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Tips For Programming Realistic-Sounding MIDI Drums


I’m just going to come right out and say it; MIDI drums are awesome. 

No, they’re not “ruining music,” or “killing the recording industry.” They’re just making it easier for songwriters and producers to quickly create professional-sounding drum tracks without spending a fortune on a session musician and a world-class studio. 

However, MIDI drums sometimes get a bad rap for sounding sterile or robotic. That’s why we’re breaking down some of our favorite tips for creating realistic-sounding MIDI drum tracks. But first, let’s talk about the benefits of using MIDI drums.

Why MIDI Drums Are Awesome

MIDI drums are an excellent tool for songwriters and producers and offer a simple solution to solo artists and electronic musicians looking for a way to add drums to tracks. 

Anyone who’s ever tried to record to a click track will tell you that it’s not easy. MIDI drums are a great way to quickly create natural-sounding backing tracks that are easy to play along to. 

MIDI drums are also a great way to experiment with new ideas and make it easy to quickly try out new rhythms and variations. 

Best of all, you don’t have to be a drummer to program MIDI drums—although it doesn’t hurt (more on that later). Anybody can program MIDI drums with a few simple mouse clicks. 

Getting them to sound as good as a studio-quality drum recording? Now that’s another story… Here are some of our favorite tips for adding life and realism to MIDI drum tracks.

Choose The Right Samples

Most DAWs feature build-in drum designing software with a library of drum samples in different genres. There are also several great drum production software options available from third parties, such as Toontrack EZdrummer 2, Steven Slate Drums 5, FXpansion BFD3 and more. 

No matter which software you’re working with, it’s important that you use the right drum samples for the job. If you’re going for a realistic drum sound, use samples from an acoustic drum kit. It can be tempting to mix and match samples from different kits, but sticking to samples from the same kit will create a more cohesive sound. 

Try to find a drum kit that reflects the style of music you’re working with, too. For instance, rock and metal drummers tend to use larger drums for their deep tone and high volume. While jazz and blues drummers use smaller kits for more intricate rhythms.

Use Multiple Drum Samples

If one drum sample sounds good, then two must sound better, right? In your search for the perfect drum tone, you might find samples that sound good but are still lacking something.

For instance, you might find a kick with plenty of attack, but barely any bottom end. Or vice versa; you might find a big, boomy kick with no punch.

In these situations, try laying multiple samples to get the tone you want. Pair a punchy kick with a boomy kick for a nice, well-rounded tone. Layer a snare with a powerful bottom end with a second, snappier sample.

Make sure to listen carefully for phase issues when working with multiple samples!

Use Overhead and Room Mic Samples

Some drum programs also offer overhead and room mic samples to help you achieve a more realistic tone. There are two basic ways to approach using these mics in your mix.

First, you can simply blend the close mics with the overhead and room mics in the software interface and treat them all as one instrument. 

Alternatively, you could create two separate tracks: one for the close mic’d samples, and one for the room samples. This allows you to treat each sample separately, as you would with a traditional multi-track drum recording.

You can even group all of your overhead mics and room mics together to create the perfect balance between each drum. For instance, oftentimes the cymbals are too loud in the overhead mics. With this approach, you can balance the level of each instrument to create a cohesive sound.

Tune Your Drum Samples

Drums are considered to be rhythmic instruments. However, they do produce a tone and can be tuned to a specific pitch. Ideally, each drum will be tuned to the root note of the key of the song, however a fifth above the root note also sounds nice. 

It may take a little detective work to determine the right note, but tuning your drums makes them sound more cohesive and balanced in the track.

If for some reason your drum programming software doesn’t have a tuning feature, you can always use the tuning software in your DAW or third party plug-in like Waves Torque.

Play (All) Of The Parts Yourself

Have you ever heard music written by a computer? It sounds similar to music written by humans, but something feels a little bit… off

It’s a little bit too perfect. The same can be said for cookie-cutter MIDI drums. Super-simple beats like a four-to-the-floor rhythm with the cymbals playing eight notes can sound stiff when each note is played at the same velocity.

That’s why it’s best to record rhythms on a MIDI drum kit whenever possible, or at least a MIDI keyboard with drum pads. Drawing-in MIDI sounds dull and lifeless, but performing the rhythm yourself can add subtle human elements that make a track sound real.

If you don’t feel confident in your rhythmic abilities, try using a premade groove! Most DAWs and drum programming software comes with MIDI loops performed by real session musicians in a variety of genres.

Don’t Copy/Paste All Your Parts

One of the benefits of using MIDI is that it’s fast and easy to use. After programming the verse and chorus drum parts, some producers and engineers will simply copy and paste them throughout the rest of the song.

But that’s not how a real drummer would perform. With a live performer, there are subtle variations in time and velocity between each section. These moments help each section stand out and feel unique from the rest of the song. 

That’s why it’s best to play each part individually. Maybe the second verse is a little faster, or a little louder. Maybe the second chorus has a slightly different rhythm than the first, or different instrumentation. Try to add something unique that makes each section stand out.

Learn to Think (Or At Least Program) Like a Drummer

One common problem people have with MIDI drums is over-programming. Since most people using MIDI drums are not drummers themselves, it can be difficult to know how a person would actually play the rhythm you’re imagining.

Remember, drummers are people too. They only have two hands and two feet. There’s only so much they can do at once. It may sound cool to hit both floor toms, the crash, the ride and the cowbell all at the same time, but unless your drummer recently sprouted some new limbs, that would be tough to pull off live. 

Little things like that can make a drum track sound awkward and out of place.

If you’re looking for more ways to add realism to your drum tracks, try using ghost notes. Drummers use ghost notes, or soft hits on the offbeat to introduce rhythmic variation and keep things interesting. It also helps add dynamics to the mix, which is key to realism.

Just be sure to keep things relatively simple. It can be tricky to dial-in realistic-sounding rolls or super-intricate rhythms when using samples.

Humanize Your Performance

After recording your performance, spend some time tweaking the dynamics and timing to help create a more realistic sound.

One dead giveaway that a track is using MIDI drums is when each hit sounds exactly the same—like the drum was hit in the exact same place with the exact same velocity every single time. Don’t be afraid to manually adjust velocity to help make accent notes stand out. 

Quantizing is another key to professional-sounding drums. Of course, the drums need to be on the beat, but not too on the beat. When every hit is exactly on the grid, it sounds stiff and robotic. But if too many hits are noticeably off the grid, it makes the track sound sloppy.

Most DAWs offer a ‘quantize strength’ feature, which allows you to ignore notes that are almost on the beat when quantizing, giving your tracks more human feel while still correcting timing problems. You’ll have to experiment with different settings to find the right sound, but typically 10-20% is a good starting point.

Some DAWs also offer a humanize function, which slightly alters the velocity and timing of each note for a more realistic-sounding performance. 

Finishing Touches

If you really want to give your tracks a more human feel, try adding a live percussion part to the mix. Some engineers like to use samples for kick, snare, and toms, and actually record live cymbal tracks. This can be a great technique that combines the clean, punchy sound of drum samples with the natural, organic sound of live recording.

Another approach is to add a few bells and whistles to your track—literally. Bells, tambourines, and shakers can be a great way to add organic rhythms to your mix that seamlessly blend with MIDI drums.

With these simple tips, you have everything you need to add realistic-sounding MIDI drums to your tracks. Try out these suggestions on your latest production and let us know what you think!


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About me

About Björgvin Benediktsson

I’m Björgvin Benediktsson. I’m a musician, audio engineer and best-selling author. I help musicians and producers make a greater impact with their music by teaching them how to produce and engineer themselves. I’ve taught thousands of up and coming home studio producers such as yourself how to make an impact with their music through Audio Issues since 2011.

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