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8 tips to create great sounding MIDI drums


If you produce your own songs, you probably do most of the work in your home studio. All you need is a computer, a 2-channel interface, a microphone, and headphones and you’re ready to lay down any instrument.

Almost any that is… live drums are the big exception. Drums can annoy your neighbors pretty fast and generally require more microphones and a bigger interface to record.

MIDI drums are a solution, but for many musicians, they just don’t quite sound like the real thing.

With the following 8 techniques, you can make your MIDI drums sound just as tight and punchy as a real drum kit.

1) Choose the right virtual instrument

The choice of VI has the biggest influence on the sound of your MIDI drums. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the sound you want – just make sure the plugin you choose works with your song.

The following questions will help you to evaluate your options:

  • Does the plugin offer the drum sound you’re looking for?
  • How is the quality and variety of the drum samples?
  • How well does the plugin respond to velocity changes (dynamics)?
  • What mixing capabilities does the plugin offer?
  • Is the plugin worth the money?

There are a lot of drum VIs on the market – Superior Drummer or Steven Slate Drums are just two examples.

If you’re looking for free options, check out MT Power Drum Kit or Steven Slate Drums Free.

2) Record a real drum performance on an electronic drum kit

Many musicians program MIDI sequences on pads or straight within the DAW. To do this you need to have a decent knowledge of playing drums – else you might create lines that are impossible to play and therefore sound unrealistic.

Getting the dynamics right is also tricky. If you’ve ever tried to program a realistic snare crescendo you know what I mean.

How about asking a real drummer to record the drums for you on an electronic drum kit?

It is more work, but the advantages outweigh the extra trouble:

  • Electronic drums respond better to variations in velocity. Using an electronic drum kit will make it easier to create a realistic-sounding performance.
  • By recording a real drummer you will capture her performance, including slight timing and dynamic variations. These variations will make your drums more organic.

3) Watch your quantization

I always loved MIDI because you can fix timing problems with a simple click on the quantize button. Be careful though with the quantization parameters – here are some things to watch out for:

Don’t quantize too much

Stay away from the 100% quantization mark  – unless you really want to squeeze all humanity out of your performance. Pull the notes just as much to the grid as is necessary to eliminate unacceptable timing variations. Start with 50% and take it from there.

Consider quantizing to a groove instead of to the grid

With groove quantization, you align your MIDI notes to the performance of another drummer. Find out which groove works best with your song and ditch that dreaded robotic grid. Tip: You can even extract grooves from other recordings! Combine groove quantize with lower quantization strengths and you’re all set for great results!

Humanize

Another way to make a performance less robotic is to humanize (randomize) note positions and velocities. Again, stay away from extremes – else your performance might start sounding too random!

Quantize only the notes that need quantizing

Some DAWs give you the option to exclude notes from quantization that are already fairly close to the grid. This is a fantastic feature since you will only move the notes that are too far out.

Experiment with iterative quantize

Again, this is a feature that some DAWs offer. Instead of moving the notes immediately to the grid, you apply quantization gradually. With each application, the notes will slide a bit closer to the grid – until you find the perfect spot.

4) Work the velocity of your MIDI drums

Velocity translates to the force with which a real drummer would hit the skin. Varying this parameter is vital for creating a natural-sounding performance. On most controllers and electronic drum kits, you can adjust the velocity curve and the overall sensitivity of the keys/pads. Doing this alters the response of your controller and can significantly improve your performance! If you are programming with a mouse and keyboard, make sure you don’t forget to adjust the velocity for every note. 

5) Be careful with copy and paste

Most tracks have repeating structures like ABBA or ABCABC. If you’re pressed for time it’s very tempting to just copy and paste the drum patterns from one verse to the next. Unfortunately, that’s a perfect recipe for a boring song. Try including slight variations of your beats in the different verses or choruses – sometimes just adding one or two extra hits can make all the difference! 

6) Use MIDI loops

If you can’t record a real drummer on an electronic kit, consider using MIDI loops instead of programming everything from scratch. I personally love the drum packs from Groove Monkee (they have a free pack available to get you started), but there are a lot of other options available. 

MIDI loops are cheap – you can find a lot of them for free and commercial packs cost about a tenner!

The great thing about loops is that they were recorded just the way I mentioned earlier – on an electronic drumkit by a real drummer. And since you’re in the MIDI domain you can always add, remove or tweak notes to make the loop really fit your track.

7) Mix the MIDI drums in your DAW, not in the plug-in

Most drum VIs offer an internal mixer ready with compressors, equalizers, reverbs – the full monty. However complex the mixer of your plugin may be – nothing is better than mixing the drums within the mixer of your DAW.

In order to do this, you need to tweak the routing of audio signals in the plugin.

By default, most drum instruments route all signals to a stereo output. What you want to do instead is routing every available part (kick, snare, overheads, room mics, etc) to a separate output and receive these signals in the mixer of your DAW.

This works slightly differently in each DAW and plugin – if you’re in doubt drop me a note on Insta and I’ll help you out!

Once you’ve done the routing you can use the full mix toolkit of your DAW to make those drums really punchy!

8) Complement your MIDI drums with live drum loops

There are days when you tweak your MIDI drums for hours, but there’s still something missing. That’s a perfect opportunity to have a look at your sample library!

Sometimes mixing a pre-recorded loop with your MIDI drums is just what the doctor ordered.

Listen to your MIDI drums and evaluate which part sounds the weakest. Maybe it’s the hats, maybe the cymbals, the snare… Then find a loop that complements just the weakest part in the chain and see what happens!

About Norbert

Norbert is a sound designer, composer, and engineer. He’s always up for a chat – you can say Hello on Insta (@norbertweiher) or head over to norbertweiher.com to check out his work.


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About Audio Issues and Björgvin Benediktsson

At Audio Issues you’ll learn simple and practical audio production tips you can use right away to improve your music from your home recording studio.  Björgvin is the best-selling author of Step By Step Mixing and the founder of Audio Issues. He helps musicians and producers turn amateur demos into professionally produced records they can be proud to release.

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