I am an absolutely terrible drummer. I have the co-ordination of a drunken donkey on an ice rink and my attempts behind the kit sound like a box of cutlery being thrown down a flight of stairs. But my job requires that I produce drum tracks that sound not just like a real drummer, but like a real drummer on a real kit. I use midi drums to do this, and so can you.
Some people hear "Midi drums" and their first reaction is that they're cheating, or not proper drumming, or even not "professional" in some way. Those people are in for a shock, because I can guarantee you that you have heard midi drums on all sorts of commercial recordings and not realised what you were listening to. Last year, I did some work with one of the world's top metal drummers this guy has been on over a dozen classic metal albums for several top-draw metal acts, as well as session work on over a hundred other commercial recordings, some metal, some not. For everything except the biggest albums, he recorded all the drum tracks on a midi kit in his front room, and used Toontrack's Superior Drummer and its Metal Foundry expansion just $400 worth of software.
You don't even have to spend that much. Toontrack's EZDrummer costs a quarter of that amount and there are similarly priced offerings from Native Instruments and Steven Slate Drums, the other two big players in the midi drum market. All have everything you need for pro results.
Why are even the biggest names switching over to midi?
1. Value for money.
The samples that come with even the entry-level drum software were recorded on top-quality drums in pristine condition, recorded by the best sound engineers in the best acoustic spaces using the best microphones. All that can be yours for less than a hundred bucks, which would maybe buy you 20 minutes of studio time at that quality bracket not even enough time to mic up the kit, let alone record anything.
2. Sound quality.
This is a particularly big deal onstage. Chances are you haven't heard a live acoustic bass drum at a top-level rock or metal gig for a decade or more. You will have heard a sample, triggered by a piezoelectric pad attached to the drum skin (A "midi trigger"). For many bands, this extends to all the drums, and even the cymbals Slipknot were amongst the first bands to use an all-electric kit at live gigs and many acts many of whom have been around a lot longer than them have followed. Why do they do this?
Because it's more reliable and usually sounds better. A mic'd up drum onstage will be affected by bleed from other drums and instruments, muddying the sound and making the sound guy's job a nightmare, especially in larger venues where he'll need as much clarity as possible to fight the natural reverb of such a large enclosed space. It will also be uncompressed and variable in its attack, which again will create muddiness. Microphones can also be knocked around, drum skins can tear, and heat, cold or water damage can all cause a mic to fail during a gig in a way that a midi trigger won't. Mics also need stands and clips that can block the audience's view, hamper the stage show and can get broken or knocked over by flailing musicians. Anyone who has seen what Joey Jordison gets up to on stage will quickly realise why putting fragile microphones anywhere near him wasn't ever a realistic prospect!
3. You can correct your errors.
Going back to recording, if you spend a day in a studio recording drums, then find one mis-timed hit, what can you do? Editing drum tracks, that have multiple mic feeds and bleed from one mic into another, is an absolute nightmare and some mistakes simply cannot be corrected in the edit. With midi, it's a simple matter of moving a midi note until everything sounds great. If you recorded on a midi kit, you don't have to quantise everything; if you use your ears you can fix timing errors without having things sound robotic.
Maybe you played the drums well, but you don't like the sound you got, or it becomes apparent at the mixing stage that a drum sound simply doesn't "fit". I shared a few drinks with a drummer who played on a couple of albums with a fairly big NWOBHM/thrash outfit in the early 80's, and he told me a story of how he hated the snare sound in one track. They tried eq'ing it, adding reverb, taking it away, compressing it, but whatever they tried, it sounded terrible and he insisted it was fixed. Trouble was, that recording the drums again would mean recording all the other instruments again to get them tight, and the rest of the band were not the slightest bit interested in starting the song from scratch. So he ended up in a studio on his own, with just a snare drum between his legs, bashing it at the appropriate moment to cover up the previous snare hits. He said it was the hardest thing he's ever done. If he'd had midi drums back then, the solution would have been as simple as selecting a different snare from a drop-down menu.
4. You don't have to have a kit or be able to play the drums.
This is what has made it possible for anyone without the skills or expensive equipment to create drum tracks that reach a commercial standard.
Now before any resident drummers yell at me, of course it's not quite the same. You can't program a virtuoso drum performance. But you can come pretty close. In fact, programming drums in midi is so much easier and cheaper that I know many bands where the drummer programs the drum parts rather than use a kit.
But of course the real advantage is for solo artists. Much of my work is with solo guitarists creating instrumental shred albums. With programmed midi, they can have the exact drum sound they want, without having to hire anyone. Keeping things in-house saves them huge amounts of time and money, and it's easy to change things if they're not right.
So how do you get midi drums to sound like real drums, rather than the demo button on a Casio keyboard? Well, I've put together a free e-book on "Getting The Best Out Of Midi Drums" which provides 10 principles and ideas for getting midi drums to sound great every time.
About The Author: James Scott is a Music Producer in London, UK. He works with up and coming acts to help them get noticed in the industry.