4 Tips For Tweaking Electronic Drums To Sound Real

Using electronic drums doesn't mean they have to sound robotic. Here are 4 top tips to help you add a human feel to your sampled or synthesized beats.  

Whether you’re a ‘V-drum veteran’ or breaking out your electric kit for the first time, one thing is for certain - you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and tweak those settings a bit. Getting your electronic kit to ‘talk’ to your favorite virtual drum instrument in your DAW can be an overwhelming task to undertake. I am happy to report, however, that things have come a long way since even just a few years ago - and the waters of electronic pad programming are far less murky than they have been in the past. Here are 4 things you’re going to want to do right away once you’ve got your electronic kit turned on and plugged into your computer.

1 - Don’t Discount The Factory Sounds

First of all, don’t let anyone fool you - you want and need that drum ‘brain’ to have some decent sounds. Even if you never plan on using them to record and you bought your drum kit specifically to work with, say, Superior Drummer (or another leading electronic drum virtual instrument) those factory sounds aren’t useless. Using the factory sounds for monitoring will, quite simply, give you the most latency-free experience you can currently get. Drumming can be a lot more tactile than playing in some keys tracks, and even the slightest bit of delay in the audio path can cause major discernible problems when recording.

Fear not! You can load up the most resource-heavy drum kit you like, work at just about any buffer setting and still feel confident in your timing if you use those factory ‘in the brain’ sounds to monitor while you record. When you’re playing back, you’ll get those sweet virtual instrument ‘streamed from the SSD’ samples, but while you’re recording you can utilize the instant gratification and latency-free samples in the built-in brain. Heck, with the right setup, you don’t even need to use headphones. You can plug your v-drums into a good full-range amp and hear them ‘live in the room’ just like a real kit. Whenever I’m tracking with my v-drums, I pretty much always monitor with the ‘brain’ and play back with the high-quality virtual instrument inside of my DAW. It’s the best of both worlds.

2 - Make Sure Your (virtual) Instrument Knows What to Expect

Here’s the thing - the standard ‘general MIDI’ drum setup of ‘kick drum on C, snare drum on D, etc’ just doesn’t cut it in terms of expression and realism when transmitting drum data from a v-drum kit. I mean, really, do you think you could possibly express all the sonic diversity of every possible hi-hat state in just 3 notes? Of course you can’t. That’s why if you’re using a V-drum kit, the sounds probably don’t “line up” with your virtual drum instrument. The kick drum isn’t necessarily transmitting ‘C’ and the snare isn’t necessarily transmitting ‘D’ like you’re used to with a keyboard.

You’re going to have to tell your virtual instrument in your DAW to expect the notes to be transmitted in the format your electronic kit ‘speaks’ in. In Logic, you can see this at the bottom of the Drum Kit Designer Window. If you’re using a more professional and ‘focused’ virtual instrument like Superior Drummer 3, there is likely a whole page of preferences and list of presets for each type of electronic kit you can use. Pick the one that most closely matches your kit and don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different ones if your exact kit doesn’t show up there!

3 - Don’t Forget Your Hat

The hi-hat is where it can all fall apart. This dang instrument just has so much expressivity to it, it’s hard to get right. Fortunately, most electronic drum virtual instruments know this, and they provide a lot of flexibility to filter various inputs and give you the best shot at a real sound you can get. If the default setup doesn’t do it for you, instruments like Superior Drummer or BFD will let you get in there and adjust the ‘zones’. Imagine each zone like a different ‘state’ of the hi-hat. The pedal fully closed could be one zone, lifting your foot up a few millimeters could be a second zone, etc. Many instruments even allow you to view where your foot is in real time as you move it up and down - this allows you to really tweak the hi-hat so that you get the response you were expecting no matter where your foot is in the open/closed process.

4 - Rims, Clicks, and Other Tricks

Aside from setting your standard ‘input preset’ to match your electronic kit, there may be many other things you have to assign manually. If you strike a part of your kit that you expect to do something and you get something unexpected (or sometimes nothing at all!), it’s quite easy to ‘re-map’ these signals to do something! Try tapping the rims of your electronic pads and see if they generate sound. If not, feel free to go to each drum individually and utilize a ‘MIDI learn’ function to have it learn the rims, clicks, and other features. I’ll often assign a low tom rim click to a tambourine or cowbell sample just because I don’t often click the low tom rim in real life. Think about the lesser-used areas of the kit and how you can ‘re-map’ them to get more use out of them!

Wrap Up

The MIDI that comes out of a modern electric kit is truly robust and fascinating these days. We’ve come a long way from the sad results of the past, and it’s definitely possible to get extremely great (and realistic sounding) sounds out of modern electric kits paired up with professional virtual instruments.

Learn more drum programming tips and tricks: https://ask.audio/academy?nleloc=category/audio/topic/drumprogramming

Matt Vanacoro is one of New York's premier musicans. Matt has collaborated as a keyboardist in studio and on stage with artists such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Mark Wood (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel Band), Aaron Carter, Amy Regan, Jay Azzolina, Marcus Ratzenboeck (Tantric), KeKe Palmer, C-Note, Jordan Knig... Read More


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