Using Midi Drums Like A Pro

How midi drums have changed the industry, and how they can help you too

Ultimate Guitar
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.

29 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I use guitar pro to write the drum midi through reaper and EZDrummer , one or 2 'mis-hits' varying the BPM in each verse , adds some 'reality' to it , I've tricked a few drummers into thinking it's real . The one problem with Midi drums ? Drummer jokes become obsolete !!!
    James Scott
    How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb? None, they have a machine to do that now.
    Great points. It is kind of funny actually how many people don't know how much MIDI is used on professional recordings. At the same time is quite a testament about how far we have come. I remember an international metal act recording for hours trying to capture the perfect sound. When they left the engineer switched out the recordings with MIDI simply for the reason of sound. I think when MIDI really becomes an issue (when it comes to drums) is when it is not programmed well. Musician inserts loop for duration of song with no regard for dynamics in the song.
    I have used pre-programed beats made on ableton before at my show but I only do this when the durmmer and I agree that the sound we are looking for can't be achieved on an acoustic set. I personally think sloppy playing adds a bit of personality and emotion to a song. I play my guitar a bit messy on purpose because it makes things i sound more original. Don't get the idea that I just make major mistakes but I might hit a wrong note every now and then and there is something right about it. Think the Master of Puppets solo when Kirk bends his high e off the fretboard to produce one of the notes. THey didn't correct it because the mistake made everything better
    Very nice. Although I think real drum recording is essential for some genres where drums really get to the spot. Imagine how RHCP would sound with midi drums...
    and the fun of learning real drums?
    Well, imagine you are a very versed guitarist, trying to put together a complex jazz or metal or whatever genere song, on your own, because your drummer just had a brain stroke because of massive drug overuse. If you had to learn the drums from scratch to the level to be able to record the song, it would take years.
    Of course it'll always be better, but properly mixed and properly setup MIDI drums can still sound pretty damn good and at least a good degree of authentic. It's a pretty good alternative for those who want to get full tracks recorded but can't afford a kit and mics.
    When I was in music composition last year I could get surprisingly realistic sounding drum tracks using session drummer, Having real instrument audio in the mix can make the MIDI sound surprisingly convincing. The main trick for me was in individualizing the velocity note by note, a real drummer rarely hits with the exact same force twice in a row and control of the dynamics is what I've found most improves my sound on real drums.
    The velocity editing is almost always the problem when people can't get a realistic sounding midi drum part. I usually just humanize the notes (as most DAWs have that option these days), and then edit individual velocities as I see fit. A bit of a lazier route but it gets the job done.
    this. humanize stuff, then problem areas ( like fills or parts that need to be more specific) just fix by hand
    good article. i have heard of the superior drummer software before and i did some research on it. all my findings show that you cant tweak the individual notes. you just get a choice of loops and variations thereof. so if you like a certain loop and you would like to give it more or a bit less, you're stuck. Am I correct in saying this or is there an option for this?
    You are incorrect. While some drum programs do come with pre-programmed loops you CAN use straight away, all the programs also work as software instrument plug-ins in your DAW (basically your recording software) and one would enter MIDI data into the DAW's 'Piano Roll' window to tell the software instrument when to play, what note or hit to play, and how hard and long that hit/note is. If you are unsure about this, Google or YouTube search 'MIDI piano roll tutorial'. Edit: Ninja'd, should probably stop opening all articles I want to read at once and not refreshing before posting a comment hehe.
    James Scott
    No, SD (and EZD) let you run midi through them, you don't have to use the supplied loops. Simply run SD as a plugin as you normally would for any VSTi in your DAW and either program the midi or use an electric kit.
    I have never seen a program that doesnt let you edit individual notes. Superior drummer and EZDrummer, as well as Addictive Drums from Native instrumets contain loops that you can use if you choose, BUT those loopa are fully editable, and you can also make your own drums note by note.
    thanks for the info guys! its nice to see helpful peeps on this site that is known for its trolls! lol. cheers! btw, any of you know where i could get a torrent for SD. tried but no seeders. thanks
    Piracy is not something promoted on UG - it is, in most parts of the world, an illegal practice and users who regularly promote or encourage piracy will be punished. I imagine if you mentioned your desire to pirate the program in your first comment, people would not have been so happy to explain the basics of the program to you. This is your warning - next time, expect a ban.
    There is no need to illegally download any software. Spend some time searching/figuring stuff out and you'll find nice, free options which work just fine for most purposes for the average amateur/semi-pro musician.
    I suggest you download the free version of Kontakt and find some free Kontakt drum samples. A simple Googling will get you some decent ones.
    James Scott
    Agreed, even the basic free factory selection that comes with the Kontakt Player comes with a couple of decent-sounding kits.
    Not to mention there's tons of high-quality samples freely available on the web from lesser-known engineers/studios just happy to help out fellow enthusiasts, and they can be used through any sampler and programmed through the Piano Roll/with an elec. kit. Torrenting stuff like EZDrummer/SSD etc. annoys me because it's doing so without any need, and it's particularly annoying when people torrent more-expensive stuff they don't even know how to use!
    What? You can't save up $40 for something like Steven Slate Drums? Take your damn piracy elsewhere, man.
    Do you ever find the authenticity of the sound files accessible to be lacking in quality; or do you find that more subtle uses of the MIDI Percussion sounds can be lost in the mix, or are lacking in the proper tone or timbre? What I would like to see myself doing with percussion based MIDI programming in the future, is the use of MIDI world instruments, so I guess the above pertains mostly to that concept.
    James Scott
    Depends on two things. Firstly the quality of the samples - cheap percussion samples will often have one actual sample for each drum which just gets louder or quieter with the note velocity - a good one will actually have different samples for harder and gentler hits, reflecting the changes in timbre as you hit the drum with more or less force. The second is how you program and mix the samples - for how to do that, check the free guide linked in my first comment.