Drums – In the Loop

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Fig. 1. It’s easy to select and split out an individual drum from a MIDI drum track, so you can process and mix it separately on another track.

Putting together drum tracks that sound like a real drummer played them can be challenging. Naturally, the best option is to have a real drummer play on your song, but if that’s not possible, parts based on loops—audio or MIDI—can be effective when skillfully assembled and edited. I’m less enthusiastic about programming MIDI drum parts by tapping them in with your fingers on a keyboard or pad controller. In my experience, that’s a very tough way to get a realistic-sounding, live-drummer feel, except on the simplest of parts.
Electronic styles, in which programmed, quantized drums are the mainstay of the sound, are a different story. I’m focusing here on drum parts for styles like rock, country, and blues, where you want the music to sound as if you had a drummer in the studio.

Decisions, Decisions Choosing between audio and MIDI depends on a lot of factors, but it’s safe to say that audio loops offer more instant gratification, assuming you have the right ones on hand. Audio loops are typically recordings of real drummers, tracked in good studios, So they give you both high-quality sound and natural feel components that you need.

MIDI loops are usually recorded by drummers on electronic kits, so they feel pretty realistic, too, but you need to pair them with good-quality drum samples in order for them to sound authentic. In addition to being sold separately, you can find MIDI drum loop collections in drum instruments like FXpansion BFD-2, Native Instruments Studio Drummer, Sonoma WireWorks KitCore, Toontrack EZ Drummer, and others.

There are a number of limitations with audio loops: First, you have to fit them to your song. Second, you don’t have the same editing ability that you do with a MIDI part, although DAWs like Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and others offer audio-quantizing features that allow you to make some pretty significant feel modifications.

Another way to change an audio loop is by moving individual drum hits around via editing—for instance, moving a kick back by an eighth-note or sixteenth-note to match an anticipation. As long as the drum you’re editing isn’t overlapping with the sound of another drum, it will likely sound okay to move it. Sometimes it works better to move it to a separate track, with identical processing, to avoid cutting off another sound in the loop.

It’s a good practice to introduce loops (whether audio or MIDI) as early in the project as possible, preferably during the writing process. That way, the groove of that loop is a big part of the vibe of the recording. If you wait until later, you’ll have to shoehorn the loops into your recorded tracks, and the drum part may not match the rest of the song that well, feel-wise.

Wishing for More With both audio or MIDI loops, you’re limited to the choices in your collection. When constructing a song-length part, it’s easy to run out of variations, particularly for fills. Most commercial loop song sets give you a number of variations and fills per song, but, especially with fills, it’s often not enough material to use on a full-length track without some repetition. What’s more, not every fill in a set is going to work in your song. I’ve found that the fills in loop sets tend to be weighted towards the flashy, high-energy side. This may help sell loops, but isn’t always musically appropriate.

With audio loops, you can add more fills by editing existing ones to create variations, and even construct fills from single hits (typically, audio loop sets offer you files of individual hits on the various drums and cymbals), but it’s not always easy to make this technique sound realistic. A trick I’ve discovered for making new fills both from audio and MIDI loops is to take a two-beat fill and only use half of it. Depending on the fill, this technique can work nicely.

Fig. 2. Volume automation is used here to draw in a subtle rise in volume on the drum track during the solo section, to add to the dynamic interest.

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A big advantage to MIDI loops is that you can use fills from other MIDI loop sets, as long as they’re stylistically correct for your song. Usually if you just use the “fill part” of the loop—typically occurring in the last beat or two of a measure—it will be easier to match it with the rest of your track.

Unlike with audio loops, you don’t have to worry about a sonic mismatch, because with MIDI, your own drum instruments are providing the sounds. You might have to remap some of the drums, but otherwise, you should be able to borrow fills from other songs in the same collection, or even from other loop collections.

Fig. 3. Putting the drums and crash cymbals on separate tracks gives you more control of volume and allows for more processing flexibility.

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Commercial audio loops are generally mixed very well, but the engineers who mix them have no way of knowing what the contents of your future track will be, so there are going to be times when the mix isn’t right for your song. I’ve found this to be especially true in terms of the level of the kick drum. You can use EQ on a stereo loop track and attempt to change level of a particular drum by boosting or cutting in its frequency range, but it’s tricky not to mess up the balance of the other drums, or the overall sound of the loop in the process.

In this respect, MIDI parts are way more flexible. You can adjust levels of individual drum parts in a MIDI kit, many drum instruments allow you to process individual drums, and you can easily split out the different drums to different tracks and process them separately (see Figure 1), just like you would with a multitrack drum recording.

Mixing it Up If you analyze a live-drum part, you’ll notice that there are lots of variations, both in the content of the part and the dynamics—some subtle, some not so subtle—both inside a particular song section, and between one section and another. You can simulate the part variations by occasionally using slightly different loops from within the set, rather than repeating the same one for the whole section—you usually get some alternates of the same section part in a loop set.

With MIDI loops, you can add variation pretty easily by editing—for instance, substituting a ride for a hi-hat in a particular song section. Remember too, that a real drummer brings in a lot of variation based on the way he or she hits the drum or cymbal, where on the drum or cymbal the hit occurs, and if the hit is accomplished strictly with the tip of the stick, or if the shaft of the stick makes contact as well. Good MIDI drum instruments have multiple velocity layers that change the sound subtly depending on the velocity level of the hit, but it’s also helpful to have some alternate samples that you can salt into the part here and there to change it up.

As for dynamics, most commercial loop sets are going to give you natural dynamic variations between song sections (typically, choruses are louder than verses), but you can use your DAWs automation to put in some additional variations. For instance, come up 1 or 2 dB on the last verse and chorus. You could even draw in a very subtle volume build, perhaps leading into the song’s climactic moment (see Figure 2).

Crashing it Down I recommend creating a separate track for crashes, and avoiding audio loops with crashes in them when possible. You can use the individual crashes that come with the loop set, or some good-sounding crash samples from some other source, and just place them in another track (see Figure 3). It’s easy to mix crashes too loud, so it’s great to have the extra control over their volume that you get by separating them from the loop track.

As mentioned, you can’t go crazy processing audio loops, because you’re affecting the entire kit. (That’s another reason not to use the loops with the crashes in them.) Crash cymbals sound really whooshy and unnatural when heavily compressed. By keeping them separate, you’ll be able to compress the main part of the loop, often giving the part some extra mojo, without causing sonic weirdness. You can also use a tiny bit of reverb on an audio drum loop, if you feel like it’s sounding too dry, but be subtle. The kick drum will often sound strange with a lot of reverb on it.

So when you need a drum track to sound like it was played live, audio and MIDI loops are viable options. When you’re putting the tracks together, try to think like a drummer, and you’ll be a lot more successful.

Mike Levine is a writer, producer, and musician in the New York City area.