Drum programming has plenty of advantages (we don't have to rent a drum room, set up multiple mics, hire a drummer, deal with phase and bleed issues, and more). The flip side to that is that to make programmed drums sound realistic can be incredibly difficult.
Programming drums to sound realistic takes time and effort, and implement multiple strategies can help tremendously. Those strategies are:
- Learning how to drum
- Listening to great drummers across different genres
- Programming to scratch takes
- Selecting the best virtual drum instrument/sampler
- Choosing the most realistic samples
- Simulating bleed and noise
- Paying special attention to the snare and hi-hats
- Variations and articulations
- Ghost notes
- Swing and de-quantization
- MIDI humanization
- In-VST mixing
- Bouncing to audio for more control
- Bus processing
In this article, we'll go through each of these strategies in more detail to help you get more realistic-sounding drums from your programming efforts.
If you prefer video format, I have an accompanying video for this article that you can check out below:
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Learning How To Drum
Learning to drum means understanding the physicality and limitations of drumming.
You'll grasp the nuances that make a beat feel real, developing a sense of the subtle variations in timing, the force behind each hit, and the natural flow from one beat to the next.
As a drummer, you develop a sense of rhythm and timing that's hard to replicate through programming alone. You learn that not every snare hit is equal and that the energy of a drum fill can shift the momentum of a track. These insights are invaluable when you sit down to program your digital kit.
By internalizing the drummer's mindset, you can inject realism into your programmed patterns. You'll start to think like a drummer, anticipating where a ghost note might fall or how a cymbal crash can accentuate a transition.
It also teaches you what's practical and even possible on the kit. The opportunities for complexity are endless with programming, but drummers only even have a maximum of four limbs!
This hands-on experience will undoubtedly translate into more dynamic, convincing drum tracks.
In essence, the physical act of drumming teaches you the ‘why' behind the ‘what.' It's not just about where the beat falls, but how and why it lands there. So, grab some sticks, hit the skins, and let the real rhythm guide your virtual drum programming.
Of course, this isn't a viable for everyone. However, it's perhaps the most important thing you can do to help yourself program drums.
I've been fortunate enough to live with a few different drummers who've been kind enough to let me mess about on their kits. I've even filled in for a few 15-minute sets at local dive bars. I definitely wouldn't consider myself a drummer, but the experience I've gained has paid dividends when it comes to programming drums for my won music and the music of others.
Here are a few related articles worth checking out on the topic of learning drums:
• Top 11 Benefits Of Learning & Playing Drums/Percussion
• Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn How To Play Drums
Listening To Great Drummers Across Different Genres
Whether you take the time to learn how to drum or not, listening to great drummers will give you a better sense of how natural drums sound. From there, you can try to mimic the way they sound.
Of course, you'll need the programming techniques to be able to mimic the playing technique of real drummers, but listening critically to great drummers will allow you to internalize the sound of real drummers.
My recommendation is to listen to multiple genres as well and try to identify the various styles and techniques of these drummers.
Furthermore, you can watch videos of drummers to see how they play and visualize how they interact with the drums.
There are so many great drummers out there. Here are but a few of my favourites (without getting into why I respect them all so much):
- John Bonham (Led Zeppelin)
- Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson)
- Danny Carey (Tool)
- Neil Peart (Rush)
- Andrew Forsman (The Fall Of Troy)
- Ringo Starr (The Beatles)
- Chris Adler (Lamb Of God, Megadeth)
- Joey Jordison (Slipknot)
- Blake Richardson (Between The Buried And Me)
- Jon Karel (The Number Twelve Looks Like You)
- Elvin Jones
- Art Blakey
- Max Roach
Programming To Scratch Takes
Alright, let's get into the actual programming, shall we?
Perhaps the best way to program drums is to do so against real drummer recordings or scratch takes.
First, we can opt to program along to recordings of our favourite drum grooves or our favourite drummers.
Second, we can record ourselves physically performing a groove and then program along to that recording. Note that these scratch takes can be of anything rhythmical — I'll often record myself beatboxing or tapping out a rhythm with pens on my desk. If you have drums, you can record yourself playing (the recording doesn't have to be complex) and then program along to that. Additionally, you can insert drum loops into your DAW session and program along to them.
The idea here is to get a natural-sounding starting point and use it as reference for our programming efforts. Pay special attention to changes in “velocity” and timing throughout the scratch take — there's a lot of nuance to be gained by programming to such takes.
Selecting The Best Virtual Drum Instrument/Sampler
The truth is that some virtual drum instruments are much better than others, particularly in their ability to sound realistic.
If you have access to multiple options, I'd recommend programming a simple beat and auditioning each with its default settings. Generally speaking, the option that sounds the most realistic with default settings will be the one to sound the most realistic once we've programmed more realistic patterns.
A few things to look for and consider when choosing the best virtual drum instrument (or sampler) for realistic-sounding drums are:
- The quality of the individual samples.
- The variety of samples and kits.
- How many articulations of a given drum or cymbal can be loaded and triggered on the piano roll.
- Whether there is round-robin sampling or not.
- How the samples interact through the entire kit.
- Microphone modelling.
- The mixer.
- The cross-over or “virtual bleed” between the mixer channels.
We'll touch on these aspects in more detail shortly.
There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to such virtual drum instruments. My favourite, by far, is Toontrack's Superior Drummer 3. I've found it to be the best-sounding, most use-friendly option with the most customizability.
Choosing The Most Realistic Samples
The realism of a virtual drum instrument is only as good as its samples. Choose an option that has realistic drum sounds from the get-go before even worrying about programming with a more “human” feel.
As mentioned in the previous section, having round-robin samples will play a massive role in a more natural sound. There is so much nuance in each drum and cymbal that cannot be captured by MIDI 128-steps. Having slightly different samples trigger from the same MIDI note can help with small nuances and realism of the virtual instrument.
Additionally, we can opt for additional samples for each drum or cymbal applied to different notes within the keyboard — this is another way to enhance the nuance in any given drum or cymbal.
So we need to find realistic samples that also have enough variation to sound real. Remember that there's much more nuance in real drums than is possible with any 128-step MIDI control.
Variations And Articulations
Variations and articulations are incredibly important for programming nuance into our virtual drums. If you have them, use them!
The is especially the case with snares and hi-hats, which are the two most nuanced pieces of the modern drum kit. Real drummers have infinite options when it comes to their interactions with the different parts of their kit. We need to approximate this as closely as possible if want our programmed drums to sound realistic.
These variations and articulations are generally triggered either by changes in the MIDI velocity or playing different MIDI notes to trigger variations of the same virtual drum/cymbal.
Simulating Bleed And Noise
Think about how real drum kits are recorded for a moment.
- We'll generally have overhead to capture a holistic sound of the cymbals, along with the snare and toms.
- We'll often have a room mic (or multiple room mics) to capture the entirety of the kit and its interaction with the room.
- We'll typically close-mic our drums, often in a variety of ways, to capture isolated sound from the most important aspects of the kit.
Each microphone position in and around the kit will ultimately capture sound from the entire kit.
For example, the snare top microphone will primarily capture the sound of the snare drum, but will also pickup the kick, the toms, and the cymbals. These extraneous sounds are generally referred to as “bleed” and play a major role in drum recording.
Now, on one hand, programming with a virtual instrument means we can often reduce or indeed eliminate issues of bleed (poor definition of the intended drum and phase issues between tracks).
But on the other hand, the lack of bleed can reduce the apparent cohesiveness of the kit, making it sound less realistic.
Therefore, simulating bleed can help in our quest to program more natural-sounding drums.
Some virtual drum instruments (like the aforementioned Superior Drummer 3) allow us to apply varying amounts of virtual bleed in the mixer — we can effectively send audio from one channel to another and simulate “bleed”.
If we don't have the option within our virtual instrument, we could opt to simulate this with complex routing within the DAW mixer so long as we have independent tracks for each of the virtual drums. This is advanced and beyond the scope of this article, so I won't go deep into it, but it involves setting up a bunch of auxiliary tracks to combine the “intended drum” with the “bleeding drums” and delaying each “bleeding drum” by varying amounts before they reach each aux track. Ultimately, it can be done, but I'd argue it's never worth the effort.
So if your virtual instrument has the option to incorporate “virtual bleed”, use it.
I wouldn't recommend going too far with the addition of bleed. A little can go a long way in terms of naturalism. Remember that bleed is often considered a nuisance in acoustic recordings, though it is part of crafting a holistic-sounding drum mix.
There's often so much happening between the main hits of a drumming performance. Ghost notes are a drumming technique used to add texture and rhythm to a drum pattern. They are called “ghost” notes because they are played very softly and subtly, often barely audible in the overall mix of a song.
These “ghost notes” are a big part of getting a realistic drum sound and are typically warranted in our programming because of that.
To program ghost notes, first consider where they may land and on which instrument, then ensure that their velocity is low and that there is variation in the sound of each note.
Swing And De-Quantization
A major issue with programming MIDI is the over-reliance on quantization. Having everything perfectly set to the grid is a sign of programming and such, may sound unnatural.
I say “may” because it also may not — this largely depends on the genre and how perfectly timed and straight the drumming ought to be.
It can be tempting to quantize our MIDI. After all, a big part of editing the recording of real acoustic drum kits is in altering the timing. However, doing so can potentially kill the feel and groove of the drum performance (whether it's programmed or not).
Therefore, it's worthwhile to consider offering a bit a timing nuance to each note being triggered.
Add some swing alongside some rushing or dragging to program more realistic drum patterns.
In many DAWs, we can adjust the “strength” of our quantization to reduce its rigidity. This can also be a great option if you're playing out the drums in realtime — it can be used to bring each note closer to the grid and tighten up the time without quantizing it directly on the grid.
It's critical to note that great drummers are precise with their timing. It's often the placement of even-numbered 16th notes that give the feel of the groove.
Unlike whole, half, quarter, and even eighth notes, which skilled drummers often strive to play directly on the grid, a tip to a human-like feel lies in the slight delay (or perhaps rushing) of these even-numbered 16th notes.
This subtle timing shift, consistently applied, can really liven up a programmed drum pattern and give it a more “human” touch. It's this nuanced approach that breathes life into the rhythm, imparting emotion and authenticity.
MIDI humanization includes the randomization of MIDI information, often within a defined range. It includes time/position, velocity, note length, and much more.
We can use humanization tools to our advantage, especially when programming our MIDI to the grid. These tools help us to add subtle (or not so subtle) variations to the MIDI information responsible for triggering our drums.
Always quality check any randomization you utilize to ensure the drums sound better in the mix and not worse. A/B testing is essential!
Different VSTs will have different options for internal mixing. Depending on what you decide to use for your drums, you may be able to improve upon the subjective realism of the drum within the VST itself.
Look for bleed options, effects, panning and balance control to help you out.
Bouncing To Audio And Processing In The DAW Mixer
We'll always have more control over our drum mix when we have individual tracks in our DAW mixer. Bouncing the virtual drum instrument down to audio is great way to start mixing the drums for a more realistic sound.
Look for and fix phase issues, apply processing to each drum, and treat the audio tracks as if they were from a real acoustic drum kit recording.
From there, I'd recommend considering a few different mixing strategies:
- Parallel compression: send the drum shells to an auxiliary track, heavily compress the aux (parallel channel), and mix it back in underneath the dry tracks.
- Snare plate reverb: send the snare drum track(s) to an auxiliary track (effects return), apply plate reverb (100% wet), and mix it underneath the drums.
- If you don't have a drum room track, consider sending the tracks you do have to an auxiliary track (effects return), applying room reverb (doesn't have to necessarily be 100% wet), compressing the room, and mixing it in with the drum for a sense of room sound.
- Apply EQ and compression to each drum/cymbal track as necessary.
- Consider saturation, distortion or clipping on the drums to reduce the “cleanliness” of the audio, which can help things sound more natural.
Beyond individual channels and auxiliary tracks, we have bus processing, which I want to give special attention to.
Bus processing is a great way to add “glue” to various mix elements. The term “glue” refers to the overall cohesion of tracks within the mix — making the tracks sound as if they're in the same sonic space.
Bus processing, that is processing several tracks together via a single bus or subgroup, is perhaps the best way to add glue to our tracks. This is as true of drums as it is for anything else.
I recommend bussing all your drums together into a subgroup and considering the following mixing strategies:
- Bus compression: helps to “glue” the entire kit together by causing the transients to interact with everything else. It also helps bring up the lower-level and stereo elements like cymbals.
- Bus saturation: a holistic way to add harmonic content based on all the frequency information of the drums, helping to solidify the common harmonic “glue” of the individual tracks.
Call To Action
Create a new session or revisit an old session and program your drums using as many of these techniques as possible. Write down which techniques provided you with the best results and add them to your arsenal of production tools for all future projects.
What effects should I put on drums? Drums are often processed with EQ to shape tone, compression for punch and consistency, reverb for space, and saturation for warmth and fullness. Adjust to taste and genre.
Should drums be tuned? Yes, drums should be tuned to match the cohesion of the drum kit and the song's tonality. Proper tuning also ensures clarity and optimal resonance for each drum in the mix.
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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