Tip #2 - How to program effective drum machine parts.
Let’s look at levels and panning. To me, nothing sounds more revolting than a drum machine track with ultra loud cymbals and toms that are panned hard right and left. This is not how an actual acoustic drum kit sounds when played live, nor is it typically recorded and mixed in this fashion. Sampled cymbals and toms are usually the weakest link in the chain, so be careful of how much attention you draw to them.
Also, cymbals usually do not have to be very loud to cut through a mix. Try and let the frequencies in which cymbals resonate “react” to your mix before boosting their volume. This will most likely take practice and much restraint. Toms, as well as cymbals, should be used sparingly, and should also take a back seat in the volume department.
The kick and snare should almost always be the loudest drums in the mix, and should usually be panned to the center. As I mentioned before, beware the urge to “over pan” the toms and cymbals.
Most drum tracks (electronic or acoustic) sound best when mixed in mono, or slightly panned, with a stereo reverb applied. Now that your samples are selected, and their levels and pans are set up in a very musical way, let’s look at how to build a great sounding drum part.
When all else fails, use the K.I.S.S. method - Keep It Simple Stupid. Try to avoid programming “busy” and overly complex drum parts. Less is usually more, and you’ll most likely find that simple drum parts sound more natural, and will sit much better in your mix.
Tip #3 - Drum loops… Drum loops… Drum loops… Drum loops…
Often sonically superior to “perfect” sounding drum machine parts, drum loops can have massive amounts of groove, simply because they’re usually created by REAL drummers. Whether they’ve been created from sampling famous drum tracks, or found on one of the hundreds of royalty free drum CDs and electronic files now available, drum loops may just be the answer you’re looking for. (By the way, Johnny Rockstar, loops aren’t just for hip-hop anymore.)
In my opinion, loops should have a place in every modern studio. With the rise of DAWs and loop editing software, recordists are finding new and different uses for loops of all shapes and sizes. Loops will usually take some tweaking, but can be a very satisfying replacement, or accompaniment to a great number of drum tracks.
Tip #4 - The percussive touch
I’m willing to bet my Johnny Mathis Christmas albums that many of you are dissatisfied with the electronically manufactured drum tracks you’ve previously heard or created. I’m also certain that at some point you’ve cried out in frustration “that drum machine part sounds too stale and mechanical”!
Live drums have a very “human” feel to them, and the slight inflections and imperfections in time, swing and stroke velocity are what give them that feel. Drum machines and loops are limited in how they can lessen their “perfect” delivery.
Some drum machines and sequencers have modes that allow the user to randomize tempo and velocity according to taste, and this can be very useful in the fight to eliminate the stale perfection of manufactured drum tracks.
Another very useful method is to record live hand percussion, such as shakers, tambourines congas and bongos, over the top of your machine and loop parts. Obviously, this may not work in all forms of music, as you rarely hear a good maraca performance in a death metal song, but percussion played by an actual human being can certainly help in many cases.
Tip #5 - It’s all in the mix
How you mix electronically created drums within the track is one of, if not the most important aspect of whether or not you find success in this area. With regard to electronic drum tracks, the two most common mistakes I hear most often are, drum tracks that are too loud in the mix, and tracks that are drenched in reverb.
Somewhere along the line, someone started a nasty rumor that if a particular instrument sounds lousy, you should immediately apply a large plate reverb on it. Rest assured my friends, sometimes all that will get you is the same lousy sound - but in the Grand Canyon.
Reverb is great, loud drums are great, but be very careful not to “over dress” your drum tracks in an attempt to make them sound more “real”.
Also, never underestimate the power of EQ and compression. Try to think of your drum track as one instrument that contains many balanced components, rather than a ton of segmented sounds.
Since overhead and room mics play such an important role in recording acoustic drums, one way to help achieve a live kit sound is to set up a room mic in your mixing room and blast the soloed drum track through your monitors.
Then you simply mix your newly created “room” sound with your existing drum tracks. I’ve also found that running my electronic drum parts through a distortion box or SansAmp can yield some very interesting results. The bottom line is don’t be afraid to experiment!
Tip #6 - The Internet is your friend
The web is a great resource, not only for finding tons of samples and loops, but also for finding drummers you can “cyber track” with. I’ve collaborated with many musicians that I’ve never even met face to face thanks to my DAW and my cable modem. Not to say that you need either of these things to do host a little on-line recording session.
Simply find a drummer on-line (throw a rock on this or any music related site and you’ll hit a dozen of ‘em), get him/her to play along with a rough mix of your song. When they’ve completed their drum parts, they simply send you an electronic copy of the track(s) via email, snail mail (with the tracks on a CD), or via a file-sharing site. Then, Import the drum tracks into your song and presto!
Nothing can replace a good ol’ fashioned live drummer playing a well-tuned, high-quality kit. But those of you that simply don’t have the resources to employ, feed and care for such a beast have some reasonable alternatives today.
Now go make some music!