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In The Studio: Laying Down Quality Drum Tracks Without A Drummer

Everything is perfect, except for one little thing...

OK, you all know the drill. It’s time to lay down the drum track for your future Grammy Award-winning song, but there’s just one tiny little problem; no live drummer within a 50-mile radius of your studio.

Or how about this one? You’ve managed to post bail (again) for your drummer, only to find out that he had to sell his acoustic kit to pay this month’s rent.

No problem, you think to yourself, I’ll just plug in my Drum-O-Matic 5000 and it’s a go! After all, drum machine technology has come a long way in recent years, and we all know about the improvements in sampling since the Drum-O-Matic 3000 was first released. 

So you get your little magic “drummer in a box” hooked up, program all your parts the way you always wanted your drummer to play them, and record your homage to John “Binary” Bonham. 

Everything is perfect, except for one little thing… your drum tracks sound horrid.

Before we continue, please let me share something with you. Although I spend most of my musical time locked away in the DAW dungeon, and these days I’m lucky if I get to play my drums once or twice a week, I am at heart a drummer.

I love the drums. To me, every great recording begins and ends with a great drum track, and likewise, every crappy recording begins and ends with a crappy drum track. 

It seems that rarely do songs get placed in the “classic recording” file without containing a well-executed, beautifully captured drum track. Unfortunately, many home recordists do not have Jim Keltner’s home number, nor do they have the budget, space, or tolerant neighbors for an acoustic kit in their home studios.

I should also say that in addition to my passion for all things drum shaped, I also have a fondness for drum loops and electronic based rhythm tracks. If executed properly, these types of sounds and grooves can create a certain type of atmosphere that is unique to their makeup.

On the flip side, canned samples, bad MIDI tracks and boring old drum machine patterns can also suck the life out of any song faster than anything.

So, at this point you’re probably asking yourself, “can I create great rhythm tracks when live drums are simply not an option?” Is that not-so-cheap Drum-O-Matic 5000 on my desk worthless? Will this article contain actual tips on building useable “non live” drum tracks? Why did so few people actually enjoy the movie “Joe Versus The Volcano”?

The answers are yes, no, yes and I don’t know…

Tip #1 – How to get the most out of your drum machine sounds
Let’s start with the samples themselves. Sometimes, you don’t want a snare drum to sound like a snare drum as much as you want it to sound like a garbage can filled with BBs being struck with a frozen fish.

While I can appreciate the need for such a sound, for the sake of this article, let’s assume that most of us are typically looking to recreate natural, acoustic drum kit and cymbal sounds. 

That said, often the collection of standard single note “hits” provided in your drum machine can leave something to be desired. If drum machine can import samples from another source, such as your PC, great, your possibilities are endless. 

If you didn’t have the money for the Drum-O-Matic 5000, so you opted for the less-expensive 3000 model without inputs…don’t panic, you still have options!  I’ve found many great software drum machines available for the personal computer that function just like their hardware big brothers. 

A few years ago, I came across a shareware product called LeafDrums, and still use it today. It’s very easy to operate, uses .wav as it’s native file source, and has a great price point!  Even if you’re stuck with the stock samples that came loaded in your drum machine or keyboard sequencer, you still have a good chance of finding a handful of sounds that can be very useable.

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