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Programmed drums have been everywhere in popular music since the 1980s when drum machines first became popular, and the gated snare was on virtually every hit song. So if you’re worried that using programmed drums in your songs is “cheating,” have no fear; it is widespread, and there are many ways to program drums to sound realistic.
- Adjust velocities of each drum to sound natural (IE, don’t put every hit at 127)
- Use the humanize function on your drum MIDI track to make the part sound more realistic
- Use compression and EQ on a drum bus to glue the drum track to your mix
Choosing MIDI Instruments In Your DAW
No matter which DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) you use, they always include a few drum machine plugins or “virtual drummer” instruments. So if you don’t currently have any drum machine or sampler software (or hardware), you still have everything you need to program realistic drums.
There are a few different approaches to programming your drum tracks. You can use any of these techniques or a combination of them. The first thing you’ll need is a MIDI instrument.
While it is possible to use your computer keyboard as a MIDI keyboard, to get a more realistic percussive feel, you’ll need a MIDI controller keyboard. If it has programmable pads, that’s even better.
Suppose you don’t have either of these. In that case, you’ll need a drum machine, an electronic drum kit, or some sort of MIDI control surface with assignable pads, such as the Launchpad.
Drum Machine Plug-Ins
Whether you buy drum VST plugins or use the ones included in your DAW is up to you. Once you’ve connected your MIDI instrument of choice, one option for drum sounds is to use a drum machine plugin. Just like hardware drum machines, some drum machine plugins use samples, others use synthesis, and others use both.
Depending on genre and style, you might prefer one over the other or a combination of the two. For example, a synthesized kick drum can give some extra thump to a sampled kick drum, and a synthesized snare drum can add some extra crackle to a sampled snare drum.
Virtual Drummer Plug-Ins
If you want realistic-sounding programmed drums, we must first talk about the source. Have you heard the saying, “garbage in, garbage out?” There’s no saving a poor-sounding drum library in post. Here’s a few of my favorite realistic drum sample libraries:
- Superior Drummer 3 (review)
- EZ Drummer 3 (review)
- Addictive Drums 2 (review)
- GetGood Drums Modern & Massive (review)
Suppose you use something like the Virtual Drummer in Logic Pro X (or similar). In that case, your workflow will be slightly different, as your sampled or synthesized drum sounds will be loaded into a virtual drumkit.
Each part of the kit can then be assigned to a key on your MIDI keyboard or a pad on your MIDI control surface or electronic drum kit.
So rather than loading a series of drum sounds onto a full keyboard, a virtual drummer or virtual drum kit is a little more contained and can be easier to work with, especially if you’re combining programmed drums with the sound of a live kit.
Keep in mind that just because you’ve committed to loading up one kit, you’ll still be able to change each individual drum within the preset. As a result, you’ll still have creative control over the sound of each drum.
For example, if you’ve loaded a funk kit but want to change the kick, you can either edit its parameters or load a kick sound from a different kit or sample.
Working With Drum Samples
Another alternative is to load up a sampler plugin in your DAW and use drum samples. In this case, you can use any sound you want to use as a drum, i.e., sheet metal being struck, a hammer hitting a nail, and so on).
Like with any sampler, each loaded sample can be mapped to a key or pad on your MIDI instrument of choice (or an electronic drum kit).
How To Record MIDI Drums
When people talk about “programming drums,” often the implication is that there’s no “live” playing. However, you can still lay down your initial MIDI drum track by physically playing the keyboard, control surface, or electronic drum kit.
Not only is it faster, but it will definitely add realism to your drum tracks. The beauty of working with MIDI is you can always tighten it up later and quickly duplicate parts.
Separate Your Drums
Just like when you track live drums in a studio, you can think of recording MIDI drums the same way. I like to start with an “overhead” track containing the whole kit and then record (or copy and paste) each drum separately.
This gives you some flexibility both with editing and mixing, as well as sonically. When you have the whole kit as one track, you can easily copy and paste the parts you need for all your other drums, and you can bounce quick stereo stems without having to go through each drum track.
Like with live drums, this also gives you more flexibility with your plugins because you can add reverb and compression to put the drums “in a room” and still edit your individual drum tracks.
Making MIDI Sound Human
If your MIDI tracks sound too stiff and perfect, but you can’t quite get them right when you play it live, you can still tighten your MIDI notes to the grid and then vary the velocity of the notes.
To tighten your MIDI notes, you would use Quantize, which you can change to less than 100% if you want it to still have a little wiggle room.
To make your MIDI notes sound more human, you can use the “humanize” function or, if it’s not available in your DAW, swing.
Depending on your DAW, you may be able to apply these effects per note, or you might have to create a few different tracks and treat them individually.
Printing Your MIDI Drum Tracks
Once you’ve recorded all your MIDI drum tracks and they’re on the grid the way you want them, you’ll want to “print” or bounce them to audio.
This will save on processing power and make for a cleaner workflow. By leaving the MIDI track untouched, you can print a new instance of it every time you want to use a different drum sample or plugin.
Depending on your DAW and preferences, there are a few different ways to do this. The gist is that you’re recording the playback of your MIDI tracks to an audio track so that every time you play each drum track, your DAW doesn’t have to keep pulling up a new instance of whichever plugin or virtual kit you used.
Again, I recommend keeping all your tracks and plugins separate until you have your final printed or bounced audio tracks. It will take a little longer because you’ll have many more tracks to print or bounce, but it’s worth having that flexibility later in editing and mixing.
Getting Realistic Drum Sounds Out of Your Samples
Many memes are out there about finding the perfect snare sound, and it can be a challenge. The snare can make or break a song by cutting through perfectly or masking fundamental frequencies.
This is where layering your tracks or samples comes in handy. Some drum sample kits include a “snare top” and “snare bottom,” as well as various rimshots. You can layer these together to sound like an actual miked snare drum.
Even when it comes to programming an electronic drum kit, don’t be afraid to get creative and add a handclap on top of a snare sound with a fuller body to give it some snap.
Typically in a studio setting, when recording drums, we dampen the snare drum to reduce the amount of ring. To simulate this with a plugin, roll off some of the mids and highs and shorten your sustain and release times if you use a compressor. Depending on which drum sounds you use, you might be able to change the actual sustain and release of the [synthesized] sound itself.
Get Your Kicks (Sorted Out)
The 808 kick is perhaps the Holy Grail of all electronic drum kit sounds, but what if you want something more like the real thing? Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes you want something really tight, so it’s easier to sidechain it to your bass, or so you can add reverb to the whole kit without it sounding washed out.
When it comes to your kick drum sounds, you can do a lot just by shaping the frequency with EQ and playing around with the attack and release of the sound.
A short attack and release will tighten up any drum sound, especially the kick. A slight boost around 60hz will add some rumble, and rolling off anything below 50hz will eliminate any ringing or booming you might not want. Conversely, if you want your kick to sound huge and epic, add a little reverb (well, or a lot… it’s your song!).
When you layer your kick drum sounds, think about the mechanics of hitting a real kick drum and how you would mic it. What do you want to capture? Do you want to hear more of the beater striking the kick drum head, or do you want to hear what it sounds like when you stick a microphone inside the drum? Or both?
You’d be surprised at how much frequency bandwidth a hi-hat can mask if it’s not EQed to emphasize the higher-end frequencies and roll off the rest. A little bit goes a long way, and the hi-hat and cymbals will cut through without much volume or manipulation. If you’re unsure which EQ setting to use, start with something like the “Overhead Mic” preset, which will roll off the lower frequencies and boost the higher ones to add some sparkle and life.
Another fun trick is to use an Exciter plugin or some light saturation to make your hi-hats and cymbals sound a little dirtier and more lively. When it comes to the sounds you use, this is where you can get creative and layer some of your cymbals to bring your drum tracks to life and add some dimension and clarity. Be careful putting reverb on your hi-hats and cymbals because this will cause them to ring out and might make your drum tracks sound too tinny.
A compressor’s primary function is to keep all your audio levels relatively consistent by lowering the loudest part of a track to the threshold you set. In that case, you might argue that you don’t “need” compression with MIDI tracks because you can control the volume levels with velocity instead.
However, compression can be used less conventionally to add punch and color to a programmed drum track. If you play around with the attack and release time on a compressor plugin, you can emphasize the transients in your drums and get them to cut through the mix.
Sum It Up (Literally)
Consider making a mix group or (in Logic Pro X) “track stack” to sum multiple drum tracks to one stereo channel.
If you have some plugin effects that you know you want on all your drums, it’s better to do it this way (or via buses) than to put the plugin on each track. It saves CPU power, and there are fewer moving parts to worry about because you don’t have to listen through each channel separately.
Depending on your DAW, you might find that when bouncing the bus to a single stereo track, it will not include the plugins you put on that group.
This is something to consider if you’re preparing stereo stems for a mixing engineer or for a remix. But, again, this is where you’re better off bussing each drum track to the same bus with whatever plugin(s) you want to use.
Use a Fake Room Reverb
On most of my programmed “live drum” tracks (alt rock, pop rock, etc), I create an FX bus with a Valhalla Room reverb. Valhalla DSP makes the best reverb plugins, and I cannot recommend them enough.
From here, I send the drum bus to this via a send on the channel and blend to taste. Adding this effect gives the drum bus a little more liveliness and realism.
Hopefully, this will help you get up and running with programming your own drums. In addition, you may find it faster and more intuitive than miking a real drum kit!