When you’re in the creative process of building up a song, one of the first things you think about is creating a great sounding drum track to drive the rhythm.
Let’s face it, setting up and recording a real drum kit is no easy feat, and many producers won’t have easy access to a full drum kit in the first place.
If this is the case, your first thought is probably to use some programmed MIDI drum parts. The only problem is that MIDI drums don’t always sound realistic like a real drum kit, and they don’t sound like they were played by a real drummer!
We’ve put together some techniques and tricks to help you turn your electronic sounding MIDI drums into more authentic, natural-sounding drums so they best serve your song.
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How to make MIDI drums more realistic
- Use a MIDI instrument like a sample pad, MIDI drum kit, or MIDI controller with a built-in trigger pad.
- Add dynamic range to your MIDI performance so it sounds more natural like a human played it.
- Program a drum part that a real drummer could actually play (not too busy!)
- Add ghost notes to improve the complexity and feel of the drumbeat.
- Add natural groove and swing to suit the feel of the song
- Find authentic drum samples that suit the style of your music
- Add reverb and delay to add an element of space around the notes.
- Create subtle imperfections to make your MIDI drums sound more human.
- Record instruments like your cymbals live as well as some acoustic percussion like shakers and a tambourine.
Let’s dive into these simple steps to turn your electronic drums into drums that sound realistic and authentic.
Steps To Make Your Programmed MIDI Drums Sound Realistic
You can implement these steps at the same time, or you can pick ones that work the best for you and the sound you are after.
Step 1: Use a MIDI Sample Pad or electronic drum kit
One of the easiest ways to instantly achieve more realistic MIDI drums is to record your drum MIDI from a sample pad like the Roland SPD-SX. (Affiliate Link).
A sample pad is a MIDI percussion instrument that allows you to send a MIDI output that can be recorded into your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
If your budget can afford it, then an even better option is to use an Electronic drum kit with a MIDI output like the Roland TD-25 or Alesis Nitro Kit. (Affiliate Links)
However, if a full-on MIDI percussion instrument feels like too much of a commitment for only drums, you could try a MIDI keyboard with built-in trigger pads like the Novation Launchkey. (Affiliate Link).
Either option will beat using a computer mouse or keyboard and is guaranteed to sound a lot more natural as well as it will capture the natural variations in velocity and dynamics of a human performance.
Step 2: Add Dynamic Range to your MIDI Notes
Improve the feel of your MIDI drums is to add dynamic range between the notes by altering the velocity during the editing process.
Velocity is simply the volume of the note and can make a significant impact on how natural your electronic drums sound.
A recording of a real drumkit will have variations in the velocity of the notes as the drummer accentuates certain notes by hitting harder, to make more impact.
A velocity-sensitive MIDI keyboard or drum pad allows you to create more or less velocity based on how hard you press the keys or hit the pad. This is why these MIDI controllers naturally produce a more realistic sound.
If you don’t have one of these MIDI instruments, you can manually increase or decrease the volume of notes you want to emphasize or quieten.
If you don’t want to spend too much time manually tweaking your velocity, you can also use a plugin to automatically add some humanization to your drums.
Step 3: Implement Ghost Notes to your MIDI Drums
Making your drums more interesting or complex can help them sound more realistic.
Real drummers often play extra notes called ghost notes to help add substance to their playing.
Ghost notes are notes played quietly in between the stronger notes of the beat. You can add ghost notes to electronic drums through your DAW.
It is very easy to add ghost notes in your DAW. All you have to do is lower the volume of the note, and shorten the attack if necessary.
You can use ghost notes in a lot of different ways. Most commonly, drummers will play ghost notes on the snare drum with their left hand. Strategically place your ghost notes to help emphasize your main notes and fill-out your drum track.
Placement of ghost notes is experimental and you can add them where they work best for your song. Using ghost notes in the quieter areas of your drum track gives these sections more emotion and feel. In the louder sections like choruses, ghost notes can get lost, so it is better to focus on the big groove in these parts.
Step 4: Add groove to your MIDI drum parts
Electronic drums and MIDI drums often sound robotic and adding some groove or swing to your drum rhythm can improve the vibrancy of your drums. Getting the groove right will help your MIDI drums sound more natural, like they were played by a real drummer!
This is easiest to do if you are performing your drums through a MIDI instrument. However, if you are using a computer mouse or keyboard, adding more groove is still possible.
With a computer mouse or keyboard, you can simply listen to your drum rhythm through your DAW and make adjustments where you feel it is necessary and will work with your song.
Try to visualize what playing your drum part would sound like if you could play it live. You can intuitively play around with pauses and minor changes in tempo until it sounds authentic.
Many DAWs have a groove and swing control built into their MIDI editor, so experiment with the settings on these controls until your MIDI drums feel like they are grooving with your other instruments.
Step 5: Create MIDI drums that are playable by a real drummer!
A sure way to make robotic-sounding drums is to create a rhythm physically impossible for a real drummer to play. Too many notes played too quickly is a common trap for young players!
If your rhythm is too fast, it will be obvious to the listener that the drums are electronic and the beat won’t translate like you were hoping.
When you come up with your rhythm, you want to make sure to keep in mind how a real drummer would play it from the start.
Keeping real playing in mind automatically sets you up for more realistic sounding drums. If you aren’t familiar with real drumming, listen to popular songs that have real drum kits recorded for inspiration, or watch YouTube videos of drummers!
Step 6. Use a Reference Track
Use a reference drum track to help you build your MIDI drums. A reference track acts as a guideline for you to follow.
To create a reference track, find a song that is in the same genre as the one you are working on. Ideally, you want a drum part that is similar to what you are creating.
Then just import the audio from this song into your DAW as a new track. As you are working on your own track, periodically solo the reference track to remind your ears what feel and sound you’re going for.
You don’t want to exactly copy the reference track of course, but use it to guide you into making your MIDI drums more realistic!
Many producers use this method while still creating original material.
Step 7: Add Slight Imperfections
As much as a drummer can’t physically play at certain speeds, drummers are also not perfect and always have slight variations in volume and tempo when they play.
While you create your drum beat, make subtle variations and adjustments to the timing of certain notes to give it a more authentic feel.
Avoid copying and pasting large sections when you create the foundation of your drums. However, if you do, make sure to add in enough uniqueness to these sections to make it sound more realistic. For example, remove some notes, or add in ghost notes.
Once again, keep a real drummer in mind to help you create something that sounds a lot more authentic.
Step 8: Choose the most realistic sounding virtual instrument
To help your drums sound more authentic and real, choose a virtual drum kit with the most realistic samples and one that you feel works for you.
Test a few out until you find the one that fits your song the best.
The better the drum samples you choose, the less mixing you will have to do to make it sound realistic. Good quality drum samples can sound almost identical to the real thing – because they are actually real recordings of real drums!
There are a lot of virtual drum kits you could try. A few good ones include EZ Drummer, Addictive Drums, and Slate Drums.
Step 9: Add Reverb And Delay
When you record a live drum kit, the microphone not only picks up the direct frequencies but also the natural reverb and delay from the room it is recorded in. You can hear that the drums are in an open space.
Notes created digitally are more direct with little body around them. This is why electronic drums can benefit tremendously from reverb and delay, which add a lot of substance to the sound.
Add reverb and delay as needed to make your notes sound as if they were naturally recorded in a great sounding room. This allows the drums to fit better in the mix as well. When it comes to reverb, less is often more and you won’t need much to make a noticeable impact.
To add to the sense of space within the drum track, you can experiment with things like stereo imaging and panning. These techniques allow the listener to hear the sounds in different spatial areas around them, creating a very realistic feel.
Step 10: Record Real Cymbals over the top of your MIDI Drums
Another great way to get your drums sounding more realistic is to add in some real elements like cymbals.
If you use a MIDI drum pad or sampler, set up real cymbals, and a mic to record them so that you can play your drums and use the cymbals more naturally.
Cymbals are difficult to find good samples for. Recording cymbals live is a lot better and saves you a lot of trouble finding a sample and needing to mix it before it sounds good.
Nothing can beat the real thing. If you have access to cymbals and a good recording mic, you won’t regret it!
Step 11: Record Acoustic Percussion Elements
Much like how recording cymbals can make your drums sound more realistic, adding in some acoustic percussion elements can give your drum track an authentic, human feel with ease.
Add some acoustic percussion instruments like shakers or tambourines. These instruments don’t often sound good in samples. Sampled shakers and tambourines can sound particularly cheap or cheesy.
However, when played by hand and recorded, they sound great and add a human touch that no amount of mixing of a sample of them could.
Working to turn programmed drums into a realistic-sounding drum beat is something every producer who uses digital drums has to deal with.
There are so many unexpected techniques you can try that may surprise you. You may not need to use all of these techniques for every drum track you make. However, implementing them here and there as you need can significantly improve the authenticity and groove of your songs.
Whichever way you choose to do your drums, live recorded, or electronically, you can make your drums sound great and turn them into something that you’re proud of.
Try out one or more of these techniques for your next song and follow your instincts to know when they are sounding great!