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Quick Tip: Adding Realism to Sampled Drums

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Read Time: 3 min

Most of us aren't drummers. So, for fear of dealing with one—or the expense of hiring one!—many of us turn to virtual instruments, such as BFD, as a happy and cost effective alternative. Virtual instruments can offer real drums recorded in real studios but it can be all too easy to get a stiff or wooden performance purely by "clicking" a beat into your DAW. 

Here are four simple tricks to help you turn your MIDI programmed drums into realistic sounding ones!

Here's the beat we’re going to look at. It's been programmed by clicking into the computer - so no playing required!


1. Vary Velocities

After programming a beat, it's essential you change velocities to match the feel of a drummer. Velocity changes are usually made inside your DAW’s MIDI Editor window. 

Sometimes the sound of copying and pasting a drum beat is the desired effect but if you're going for realism, make sure you change the velocities of certain drum voices accordingly. For example, hi-hats can sound stagnant if the samples are triggered at the exact same velocity each time.

Here is the beat with velocity differences:

2. Add Ghost Notes

Ghost notes are quiet and fairly "unheard" as individual notes but can often make up the true character of a drummer. Ghost notes are quiet hits, usually hidden away, yet vital for encompassing character into your part. These are generally placed on off beats and can be utilised to full effect by changing the velocity of a note to a lower level.

Here is the beat with an additional ghost note:


3. Randomize

Some DAWs keep this feature hidden away, but unlock it's potential and you have a powerful tool at hand which can be used most effectively near the end of programming. Once the beat is programmed to your taste, hit the Randomizing button (sometimes called Humanizing—check your DAW manual) at something around the mark of 10%. 

The beat will be slightly out of time, but this is how a real drummer would play. Even the tightest drummer can't physically qualitize themselves, so this adds feeling and character to your part in a way you can't "click in".

Here is the beat now it has been randomized:


4. Add Drummer-isms!

If you have a sample pad, or even a keyboard, it's worth spending time learning how to play drum parts in, rather than clicking them into your MIDI editor. Even taking one part at a time and recording drum part in layer upon layer will automatically add velocities and feel to your music—exactly the realism you want to achieve!

Additionally, why not buy a cheap "learn to play the drums" book (there are plenty of websites, too) and learn a few of the basic techniques. One of the most frequently employed "drummer-isms" is to add in a specific type of grace note—in drumming terms, a "flam". (A flam is a quiet ghosted note, almost immediately followed by an accented note).

Here is the beat with an added flam right at the end:


Here is the original programmed beat:

And here is the new, edited version, with added realism:


If you’re going for realism then, ultimately, nothing beats a real drummer in a real studio. However you can achieve powerful and cost saving results with attention to detail during the programming stages.

Getting into the mindset of a drummer and putting this into your programming can often yield pretty impressive results. Good luck!

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