Ok, so we all wish we could have awesome sounding live drums on our recordings right?
Well, unfortunately, to get live drums sounding good, or even average, is no easy task. You’ve got to think about room acoustics, microphone type, microphone positions and much more besides. This is on top of the fact that most of us just don’t have the space to have a full mic’ed up drum kit in our home recording studio!
The truth is that it is much less stressful (and cheaper) to use MIDI drums or sampled drums. I have been doing this for a while in my music as I just don’t have the time, space or budget to be recording live drums on all my tracks.
But many people say that they can tell straight away if drums on a track are MIDI and not live, and this is often true. There are certain elements of MIDI drums that can be a give away to the listener. But there are loads of things you can do to make MIDI drums sound more realistic and create great sounding tracks.
So I’ve compiled a list of 15 tricks and tips to help you make your MIDI drums sound just like the real thing.
1) Use a good VST
This first tip may be the most obvious, but it is important to state that (to a point) if you start with crap you will more than likely end up with something that sounds…..well, crap! So the easiest thing you can do is take some time to research and get yourself a good quality virtual drum kit or some high-quality drum samples.
If you start off with something rubbish, you are always fighting an uphill battle and no amount of mixing, tips or hacks will get you that great sound you desire. One of my main aims is to allow you to create great music at home on a budget. But this doesn’t mean simply using the cheapest or first piece of hardware and software you stumble upon!
Many of the best VSTs will actually use recordings of real drums, giving you a more realistic sound straight away over a drum machine that artificially ‘creates’ drum sounds.
I use samples from all over the place but a couple of good places to start are Addictive Drums and Superior Drummer. I also really like EZ drummer for creating realistic drums. But explore the internet and the hundreds of videos on youtube of people using the VSTs.
2) Vary the MIDI velocity levels to add random variation
Another big giveaway that your drums are programmed is having constant MIDI velocity throughout the drum track. I explained all about MIDI in this recent article and I talk at length about various MIDI settings you can manipulate in your DAW software.
Velocity is simply the volume at which a particular MIDI note sounds. This will be a value in the range of 0 to 127, with 127 unsurprisingly being the loudest and 0 being silence.
I often hear a snare drum roll programmed with all the notes at the same velocity. This ends up with a sound like a machine gun, potentially sending listeners ducking for cover. You have to think like a drummer when if you want your MIDI drums to sound real and a constant velocity is just not realistic.
Thinking like a drummer is always easier if you have drumming experience but if you pay close attention when listening to your favorite songs you will start to pick out subtle variations in volumes of various drums.
For a kick drum, you need a variety of velocities. If a drummer were to do two hits of the kick with a single peddle in quick succession the first hit is often lighter with the second following immediately with more power. Subtle tweaks in the velocity can create this effect.
With the snare drum, you want to avoid a full 127 velocity in many cases with sampled drum sounds as they will often sound choked and not very nice.
Another way to add more natural velocities to your drum hits is achieving using the next tip…..
3) Use drum machine or keyboard to make it more real
As I say, finding the space for a full drum kit is impossible for most, let alone trying to mic it up correctly. But this doesn’t mean your rhythm skills should be totally wasted.
Using a drum machine, or even a midi keyboard is a great middle ground, as you will capture the natural and realistic feeling of a drummer without all the difficulties that live drums bring.
Naturally, notes will be slightly out of time and tempos will vary slightly throughout. All the things that we have mentioned may sound like ‘bad’ things, but in reality are what make your drums sound like they weren’t made by a robot.
I personally find using a MIDI keyboard to record drums a bit annoying and tricky for the most part. It’s ok for adding something simple like a bass drum or a few cymbals, but anything more complicated can be hard work. This also depends on what sort of action you have on your MIDI keys. If they are spring-loaded for example (an action designed to give a bit of weight and realistic feel to playing piano parts) you may find it particularly difficult to play a drum part.
I would also advise against recording multiple parts at the same time. It may be tempting to record the hi-hat, kick and snare on one track, but this will make the mixing process tricky and you are making things very hard for yourself. By all means, record a track this way as a guide or to test out what sounds good, but if you can record each drum onto a separate track you will get much more flexibility and freedom when you get to the mixing stage.
4) Create some ghost notes
It’s a spooky business this home recording. I talked about ‘phantom power’ the other day when discussing audio interfaces and now I’m talking ‘ghost notes’.
Ghost notes are as you would expect….a bit like a ghost. They are notes that are there but also aren’t really there (if that makes any sense).
Most commonly ghost notes appear on the snare track where the stick very lightly bounces of the skin between harder hits. It fills in the gaps and gives a more ‘3D’ feel to a groove.
These ghost notes can simply be created by adding MIDI hits with much lower velocities between louder hits, try a value as low as 35 for ghost notes. The video below shows a nice drum groove with lots of ghost notes to show you what I mean.
5) Throw in some slightly off-beat notes
Carrying on with the theme of mimicking a real drummer, another trick is to move some notes to be very slightly off-beat.
If you record using a drum machine or MIDI keyboard and then look at the piano roll, you will see that no matter how hard you try, the notes are never all perfectly in time. They may be close, but some are going to be ever so slightly out. Of course, you don’t want them to be too far out as this will sound rubbish and sloppy but ever so slightly out can actually be a good thing.
By being ever so slightly out of time the listener is unlikely to tell the difference straight away, but the drums will feel far less robotic.
If you are entering MIDI drums in manually to the piano roll with your mouse then the temptation is to place the notes precisely in time, this is known as drumming ‘on the grid’. Start by doing this, but then move some of the notes ever so slightly out of time perhaps as little as 1/32nd or 1/16th.
6) Apply a Groove (If your DAW allows it)
‘Groove’ is a feature included in many DAWs, including Ableton. It can be particularly handy to add some originality to a drum track, very useful if you are not a natural drummer.
You can apply a ‘groove’ to a MIDI track you have recorded and it will change timings and velocities.
In Ableton, a variety of grooves are available in the included library. Simply drag and drop one into your MIDI drum track and see what happens. You can even ‘extract’ a groove from other tracks that you like. Say you want to mimic a particular track that you love the sound of, in Ableton, simply drag it in and right click on it and then select ‘extract groove’. Then you can apply this groove to your MIDI drums.
8) Add reverb to give the impression of a live room
I tend to send all drum tracks through a master reverb, rather than adding reverb to each track individually.
If you were recording live in a room you would get the same ‘type’ of reverb effect on all your drums. You probably don’t want it to sound like your snare was recorded in a church and your toms were recorded in a bedroom.
You can, of course, use the sends to decide exactly how much reverb comes through on each track.
9) Don’t go crazy with the copy and paste
If you are not a drummer, like me, sometimes you just don’t want to spend long amounts of time recording the drum tracks. You create a basic groove that you like the sound of and that will do. Then copy and paste this till the track is complete, right? Well not only does this sound really boring but it again signals to the listener that these are very basic MIDI drums.
Try to mix in a variety of different loop lengths. So the hi-hat track could loop every 32 bars but maybe the kick drum could loop every 24 and the snare every 10? This is still looping and keeps things very simple but the variation between the tracks will really make a difference.
10) Think what a drummer could actually play in real life
This may seem an obvious one, but you’d be surprised how many people layer up drum tracks to a point where it would be impossible for a real drummer to play.
Remember, a drummer only has 2 arms and 2 feet and so if you have a hi-hat, crash and floor tom playing at the same time, that is never going to sound realistic.
Imagine if you ever want to take your music into a live setting. You are either going to have to hire two drummers or break the news to your session drummer that he will be having to use his head to hit the crash cymbal.
11) Record live cymbals
Cymbals, particularly hi-hats, can end up standing out as programmed in your mix. But before you throw all your drum tracks away and insist you need live drums you can always compromise.
What I will do sometimes is leave the drums I have programmed electronically in place but add a bit of realism by recording some live cymbal tracks. With hi-hats, in particular, you get a significant variation in each note when recorded live which is very hard to capture when using a MIDI version even adding velocity variation.
To record a hi-hat on its own you can use a variety of mic positions and mic types to achieve the sound depending on what you are after. As a general rule use a mic stand which comes in parallel just above the height of the cymbal and aim it straight down or at the cymbal edge. If you want a tighter more controlled sound simply move the mic towards the center of the cymbal and away from its edge. But definitely avoid placing the mic so it gets blasted by air every time the cymbal opens and closes as this will create unwanted sounds and lead to distortion. There are lots of other variations in sound caused by mic placement so try a few out and see what sounds the best.
12) Add shakers or tambourines for cheaper real additions
If you don’t have access to any cymbals, or you can’t find a friend/ studio to lend you theirs for a few hours, then you can add some realism with some cheaper instruments.
Use a tambourine or shaker (both of which are very cheap) and will add some brightness in the higher end of the frequency spectrum.
13) Experiment with mini tempo changes
Many rock bands and musicians won’t stick meticulously to a metronome and will often instead lay down the drums first with everything else then using that as the metronome instead.
This will often lead to mini tempo fluctuations in songs, perhaps quickening by 1 or 2 beats per minute in the chorus or pre-chorus to build excitement. So test out adding some mini tempo variations in a track. Perhaps increasing tempo from 120 to 122 as you enter the chorus and then switching back again halfway through.
14) Think about your genre
When we say we want a more ‘realistic’ drum sound from our MIDI drums, what is optimal really depends on the genre.
If you are making rock music then many of the above rules of playing with timing and creating a bit of sloppiness applies. But in many electronic genres such as techno, sloppiness is a bad idea and just won’t work in most situations.
So bear this in mind when you are thinking what is ‘realistic’.
15) Create a stereo effect.
A live drum kit creates a stereo sound for a listener standing in a room directly in front of it. You want to mimic this stereo sound in you MIDI drums.
You can do this by panning the drums according to where they would be in the kit. You can have the hi-hat and snare panned to one side with the floor toms and ride cymbal panned the other way. This will give the listener that more realistic ‘stereo’ sound.