Hacking A Drummer

This will be the first posting on DAFTHACK not security related. I'm a huge audio engineering hobbyist. Also, I have been in a few bands. Some of them have been decently successful, others not so much. In life there are a lot of elements that have to align to be able work well with other people. Think of your relationships with your co-workers. Most people get along decently enough to get through the day but do you really want to hang out with them after work? Having a band is on a totally different level though. The STARS have to align in order to keep a band together... or a really high paying contract. This post should benefit a few groups of people: 1. The solo recording artist who wants to record great sounding music but has no band; 2. The full band that wants to record great sounding music on a budget; or 3. The producer who wants to demo compositions as close to the real thing before having the live artists perform them.

The topic of this article is "Hacking A Drummer". So what do I mean by that? I started recording music 10 years ago and have progressively gained more equipment and recording software. When I would compose a song I would usually record it at the same time. Since I am primarily a guitarist I would program the drums to go along with my guitar tracks so I would accomplish something closer to what the song would actually sound like with a full band. This was a great way for me to demo new songs to my band so they could get a better understanding of the syncopation, and rhythmic timings of the song. After my drummer would learn the songs we would go to the studio and record him playing them live. This was very expensive, time consuming, and without quality mastering and mixing the tracks sounded only decent. I began to wonder if I could just program my drums and produce professional sounding recordings. Well drum simulation software has come a long way and I believe strongly that one can produce quality drum recordings through software. Don't get me wrong... I absolutely think if the conditions are right(professional mics, quality room, good engineer, quality kit, and the drummer is on) then yes a live drum recording will annihilate anything programmed. Some bands have been using triggers or an electric kit in association with drum software to record. But, I think if the programmer dedicates time to programming the drums, pays close attention to velocities(explained later), and other human elements they can accomplish something very close to the real thing. The software I will be discussing in this post are Avid's Pro Tools 10, and Toontrack's Superior Drummer 2.0. The band Periphery recorded their debut using Superior Drummer. They had their drummer play through an electric kit tracked through Superior. 

To begin take a listen to this clip I recorded using SD2.0.

Now listen to the same track with just the drums.

Now that you have heard a few samples let's get started on how to do this. This walkthrough assumes you have already installed Pro Tools 10 and Superior Drummer.

Start by opening up a new Pro Tools session and create a new stereo "instrument" track. Click an open Insert space and select "multichannel plug-in", "instrument", then "Superior Drummer MultiOut".  You can begin by adding in a standard drum beat with kicks on beats 1, cymbals/high hats on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4, and snare's on beat 3. You can accomplish this by clicking in the edit window using the pencil tool. I prefer using notes to edit.

Below your instrument track to the left click the drop down arrow to open the velocity tab. Velocity is where the magic happens in my opinion. Instead of dropping the volume of each individual hit velocity actually makes it sound like the drummer is hitting the snare or whatever piece of the kit softer or harder. This is where you can really make the programmed drums sound more real.

This section is between second 16 and 18 of the two tracks above.  I think this short build up displays the velocity feature nicely.  You can see the MIDI hits in the top section and the velocity of each notes at the very bottom.  Listen to the clips and notice this section as it displays how the drums are hit at different velocities.  

As you go about composing your song pay attention to the velocities.

Click on the Insert tab on the instrument track to open up the Superior Drummer console.

Within this console you can modify your kit, change mic levels, and add some effects.  Toontrack sells a few artist presets that are good to help you find the sound you are looking for as well.  

Writing drum parts is an interesting task for those that play other instruments.  It takes time to learn how the different pieces of a kit can be utilized to completely change the flow of a song.  Simply changing the timing on a snare can make the song sound fast or slow.  I recommend listening very closely to the music you like and pay attention to how the drums accent what is happening with the other instruments.  Learn to recognize patterns and syncopation.  

When manually editing MIDI hits it can be quite a process.  I recommend putting your Pro Tools session in "Grid" mode to help in placing hits quicker.  You won't have to focus on dragging each hit to land perfectly on each beat.  With Grid mode you can just click within a certain block and it will lock to the closest measure.  Another tip I would give is to lay out a skeleton of sorts of your song.  If you know the first 12 measures are all standard 4/4 then fill your first measure in and copy the MIDI hits over to the rest of the section.  After you do this go back and edit it to add in fills and deviations from the beats to make it interesting.

By doing this you have created a nice backbone for your song.  From here it is up to you to be creative and write some awesome music.

I will be creating another how-to article similar to this one specifically addressing drums in metal music.


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