As you might already know, I’m a big fan of EZDrummer. I used it exclusively on my last album for all of my drum sounds.

While there’s no replacement for recording a good drummer in a great-sounding room, EZDrummer lets us home studio hacks get great drum sounds for MUCH less than we would spend on booking a professional studio or even buying all the mics, preamps, and stands we would need to record drums ourselves.

First things first.

I want to re-iterate this before I give you some tips for dealing with virtual drum software.

Use a real drummer if you can. While software is amazing, you’ll always be better off recording a real human on drums.

Is it more expensive? Yep. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

I recommend simply finding a professional studio in your area, booking their big room for a day, and tracking all the drums for your project. I plan to do this on my next album, because as much as I love EZDrummer, I love a real drummer even more. 🙂

However, realistically a lot of home studio folks simply can’t afford to book a studio, or perhaps they just can’t pull it off logistically (don’t know any drummers, there are no studios nearby, etc.)

That’s completely understandable. In that case, you should use virtual drum programs like EZDrummer, and you can get some great-sounding drum tracks.

Here are 3 quick tips for working with virtual drum software:

1. Use MIDI grooves as your starting point

Any drum program worth buying will come with tons of MIDI grooves. These are just little 1-4 bar phrases with all the drums already programmed.

I highly recommend using these rather than starting from scratch. Unless you’re an experienced drummer, the grooves you come up with will always sound like they were written by a non-drummer. (Trust me, I’ve done this enough to tell you I’m not a great drum programmer.)

INSTEAD, find a MIDI groove that fits with your song. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just close. Then drop that MIDI groove on your drum track and adjust the various notes as needed.

I usually remove a kick drum here or add an extra snare hit there. Nothing major, just locking it in more tightly with the groove of the song.

2. “Humanize” the timing

One of the major issues with virtual drums is that they can sound too perfect. Every note is 100% in time, which seems great at first, but in reality it sounds very robotic and stiff.

The small imperfections of a real drummer are what makes a drum track sound energetic and powerful, so you need to “inject” some of that human-ness into your drum tracks.

How do you do that? By humanizing the timing of the MIDI notes. You know how you can quantize MIDI to make an out-of-time performance more IN time? With drums, you need to do the opposite.

Your goal here is to make them sound less in time and therefore more human.

Most DAWs have some sort of “humanize” button in their MIDI quantize window. Look around for it and spend some time trying it out. It will make things sound worse…which is better. 🙂

3. “Randomize” the velocity

This goes along with humanizing, but it takes it one step further. While humanizing quantizes the timing of the notes, you can also do the same thing with the velocity of the notes.

In Pro Tools it’s fairly easy. You open up your MIDI editor window, select all of the velocities (along the bottom of the screen), then open up your MIDI quantize window and select “randomize” and give it a percentage.

This will take each of the drum hits and make them slightly louder or software than all the others, which is a GREAT way to make sure the drums sound realistic and not fake.

Try doing this on individual pieces of the kit (kick drum, snare) or even on the entire kit. It’ll take some practice, but once you master it, you’ll be well on your way to great-sounding drum tracks.

Hey! Wanna see how I go about programming a MIDI drum track on a song? Become a VIP member today. At the end of the month I’ll be doing a live training, just for members, on programming MIDI drums.

The recording will be available afterwards, but only for members. Join here:


68 Responses to “3 Tips for Working With Virtual Drum Software”

  1. jlird808

    I know u always mention dropping somewhere between 300-400hz out of ur kicks….do drum plugins require this trick or have they been EQ’d and optimized for mixing with other tracks?

  2. why

    “Use a real drummer if you can. While software is amazing, you’ll always be better off recording a real human on drums.”


    • Joe Gilder

      In my experience, you can’t fabricate the feel and talent of a human drummer. You can get close, and you can come up with something awesome, but it’s not the same.

  3. Fred Gingerale

    A few tips for EZ drummer:

    If you’re using EZ Drummer in two track stereo mode the default mix (within the EZ mixer) has too much of the room mics going on (at least for my taste), pulling back a little on the room fader will tighten up your drums and clean things up. Of course this depends on your taste and music. Generally speaking you’ll want less “room” for more uptempo songs.

    When you route EZ Drummer individual drums to their own track/channel you can use your DAW’s “pitch shifter” to change the tone of the snare and kick drums. It’s like having a ton more drums to work with.

    EZ Drummer Cymbals: This is the one shortcoming in EZ Drummer. You don’t have much control over the cymbals. To remedy this. I took an hour or so and made my own cymbal wav files. To do this..

    1. Start with an empty clip or choose an EZ groove/loop and drop it into a track.
    2. Click your DAW’s “edit loop” mode
    2, Delete all midi notes if you’re using an EZ groove
    3. Paste a cymbal midi note
    4. Change the velocity to max
    5  Pan the two “overhead” mics in the EZ mixer to center! (located above the overhead fader)
    6. (optional) adjust the EZ mixer “room” mics to taste or turn off.
    6. Solo the track and “render” to wav file.
    7. Save wav file to cymbal folder
    (Hint: Make sure the loop is long enough to allow the cymbal to ring out completely before you render it!)

    NOTE: If you don’t center the overhead mics, your cymbal wav will be panned to the default EZ mixer location in the stereo field, leaving you less control when using it in a song.

    Now, you’re not done yet! Go back and change the velocity of the midi cymbal note as many times as you want and render a few different wav files for the same cymbal. Now you have three or four different variations of the same cymbal to work with within a song, more realistic than using just one.

    Still not done! Now go and do the same thing for all your EZ drummer Cymbals!

    Sure, it will take a little while, but when you are done, you’ll no longer be limited to the cymbals within a specific EZX pack. You can now mix and match and use all the cymbals
    from all your EZX packs with the drums from all other EZX packs you have and have much more control over them in the mix for levels, panning and processing.

    • Joe Gilder

      Thanks for the great info!

      I believe you can mix and match cymbals within the different kits by simply selecting what cymbal you want in the drop-down menu for that cymbal. Might save you the trouble of rendering all those cymbals manually.

  4. Joe Gilder

    A simple drum beat is sometimes easier for musicians to follow than a straight “tick…tick…” of the metronome. It depends on the musicians and the song really.

  5. Chris

    I just need to get a couple of technical points straight in my head.

    The grooves that come with EZ are played by a real drummer and obviously turned into a midi track. So the velocity of the notes already varies – is there any need to change this further?

    I guess if you editing the grooves yourself and your copying and pasting a 2 bar section then the grove become more mechanical – but over a verse, (in the songwriting packs the performances are split up into verses, pre-chorus etc.) repetition shouldn’t be a problem, should it?

    Also it’s difficult to understand how the groove quantisation (humanisation) works – when I open up the midi grid – none of the notes are quantised, they fall a bit in front our behind – but they stay like this whether the humanisation is on or off in the plug in (visually I mean in the grid). If the drums are played by a human they won’t be quantised so what does this function do in the plug in. If you switch the humanise function off is it effectively quantising the groove even though this is not reflected on the midi grid?

    For me paradoxically the sound gives it away, because although it’s been well sampled in a good room – it lacks the weight of a real kit – but honestly I don’t fully understand why! Take the Nashville kit – it sounds good, but if you compare it to a real live drum performance – a similar sound that springs to mind now is on Jewel’s ‘Spirit’ album (there are hundreds) – that’s a pop/country sounding kit but it has a weight and definition lacking with the sampled kit. There also tends to be a much much better stereo image.

    I know there’s much that can be done with EQ etc – but I’m wondering what is it about the sampling process – that does slightly compromise the sound.

    Ultimately though, yes, if you want good drums, book a day with a drummer – using plugins as a starting point.

    I hope people follow what the heck I’m on about…:-p

    • Joe Gilder

      If the parts are being played by a real person, then you don’t need humanization. If you’re programming them yourself (meaning adding the parts to the grid with your mouse), then some humanization will help.

      Like I said, virtual drums will NEVER sound as good as a real drummer. A real drummer on a crappy kit will probably still sound better, because there’s that human feel. Still, a lot of us don’t have access to real drummers, and programs like EZDrummer are the next best thing.

    • audioengineer-doug

      EXDrummer is a set of drums, a pro drummer, a great drum room, high end mics through high end signal path to high end samples. That’s it. What EZDrummer is NOT. Is a final MIXED set of drums. The final mix of drums included various compression inserts various reverb enhancements. Even in country music. This is the difference is the sound you are hearing from the sound module and a finished mixed CD.

  6. Greg

    Another simple trick to help ‘humanize’ midi drums is to overdub some simple percussion stuff over the EZ Drummer tracks – things like tambourine, shaker, handclaps, etc.

    • Steven Strauss

      I often think about the big difference in the groove on Sir Douglas Quintet’s She’s About A Mover without that sloppy maraca right out front. The imperfection of it is what gives the groove such dramatic tension.

  7. Matt

    I started using EZDrummer after watching some of your Production Club videos. I love it!!!!! Although I have a wonderful friend that is a great drummer, I find that EZDrummer is a wonderful tool for songwriting and for giving an indication of the feel of a song to a real drummer and other musicians that might be part of the recordings. It sounds great too! I have used it on all my recent demo recordings.

  8. LargerLife

    Some funny typos here Joe:)
    “This will take each of the drum hits and make them slightly louder or __software__ than all the others, which is a GREAT way to make sure the drums sound realistic and not fake.”

  9. Travis Whitmore

    Wow.. A lot of interesting comments on this one. As not only a drummer, but someone who offers real drum tracks via studio collaboration, I simply had to chime in. It seems the overall consensus here is that the majority of songwriters and folks using EZdrummer and such AREN’T drummers. While I think it’s a great tool to use for a ‘click’ and/or getting a feel for the song, I can’t understand why anyone would want to spend so
    much time on humanizing an instrument they don’t play! I get that recording a live drummer
    and renting studio time is a pain… That’s why collaborating with other musicians (drummers in this case) is so important. I wouldn’t record a half ass bass line and humanize it when I could collaborate with a bass player that’s studied for years! Not to mention what happens with the creativity of the song process when you play with other musicians… Again, just my two cents. 🙂

    • Matt

      Good point, Travis. There is nothing that can replace a real musician. However, things like EZDrummer are wonderful as a songwriting tool as well as a practice partner. I play scales (bass) along with different grooves just to make it more fun. When it comes time to record a song, I will always use real musicians whenever possible. As you said, there is no replacement for a person that has studied and practiced and has passion for their instrument.
      EZDrummer is a great tool.

    • Fred Gingerale

      Well, I’m a real drummer, since 9 years old and I’m way older than that now
      :). I’m also a songwriter… I tried for years at home to record
      acoustic kits.. with mostly disappointing results. I use EZ drummer for
      99% of my recordings now. Both programming my own tracks and triggering
      EZ drummer via a Yamaha electric kit while I play live. To be honest, I
      sometimes forget which tracks I played on and which ones I programmed! I
      would say if you can find a real drummer in a real studio go for it,
      but if I can even fool myself using EZdrummer, than I’m all for it.

  10. Silverbeetle

    I’ve been programming drums for years – learning how drummers actually played has helped me heaps in creating more realistic drum parts.

    Recently i got a great drummer friend of mine to record himself playing my tune with the intention of replacing my programmed track. he came up with some great stuff that i would never have thought of (particularly drum fill wise), but it sounded like he was holding back a bit (perhaps because of noise) and because he wasn’t in a properly treated room it just didn’t sound as good as the sampled kit. but what i wound up with was some great ideas, i was able to program in exactly what he played as well as tweaking things to my liking. i was able to get a best of both worlds in terms of what i had already programmed and great new ideas from a real drummer.

    Finally, i’m still learning how to mix drums properly but one thing i learnt that may seem obvious is to treat the different parts of a kit as if they were actual recorded drum parts – i had this mentality that i had to treat them differently because they weren’t real. but really they are essentially the same thing.

    most importantly with all of this, use your ears 🙂

    • IanF

      Get a copy of drumagog drum replacement, triggers off of actual drum recording but it doesn’t have to be a good sounding kit or recording. Either that or a good electronic drum kit with a good drummer.

  11. Al

    Thanks Joe,

    Do you know an easy way to change the feeling of a midi region?
    For instance, you drag and drop a 4/4 midi from EZ-Library into your DAW, and you wonder how this “fill” would sound with a “swing, or shuffle” feel.


    • Joe Gilder

      Usually you can quantize MIDI and add more or less “swing.” In Pro Tools there’s a swing slider, and it lets you introduce anywhere from 1-100% of swing.

      • Steven Strauss

        Has anybody quantified the swing percentage of various jazz traditions? There seem to be the musical equivalent of regional accents from one musical neighborhood to the next -Fletcher Henderson’s organization had a particular number, I imagine, different from the Basie band. Moldy Fig versus Hard Bop? Chris Connor versus Billie Holliday? Rockin’ In Rhythm by the Ellington Band has a very tight-ass kind of swing, Choo Choo Ch’Boogie by Louis Jordan, the other kind. I’m not convinced my intuition on this matter is going to get me through the question.

  12. Dan Comerchero

    I’m a drummer, and a lot of the beats I make (hip-hop/pop mostly) are with Roland V-Drums & BFD2.

    Sure you can tell the difference, and it’s taken awhile to get used to the quirks (especially hi-hat control frustrations) but the convenience factor is huge.

    Biggest frustration: hi-hat articulations between foot & hand and snare drum ghost notes). Though i’ve gotten great at editing the midi + velocities, and also playing slightly different than if it was a real drum kit.

    I live with a great bass player and it’s great to be able to get very usable, and tweak-able results any time of day, plug and play, without having to mic up drums and get proper levels.

    We recorded this last night as an example (not mixed or edited yet): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9m2Zwu8vTxw

  13. Kim Lajoie

    I’d also like to add that it’s extremely important to go see real drummers play live. Really pay attention to how they play – which hands they use on which beats, how they play fills, etc. Try to listen for their groove – each musician has their own natural groove.

    The more you pay attention to drummers, the easier it is to think like a drummer.


  14. Kim Lajoie

    Good tips. To take this further, lean more toward deliberate humanising rather than randomising. True human performances have timing and timbre variations, but they’re not random. A good musician actually controls these variations to establish a groove and express the music more effectively.

    I almost never apply randomisation to my drum groove, but I always program with my own custom groove template.

    I’ve written in more depth about randomising vs humanising here:


  15. Kevan Sinanan

    Has anyone experiment putting each drum piece on separate tracks for example: cymbals-track1, snare-track2 and etc.
    Reason why I asked is because in the mix down stage it will easier to apply EQ and Side-chaining more effectively. As opposed to having cymbals, snare, kick, toms on a single track.
    If everything is on a single track you will have a common problem of the cymbals drowning the rest of the drums when hit.
    I know addictive drums allows you to adjust ADSR envelops, reverb and EQ, but what about side-chaining?
    Any comments, suggestions?

    • Cush

      I do this with Ultrabreat, which is Logic’s drum machine. I have to set the plugin to a 8×8 multi-output device and then set up an Aux track for each piece of the kit. I set the input for the Aux track to piece the output of the corresponding track (ex: Kick is set to UB17, which is the name of the bus in the drum machine, so i set the Kick Aux track’s Input to UB17). Output of the aux track is set to my mains, or the drum subgroup if I choose to use it.

      This does exactly what were talking about with being able to set EQ, reverb, and other effects on specific drum parts without having to affect the whole kit. You can also side chain these tracks just as you would any other track.

      I hope that all made sense. I’m always the best at explaining these types of things :/

    • Dan Comerchero

      With BFD2, I almost always use multi-output mode.

      This lets you create aux tracks in your DAW for each drum or cymbal from the virtual instrument. It gives you an AUX channel to control and process individual drums or groups of drums (like toms) separately outside of BFD.

      Now you can send for example the snare to its own dedicated aux track in your DAW, as if you recorded it on it’s own channel.

      You can also do this with the ambience, room, and OH’s whether summed or individually.

      I was going to make a video tutorial on how to do this. I’ll post it here when I do.

    • audioengineer-doug

      Other than hip hop. Recording drums is the remains the art of recording a “performance”. It is the recording of “performances” that makes human music great in the first place. Although in the studio multiple mics through many signal paths are used the final mix of a drum set is always subbed into a stereo pair. There may be as many as 16 mics in the room all recording a set of drums. Close micing for attack and realism and varying ambient mics to add into the process the natural sound of the room. For this reason recording drum events onto single tracks is vital only when tracks require individual control sets. Example: hi hat, snare, kick drum, toms x however many… BUT cymbals are recorded as stereo pairs and the nature of a cymbal involves the room and the sound event dissapates or fades away. At minimun we close mic all drums and hi hat… sometimes the ride as well… then for ambient we also have 2 stereo pairs of room mics… “close or tight” and “far or ambient”. Placing 1 cymbal on 1 track is a backward technique. Real drums. Real drummer. Real audio engineer. Nothing can compare!

    • Raymond

      I know it’s too late, but for what is worth.. Use the ‘multiple outputs’ function on EZDrummer. Joe has a video just about that. It allows you to to control every kit piece on a designated track. AD has that function too.

  16. hovan hanh

    ABSOLUTELY! I think you pointed that out to me during the first round of the Production Club. I had the drummer hitting two crashes AND the high hat at one time…not humanly possible. I changed it, and it sounded much more natural.

  17. Greg

    I’ve been using BFD2 for awhile now. Most of the humanizing and velocity stuff are adjustable within the program itself. So, as you’re recording the MIDI grooves to Pro Tools audio files you can adjust the drummer’s playing in real time. Nice feature. Plus, by converting the drums to audio files you can then make BFD inactive and free up your computer’s resources. BFD is a hog on a CPU!

  18. Mark B.

    LOVE EZ Drummer as a sophisticated and customizable click. some of the sounds are actually pretty neat and i would consider using them in a final song. i’m a drummer though so i’ll always want to record myself in it’s place, for the sound, not the ego. now if i could just nail that acoustic drum recording thing down… :-/

  19. Dan

    Hey Joe,

    My friend and I were just working with this the other night. We agreed that the unquantized drums from Groove Monkee uh…grooved better than the quantized version of the same part. So then we pocketed the guitars to that. But we’ve got 3 other midi parts on this song (and some songs more than that). So how do you get all your parts to groove together? Do you try to line the midi up with the drum? Do you edit the audio output of the midi?

    • Joe Gilder

      Editing the MIDI would be the easiest approach. Recording it to audio THEN editing would be a waste, since MIDI lends itself to editing better than audio does.

  20. Robert

    Great tips here Joe. I didn’t know you could randomise velocities in Pro Tools.
    Will you be posting any other tips/ tutorials on EZdrummer in the future? I’m trying to get a Modern Rock Sound (similar to Paramore) and just not getting close. I think it’s my inexperience letting me down.

    Thanks for the helpful tips!


  21. Shane Hendricks

    Engineers sample replace real drummers all the time, because it’s tough to record drums well (in addition to the expense and hassle).

    I like Ronan Chris Murphy’s suggestion (in addition to those listed here) when you can’t use a real drummer for whatever reason: buy and record REAL hihats with your MIDI drums! Works great!!!

  22. Q

    I always turn velocity and timing humanisation off — I don’t want the software interfering with my very carefully programmed humanisation and I want my drumming to sound the same every time I play it.

    I vary the timing on a note-by-note basis to get the slight accelerandi and decelerandi I need to go with the natural ebb and flow of the rest of the music. Where the tempo is more constant, I’ll vary repetitive patterns (e.g. riding the hi-hat or, er… ride) ever so slightly before or behind the beat as the velocity is higher or lower, to go with the natural human tendency to speed up when playing louder or slow down when playing softer.

    One humanisation feature I do use is a slight amount of pitch variation (I think it’s about 20% at most) on drums, so that they’re ever so slightly different every time they’re hit.

    Having said all this, there is an important caveat — I make progressive rock so I program every single bar by hand, with every one different in at the very least some small way. It takes ages, but I think it’s worth it. I like my drums played as an instrument rather than as a metronome!

    • Joe Gilder

      Yeah, if you’re actually PLAYING the drum parts, there’s no need for humanizing, obviously. But for those of us who are programming the parts, it’s a great tool.

      • Q

        No, I’m talking about programming, I don’t have the patience to learn to play keyboard drums.

        It’s like Kim said above, humanising and randomising aren’t the same and most “humanisation” tools add elements of randomness. I’ve only just read that blog entry of his and it’s pretty much what I do (except I’m sure he does it miles better!).

        I can see that randomisation could be useful if you’re programming a fairly static beat that is more or less a loop for a few bars or a verse or chorus. But if you program each bar individually, programming the variation in by hand, you don’t want the software randomising what you’ve done.

        The software I use (and I don’t really have much choice in the matter) doesn’t have groove templates, so I have to add variation by hand on a note-by-note basis. It’s painstaking work doing it that way, but for certain types of music where more virtuoso drumming is called for, I think it’s a must.

  23. John

    NI Battery’s dead good for this – each cell can have its own ‘humanize’ params – velocity, time, volume and even pitch. Combine that with alternative triggering cells for rand-hand and left-hand hits of a drum, and with some decent programming you can great human sounding parts without even needing to apply any midi functions. No bundled loops though :/

  24. David S.

    Another alternative to renting a studio and recording a drummer that way could be to buy an e-kit and have the drummer come to your home studio and play the beats and record via midi. Then apply EZ Drummer to it for the awesomely recorded drum hits. It will sound real and the samples are already recorded perfectly. The only drawback would be the cymbals. All virtual drum kits lack in the cymbal area, so you may want to buy and record those for real. Still cheaper then renting a studio out.
    My experience w/ virtual drums is that the “computerized” sound comes from programming the drums. But, if you are recording (via midi) the real performance of a drummer, it then becomes very natural.
    My opinion, of course.:)

  25. Christopher w

    I always “humanize” my MIDI work, be it drums, strings or anything else and my friends never believe me when I say put stuff out of time deliberately to make the song sound better.

    I just chuckled to myself when I read Matthew’s comment as I recently made this mistake in one of the songs I’m working on, it sounded good but you could always tell something was wrong… just not what.

  26. James Dunne

    While I agree that randomizing drum hit velocities is a good thing, you can also run into seriously bad results if your randomized velocities span across the sample-change threshold velocity values. For instance, let us assume that a really hard snare hit might be mapped between 112 to 127 velocities, and then we have a vastly different snare hit sound might be mapped between 96 to 112. If you randomize right around that 112 threshold, your snare will sound very artificial if those hits are in succession. There’s also the problem of how to fix the machine-gun sampling problem, like cymbal rolls or snare rolls. Also, alternating the two kick drum samples (C 2 and B 1) for double-bass is a good approach.

  27. Dave Chick

    Great points Joe. One other thing that I find useful in “humanizing” MIDI parts – not just drums – is to apply a bit of the “swing” parameter.

    Yeah, sure when pushed to the extreme, it transforms duplet separation into triplets, but when you just touch it a bit (and most DAWs have some sort of sliding scale to adjust it), you just nudge the off-beats slightly off the grid. I.e. an 1/8th note swing will nudge the hits on the “and” bits of the beat by whatever parameter you set.

    Usually, there’s a positive and negative adjustment that can be made – so you can either push or lag the off-beats. I’s great on the hi-hat and goes a long way.

  28. Matthew Vince

    One thing to keep in mind, especially for non-drummers, is to remember that a drummer only has four limbs. Make sure that you’re not programming something a real drummer couldn’t actually do.

    • Joe Gilder

      ABSOLUTELY! I think you pointed that out to me during the first round of the Production Club. I had the drummer hitting two crashes AND the high hat at one time…not humanly possible. I changed it, and it sounded much more natural.

      • Matthew Vince

        Yep, you’re right! Like the other comment said though, a great drummer can do amazing things. Don’t be afraid to rock those drums out.

    • Q

      Very good point. But at the other end of the spectrum, it’s amazing what a lot of drummers can do with a single hand! Or how many things they can hit in extremely quick succession with one hand.

      I’ve always been very careful about observing the four limbs rule, but I recently spent a fair bit of time reading drum magazine websites and watching instructional videos on YouTube, to get an idea of what is humanly possible and was completely blown away. Other important things for me were finding an article analysing Bill Bruford’s style and reading up on drum rudiments and putting them together.

      I’m now a lot more adventurous with my programming — there’s still never more than four things going on at once, but where I might have programmed a snare roll for both sticks in the past I’ll do a lot of them with one now and have much quick hi-hat and ride patterns.

      One thing I really must experiment with, having read about it, is linear drumming where there’s never more than one thing being hit at once!



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