Making Tracks: Pickup Sticks - EMusician

Making Tracks: Pickup Sticks

Mixing and matching MIDI drum loops from different libraries can give your drum tracks a creative shot in the arm. But keeping them consistent and getting a human feel poses some challenges. Here I''ll provide a step-by-step method and some tips for building great drum tracks from MIDI loops.
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Mixing and matching MIDI drum loops from different libraries can give your drum tracks a creative boost. But keeping them consistent and getting a human feel can pose some challenges. Here, I'll provide a method and some tips for building great drum tracks from MIDI loops. I'll use Digidesign Pro Tools to highlight some of the newer MIDI features introduced since version 7.0, but you can use this process with any full-featured DAW (see Fig. 1 and the sidebar “Step-by-Step Instructions”).

Lay Them Out

Start a new session, import the MIDI drum loops you want to use to separate MIDI tracks, and route them to your drum module. Loop libraries that offer MIDI Type 0 files let you quickly load multiple loops onto a single track.

Solo or mute tracks to audition individual loops, then copy and paste or use the Grabber tool to drag-and-drop them onto a master drum track. Give the new regions meaningful names (for example, Drums Verse-01) and organize them into song sections (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and so on) on the master drum track.

MIDI drum-loop libraries usually conform to the General MIDI (GM) specification: C2 (MIDI Note Number 36) for kick, D2 for snare, and so on. If you load a non-GM kit into your drum module, refer to the GM spec to make reassignments. Set note durations to 64 ticks so that notes are easy to grab. Click on the minikeyboard to select all of a single note's events, and then drag the notes to the new location.

Put Them Together

Listen for loops that work well together, and use them to create variations. Build more variations by pasting 1- or 2-beat fills and snare rolls, adding ghost notes with the pencil editor, or deleting note events to simplify a beat. Remember to consolidate and rename new regions. Assemble song sections by alternating variations with the main beat; evolve the part over 8 or 16 bars and add or reduce complexity to make it more interesting. Use playlists to experiment with different arrangements.

As the pieces come together, bring up the Velocity view in the Edit window and notice the differences between loops from different libraries. Use the Trim tool to edit Velocities so they are consistent and best match the Velocity response of your drum module (see Web Clips 1 and 2). When extensive editing is required, use the Grabber tool or the Select/Split Notes page of the MIDI Operations window to either move regions and note events to an empty MIDI working track or split drum instruments to separate tracks.

When ghost notes, hi-hats, or ride cymbals introduce large Velocity variations, use the Change Velocity page of the MIDI Operations window for precise control over editing parameters. Use this page in conjunction with the Grabber tool to edit Velocities proportionately. That's a fast and easy way to apply MIDI expansion and compression effects.

Make It Real

When parts sound too mechanical or the groove is inconsistent, bring up the Real-Time Properties window. There you can experiment nondestructively with quantization values, groove templates, and Velocity effects and get immediate feedback. Applying quantization or groove templates selectively to kick, snare, or hi-hat parts gives the best results. Values of 5 to 7 percent in the Include field maintain the feel of the original performance while catching any stray events. Use the Delay parameter to move a part ahead of or behind the beat. When you're finished, you can Write To Region in one click. If you need to go back to a region's original values, use the Restore Performance command in the MIDI Operations window.

Subtle randomization is the simplest way to make MIDI loops sound more like a live performance (see Web Clips 3 and 4). Start with between 3 and 10 percent when quantizing or applying groove templates. Similar values work well for kick and snare Velocities. You can use values of up to 50 percent with hi-hat and ride cymbals and get great results. With multilayered sampled instruments, randomization can absolutely transform a snare or cymbal roll.

When recording live MIDI data for variations and fills, use a separate MIDI track or a new playlist so your edits to library loops remain intact. Enable Real Time or Input Quantize, and apply settings consistent with those used for the library loops. Use the Paste Special/Merge command to selectively combine recorded parts with library loops without overwriting the original data.

As you go along, export your best edits to MIDI files for use in future projects. Over time you will build up a loop library customized for your drum modules that is easily accessible and has your own unique signature.

When Jon Engel isn't tweaking MIDI tracks, he's either writing and recording original music for Malaren (soundclick.com/malaren) or playing guitar and keyboards in Central New Jersey cover bands.

STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Step 1: Import MIDI loop library files to separate MIDI tracks and route all their outputs to your drum module.
  2. Step 2: Rename regions to indicate their function, listen for loops that work well together, and organize them on the master drum track.
  3. Step 3: The Velocity view shows inconsistencies between loops from different sources, which you can fix with the Trim tool.
  4. Step 4: Use the Real-Time Properties window to experiment nondestructively with quantization, groove templates, delay, and Velocity effects.
  5. Step 5: Randomize Velocities to make MIDI loops sound more like a live performance.
  6. Step 6: Record live MIDI data for variations and fills. Use Real Time or Input Quantize with settings consistent with those used for the library loops.

BONUS MATERIAL

Web Clips: Hear audio examples of creating drum tracks from MIDI loops.