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For the Record - Recording Drum Parts

Posted by on 17 September 2013

DD for the record


FOR THE RECORD

Recording ELECTRONIC Drum Parts

When it comes to recording drum parts, there are several options for electronic drums. Simon Ayton runs through some of these.

It wasn’t really so long ago that multi-tracking drums into a desktop or laptop computer was a major ask for any machine, while purpose-built multi-track machines were costly and offered little editing possibilities themselves.

MIDI proved a great aid for keyboard players and engineers, allowing the inter-connection and control of instruments from different makers. It also allowed large and complex arrangements to be recorded and endlessly copied and edited using minimal space.

Nowadays and off into the future, we’ll no doubt take for granted that for modest dollars we’ll have ever-expanding computing power at our disposal to record at potentially triple-digit sample and bit rates. But having the power to crunch those huge numbers doesn’t necessarily aid the creative process for an inspired drum part.

Let’s get straight to the positives and negatives of recording electronic drums via MIDI and via audio…

Recording via Audio Outputs

Thumbs Up: Plug the kit into audio interface with two leads (stereo, of course!), choose sounds, decide on tempo, set recording level and then go for it. I got it in one take, so time for another beer!

Thumbs Down: Listening back, the rest of the band reckon I could have played it better. Kick drum too quiet and not enough snap so gets buried in the guitars. Snare also too quiet and could use a bit of reverb. What was I thinking with those toms and where’s that ride cymbal gone? Recording level also too hot and some parts distorted. Need to organise another recording session.

Recording via the MIDI output

Thumbs Up: Plug kit into MIDI interface with one lead. No need to set recording level, decide on sounds or even final song tempo. Start recording. Recorded several takes as it hardly takes up any hard drive space.

Got a great take but the timing of a couple of parts wasn’t perfect, so fixed this using the note quantise in the recording software. Found the perfect drum sounds for the track using a combination of sounds from the drum brain and some from virtual drum software and was able to adjust their levels just right for the song. Changed my mind in the mix and did another version with different tom and snare sounds.

Thumbs Down: Need to know the difference between MIDI Out and MIDI In.

Reality Check

Recording electronic drums - or for that matter any audio mixed together, even in stereo - is a bit like baking a cake. No matter what, once it’s baked, you can’t change the amount of sugar or flour in it. Even if your drum module allows multiple outputs and you have recorded the drum kit instruments on separate tracks, you still won’t be able to easily substitute, tune or alter the sounds beyond their original form without much work.

When recording via MIDI, you may still want to bounce/mix the software drum sounds or the kit’s audio output down to a stereo track for the final mix with the rest of the music, but this can be done at the very last stage - once all the creative polishing and editing work has been done and the performance and sound is as intended. 

Great drum joy is to be had from pumping the MIDI performance back into the kit’s MIDI In, amplifying the sound into a room and micing the result to add into the final mix too! By the way, even a kit with only left and right outputs can be recorded onto separate tracks one MIDI instrument part (kick, then snare, then toms, etc.) at a time.

Also, whereas recording audio consumes much hard disk space, the data saved in MIDI recording is miniscule in comparison. Entire multi-take MIDI recordings can be sent via email easily as MIDI files which remain completely editable at the receiver’s end using whatever electronic drum hardware or software they have.

For a blow-by-blow explanation on setting up for a recording, laying down tracks and mixing the result, I recommend you check out ‘Long Distance Drumming’ (digitalDrummer, January 2010). There’s also comprehensive info to be found on the Internet on MIDI recording and most music sequencing programmes have extensive help on the subject, so uncurl that MIDI lead and give it a go!

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