I'm just starting out in learning to record audio but am beginning to expand on what I want to do. Though I'm now fairly competent at using my DAW of choice (Reaper), I'm finding it really difficult to create drum parts. What would be the most straightforward way for a complete beginner to get into and learn about this?
Sara Willis, via email
SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: In a word: loops. There are two basic things you have to contend with when putting together great drum parts. Firstly, you have to obtain good performances: whether you're wanting the sound of live drums or electronic drum‑machine timbres, the nuances of the performance or programming of the part play a vital role in creating a commercial sound in almost any style. Secondly, you need to be able to control the sonics well enough to build up a decent mix once all the other parts of your arrangement are in place. The reason I recommend loops as a starting point is that it simplifies the process of dealing with these issues. All you have to do is find a suitable loop and then learn how to adjust its performance or sonics where the unique circumstances of your music require it.
Finding a good library really shouldn't be hard. I've been reviewing loop collections for the magazine for ages now and I know that there are loads of really good ones available, catering for just about every musical genre imaginable. My first suggestion would be to go back through the magazine's sample‑library reviews: typing 'sample' into the 'quick search' field at the top right‑hand side of the SOS web site should pull them up out of the magazine's online archives for you. Anything with a four‑ or five‑star review is definitely worth investigating, but don't part with any cash before you've had a careful listen to the manufacturer's audio demos, and you should be as picky as possible in looking for exactly the right sonics for your needs. Don't just listen on your laptop's speaker or earbuds — drag the demo files over to your studio system, and if example loops are provided, try those out within a test project. This is what I regularly do as part of the review process, and it can be very revealing. Lining the demos up against some of your favourite commercial records may also help you narrow down the choices.
As far as the library format is concerned, I suggest you look for something based on REX2 loops, because these beat‑sliced files typically offer better tempo‑matching and rearrangement opportunities than the time‑stretching formats (such as Acidised WAV or Apple Loops). I don't think there's much sense in getting involved with any of the virtual instrument‑based libraries at this stage: while they can increase your flexibility in terms of sonics and programmability, they can also add a great deal of complexity to the production process, and I imagine you've got enough on your plate already with learning about all of this stuff! Often, loop‑library developers structure their libraries into 'suites', with several similar loops grouped together, and this can make it easier to build some musical variation into your song structure. There are also libraries that include supplementary 'one‑shot' samples of some of the drums used, and these can also be very handy for customising the basic loops, as well as for programming fills, drops and endings manually.
Faced with a shortlist of good‑sounding REX2 libraries, the last consideration is whether the performances really sound musical. This is the most elusive character of a loop library and it's an area where the SOS review can provide some guidance. My usual barometer in this respect while reviewing is whether the loops make me want to stop auditioning and immediately rush off to make some music, so thinking in those terms may help clarify your thinking. It's also a good sign if the drum hits in the loop seem somehow to lead into each other, rather than just sounding like isolated events, because this can really make a difference to how a track drives along.
Once you've laid hands on some decent loops, you can just drag files directly onto a track in your Reaper project and they should, by default, match themselves to your song's tempo. Because each drum hit will have its own loop slice, it's quite easy to shuffle them around to fit existing parts. Just be aware that sounds with long sustain tails may carry over several adjacent slices. Map out a rough drum part by copying your chosen loops, making sure that Snap is 'on' so that the loops always lock to bar‑lines, but then be sure to also put in some work introducing fills and variations, so that the listener doesn't get bored. There are lots of ways of varying the loop patterns: edit or rearrange the slices; substitute a different loop from the same 'suite'; or layer additional one‑shots over the top. A lot of people think that using loops inevitably makes repetitive‑sounding music, but with most REX2 libraries there's no excuse whatsoever for letting this happen. (If you want to listen to an example of a drum part built with REX2 loops, check out my Mix Rescue remix from SOS October 2008 at /sos/oct08/articles/mixrescue_1008.htm, where I completely replaced the band's original drum parts in this way.)
The REX2 slices can also assist when it comes to adjusting sonics at the mix, because it's easy to slide, say, all the kick‑drum slices onto a separate track for processing. This is such a useful technique that I often end up doing it manually with loops at mixdown, even when they're not REX2 files! The Mix Rescue I did in SOS November 2010 (/sos/nov10/articles/mixrescue‑1110.htm) is a good example of this, and with that one you can even download the full Reaper remix project from the SOS web site if you want to look at how I implemented this in more detail.