Drum Samples: What Are You Afraid Of?
Hey there, Jens here. Today, I want to talk about the use of drum samples in music production. Specifically, the stigmas surrounding their use in heavy music and how I go about using drum samples in my mixes. Let's begin!
Jens Bogren Drum Samples
100% "Real" Drums Are Very Rare in Modern Music...
First off, let's clear up some common misconceptions surrounding the use of samples in mixing: Drum samples aren't a new invention that has suddenly appeared and started ruining modern music. They've been around since the 80's and were probably used -to some extent -on many of your favorite rock and metal albums of the past few decades. The thing is, while it's possible with the right combination of hard-hitting drummer, producer, gear and engineering techniques, it's incredibly rare to pull off the massive, consistent modern metal drum sound we're so used to hearing 100% naturally.
Sure, every once in a while, all the stars will align, and you'll capture a monstrous performance that may not require ANY additional fortification whatsoever (as was the case when recording Eloy Casagrande for Sepultura's "Quadra" album, for example). But in most cases, even when working with killer drummers, some kind of sample layering is often necessary for that final "push".
When Used Correctly, Drum Samples Can Sound Very "Real"
When people complain about drum samples in rock or metal, they usually refer to that notorious "machine gun" sound. While this problem is definitely caused by the use of samples, it's incredibly important to note that it's caused by the incorrect use of samples."So, how do you go about using drum samples correctly then?" Well, here are a few of my best tips on the matter of achieving realistic drum samples in a mix:
1. Prioritize The Real Drums, Use Samples As Support
While the real-drums/drum-sample ratio will change from song to song depending on raw performance quality and musical context, generally speaking, you want to try and get the best results out of the natural drums before reaching for samples as a final layer augmentation.Once your natural drum mix sounds decent, you can look for some matching samples to enhance whatever's still lacking. Finding the balance between the "real" kit and some quality drum samples will give you the best of both worlds. A natural feel, but with supernatural punch and clarity.
2. Round-Robins Are Key!
For my tastes, the lack of dynamics and variation in "One shot", single .wav file drum samples simply doesn't cut it. Especially when used with faster, more complex material, you'll most likely just end up with that awful "machine gun" effect we talked about previously.
One of the key tricks in achieving "real" sounding drum samples is to make sure you're using multi-sampled drum libraries. A good sample library will include multiple velocity layers, and several "round robin" drum hit variations per drum. This way, you're getting all of the random "humanisation" you'd expect from a real drummer, but with all of the sonic benefits of triggering.
The round-robin multi-samples used in my Bogren Digital sample pack
Realism is something we paid great attention to while creating my signature Bogren Digital drum sample pack. These are samples I've been using for over 20 years in my work, and the result of organizing them into something that can be shared with the world has been incredibly beneficial to my workflow. Whether you're blending them in under a real performance or just using them on their own, they make for a natural sound that won't turn heads for the wrong reasons.
3. Don't "Set and Forget"
When triggering drum samples, it's never a good idea to just "trust" your triggering software. If you're looking to create believable, realistic drum sample results, you need to pay close attention to how accurately your triggering software reacts to the original performance. This means going through and checking the triggering accuracy of every hit and even tweaking your plugin settings on a per-section basis in order to achieve the most accurate detection.
Triggering Bogren Digital kick samples with Slate Digital's "Trigger 2" software
I'll typically print my trigger tracks as I go while babysitting each hit in order to make sure everything is firing correctly. It's also incredibly important to make sure your triggered samples are correctly phase-aligned with the shells you're replacing. The more in-phase your samples and acoustic drums are, the more powerful they'll sound from the get-go. Long story short, this is definitely something you shouldn't be left to chance!
4. Favor The Real Drums During Fills
Typically, drum samples will sound most unnatural when quickly triggered back-to-back during fast fills. This being the case, momentarily automating the balance between real drums/samples can go a long way towards bringing back some realism. It's not about totally getting rid of the samples during fills. It's just about reducing them to where they are no longer jarring. This way, you're still preserving the natural expressiveness of the drummer while avoiding that "machine gun-esque" sound we all hate.
Great Tips Jens, But Isn't All Of This Cheating..?
So, drum samples are cheating, but drum editing isn't? According to the "drum samples are cheating" logic, probably around 90% of everything we do in music production is "cheating". Where do we draw the line? And who makes the rules? At the end of the day, we're just trying to make music that people enjoy listening to. How we get there is not the most important aspect.
If a certain song, band or production calls for a totally raw and natural drum sound, so be it. Does a 50/50 blend of natural and samples produce the best result? So be it. Do totally replaced and sampled drums match the more precise and mechanical vibe of a track? So be it! (Although I'd probably end up hating myself for it.)
My Bogren Digital drum samples are just another colour in your palette, which allow you the flexibility to go in different directions with your drum mix when called for, and as mixers, it's important we always have the right selection of colours to choose from when the time comes!
Summary: It's Only Cheating If It's a Competition
Music isn't a competition. It's an art form. And as engineers, we have the responsibility to help artists express themselves and realise their vision. Drum samples are just another tool in the toolbox towards achieving this final goal.
While there's nothing wrong with having principles, the reasons behind your decisions are essential.
Having particular tastes in sounds is important and can lead to you developing your own unique mixing style. Having a bunch of arbitrary rules on what is and isn't allowed in mixing however, is just a surefire way of stifling your growth as an engineer...
Until next time. Cheers!