How To Make Programmed Drums Sound Exciting (and more human)
Working in our home studios, or even in our bedrooms, usually doesn’t allow us to mic up a full drum kit, not only because of the space required, but it would surely annoy your neighbours and girlfriend.
So, what do we do?
We use drum samples, of course.
Perhaps you are using the built-in drum machine in Logic, or you have purchased a standalone program such as Addictive Drums, EZ Drummer or Steven Slate Drums. Doesn’t really matter what you use, they are all great.
However, the problem with programmed drums is, well, they are programmed.
Instead of using a real drummer who performed and grooved with your song you had to type out each drum hit in the piano roll, playing exactly on the grid.
All is not lost, though, because with some easy techniques you can start making your programmed drums sound more exciting and more human.
Using Delay To Add Groove
This is a great technique to use and something I picked up when assisting Grammy award-winning producer/engineer Cameron Craig a few years ago.
What he did, not on programmed drums, but on the real drums we were tracking, was that he added some delay to the snare drum.
This was awesome and something I had never thought of, because delays are for guitars and vocals, right?
However, it sounded almost like he added another layer of ghost notes, (think groove), on top.
So when I was home, programming drums, I tried this technique on the snare drum and overheads. It was amazing because it suddenly made my programmed drums groove way more.
The technique is pretty easy to set up; you just send your snare drum to an aux/bus where you have a delay plugin. Which one doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a delay plugin.
Also, the delay time is not set in stone, it requires some experimentation on your part, but what I found really works well is an 8th note delay, no feedback, either straight or with a dotted value. It’s all down to the song and what sort of groove you feel is best.
Below you can listen to some drums I have programmed using Addictive Drums 2, first without delay then 8th note delay and last dotted 8th note delay on both snare drum and overhead.
Drums With No Delay
Drum With 8th Note Delay
Drums With Dotted 8th Note Delay
Pretty awesome, right?
Noice how the groove changes with the different delay times. For this particular part, the dotted 8th note delay makes it much groovier. But this is something you can experiment with and find the delay times you like.
Also, this is not exclusive to the snare drum and overheads; you can use it on anything that requires some more groove.
For example, if there’s a tom groove, add it to them.
Using Parallel Compression To Add Excitement
Now we have added groove to our programmed drums but how can we make them interact and be more exciting?
Let’s have a look at our friend, compression, which we will be using in parallel.
By feeding some drums, or the whole drum kit, to an aux/bus with a compressor, we can add some fatness to them. A really great technique is to feed both the kick and snare drum to one compressor and the whole kit to another compressor which then all gets blended back.
The reason you feed both the kick drum and snare drum to one compressor is that you get (beyond some awesome fatness) this awesome interaction going between them.
This interaction happens because when the kick drum hits, the compressor will start compressing and giving us length all the way until the snare drum comes in.
This makes the two separate drums interact and instead of being two samples, they now live in one space.
The same thing can be applied to the whole drum kit, too, to give you some extra juice and bigness.
Have a listen below where these techniques have been applied.
Drums Without Parallel Compression
Drums With Parallel Compression On Kick And Snare Drum
Drums Kit With Parallel Compression On The Whole Kit
You might notice that the drums got a bit louder the more parallel compression got applied but focus on the length of the kick and snare drum. How does it compare to the one without any parallel compression?
The actual compressor I’m using doesn’t really matter but one that I have found works really well for instruments containing low-end is the Dbx 160. It has set attack and release times where you only adjust the Threshold and the amount of Compression, making it slightly easier to use for beginners.
It’s quite hard to mimic having a really great drummer playing on your record because there are so many details that are hard to pick up when programming drums. For example, the hi-hat noise during a fill, or some ghost notes here or there which are happening in the moment.
However, with these two, simple, techniques, you can take your programmed drums to the next level and the good thing is, you can also apply these techniques to real drums. Especially the parallel compression one.
Let me know in the comments what you think and if you have any questions!
Written by Niclas Jeppsson
Read interviews with Andrew Scheps, Vance Powell, Tom Lord-Alge and download your free guide, How To Get Work And Become A Freelance Sound Engineer, at www.youraudiosolutions.com