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.

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