Making Drum Samples Sound Like Real Drums

Back in the Sept. ’06 issue of EQ, there was some extremely useful advice by Jay Graydon on how to make your acoustic drums sound great in your studio. But as many studios don’t work with “real” drums, I’d like to address sampled drums and tips on getting good results with them. So, here are 16 sweet tips on getting groovier drum sounds.


It’s great that you can trigger drums via MIDI, as you can manipulate the data in terms of timing and “feel” after the fact — something’s that difficult (although certainly not impossible) to do with digital audio. But if you’re playing beats from a MIDI keyboard, although some people are pretty good at this technique, you’re better off using a real, human drummer who can lay down sequences from a MIDI drum controller (like the Roland V Drums and Yamaha Extreme 3 kits). However you don’t have to spend $1,000 or more to trigger your drum software; less expensive options include the Alesis DM5, Yamaha DD55, and some of the “finger drummer” units like the Korg PadKontrol and M-Audio Trigger Finger. These all encourage you to play in a more drummer-like way than keyboards.


Many higher-level drum programs let you control the amount of “bleed” between mics. When you send some bleed to a direct mic channel, it can really add a cool effect when you compress and EQ the direct channel.


If your drum program doesn’t let you mix in bleed, make your own. Play the drum tracks back through your monitor speakers, stick a couple of mics in the room, and record a track of real-world bleed. Mix in as appropriate.


Simpler drum software usually maps a single key or trigger to the snare, but drummers use both hands to play a real snare, and each hand gives a slightly different tone. If you trigger the drums from a keyboard, go to the key mapping page, and assign a second key to the snare so you can play rolls by hitting two separate keys. Or, assign the snare to a separate slot in the kit, and trigger that with a second key. If you detune one snare very slightly compared to the other one, you’ll hear less of a “machine gun” effect — with real drums, hitting a drum with alternate hands makes successive hits sound slightly different.


If you want a really big kick sound, double one kick drum with another one, and mix the outside mic of the second kick in with the first. Also consider detuning the second kick a little. The same basic principle works well with snare, too; you’ll probably want to double with a different snare, or at least, a somewhat detuned version of the primary one. And while you’re at it, adjust the second drum’s velocity range so that it responds only to higher velocity levels (e.g., between 120–127). This will give a major boost to the hardest hit sounds. Note that you may need to trim the volume of the doubled drum a bit to keep it from jumping out too much.


It’s very important to dampen the drums, otherwise they can sound too boomy. In particular, damping the toms can give a punchy, crisp sound. If your drum software doesn’t have a damping parameter, a dynamic range expander can do much the same thing: Set its threshold just above where the decay starts to flatten out, and expand downward with a relatively gentle ratio (2 or 3:1).


So why do you add limiting, anyway? Most of the time it’s to cut the highest peaks down to size, and bring up the lower signals, so there’s less of a dynamic range difference; the sonic artifacts that come from limiting aren’t always wanted, but they’re accepted as “part of the deal.” With MIDI sequences controlling drum sounds, though, that doesn’t have to be the case: You can “limit” the MIDI data itself by selecting all the data in a track, then adding a constant amount of velocity. For example, suppose the lowest hit in a drum part registers with a velocity of 34, and the highest, as 127. If you add 30 to all velocity values, the lowest one will be brought up to 64, yet the highest one will remain at 127 because it can’t go any higher than 127 regardless of what you do.


You can also compress by manipulating MIDI data. For example, suppose you want to compress a drum track by 2:1 with the following velocities: 60, 74, 90, and 126. Use your MIDI editing functions to divide all values by 2, so now the velocities are 30, 37, 45, and 63. Next, add a constant to bring the highest value up to 127, which in this case, is 64. Now your velocity values are 94, 101, 109, and 127 — instant compression, without the artifacts!


Many times on a song, you want the drums to sound stronger on the chorus. To do this, use the drum software’s master dynamic trim control (assuming it has one). Pull the velocity back a bit for the verses, and when the song goes into the chorus, push the velocity up to maximum to give the drums more energy. You can automate this easily within DAWs. If the drum unit itself doesn’t have a master dynamics control, the host software’s MIDI track probably does.


Route the toms, cymbals, and kick together on a drum bus, then apply a nice compressor that will gently even out the drums and control their peaks. As the snare needs more attention and you don’t want the compressor to be affected too much by the snare’s attack, keep this on its own bus. You can add more reverb to the snare, and use gates and EQ, to get the sound you want.


When using compression on the drums as a whole, as the resonances from a real drum kit aren’t present, you may need to use a little more compression than you would on a real-world drum kit. Another trick is to compress the room mic(s) to get a nice “pump” going. You can also use “warming” plug-ins, like the UAD Fairchild or Waves Renaissance Compressor, to liven up the room sound.


To make the cymbals sit better in the mix, try using less direct mic signal and more signal from the overhead and room mics. This will increase the spread and imaging, and give a more realistic sound. However, with the ride cymbal, you may want more direct and less room mic for better definition.


BFD, RMX Stylus, and EZdrummer come with drum grooves. Inexperienced users may want to show off all the grooves and great fills that are in the program; but in general, simpler is better. With Stylus, you don’t need to use all 8 tracks. In BFD, when you select a folder of a particular style of grooves and move it over to the main menu by dragging it with your mouse, note that many grooves from a group are very similar. By switching among them during the verse, you’ll add useful differences throughout the song; to build the song, you can add fills between verses or before the chorus.


Snares have different hits (normal, flam, sidestick, and drags), as do hi-hats (closed, open, half open, shank, etc.). Switching among these various articulations can add more life to the drums, as well as create a more realistic part. With drum programs that don’t offer different hi-hat hits, sometimes working an amplitude decay control in conjunction with the open hi-hat sample will give some of the sounds that lie between open and closed hi-hat.


Mute groups are groups of related drum sounds that are mutually exclusive: In other words, hitting one drum in a mute group instantly mutes all other drums in that group. This is used primarily with hi-hats, as you obviously can’t have an open and closed hi-hat play at the same time. But another use is with toms, to help control ringing if some toms are decaying while another one is being hit.


Drum samples have never been more realistic, but there’s something about a real cymbal that just plain sounds better in a track, assuming it’s properly miked. Consider laying down a drum part with cymbals on a separate track, overdub real cymbals as you monitor the sampled cymbals, then mute the sampled cymbal track. You can even make people think cheezy drum machines are real if the cymbals are real . . . try it!

These are just some general concepts that you can use to make your drums sound better. Hopefully these ideas will help you to get the sound and feel you want for your drums.