I’d like to record a live drum set for my songs, but it’s tricky to do, and it’s hard to get a good sound in my bedroom! Should I try a drum machine or triggered drum samples? What are the pros and cons of using drum samples versus real drums? – Mike, North Carolina

Reply: You can get good results with both live drums and drum machines. The drum machines I’ve used are actually drum samples, which are single-note recordings of real snares, toms, kicks and cymbals). I trigger (play) the samples either from a MIDI keyboard or from a set of Yamaha drum pads.The drum machine is more like a software synthesizer or sampler. Many recording software packages come with drum samples included, and you can purchase drum samples online.

The sound of the sampled drums is excellent because they are recordings of real drums in a great studio with great mics. You play these sampled drums with drum pads or a piano-style MIDI keyboard in time to a click track. The click track is an electronic metronome that plays in the recording software. Then you click on a button called “quantize” which automatically makes the drum hits align perfectly with the beat . This gives a realistic drum sound with perfect timing. You can vary the degree of quantizing. Also, you can create the drum part in separate passes, recording just the kick and snare first, then add high-hat and cymbal crashes, then add tom-tom fills.

Many people find it very hard to play to a click track. Some don’t want to use a click track because they want the rhythm to “breathe” or vary slightly with the feel of the song. On the other hand, a click track provides a steady timing reference that musicians can follow when they do overdubs.

If you record the drum part to a MIDI track in your recording software, you can edit every single note if you want – delete notes, move them in time, change which drum was hit, and so on. That’s almost impossible to do if you record a real drum set, although you can adjust the timing of some notes by editing within the recording software.

It’s better to have a drummer play the drum machine than a novice, just because a drummer is more tasteful at playing good fills, or creating just the right groove for the song.

Some drum-sample packages and recording software include drum patterns, several measures long, that you can loop (repeat) and use as a drum track in your recordings. If used wisely, they can sound like the real thing.

Loop libraries are collections of sampled drum and bass beats that let you loop (repeat), change tempo, etc. The beats come as MIDI files and wave files. Some examples are M-Audio ProSessions, Hark Loops, Cakewalk loop libraries, Sony Creative Software Artist Integrated loop libraries, Sonic Foundry Acid loop libraries, GarageBand, Smart Loops, FL Studio, Beatboy, Keyfax Twiddly Bits, Groove Monkee,  FXpansion, Discrete Drums, APO Multimedia Mix It, Multiloops Naked Drums, Pocket Fuel RADS series, ILIO.com, Wizoo VST Drum Sessions, www.bigfishaudio.com, and www.kellysmusicandcomputers.com/loop_sample_libraries.htm. Do a Google search for “Loop Libraries” or “ACID loops”. Complete looped rhythm tracks are available online for purchase. Just add vocals.

Recording a real acoustic drum set is complicated but rewarding. It involves tuning the drums, damping them, multi-miking, panning, polarity, EQ, gating, reverb, mixing, and so on. (See my article on miking the drum set in Live2Play.net). I’ve recorded some drum sets that sounded so bad live, I had to replace the snare or kick hits with samples. In other words, the kick-drum notes on the kick track triggered samples of a good-sounding kick drum. Those samples replaced the original kick-drum track, which I muted.

Real drums may be more “prestigious” to have on a song than sampled drums. Some people say that sampled drums sound too perfect or mechanical, and real drums sound more human. It’s possible to play sampled drums without quantizing them, and vary the striking velocity, in order to keep the “human error” feel.

Bruce Bartlett is the author of “Practical Recording Techniques 6th Ed.” and “Recording Music On Location.” He  runs a microphone company at www.bartlettaudio.com .

Originally posted 2009-05-21 21:10:58.