Tip: Programming drums with Toontrack or Steven Slate

A friend of mine sent me a song he was working on and complained that the drums sounded awful. This was surprising to me since I recommended he use Toontrack’s Superior Drummer or Steven Slate Drums, my goto apps for drums.

What was more surprising was that when I listened to his song, he was right, they sounded horrible. However, it didn’t take long to figure what he did wrong.

For example, one of the fills he had going into the chorus of the song was especially messy at the beginning. Then I counted the hits: tom, snare roll (multiple hits), crash, tom, kick.

The kick is fine. One foot, one kick hit. But how is a real drummer supposed to hit two toms, a cymbal and do multiple hits on a snare all at the same time? He can’t.

When you program drums in MIDI in Pro Tools or Logic remember that a drummer only has two hands. Everything you program should take that into account.

Drum samplers have come a long way in the past few years, but they can’t make stupid shit you do sound better or more realistic.

  • I LOVE Steven Slate Drums! They can sound fantastic, but you hit the nail on the head – you need to program drum parts that a drummer could actually play. And there are other tricks – I like to move the snare ever so slightly either in front of or behind the beat, depending on the feel I want. My other favorite trick is to put the crash slightly behind the beat, so that the bass drum and the crash wouldn’t sound at the exact same time.

    • Spector GA

      Interesting. As a ‘real’ drummer, when I record drum tracks the crashes are matched with the kick unless I screw up and miss hit. It doesn’t sound correct otherwise IMO.

  • JohnDoey

    The other approach is to conceptually use 2 drummers, like Allman Brothers. Then you can have a kick, snare, hi-hat groove going but you can still have a whole other drummer to play fills and hits and accents.

    Whether you conceptually have 2 drummers or not, it is a really great tip to try using 2 drum tracks, one set to quantize where you put your groove, and one set to no quantize where you put your fills and hits.

    For example, you could have a track called “Groove” set to quantize to 1/16 note triplets, and you put your kick, snare, and hi-hat there and they are pulled into a triplet-feel groove that is right on the clock with the sequencer and can be relied on as a timekeeper for the other instruments. Then duplicate the “Groove” track and call the duplicate “Hits” and set it to no quantization, and put your drum fills and cymbal crashes there. Then your drum fills and hits go exactly where you put them, and the groove continues underneath. If you are going for one-drummer realism, then once your your drum track is fully realized, you can go through the Groove track and delete some notes that represent a third hand where the Hits track is busy with a big fill or whatever. Or you can can go the other way and add more drums to the Hits track throughout and just let that be a whole other drummer.

    If you are working with individual channels for each drum, then you can try quantizing the kick and/or snare and/or hi-hat and leaving other drums unquantized. The key is to recognize you don’t have to quantize the whole drum kit.

    • Great tips! I’d also toss in that you should get to know your DAW’s quantizing. You can quantize at, say, 80% and keep more feel from a performance. It’s also possible to capture a groove and base a quantizing pattern from that, and I ought to learn how to do that but have never bothered.

  • adrianoconnor

    I remember a few years ago watching a Future Music documentary with a guy called Jimmy Cauty (he was one half of the KLF, and co-founder of The Orb — both influential UK dance/ambient groups). Anyway, he was in is studio, going through his equipment, and he said there that he uses an electric drum kit to programme the dums in all of his tracks (rather than his keyboard/workstation/MPC, for example), because he wants the drum track to be physcially possible to play. That was for electronic music, but I guess the principle still stands.