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Enhancing acoustic drums with MIDI in five easy steps


Have you ever mixed a song and whatever you did, you weren’t happy with the drums? 

Not just slightly unhappy…

There was something wrong that you couldn’t sort out with EQ and compression.

Maybe the kick drum didn’t cut it. Or the snare was just not heavy enough.

Instead of tweaking the mix for hours – have you tried enhancing your acoustic drums with MIDI?

If the drum tracks are not in the right ballpark, this can save you hours of frustration.

You’re ready to create the impact your mix deserves?

Let’s dive right in!

I’ll be using Cubase screenshots and terminology, but this technique works with any DAW that provides transient detection and an audio to MIDI workflow.

1) Choose a patch to enhance your live drums

Listen to the drums and identify which parts need work. You need to hear how the kit interacts with the other instruments to make the right decisions – so don’t do this in solo!

Let’s assume you’re not happy with the kick. Maybe you’re working on a heavy rock mix and feel it’s getting buried underneath all the layers of distorted guitars.

In this situation, you’d choose a bright kick sample in which you can really hear the beater hitting the skin. To give a thin sounding snare more weight, you’d look for a patch that brings a lot of low-mids to the table.

You might need to combine samples from different patches in order to get the best results, so give yourself time to experiment.

Enhancing acoustic drums - Groove Agent SE

I’m a big fan of Groove Agent, but any VI that provides kick-ass drum sounds will do fine!

2) Configure the routing of your VI

Most VIs route all sounds to one stereo output by default. For this workflow, I recommend routing each part of the virtual drum kit to an individual output. This will give you more flexibility in the mix.

Enhancing acoustic drums - Groove Agent Mixer

Mixer layout in Groove Agent. Note the top row with sequential outputs (Master, Out 2, … Out 8).

3) Work your hitpoints

Load the track you want to enhance into the sample editor. Cubase does a decent job at automatic hitpoint detection – but a little tweaking might be necessary.

Activate hitpoint editing and start by working the threshold and intensity parameters. This should get you to a point where you cover all drum hits. Disable false positives by SHIFT-clicking and insert hitpoints if necessary by ALT-clicking.

Acoustic Drum Enhancement - Hitpoint Detection

Hitpoint detection window in Cubase with correctly identified kick drum hits.

4) Create MIDI notes

Now it’s time to trigger your virtual instrument. Click on the Create MIDI notes button in the inspector and fine-tune the note generation parameters. First, match up the pitch with the correct trigger note. Then decide whether you want to create MIDI notes at a fixed velocity or use a velocity proportional to the intensity of the drum beats. 

If you are working with heavily compressed material, the fixed velocity option will be a good choice. For more acoustic tracks, the variable velocity might sound more organic.

Enhance acoustic drums - create MIDI notes dialogue

The Convert Hitpoints to MIDI Notes dialogue in Cubase. I chose C1 as pitch to trigger the kick in Groove Agent and used fixed velocity to create a more even response of my MIDI track.

5) Route the MIDI track to your VI and mix

Use the inspector or the routing section of the mixer to route your MIDI track to the VI. Now tweak the balance between acoustic and MIDI drums until you’re happy with the sound. 

Routing acoustic and MIDI drums to a group track and compressing the group is a great trick to really glue the two tracks together. The screenshot below shows a setup using this technique with an enhanced kick and snare track.

Enhance acoustic drums - final track configuration

Session configured for kick and snare enhancement. Red: MIDI tracks, blue: original audio tracks, green: audio signal from VI, purple: group track combining acoustic and MIDI tracks.

Try drum enhancement in your next production and let me know how it worked for you!

If you liked this post, have a look at my recent post about getting killer-sounding MIDI drums. You can find it here.

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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