Can I let you in on a little secret? Nearly every single one of your favorite albums of the last decade likely used some type of drum sample. I can actually say with extreme confidence that a few of you reading this have favorite albums that had drum parts completely programmed – there probably wasn’t even a drummer involved.
Beyond the convenience and accessibility that samples grant to those without the resources to record live drums for their projects, there’s actually a huge user base of professional engineers, mixers & producers that love to use samples in their productions. What used to carry a stigma of being a dirty shortcut used by those who don’t know how to record live drums well is now commonplace at every level in the industry.
Are there recording engineers out there that still insist on live drums only today? Absolutely, but they’re becoming the minority – like those that insist on only using analog or that insist their DAW is the only one that matters. Being open-minded in today’s music industry will show you exactly where drum samples fit in the landscape of music production and why it’s not going away any time soon.
The Problem with Live Drums
Anyone who’s ever even contemplated building their own recording studio can attest to the challenges that accompany live drums. Drums are a loud instrument, which makes them hard to record in residential environments. They demand a good sounding room to accompany them (or some creative microphone placement). Not the least of their challenge is how expensive building a good microphone locker, stands, cabling, and an interface that can support all of that gear can cost.
All of these limitations make live drum recording unrealistic for a lot of sessions on a budget.
Studio Pros & Their Woes
Even when the space & resources accommodate your drum recording dreams, it doesn’t always mean you’re going to get a great sound. A drum’s sound can vary from session to session and your drummer’s consistency is going to play a big role in each take. You can do a lot to get a good sound by making sure the heads are in good shape, tuned & acclimated to the room.
Still, pros understand that the drums captured in live sessions are starting points. It’s not often an engineer will get that “golden goose” sound where the drums sound amazing and fits the song perfectly, but when they do, you know what you should do with them? Sample them.
Many of the best samples I’ve ever heard (and the ones I’ve made myself) are the ones that came from live sessions like this where something just clicked. Ask any producer with their own sample pack and they’ll tell you the same thing. Producers like Taylor Larson know that when you find a good sample, you add it to your collection for use later on. You might even use them within that same session – triggering a consistent one-shot sample for consistency in the song.
Using Samples in the Studio
Samples aren’t just for programming purposes. While that’s one of the most common uses still, pros know that samples can give them the punch and body that takes time to get in the studio. Call it a shortcut if you want, but many will tell you that it’s about working smarter, not harder.
Samples can be used to reinforce live drums with triggering software pretty seamlessly. A great drum editor will set them up in a way that the listener never notices the difference, and a great mixer can match the levels just right so that the tone of live drums rings out while the samples give you the right attack & bite to cut through. We’re in an era where it’s easier than ever to get the best of both worlds without our computers choking/crashing because of all the samples filling up our memory and slowing down our sessions.
Prepping Live Drums & Samples Together
Getting your drums to sound right in your mix is a critical process that takes time to learn to do. Layering in samples and you’re effectively adding in twice as many tracks that you’re responsible for mixing down to a single instrument. With all of those tracks getting prepped for mix at the same time, do you know the best ways to get organized?
JST VIP members get access to our Taking Control of Your Drum Mix eBook, which helps mixers get organized with everything from kick drum processing to handling overheads & room mics in their sessions. The eBook includes our Drum Mix Checklist template – the perfect starting point for anyone with drums to mix.