76: Drum and Drummer (Real Drums vs Programmed Drums)

Programmed drums have come a LONG way in the last decade. 

We use them all the time in our productions and they sound great but how do they hold up when compared to a live drummer?

And, even if the live drummer is better, are the workflow hassles of setting up a kit and mics, having the drummer learn the part, being nice to the drummer, and then editing the drums on the back end worth it? 

Find out on this week’s episode. You will learn:

  • Why virtual instrument drums offer unparalleled flexibility
  • Why a real drummer can change the energy of your production (for better or worse)
  • A few ways to get programmed drums to sound a little more real
  • Some challenges, tips and tricks associated with editing live drums
  • Tips for minimizing mic bleed when recording a kit
  • Tips for making a live kit sound even larger life
  • Why a hybrid set up (using a live kit and reinforcing it with samples) might be a good option
  • And more!

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Programmed drums have come a LONG way…but how do they compare to the real thing?

The first album I ever recorded needed drums.

And not just any drums. It needed big, smashy, awesome drums.

Oh, it also needed meter and tempo changes because that was my preferred flavor of awesome sauce back in 2008.

The problem was that I had a lot of problems.

I had just moved across the country and was starting from scratch in terms of musician contacts in a place that didn’t have a strong music scene to begin with.

I had a terrible, old drum machine that was an absolute nightmare program drums on and sounded like trash cans being hit with gardening equipment.

I also had this piece of software called Fruity Loops (FL Studio now).

So I used Fruity Loops.

I couldn’t really change the meter so I had to patch together multiple loops where, for example, the first few beats of a bar were actually filling out the last few beats of the previous bar to get me the meter I wanted.

It was a nightmare to program.

Also, the drum sounds triggered a single sample for each instrument. 

Everything sounded like a plastic robot that someone found in the trash.

I’m telling you this because after I finished that album, I became convinced that it was not possible to get the sound (drum and otherwise) I had in my head onto a recording without having musicians and a budget for a full blown studio session.

I was done.

What changed my mind some 5 years later was reading about the Meshuggah album Catch 33.

Meshuggah is an extreme metal band that is responsible for the “Djent” sub-genre of metal and while I’m only a mild fan of the genre in general, I’ve been a huge Meshuggah fan since I was in high school in part because they’ve always pushed boundaries of what I thought was possible (or at least reasonable).

One thing that’s unique is the way they compose music. 

Each member comes up with ideas on their own instrument but then supports those ideas by programming parts for other instruments. 

It leads to some crazy results. 

The guitarists program drum parts to support their riff ideas and the drummer will stretch, pitch shift and copy paste guitar snippers to support his drum riff ideas. 

The other members then learn the parts their bandmates came up with and the recording/touring cycle ensues.

Back to Catch 33. 

On that particular album (not the band’s best but still strong) it turned out that, due to timing constraints, the drummer was unable to learn all of the drum parts well enough to record them in time.

So, they went with the programmed drum sounds for the album and then he learned them in time to tour.

“What?” I remember thinking. 

I’ve listened to that album. I don’t remember the drums sounding like trash cans being hit with gardening equipment.

So I started researching things a bit and it turned out that drum programming had come a LONG LONG way since Fruity Loops (which was, in fact, never the right tool for the job anyway).

Drum virtual instruments are SO good now. You can really get performances out of them that will fool 9 out of 10 listeners.

There a number of reasons for this.

  1. Multiple samples. Modern drum virtual instruments store multiple samples for each stick impact point at each velocity. So, for example, a low velocity snare hit may have 3 possible samples.

    When MIDI calls for a low velocity snare hit, the VI will pull one of those 3 samples randomly.

    This means if you have some fast, low velocity snare work, there will be variation in the hits much as there would if a real drummer were playing them.

    This is HUGELY important – especially for fast shell work and for cymbal work. Think of a drummer playing a ride bell. If you were triggering only a single sample, it would sound very robotic
  2. More powerful computers. This allows for larger sample libraries, higher quality samples and more customization and processing power.

    We are now able to pull not just shell sounds but also room sounds – which are highly customizable, by the way.
  3. Integration into DAWs. Pretty self-explanatory. Instead of using outboard triggering equipment and having to deal with clock sync issues, sync with tape machines, etc., we can work in the box.
  4. Improved trigger sensing algorithms. Basically, algorithms have gotten better at sensing drum hits and determining which drum was hit to allow for streamlined creation of MIDI.

My weapon of choice for this is Superior Drummer. Ben uses Getgood Drums. Both are top of the line options.

I’ve spent countless hours programming drums for all kinds of genres. This is a bit of an art in and of itself but you can get amazing results.

What I’ve never had the opportunity to do, is compare a live performance with a programmed performance on a given song.

That’s exactly what this week’s episode of the podcast is about.

Ben has written a song, programmed the drums for it and then recorded Jake (from his band Nephele) playing the part live.

This gave us a unique opportunity to talk about the pros and cons of programmed vs live drums and also to listen to rough mixes of both.

Vadim Kharaz

Vadim Kharaz mixes and produces music through his studio Calm Frog Recording.

He co-hosts the DIY Recording Guys podcast with Benjamin Hull because he knows that with a bit of knowledge and minimal gear, it’s possible for DIY musicians everywhere to get pro-quality recordings.