5 Easy Ways To Make Your Programmed Drums Sound Realistic
Wednesday January 23, 2019. 09:00 AM , from Music Think Tank
Programmed drums are here to stay, folks. Unless you’re a total purest when it comes to recording drums, chances are you already use programmed drums or samples in your productions. Gaining access to a collection of incredible sounding microphones and preamps requires either boatloads of cash or having a great friend with a killer recording studio.
By using programmed drums, you’re able to get world-class drum sounds, recorded by great engineers in awesome rooms, without having to spend big money. But how do you make them sound realistic and not like a machine gun firing. Today, we’ll be looking at five ways to make your programmed drums sound more convincing.
1) Use high-quality sample packs
On my band’s last album, I was so confident in the samples I was using during the writing phase (pre-production) that we decided to leave the whole album programmed, rather than re-recording all the drums in a room. I was both ecstatic and a bit disappointed (no drummer wants their “performance” on an album to be programmed). But if you can manage to get past that, like I did, you should be able to see the value in using programmed drums.
Even though this point may seem obvious, to get the most realistic sounding drums you must use the best of the best. Drum sampling has come a very long way in the last ten years, and I’m so thankful it has. Here are some of my favorite and most realistic sample packs available:
• GetGood Drums
• Superior Drummer 3
• I Want That Sound (all their packs are wonderful)
• Space Cabin Audio’s Desert Drums
There are plenty of other great sample packs available, but these are my go-to packs when programming.
2) Velocities are your best friend
One surefire way to make your drums sound like a machine gun is to have the velocities set to 127 the entire time. Sure, it will be loud and in your face, but your drums will lack any sense of dynamism and will be very robotic.
I like to go in and randomize the velocities by hand, creating buildups before choruses, lightening up snare hits during verses, and adjusting cymbal hits to sound more realistic. Eighth-note hi-hat and ride patterns, for example, often give more emphasis on the down beat rather than the up-beat. Be sure to keep this in mind when programming parts.
Your DAW may have a feature that allows for humanization, but I have found these functions to often be too random and haven’t provided me what I want. Try it out and see.
3) Quantization should only be a starting point
Depending if you are writing in parts by hand or if you’re playing them on an MPC pad, your drum parts may automatically be quantized to the grid. In some music, this totally fine! However, for certain genres like rock and alternative, you’ll want to have a little flexibility in the drum part to add to the realism.
In most settings, a 100% quantized drum part will sound lifeless and robotic. I would suggest using looser quantize settings (70-80%) to get a more natural feel.
If your part is already pre-programmed to the grid, don’t be afraid to get in there and move things around by hand. Yes, this process is quite tedious, but the result can often blow your mind, as well as the artist’s you’re working with.
4) Avoid Parts That Sound Like “Loops”
As producers, we all know how easy it is to hit the duplicate command when working on an idea just to get in the flow of things. To make our drum parts seem more realistic, we need to dive back into these parts and add subtle variations. Here are some ways to vary it up:
• Change up the bass drum part over a hi-hat and snare pattern – Here’s a super easy way to make a groove more interesting. I often like to take a one-bar drum loop, duplicate it three times (to make it a phrase of four bars) and then offset the kick pattern in each bar until I have something I like!
• Add ghost notes to your snare drum part – Ghost knots are subtle notes (with low velocities) played on the snare drum in between the back-beat. They are very common in drumming and I guarantee you’ve heard them before on your favorite records.
• Drum fills that extend “over the bar” – As music listeners, we’re used to drum fills at the end of a phrase that transition us into the next phrase on beat one. But what happens when you throw the listener off? Magic. By having a drum fill end on, say, beat two of the next phrase, you’re almost throwing the listener off and will by nature draw them in, making them more interested. This is one of my favorite ways to make drum parts seem more realistic.
5) Listen to lots of real drum recordings
One way to become great a programming drums is to use your ears listening to performances of real drummers. If you’re not a drummer and you produce music, it’s going to be a bit tricky to understand some of the fine details we as drummers include in our playing. That being said, take it slow and really hone in one what each drummer is playing. Here are some things to listen for:
• How is the hi-hat being played dynamically?
• Where is the emphasis of the beat; down-beat or up-beat?
• How do the dynamics change from the verse to the chorus?
• What kind of fills is the drummer using for this style of music?
Even as non-drummers, it’s often easy to pick up on recordings that use obviously programmed drums. Unless the intent is to do exactly that, you’ll want to treat your productions with care and make them feel as realistic as possible. It’s your job to do your best to emulate the styles of these drummers.
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