I have never had the opportunity to record an acoustic drum set. If I want drums in my songs, I have no choice but to use loops or some sort of MIDI instrument. In terms of sound, neither of those options are bad! I prefer MIDI drums because I have more complete control over the final sound. If you don’t have access to real drums or a skilled drummer, arranging a MIDI sequence is no sin – it’s making good use of the resources at your command.
Here’s my 3 cents for getting good sound from your MIDI kit.
1. Mix and Match Sets
If you don’t have third-party drum sounds, then the best way to get the sound you want out of MIDI drums is to mix up the different sounds from the presets in your
digital audio workstation DAW. In Garageband that means you have to have multiple tracks for each preset you want, which can get tedious. (As you’ll see in tip 2, this can be used to your advantage.)Because my computer is old as the hills, when I mix and match I tend to do a cymbals track and a body track to save on computing power. I might use the Heavy set for my cymbals, and the Portland set for the bass, snare, toms, and so on. If mixed and EQ-ed well, these stock MIDI drums can sound more than decent.
2. EQ and Mix Parts as Separately as Possible
As mentioned, having multiple tracks for each part of your drum is rough on your computer, but great for solid mixing. Think about it: if you were recording acoustic drums, you’d have mics everywhere. Each mic would lead to an individual track in your DAW, and could be tweaked individually.
In the sample above we can see again how ancient my computer is, because I still don’t have all the mics that would be on an acoustic set as its own individual track! The point remains, though: you can get the cleanest sound from the bass drum if you’re just mixing and EQing one sound. Repeat for each drumhead, and you’ve got MIDI that sounds good and is clear in the mix.
One way to remove the problem of having too many tracks would be bussing, or running separately mixed and EQed tracks through one track. I still haven’t figured out how to do this in Garageband, but if you’re doing it in another DAW, it’s a great way to save visual space on your screen, put sounds together, and mix/EQ all of those tracks together so they sound unified. (For more about buss mixing, check this video out.)
If you don’t know where to start in mixing your drums, this article here has a good foundation that you can build upon.
As I said, I usually only use two tracks. Rather than individually crafting a sonic space for each drum, I do it en masse by EQing the bass, snare, and toms in the same track. (Same for cymbals.) It’s not as clear and it doesn’t sound quite as good, but it works for maintaining my sanity and getting a decent sound.
3. Humanize Your Hits
The goal in working with MIDI instruments is to get them to sound as human as possible – that is, to sound like a real person could have played it on a nice kit. That being said, if it sounds good, it doesn’t matter whether or not a human could have played it.
But if you don’t want to sound like your drums are being played by a machine, then there’s 3 things to keep in mind.
- Humans have four limbs. Any drum pattern you make can’t realistically have more than 4 hits. If you’re having trouble imagining what is and isn’t humanly possible on the drums, head on to Youtube and spend half an hour watching drum tutorials.
- Humans don’t have perfect rhythm. When you make a MIDI track, you can quantize each note to fit the metronome perfectly. Don’t. Drummers are awesome, but even the best don’t have 100% accuracy. Quantize to 80-90% to maintain quality rhythm and humanness.
- Humans can’t play with the same precise power consistently. Velocity is MIDI language for power – you can set it anywhere from 0-127 in the editor. Many DAWs have a “randomize” function for velocity. No surprise, Garageband doesn’t have this function – if you want to vary and humanize your velocities, you have to go through note by note.
Personally when I’m arranging sequences, I vary velocities in my first bar, and copy+paste the notes into the next bar, and rearrange them there to fit my groove. That way each bar has some variation, even if it’s not perfectly random. Another way to is to randomly select a whole bunch of notes in the song, and lower or raise all of their velocities at once. Repeat that a couple times, and you’ve got a pretty decent randomization without literally moving each note.
That’s all I’ve found to get your MIDI drums sounding like you recorded an acoustic set.
As always, this is about doing what you can with what you have. If you have Superior Drummer 2.0 (or better, access to real drums and a real drummer) then by all means, use your resources. They will sound fantastic. For the rest of us mortals, we’ll just be here tweaking EQ to get our MIDI to sound as awesome as possible. Will it sound as good as Superior Drummer? Not even a little bit. Will it be better than wishing we had Superior Drummer? Absolutely!
I’m no expert, but if you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!