Drum Programming: Audio vs MIDI

Drum Programming: Audio vs MIDI

November 19, 2019

Breaking Down Drum Programming

There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to drum programming. The first: directly dropping audio samples into your timeline; the second: using a VST sampler and MIDI. This post will explore the pros and cons of both of these methods. We’ll be referencing Logic Pro but these ideas can apply to any DAW.

Audio

Audio Drum Programming

Here's an example of some extensive audio-based drum programming in Logic.

PROS:
Directly dragging and dropping WAV files into the timeline is one of the easiest ways to start programming drums. This programming workflow can apply to any grid-based DAW (Pro Tools, Studio One, Ableton, FL). The beauty of this style is that it’s very visual. Samples snap directly onto the grid and you can see exactly when the sound begins and ends.
This is useful if your sample has any effects, like reverb, on it. You’re able to quickly see how long your sample is playing for and cut off the tails in time with the music. This can make it feel kind of like a puzzle, leaving you to fill in the visual gaps. Since you get to see every individual hit from the main window (opposed to opening the MIDI editor) you can easily create long and unique patterns by tinkering with individual hits and moving them around during different parts of the song. Using audio files also makes it easier to “mess” with the samples. Performing tasks like reversing hits, adding tape stops, or rearranging loops become second nature.

CONS:
One major drawback to this method is the drums can come out sounding a little robotic if you’re not careful. Because we’re copy/pasting the audio files, all of the velocities will be identical. One way to avoid this is by changing the gain of individual samples in the “region” drop-down menu, located in the upper left of the main window. Another major drawback with this method is you’re unable to do any “finger drumming” - which is a useful way to experiment with different grooves.

Here’s an audio snippet
: first we’ll hear the robotic-sounding drums and then we’ll hear the same loop with some dynamic variance in each of the tracks. Listen to the difference it makes when you manually adjust the gain of the hi-hat or use something like Nicky Romero’s “Kickstart” plugin to breathe some life and variance into it.


MIDI

Here's an example of MIDI-based drum programming in Logic.
PROS:
There’s no doubt about it that midi is one of the most common methods for programming drums. Using a sampler like Logic’s EXS24 makes it easy to create and save different drum kits with unique sounds. This can save a lot of time if you’re in a session and one of your collaborators suggests new drum sounds — just flip through your pre-made kits until you find one you like. MIDI also allows you to do some good ol’ fashioned finger drumming, which is probably the most organic way to lay digital drums down because you get those nice velocity differences and you can maintain those rhythmic inconsistencies only a human can provide. Using midi also allows you the benefits of your chosen sampler (or hardware like Maschine/mpk). You can dial in your ADSR, glide, note repeat, and other useful and experimental parameters.

CONS:
Running your drums through a sampler adds an extra step. Depending on your workflow this can be time-consuming. Using something like Splice, it definitely feels more natural to just drag and drop loops and one-shots directly to the grid. You will also have to bounce down to audio to do any audio tricks like tape stops or reversing full sections. The following may not have any validity, but I’ve found that drums just hit harder when placed on the grid and plugins perform better when the computer doesn’t have that extra step to worry about.
 
CONCLUSION:
Both of these methods have their place and I often find myself switching between the two on a project to project basis. It really just boils down to the workflow and DAW you have. If you’re producing trap beats, pop beats, or work with clients and want to keep things variable, I’d recommend using midi to lay your drums down. If you’re producing more intense EDM or you’re a bit of a control freak (like myself) try just dropping the audio right on the grid and copy-pasting. Either way, have fun and experiment. Like with all music production, there really is no “right” or “wrong” way, whatever works best for YOU is the “right” way.


FREE SAMPLE PACK DOWNLOAD

We put together a Crunchy Drum custom sample pack containing 15 WAV files separated between one-shots and loops. The sounds selected come from a variety of different sources—including drum machines and live drums—and were processed appropriately with a combination of digital and analog equipment.

Here's a quick demo of what to expect:

Sample Pack Contents:

  • 5 one-shots and 3 loops from drummer Beth Varela, recorded to a Tascam Porta 02 cassette recorder and processed in Logic Pro.
  • 4 one-shots and 1 loop of an acoustic drum kit *and hand clap) recorded to Logic Pro via Joe Meek 3Q for extra crunch.
  • 1 one-shot and 1 loop recorded from the Roland TR8 and sampled/sequenced onto a Teenage Engineering PO-33. 


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