Few project studio owners have the space to record a real drum kit to its best advantage. However, drum parts that are completely sample-based can lack a sense of organic authenticity, and can make an otherwise good recording sound like a demo. Fortunately, there are several ways you can tackle this problem for more lively results.
There are many fine sample CD-ROMs containing both individual hits and played loops, but both have disadvantages. Single hits only sound good if they are placed where a real drummer would place them, while played loops have a habit of not quite fitting what you want to do, and in the end you may find yourself adapting your song to fit the loops. Loops in REX or Groove Control formats provide the most flexibility, as you can set your own tempo and you may even be able to construct fills from the individual hits, but they rarely provide a complete solution. So here are some ways you can add a more 'live' feel to your sampled drum parts.
Ride Cymbals & Hi-hats
Having listened to a great many records featuring both sampled and 'real' drums, I think the most obvious giveaway is the way the cymbals sound, especially hi-hats and ride cymbals — they're simply too even. Even if you have samples of complete loops where the cymbals sound right, it's very difficult to construct fills that fit in well. As it happens, cymbals are relatively easy to record, while kick drums and snares can be a real problem in the smaller studio, so a solution that I find works well is to program the kick and snare parts and then record real cymbals and hi-hats as an overdub. You can either program the toms or record them.
In most cases, it's not the sound of the toms that's the problem, but how they are used, so if you're not a natural drummer, try copying some fills from commercial MIDI files or check out products like the Twiddly Bits MIDI sequence files, as some of these include excellent drum parts recorded by real drummers using MIDI drum kits. In fact there's no reason not to use files such as these to provide all your main drum parts — it's easy enough to delete the ride cymbal and hi-hat parts so that you can overdub real ones. The other advantage of using MIDI files is that you can use them at absolutely any tempo and you can also modify them to provide your own rhythmic variations and fills.
To record your cymbals, you need to use capacitor mics and, though professionals have their preferred models, just about any reasonable capacitor mic will deliver high-quality results if you use it carefully. Monitor the sound of the ride cymbal through headphones while you move the mic around for the best sound. There are several mic positions that work well, ranging from two to three feet above the cymbal to having the mic next to the player's head.
Hi-hats are usually miked a little closer, typically from around nine inches to one foot away, with the mic a few inches above the top cymbal and pointing downwards so that it looks at a point around one third of the way in from the cymbal's edge. If your timing is a problem and you're working on an audio sequencer, you can pick the best bars of hi-hat or ride cymbal and copy these to any bars where your timing isn't so good.
Crash cymbals can also be recorded separately, but because these tend to be used for single hits, you can probably get away with using samples for these. If you're not familiar with recording drum parts, listen to some commercial recordings to see what the cymbals are doing during drum fills — if the drummer is using both hands to play a tom fill, for example, you wouldn't expect the ride or hi-hat hits to continue through it, but the hi-hat pedal sound may still continue.
The other instrument that can be used to great effect is the humble tambourine. A well-played tambourine layered over a sequenced drum part can add a welcome degree of realism, and if you also record live cymbals the overall result can be hard to discern from the real thing.
Another good instrument to try is shaker, and though some sampled loops include a shaker sound, you'll get a more natural feel adding one yourself, as your timing and dynamics will vary slightly from beat to beat and from bar to bar. You can also drop the shaker in and out of the mix without having to switch to a different rhythm loop. Pretty much any mic will work for a shaker, though a capacitor model will have a brighter high end. A mic distance of one to two feet should work fine.
Other things to overdub include all those drums you picked up on holiday in Turkey or Tunisia. You don't need to be a great drummer, because you don't have to add anything complicated — all you have to be able to do is keep time! Hand drums are extremely useful when working over loops, because they can be used to add fills at relevant points in the song, helping to give the whole drum part more of an identity and making it sound more as though it was written for the song rather than being taken off the shelf. Other useful percussive flavours can be picked up in ethnic gift shops, such as thumb pianos, claves, bells and so on.
On one of my own tracks, I played the rhythm part by tapping it out on a damped electric guitar, then shifted the whole thing down an octave before reversing it. The end result was incredibly organic and quite unlike anything I'd heard on sample CDs. By layering it with a simple deep tom playing a kick drum pattern, I got exactly the effect I wanted.
Goodbye To The Grid
It's a great temptation to quantise your sampled drum parts, and for some musical styles this works fine, but you'll find that real drummers rarely play exactly where a quantise grid would expect them to be. To capture this feel can be difficult if you're not a drummer, but it's not impossible.
One method is to record a MIDI drum part (one part at a time if necessary) while playing along to a record with the right feel, then use the part you've recorded to create a groove quantising template. That way you can quantise your programmed part to 'swing' like the record you're emulating. The other option is to take a commercial MIDI file of a suitable drum part and create a groove template from that, or even use a commercial quantisation template.
At a simpler level, you may be able to add life to a conventionally quantised drum part by moving the position of the snare beats slightly. Delaying them by a few milliseconds will create a laid-back feel, while advancing them will push the music along and give the song a sense of urgency. If you do have drumming skills, then investing in a set of MIDI drum pads will invariably lead to a more natural result than you trying to play everything from a keyboard. If you can mic up some real cymbals at the same time and play the whole drum part naturally, so much the better.
Modern pop music tends to be recorded to a rigid metronome beat, but a good live band will incorporate subtle tempo changes into their arrangements, often unconsciously. Though it may not sound obvious, choruses often speed up slightly relative to verses and a big rock drum fill may be slowed down slightly for dramatic effect.
Using a sequencer you can play about with tempos as much as you like, provided that you're using single-hit samples or loops in REX or Groove Control format, and you may also be able to time-stretch fixed sample loops slightly without compromising the quality, but you need to finalise any tempo changes before overdubbing your cymbals or any other incidental percussion.
The simple examples described here by no means represent an exhaustive catalogue of things you can do to liven up sampled drum parts, but the beauty of recording is that everybody will apply these ideas differently to get their own distinctive result. Adding a single hand-played part to a sampled drum track can be enough to breath life into it, and you have the added bonus that your rhythm part now sounds different to everybody else's. Furthermore, the human brain soon tires of exact repetition, so adding a 'played' part, with all its human imperfections, helps keep the part fresh and interesting.