the room, the size of the room, and the equipment you use can make a big difference.
There are many program options available for those who want to program drum tracks with virtual drum software. You can work with MIDI patterns from a groove library, use some external hardware such as a MIDI controller to record the sound manually, or find some premade drum loops available online.
Ultimately, the best way to learn how to use any new software is to jump right in and get started. Practice makes perfect, so gradually improve your skills by spending more time working with the software. Search online for tutorials and videos that explain how different functions work, and try applying what you learn to a track. But above everything else—have fun with it!