Despite the taboo, programmed drums are a staple in music production regardless of genre. Rigorous timelines, sparse budgets or a lack of the appropriate facilities can make programmed drums an extremely enticing alternative to traditional drum tracking. Whether you're intending to send drum midi off to a mixing engineer or you just want to get a little more out of your current production, here are some tips to get the most out of your midi drums.
Quantizing can be a great way to easily add some punch to your track. Assuming you have tracked with an E-kit or Sample Pad, it may be worth using your DAW's quantize functionality to make sure the midi notes are snapped to the grid. Quantizing your midi can also lend a sense of structure and consistency, assuming the rest of your song was played tightly to a metronome. For example, allowing kick and bass transients to happen at the same time can really solidify your low end.
Some things to watch out for while quantizing are the grid size and triplet versus straight notes. In general, quantizing small sections of drum midi will make it much easier to avoid quantizing to the wrong grid lines. As with any production technique, its always best to make small tweaks, listen back, and adjust. It may take a little extra time but quantizing your drum midi can seriously improve your mileage on programmed drums.
Velocity of drum midi is arguably the one of the most important aspects of creating a realistic and dynamic midi drum performance. Appropriate velocity choices can often be the sole difference between a lifeless drum machine sound and a convincing representation of a drum track. Watch some play through videos of drummers in your genre, you'll quickly notice that in general they're not hitting every single drum with maximum force. Varying velocity in a natural way can reduce the 'machine gun' sound and create a more convincing performance.
Most midi capable DAWs represent midi velocity as a value between 1 and 127, 1 being the softest possible hit and 127 being the hardest possible hit. Most drum sampler programs will have their own "velocity layers" and "velocity curves" that approximate the different levels of strength required when striking a drum. Its a good idea to experiment with you midi drum sampler to find where the "velocity layers" boundaries lie and program your velocities accordingly.
There are a few foolproof ways of improving the realism of a midi performance by altering the velocity.
1. Avoid consistently programming drums at 127. Humans generally can't strike every single hit of a drum performance with absolutely full strength every single time, therefore programming every hit at 127 has a tendency of sounding robotic (aka: inhuman)
2. Highlight down beats with higher velocities. In general you'll find that drummers naturally lean into the down beat of each measure or phrase by playing slightly more intensely. You can mimic this by increasing the velocity on the first beat of each measure or phrase and leaving the others static
3. Be aware of left and right handed dynamics. Unless your drummer is incredibly gifted at playing ambidextrously, one of their arms will be dominant in terms of strength. This discrepancy can and should be replicated in drum midi. Creating slight variation in velocity in drum fills or rolls can help bring them to life. Air drum along to your performance: which hand starts the fill? which hand are you playing the snare with versus the cymbal? Answer these questions and program your midi accordingly.
4. Pay attention to the natural ebb and flow of cymbals. When a cymbal is struck, its angle relative to the drummers stick will change so that the next hit will likely be slightly softer simply due to the physics. Its possible to reflect this in drum midi by lowering the velocity slightly for every other cymbal crash when long sections of a single cymbal are played.
Despite all of the work involved in creating a 'perfect' drum midi performance, humans are inherently not capable of computer like precision in terms of velocity and timing. The process of accounting for this human limitation is called humanization. Simply put humanization is adding an element of randomness to an otherwise 'perfect' performance. Even the best drummers in the world cant't help but create small, sometimes microscopic differences in velocity and timing. Most DAWs have a randomize or humanize feature, often paired with a strength slider or knob. You can make use of this feature to introduce a minute variance in the velocity and timing of your midi to give it some "breathing room". Another humanization trick is to manually move anything that might fall on a snare beat or kick beat out of the way slightly to create the unintentional flamming that drummers inherently create.
While it may seem like a game of inches to take a perfectly quantized full velocity midi drum part and implement these changes, you will often find that you're left with a much more realistic much more human sounding drum track as a result. Quantizing, velocitizing, and humanizing can create the illusion of tracking real drums with relatively minimal additional effort.
Give it a try and bring out the best in your music