Let’s Talk About Drum Sample Replacement

drum sample replacement

I could get into a moral dilemma and the enduring argument about whether or not drum samples are good or bad, but I won’t. Instead, I will dive right into talking about the realistic ways in which sample replacement is a revolutionary and effective way of music making.

I’ll leave the evil/amazing debate is for people who prefer to analyze music to death instead of simply listening to it. Yes, because in reality, it isn’t some form of a dark magic black hole that sucks all the creativity from the world.

Personally, I’d recommend that budding engineers take the time practice recording many genres in different types of applications. That way, you will learn a lot about rooms and phase while recording drums, which is more important for drums compared to other instruments. But hey, that’s just one man’s opinion.

Even though it isn’t the epitome of a great record, a drum kit that’s well recorded has some charm to it. Sample replacement can actually give you the sound you’re looking for and even though I don’t use it that much, I don’t believe it should be frowned upon.   Especially if it’s necessary to the music. In my opinion, if someone feels that it’s necessary to use samples, they have the liberty to do it.

Let’s debunk what sample nay-sayers say, shall we?

“Samples Sound Bad”

In some ways, I get where they’re coming from when they say this. That said, you can obviously always find something wrong with something that’s poorly recorded. The trick is to make the samples sound believable, and if they do, they’re good. Simply saying sound replacement ‘sounds’ bad is the equivalent of saying MIDI ‘sounds’ bad and I pray I don’t need to explain that either.

You can’t use a regular sample (think typewriter click) with the same snare in a loop as the poster child for judging sample replacement. Those samples are terrible, and they sound robotic and sterile. They’re no good. I do think that there are ways to flatten it too much leaving you with bland and uninspiring sounds. Therefore, I certainly don’t recommend that.

Of course, there are a few exceptions especially those performances that are heavily reliant on intricate dynamics and techniques. They aren’t easily re-sampled. If you do come across this, use your discretion, and in case the samples you have are bad, just use higher quality drum samples – it that’s easy.

“Samples are a reserve for Engineers with no experience”

This is only half true because anyone everyone from experienced to newbie engineers will use drum samples.  But it’s better to just record the drums well and as an engineer, you should strive to record well enough to meet the requirements of the project, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.

You should avoid using drum sample replacement based only on principle, in the long run, you’re doing the end product a disservice. You won’t receive any gratitude for putting out mediocre drum sounds simply because you were too reluctant to figure out the music’s requirements.

Utilize what’s out there. There are plenty tools you can use to process your drums to change and improve the sound of the original performance. For example, take Compression and EQ; claiming sample replacement is the only way is just an to excuse bad engineering and is arguably the same as saying that about EQ and Compression. In my opinion, tools are no excuse for bad engineering.

“The use of Samples is Cheating or Deceiving.”

Where do I even begin?

I’ll start with deception. If this is deception, then the whole way in which music is made is a deception. Editing a performance, running a vocal line, using a reverb are all ploys to deceive the listener. Bands recording each instrument separately falls under deception as well. Making music is one big illusion using that logic.

Let’s put that logic into a conversation:

‘Hey man, I like the reverb in that vocal, did you record it in a church?’

‘No dude, I added it later, I recorded it in my studio first. Cool, huh?’

‘You… MONSTER! I cannot believe you don’t write your plugins, cheaters!’

Speaking of cheating. What part of it is cheating exactly? Is it because using samples gives you better sound during the recording stage?

Whether it’s true or not is debatable; with that logic, surely using a more expensive, better sounding microphone is also cheating. It will sound a lot better than it would with a cheaper microphone.

Doesn’t one have to spend years slaving away at a desk to be considered worthy to create music?

In fact, anyone who uses gear that uses a plugin is cheating. Heck, even a painter who uses his feet to paint should call painters using their hand’s cheats.

If we keep following that logic we’ll end up in the Twilight Zone. So let’s stop for a minute.

I understand drum sample replacement may involve using another person’s samples, but who cares? I recently did a project where I used fantastic piano sounds where I recorded the performance and went on my merry way feeling no need to apologize to piano players or purists who felt that I cheated.

I successfully recorded an incredible sound, and nobody will care or hear the difference.

That raises an important question.

Can you cheat in art?

Personally, cheating to me involves a student searching for answers on Google during an exam. So let’s apply that to music making.

Let’s say that you enter a competition to measure how good you are at recording drums and your entry is an already sampled drum kit. That’s cheating. But the general use of samples isn’t cheating, much in the same way a student doing searches on Google isn’t cheating either.

That highlights the point that art isn’t a competition. It’s just art.

It’s neither a job interview nor an exam. In our real lives is simply that, art. As music makers and audio engineers, we should facilitate the art not boost our egos. The resulting music is what’s important, not whichever techniques we use to make it. Let’s focus on that instead.

Perhaps people feel that they need a scapegoat, someone to take out their frustrations on. But, I can guarantee you that if an engineer succeeds more than you and he used drum samples, then the chances are that even without them, he’d have still been more successful.

In fact, if the samples are so horrible, why worry about them at all?

Samples are not a magical solution to all the problems in music making. A lot goes into it. In fact, I struggle more with them than real drum sounds this infuriating ‘cheating’ argument confuses me a lot more that I let on.

But, I can’t get into that again, so let’s move on.

Final Thoughts

Before I lose my mental faculties, I’ll get into working with clients.

Listen to your customer and be realistic in your communications. When you begin your project, talk about what the client needs and that you’re very clear on what is expected. You can talk to them about what they want to sound like and any bands with similar sounds.

This will give you a good vision of what they want their drum sounds to sound like. External factors like the client’s funds and the recording space may get in the way of that vision, so openly talk about that.

The topic of sample replacement is a touchy subject – as we’ve seen – so clearly explain what it is and the process involved. Some drummers think it replaces the actual performance, so make sure you spell out the difference.

In summary, a great engineer knows when to use sample replacement and should be excellent at recording drums. They should be aware how to enhance performance with the tools available to them, and this may include samples. One important thing to consider is that moderation is key and therefore sample replacement should be just one way of achieving great sound.

If you’re interested, I suggest watching the video below to see an alternative to replacing drum samples. Again, it’s just another way to get to the same place that we’re all trying to get to.

Why Your Tom Drums, Overheads and Room Mics Play an Important Role in Your Productions

If the toms in your song are a big part of the overall drum sound, you should put some focus into making them sound powerful and punchy.

Toms can add some nice rhythmic parts, interesting fills and also power when you need it. It’s in your best interest to do whatever you can to make the tom drums stand out.

Some of the greatest records of all time had some amazing tom drum fills. The first one that comes to mind is Phil Collins – In the Air.

Okay so let’s see how you can make your toms sound better in your audio productions.

Adding EQ to Your Tom Drum Sounds

The first thing you should do when mixing your toms is to find the unflattering frequencies using equalization. These frequencies are usually in the 250-900 kHz zone.

Once you cut out that midrange boxiness, try and add some low-end bump and also some high-end smack. The toms will start to sing.

Just one word of warning when working on your tom sounds, try not to cut out too much. Be very vigilant with the equalizer and keep your Q tight.

Pull out the Compressor

By applying some compression to your tom drums, you can get a larger then life sound that will stand out in your productions. You can fatten them up with some complimentary compression and reverb assuming that is what you are going for.

If you are just going for small peak reductions, then the same rules will still apply, you just have to add less compression to your tom drums.

The OverHead Mics

The overheads mics may very well be the most important part of the drum kit. The overheads microphones pick up every drum sound in the recording and give an overall balance to your drum sound.

For the most part, I would say that there’s two ways to go about mixing your drums with the overheads. You can use them as the primary sound of your drum kit and use the spot mics to accent the overheads, or you can use them as texture and reverb to build around the balance on the drums.

You should consider adding in the overheads as early as possible when your mixing because it will give you a sense of the overall kit that will make your life easier.

By focusing on the close mics, you will notice that the drums will sound “in-your-face” but when you focus on the overheads, you will achieve a more roomy textured sound.

Mixing the Drum Room Mics

Though the drum overheads and room mics are somewhat similar, they do give off different sounds from one another.

Because the room mics are recorded farther away, you will get a much fuller sounds from your drum kit as well as a generous amount of reverb to boot. Depending on the sound of the room that the drums were recorded in. The room mics can either be amazing or terrible.

Going for a Roomy Sound

Let’s assume that the room you recorded in was amazing, at that point we can try a few different techniques. We can apply a generous amount of compression to get a much fuller and robust sound.

We could EQ the drum kit to draw the most important frequencies in the recording such as the kick and snare that, can then be added into the original spot mics to give them a final touch.

Conclusion

So that about wraps it up for now. I could go into some more advanced techniques, but I think I will save that for another article.

I find that mixing drums is an enjoyable and challenging aspect in music productions. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Since it is art, you just have to go with your gut.

The biggest piece of advice that I can give you is to try and experiment using all the tools you have in your mixing tool box. You will discover some interesting techniques that take you to another level as a great drum mixer.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next article.

p.s. before I let you go, check out this video below that has some cool beginner drum mixing techniques.

Secrets to Achieving a Much Fuller Snare Drum Sound

fat-snare-drum-sounds

The snare drum is the kick drum’s partner in crimes. An experienced engineer once told me that “it’s always about the snare drum” because it’s what give the production the steady back beat.

Since the snare is such an important part of the overall drum sound, you need to take care of it to get the best sound possible.

Let’s Talk Equalization

Regarding equalization, you don’t need that much below 120Hz, so I normally set up a high pass filter to get rid of all the unnecessary low end.

You can try adding a little bit at 200Hz to bring some the body out of the snare drum if you feel like it’s missing some weight.

I prefer some weight on my snare, so I’m often hunting in the 200Hz region to add something to the snare.

If you hear some ringing on your snare drums, you could always try boosting a tight Q on your EQ and sweeping around until you find the frequency that sounds offence. Once you find, just simply start applying a gentle cut until the ring goes away.

I often find that the snare can usually benefit from a cut in the mid range to elevate some of the boxiness. Try cutting in around the 350-700Hz region if you feel like the snare drum sounds boxy. Once you’ve ridden your snare of the dread boxiness, try adding some boost around 3-4kHz to add some smack to the snare drum.

Compression

Just like the kick drum, I try to compress the snare so that it’s tempo aligned with the song. By timing the snare compression to the song, you can get a vibey sound that moves with the track. I will usually leave the attack in a slow to medium setting so that the transient is unaffected and then from there I will set the release to stop before the next hit.

I will usually start with a ratio of about 4:1 and I will go higher from there if I need to. It just depends on the genre and how hard I want the snare to hit. You go two ways: make the compression gentle by removing just some of the peaks or you can go aggressive and get a snappy snare sound.

I would say that snare drum compression is probably one of the most discussed topics in the audio world. Every engineer has his or her way of going about mixing the snare drum, and I think it’s a good idea to experiment to find your sound.

So next time you load up a track to mix, try experimenting more with your snare mixing. You might be surprised with the results you get.

Also, make sure you check out my post on kick drum mixing tips. If you combine the two tips in the articles, you can get some powerful sounds in your drum kits.

A Few tips for getting bigger, fatter, kick drum sounds

better kick drum soundsMixing your kick drums is probably one of the most important aspects of your productions to guaranteeing a solid foundation. Your drum sounds are a high priority in your mix.

Even though kick drums are important they still tend to be a one of the most difficult elements to tackle during the mixing stage.

The most important thing to remember is that if you do a great job recording your kicks then the mixing stage should be a piece of cake.

So where should you start?

Start from the bottom up.

The kick drum is the foundation of your songs. The kick and the snare will be the defining factors of how your drums end up sounding. If you don’t take care of the kick, the whole foundation of your music could collapse. You have to aspire to a tight and punchy kick drum sound that also has enough low end but also some mid range to cut through a dense mix.

Kick Drum Equalization

Your kick drums can get a lot of benefit from a low-end boost with equalization. If you think that your drum sound is lacking in the bottom end, don’t be afraid to take out a low-shelf EQ and boost a few dB around 80-100Hz.

But beware because a boomy kick drum sound can also do more harm than good. If your kick starts to sound boomy, try and cut some frequencies out around 200-400HZ (the boomy zone).

Boxiness or papery sounding kick drums can also be a problem. If you suspect your kicks are sound either boxy or papery try and cut some frequencies out around 300-600.

Another common problem with kick drums is that there isn’t enough snap, and it’s all thump, so this is where you want to bring out some of the beater. The beater usually lives around the 2-4kHz region, but it will depend on the genre of the song you are working on. Give it a try

Compression

When it comes to gnarly drum sounds, it can be a pretty subjective topic – everyone has their opinions when it comes to compression. But if you follow these simple guidelines, you can get some steady and more punchy kick drums.

When it comes to the gain reduction on your drum bus it’s going to come down to the genre you are working and how well the drummer is playing. I would probably start with a 4:1 ratio and lower the threshold until I get about 3-6 dB of gain reduction.

From there I would adjust the attack and the release until I feel like I have the sound that I’m after. Just know that a faster attack will clamp the transient (the initial attack) dulling it out and a slower attack will let the beater through before the compressor starts to work.   So use that bit of information to try and achieve the overall sound that you are looking for.

A little trick that you can try and use is to time the release of the compressor to the tempo of the song so that the compressor stops compressing before the next hit. This can easily be achieved in modern DAW’s because you can easily see the meters working, which will allow you to tweak the meters until you see it pumping in time with the song.

Compression and Equalization are without a doubt the fundamental processing units of any mix session. If you can get a grasp of these two things, then you are well on your way to understanding how you can achieve a great sounding mix.

If you’ve used all these techniques and nothing seems to be working, you might need to replace your drum samples.  This is always going to be the last resort but it’s definitely common to do.