It’s pretty commonplace in today’s world to have almost too much information or opinions thrown at you when searching for help. But more recently, I’ve been seeing more and more bad advice with no ways to solve what they consider to be a bad practice when recording or writing, as opposed to an open discussion with interpretation on how to go about progressing as an engineer – so that’s what I hope to encourage today.
Let’s dive in!
Sometimes, bands will either not have the money or not have the time to commit to a full week or more of live drum recording; or worse, their drummer might not be as competent as what you’d expect them to be for a live performance. This is usually where I’ll offer the alternative of MIDI drums to achieve the sound they have in their head, and 99% of the time the project will turn out sounding just as good!
However, I’ve been seeing more and more videos on social media platforms claiming that MIDI drum sounds can’t get close to a ‘real’ drummer, that you can always tell is programmed rather than performed, or extremely biased opinions on how to program your drums to get a more ‘real’ performance. Now, I don’t want to lead a witch hunt but I do want to offer some alternative advice to these 3 points especially that I feel is a little more impartial and I have benefited from practicing in my own sessions for many years.
Let’s start off with that MIDI drums can’t sound like a real drummer. I love reading this because it just doesn’t make any sense – firstly, how were the samples created if not by a human actually hitting the kit? And secondly, to say they can’t sound real is preposterous as there are many techniques or ways to program MIDI drums in order to achieve a more ‘real’ feel when playing the track back. Some of these techniques are widely debated but we’ll cover that in a bit more detail in just a moment.
Before we discuss some of the techniques in how to achieve a more human performance from programmed drums, I want to touch on the notion that you can always tell a real performance from one that is using samples or programmed drums. This for me boils my blood when I hear it, as samples and layering samples with a mic recorded performance is pretty common place in almost all genres other than a handful such as contemporary jazz or some country music where it doesn’t make as much sense, but even then I can imagine it’s likely to have been done before and the average listener hasn’t known.
A band I love called Tesseract are renowned for their use of literally only using drum samples from the stock Superior Drummer 2 library for years across multiple album releases and until they talked about that being the case, no one had any idea! So, if you want to only use drum sample libraries, or if you want to have a live mic’d performance augmented with samples, or just the live performance; it’s all subjective and don’t feel thrown off by the idea that you can choose the best option for you or the band you’re recording.
At the end of the day, however you go about achieving the sound you’re after doesn’t matter as much as you actually achieving it. And with enough time and attention to detail, you can get a very ‘real’ sound from the libraries and technology we have readily available to create with.
Ways to Humanize MIDI Drums
Usually, the main thing I see in terms of bringing more of a human element into any MIDI drums is to not make everything at 127 (the hardest velocity hit for a midi note) on every part of the kit, and while this is sound advice, there’s times when the hardest hit is warranted such as a double snare hit (also referred to as a flam hit) at the start of a song, or the bridge section where there needs to be intensity in the snare or tom hits.
But there are many other ways to achieve a more realistic sounding performance than just keeping things away from the hardest hits feasible across the board. Let’s start with my favorite which is actually using a MIDI drum kit if one is available. I’ll always try to find something with mesh heads to try and make the feel for the drummer more realistic which in turn translates to a more real representation of his drumming overall in the resultant takes. A common misconception of using a MIDI kit is that this in turn means you have to use the stock sounds from within the module accompanying the kit, when in actuality if there is a MIDI in/out on the module this will allow you to use any sample pack you like in real time while the drummer plays.
Mesh Heads on Electric MIDI Drum kits offer a much more realistic feel for the drummer, replicating the feel of a normal drum skin much better than the classic hard rubber pads.
However, if you don’t have access to a live room and live drums are off the table, and on top of that you don’t have access to a MIDI kit to get closer to a real performance, you can always do the tried and tested mouse and keyboard way. When doing things this way, a couple of things that help is adding some randomisation into the MIDI so that things aren’t all one velocity but also not all on the grid perfectly.
Again, a common misconception is that the values between how hard the kit is played and the timing differences have to be drastic but they really don’t need to be at all. In fact, you can fluctuate between for example 97 to 106 on the velocity for each MIDI note and achieve what you’re after if the sound library you’re using has been done in great detail like those from Getgood Drums, Steven Slate Drums or Toontrack. After that, it’s a matter of timing differences which I would recommend not changing too drastically and only need to vary a few milliseconds either early or late to get the feeling of a real life performance. Within my DAW of choice, Reaper, you can actually have the MIDI be randomized for you by using the Humaniser function within the MIDI roll editor and dial in the perfect values for you so then tweak and fine tune after Reaper has done most of the work for you.
The Humanize function from Reaper is super helpful to add randomization in moderation to the MIDI notes, saving a lot of time and allowing you to fine tune parts that might need more attention.
Lastly, and arguably the most important thing to remember when using a mouse and keyboard to program MIDI drums is to try and think like a drummer. By that I mean that we all only have 4 limbs at most, and if you’ve ever played drums as a novice then you know how hard it can be to get around the kit and how fast you can play realistically. A really good way to get into the mind of a drummer is by watching some of your favorite bands’ drummers playthrough their songs which is very common in the industry to include during the release cycle, as well as other drummers cover their favorite songs themselves. The more varied you can make your knowledge on how different drummers play, think, and add feel to their performances, the easier you’ll find this process to be!