Fig. 1. The multi-channel outputs for two virtual-drummer plug-ins are mixed in Digital Performer 8. The first six tracks in the Tracks list are produced by Native Instruments Studio Drummer (a Kontakt Instrument). The bottom six tracks are from Steven Slate Drums 4 (SSD4). In this production, the hat and overhead cymbals are muted in SSD4 so as not to clash with the same kit pieces in Studio Drummer. MOST VIRTUAL-DRUMMER plug-ins allow you to layer multi-samples for each kit piece to create bigger, composite sounds. I like to take this strategy a step further by layering kits from two different plug-ins. For example, I’ll mix Steven Slate Drums 4 (SSD4) with Native Instruments Studio Drummer or Toontrack Superior Drummer. One advantage of working this way is you can use factory presets from each plug-in to quickly arrive at a logical composite sound—Led Zeppelin-style plus arena-rock drums, for instance—rather than audition numerous multi-samples for each kit piece within one plug-in to discover what might be compatible. More important, because the drums for each plug-in were likely recorded in different rooms, you can craft fresh and exciting ambiences by mixing their two kits together.
In this article, I’ll detail how to jack up your drum tracks to monster size by combining two virtual kits from different plug-ins. Many of the tips I’ll offer can also be applied to layering drum sounds within the same plug-in.
Use the Same Groove Begin by loading a kit from your first virtual-drummer plug-in, and route each kit piece—and each channel for overhead and room mics—to a separate track in your DAW. Assemble your MIDI grooves and edit them as needed to build your drum arrangement.
Once you’re happy with your arrangement, record the current kit to your DAW. Then remove the kit’s plug-in from your DAW’s mixer, making sure you first save any changes to its default configuration as a custom preset in case you need to re-record the kit at some point.
Next, instantiate your second virtual-drummer plug-in, load a kit, route each channel to a new track in your DAW and route your MIDI-grooves track to the plug-in. Convert the MIDI format for your grooves if necessary, using the plug-in’s MIDI mapping. Don’t be afraid to try triggering a different articulation for a kit piece than that which you already recorded. For example, the same MIDI note might trigger rimshots in your first plug-in and a snare drum struck in the center of the head with a stick tip in the second plug-in. If the blend of the two articulations (mixed in your DAW) sounds great, don’t convert that particular MIDI note. Let ’er rip! Just don’t record the second kit to its discrete audio tracks yet. We have more work to do first.
Layer Only the Traps and Room Kick, snare, and toms can all sound huge when layered, so make sure their close-mic channels are triggered by your MIDI track in both virtual-drummer plug-ins. Blending the room mics from two plug-ins can also sound downright explosive, especially when combining ambiences with different timbres and respective short and long decays. Just make sure the panning for each kit piece and room mic is the same in your DAW for both kits. Inconsistent panning will weaken the traps’ punch, separate their layered sounds, and make the stereo image ghosty.
Don’t layer the overhead cymbals or hihat. Cymbals have too dissimilar decays and hats are played with too much variation to seamlessly blend their multi-samples from different kits; layering them just turns their sounds into mush. Audible bleed among the cymbals in the overhead mics also dictates that you wholly use the best-sounding cymbals from one kit or the other, but not both. Mute the cymbal tracks for the kit having the cymbals you don’t want to use (see Figure 1). Make sure you pan the keeper cymbals using the same perspective—drummer or audience—as that used for the traps.
Mix and Match Envelopes and Tuning For each trap drum, experiment with the tuning of each layer. Floor toms in particular can sound enormous when one layer is tuned quite a bit lower than the other. The higher-pitched tom preserves the stick strike that cuts through your mix, while the lower-pitched tom thunders.
If your two virtual-drummer plug-ins provide envelope controls, try setting them differently for each layer of a kit piece. For example, accentuate the attack of one kick drum to highlight the beater strike. In the second kit, increase the kick drum’s sustain— and possibly lower its tuning—to give it heft.
Once you’ve got the second kit’s sounds married nicely to those of the first, save the second kit’s setup as a custom preset to allow later recall. You can record the second kit’s channels to its audio tracks or trigger it with MIDI during mixdown—your choice. Either way, your monster has been spawned!