drumI got the following questions from Ed, who’s working on his dissertation at the London College of Music. These are great questions, so I thought I’d post my answers here. Please leave your opinions in the comments section. Let’s help Ed get an A!

1. How has your work recording drums and percussion been affected by the advent of good quality ‘virtual’ sampled drum tracks?

Since I primarily work out of a home recording studio, the advent of really good-sounding drum samplers has been a great tool for me. My home studio is not an ideal environment for recording drums, so drum software provides a great alternative.

2. Do you believe drum track creation by virtual instruments, sample collections, etc. (‘software’) is a threat to the traditional role of the session drummer? How does the quality of the software tracks compare overall in your opinion and are there specific scenarios where the quality is good enough in one project but not in another?

Is it a threat to the role of a session drummer? I’d say possibly. However, the bigger picture here is how recording technology as a whole is changing the game for big studios. It’s no longer a requirement for you to record your album at a high-end professional facility. The technology has evolved, and so should the industry.

Drum software is phenomenal for recording demos. You can easily put together a fairly realistic drum track to go along with your tracks. For pop music, I think you can, with a lot of work, make a virtual drum part that works well for the song.

However, for something like jazz or really anything that’s not mainstream, I don’t think the session drummer is going anywhere.

3. To what extent is drum track creation software suitable for creating high-profile commercial releases, in terms of quality, functionality and ability? Does the suitability differ in different applications, i.e. projects where simulating a human drummer is essential compared to projects where realising more creative percussive tracks is required?

I touched on this in #2. Straight out of the box, no, drum software can’t match a human drummer being recorded in a good studio with good equipment. However, with much patience, it’s possible to re-create a large percentage of a good drum performance with MIDI editing. This would take exponentially longer than it would to simply record the drummer, but there are obviously other factors involved.

4. To what extent do budgetary requirements influence the decision to go with / avoid drum track creation technology, over and above issues of sound quality and realism of articulation? E.g. employing a composer/technician to create the tracks, more/less time required over standard drum recording, etc.

I think budget is the biggest deciding factor for most home studio recording engineers. Would I rather record drums or program them? Of course I’d rather record them. Do I have all the gear needed to record them at home? Nope. Do I have a great room for recording drums at home? Nope. Can I afford to book a studio every time I want to record drums? Nope.

This is where drum software comes to the rescue. It provides realistic drum sounds for those of us who can’t get into a studio whenever we want.

5. In your experience, does drum track creation technology offer a positive compositional (rather than production) tool in a studio context?

Sure. Playing along with a real-sounding drum groove always helps me think up new parts for a song.

6. Do you feel there has been a movement in emphasis amongst music publishers in recent years to the actual production aspects required to realise the artist’s work, rather than the work itself? E.g. the budgetary / time requirements of producing an album of orchestral music using samplers over a live 40-piece orchestra – has this resulted in music being published today that would never have been possible or considered 20 years ago?

There have definitely been changes. The whole evolution of recording technology has caused what almost seems like a flip-flop of roles. Now an average musician can buy a laptop and recording software and record an album.

So yes, the advancement of technology has somewhat leveled the playing field. Someone like me, with the aid of software, can produce a very good-sounding album, for a fraction of what it would have cost 20 years ago.

7. Where do you see music creation technology and its impact on the studio recording setup in the future? Should budding producers and engineers still be given a grounding in microphone techniques, acoustics, outboard gear etc. or should they concentrate on programming realistic MIDI tracks, working VSTs/VSTis ‘inside the box’, Pro Tools techniques etc.?

Both. I think most people will focus on learning software, when that’s still only half of the equation. If you can’t get a good vocal sound with a microphone, or if you can’t use an EQ properly, then it doesn’t really matter how well you know the software.

My advice for budding producers and engineers is to go out there and do it yourself. Don’t wait around for a studio to hire you. Take the gear you own RIGHT NOW and start working with musicians. As you get paid, buy the extra gear you need. As you get better, you can charge more. Be entrepreneurial. Take it upon yourself to make it happen.

A passive producer or engineer (or even drummer) will never see much success.

  • Dale

    Craig’s post above brings to mind EZDrummer and the various Midi packs available from them. Actual drummers playing v-kits with data stored as midi so you can put the sound/kit you want on it. They have various collections (songwriter, nashville, hard rock) and song section (intro, bridge, hundreds of fills) available as both midi and sound collections. I’ve considered it a step above recorded loops and step sequenced drum machines since I tried it. While its not a live drummer it seems to be the next best thing, especially for a home-recording based songwriter. Much closer to a ‘real’ groove, especially with the ability to adjust room noise and mic bleed etc… so it sounds more like an actual recording environment.

  • Kevin Hilman

    I use BFD to lay down basic grooves to create songs over. Once I get the tune to the finishing stages I’m rarely too impressed with what I’ve done for the drum part.
    Luckily my brother-in-law Craig Sowby happens to be a pro drummer and recording engineer in Kentucky. He has website called myonlinedrummer.com through which he offers his drumming services for a really good price per song. Typically $125 for your average song of about 5 minutes.
    I send an mp3 of my track to him with the BFD stuff muted and he records a pro quality part for me which he sends back for me to put into my mix. I would recommend anyone who wants real drums added to their tracks to give him a try.

  • Alfonso

    I use samples, and midi drums as an inspiration to create new drum parts and patterns. I think that technology should serve the drummers to simplify their work, never replace them.

  • David

    Great responses by everyone. I’m primarily a drummer, and while at first it was a bit scary to see how advanced the technology is, i realize that there’s just something in a way a real person hits the drums, plays a groove, etc, that the samplers can’t duplicate. I love being able to use these programs to help me come up w/ideas for a song. I then usually go to my v-kit and play the song myself, so even though the sounds are digital, the feel is organic. Best of both worlds.

  • Carl

    I’m pretty new to the home recording concept. For me the use of a plug-in drum program simply fills the gap when I need a beat. Something I could not do 15/20 yrs ago without going out and finding an available drummer, dragging my gear, find a cheap studio and going at it for hours on end while the money clock is ticking. But nothing beats a drum like a live drummer whose truely into the moment. I kicked out a quick demo once, showed it to my brother in law – who is a drummer. He said – mmmm – sounds like you used a software drum machine, it’s to perfect. Of course he was right, and believe it or not, I was not pleased to hear that. But I believe a drummer knows what’s real and what’s tech, it’s in their soul, – – – the beat that is. Just a comment

  • Mike

    The bottom line for me is that there is nothing like the sound of real drums played by a great drummer. But I do agree with Craig, It’s also pretty cool to be able to use drum software with a drummer playing a virtual kit. The technology blows me away!

  • Carlos

    From a bassist perpective, and a software user… I think the software help u get somethings done… The thing is , what u do with it ?… The perfect drummer for me is the one that knows how he could be completed with and maybe paralleled with the technology… In the other hand the drummer sometimes is paid to do his thing, put the groove, the flavor on the session… The machine dosnt know wich groove fits better with your ideas…

    Peace!

  • Steven Carey

    I think drum samples are great and offer project studio’s the chance at a great demo. The issue with consumer recording gear – and you see it on forums all the tme – is that everyone is striving to achieve a ‘pro’ sound. What’s the best mic; best interface etc. The only way to achieve a “pro sound” is with a professional who knows how to properly crush a room mic with a multiband compressor or choose the right mics for your overheads etc

    The samples are great production tools but I see them as a halfway house, not the final destination. I would hope that anyone getting into recording who might not have the resources to record their own drum kit would keep aspiring to do so because that’s where the excitement in audio and sound recording is – capturing a fantastic sound fantastically well. More power to you if you can do it on a shoe string budget, though.

  • Many drummers feel that the advent of the drum machine and sample libraries has infringed upon their craft. As we have seen in so many industries, technology is changing the game everywhere. Whether it is in the news business where news outlets now have to compete with blogs and twitter that are more agile, or in this case, where technology is simply bringing what would normally be unattainable into to the home/bedroom studios around the world. Technology has be come the great leveling engine in many industries.

    As with any industry, the business and money go to those that can adapt (funny how the music industry still has not grasped this). To remain competitive, drummers have to familiarize themselves with the tools and trends and augment their service offering. Drummers should spend tim finding new ways of using the technology their favor…heck use it as a practicing tool. Joe, as you said, “be entrepreneurial.”

    As a drummer for almost my entire life, I think it’s great that other musicians can put together “good” sounding drum tracks. Notice, I say “good” and not “great” Yes, with time, the sample libraries will get better, but that will only get you so far. It’s the nuances and life that a drummer brings to a recording. No amount of computer hardware can replace the many years of studying of styles and “feel” that great drummers have gone through to be true masters of their craft. With these new drum software instruments, I often find that when I get hired by a client who is not a drummer, they appreciate what I bring to the table in addition to providing me a specific direction they are looking to go . It saves a lot of time which usually equals saving money.

    • Awesome response, Austin. I completely agree.

  • Good article and good question!

    I heard about your blog on “The Home Recording Show” podcast. I’m looking forward to more from you.

    On the subject at hand, I think there’s an amazing creative opportunity that wasn’t mentioned. A real drummer, playing a high-quality V-Kit into a DAW, which then outputs the “drums” via a module is the future in my eyes.

    The opportunity for a human controlled performance to be infinitely altered after the fact is a massive leap forward. Don’t like the kick drum when you get to mixdown? “Click, fixed”. etc etc

    Creativity is what humans bring to the table, regardless of the input/output device. No drum machine can beat that, but the combination of tech and humanity keeps us moving in ever more efficient AND creative directions simultaneously.

    Keep up the good work!

    • GREAT points, Craig. Thanks for sharing, and welcome to HSC!

  • Dan

    I have a bumper sticker on the wall in my home studio that says “drum machines have no soul”

    I think the rise of quality drum tracks/loops/samples is simply making the song creation/recording process accessible to an even larger number of people. Its no longer a barrier for singer/songwriters that want to make record their music. If you don’t have the money to pay a studio drummer, then no worries.

    On the flip side though I don’t think it will ever be a good replacement for bands, jazz, or anyone who wants that truly organic feeling. I’ve heard some of the brand new programs that have that ability to create that natural sound of a real drummer (they are pretty amazing), but unless its a pop song where you only need cookie-cutter drums anyways, it always seems to fall just a bit short. Nothing beats having a true drummer laying down drum tracks that are specifically being played for your song, and your vision of your song.

    Of course I am a drummer, so I am biased 😉

    [dan]

    • Yep. You said it better than I did. 🙂