How To Cheat And Get A Great Drum Sound In Your Daw

Getting a top of the line drum recording used to cost big bucks (it still does if you record the traditional way).  First you need to hire a great drummer. Then, you go to an expensive studio with an awesome tracking room, a big collection of vintage mics, a classic Neve console with a few extra Api pres.  When it comes to mixing, you go to another studio with an SSL 9000 console. Chances are, you are going to get a pretty fat drum sound. But for the rest of us mortals, we’ll have to improvise.

Recording live studio drums

Sounds

If you are going to be strictly programming your drums in your DAW, you’ll need great sounds to work with. Find a virtual instrument or drum patch that is sampled from a real kit (and not just each isolated drum recorded seperately). When you hit the kick drum on a real kit, you’re going to hear a bit of the hi hat and snare ringing (it’s minimal, but it’s there).  Find a patch that will give you such a sound (your daw probably comes with some great kits, if not, you can expand with something like EZ Drummer or Steven Slate Drums).

Steven slate drums ex

Layering

I like to take my main drum patch (which sounds like a cohesive drum kit) and then once the drums are programmed, fatten up the kick and snare with additional samples. Another trick I use is duplicate the hi hat to another track and use a different patch (a slightly different sounding hi hat. Then you can pan this one full left or right (depending on if you mix with the drummer or audience perspective) add a little more reverb to it, and then lower it in the mix. It can help you create a very spatious sound.

Quantize

When you program your drums, you’ll want to play as dynamically as you can with your keyboard or MPC style pad controller. What you want to avoid is using the same 4-8 loops throughout your song. If you are going for a live feel, make it sound that way. I like to program the kicks and the snares and quantize those fairly tight. Make sure you change up the rhythm pattern and you can manually go ahead and draw in a lower velocity level on some snare hits and kicks as well, just as a drummer would play with varrying velocities. I like to then play the hi hat parts with the kick and snare playing. I’ll do that for long sections and I won’t quantize the hihats at all. I’ll listen to sections of the track, and ones that sound fairly tight and expressive, I’ll cut and paste and set aside of the main arrangement. I might end up with about 2 minutes of hihat parts I like that I can cut and paste to arrange the song. I get great results this way.

Use A Drum Controller/Electronic Drum kit

Programming drums on an electronic drum kit can get you even closer to a professional sound. If you can’t afford a complete kit, you can opt for something cheap like an Alesis PercPad. You can get really convincing drum rolls and hits that will be a lot harder to program via a keyboard. If you are using a DAW such as Cubase, you can go through hundreds of quality programmed midi grooves (if you go this route, try to change it up a little since many people are going to be using these same grooves for their productions).

Alesis percpad drum controller

(Cubase 7 comes with a nice selection of midi drum grooves)

Steinberg cubase 7 64 bit mac pc

Drummer

I’ve recommended this before. Nothing will come close to the feel of a real drummer. But it doesn’t mean you have to spend big bucks at a studio to get it. My advice is to find a drummer with an electronic kit on Fiverr, send them your song and have them play to it. Then have them send you the midi file. You can then import the midi file into your daw and have complete control over your drum sound. The important thing is that you’ll have an expressive drum track, played by a real drummer.

Playing alesis usb electronic drum kit

Live HiHats/Crash

This is a quick and easy trick if you can record a live hihat/crash. First program your kicks and snares, then play along recording a real hihat (and if you can, a crash too). Play along and then comp the best takes that sound good without resorting to audio quantizing. You’ll get a great, live feel on your tracks.

Live Drums On The Cheap

Another scenario is that you might have a drum kit, but you don’t have the ideal recording environment, mics and preamps to give you a professional sound.  This is a trick that has personally given me great results.  I set up a small kit in my living room (kick, snare, hi hat and ride/crash) and I record it with a cheap Zoom H1 recorder only. I then import that stereo track into my daw. I’ll duplicate the track and compress the second track quite heavily with more reverb than the main stereo track and blend those 2 to taste. Then I’ll meticulously go through every part and layer the kick and snares with samples (drawing in the velocity to try to closely match the live parts). I’ll listen to the best parts and comp the best takes. It’s a lot of work, but the results are professional sounding, dynamic drums.

Zoom h1 audio redorder

Mixing Drums

Through mixing techniques, you can really enhance your drums. Use parallel processing on your kicks and snares to really bring them out in a mix. Create a drum bus and compress it with a high ratio and mix it underneath the main kit.  With reverb, less is more. Try a room or a small plate as a send effects in your daw. Then send various amounts through it (tiny bit on the kicks, more on the snare, a hint on the hihats). Often, it’s a good idea to use just one reverb patch so that the drums sound cohesive.

(Lexicon has always been a leader in reverb since the 80s. Now you don’t have to opt for an expensive hardware unit such as a 480L or PCM 91. The Lexicon native bundle will give you that classic Lexicon sound inside the convenience of your DAW).

Lexicon native bundle vst reverb effects

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