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Mix Blog Studio: Real Drums Change Everything

While producing an instrumental track for one of his bands, Mike Levine suddenly found that he had access to a live, remote drummer—a good thing, though it changed the foundation of his rhythm track.

Because so much recording is now done in personal studios, more projects get tracked in layers, with musicians working offline and remotely from different locations. And, of course, Covid-19 has made the idea of in-person ensemble tracking sessions even less practical, at least for now.

Several drummers I know have put together home setups in which they can record multitrack drum parts remotely, which is awesome. It makes it possible to have real drums on projects, even in this time of social distancing.

It does, however, necessitate a change in how you approach the production process. I recently was involved in a project that was a case in point.

Read more Mix Blog Studio: Hardware Shines at NAMM.

I was producing and mixing a song for a guitar-based, rock-and-Americana-flavored instrumental act that I play in. What made this production unusual was that we started the project assuming we would use programmed drums, like we did in our first song. I didn’t find out about the drummer being available until well into the recording process.

I had already started production with my standard workflow, which entailed putting together a MIDI drum part first, and then recording the other instruments to that. I use MIDI drum loops that were played by real drummers on MIDI kits. They’re not quantized, and when properly stitched together, through a good drum instrument—I use Toontrack Superior Drummer 2—they sound pretty convincing.

For this song, after creating the MIDI drums, I had spent a fair bit of time recording the bass track and multiple rhythm guitar parts, assuming they would be keepers. I had even gotten to the point of reamping some of the DI guitar tracks. Then I found out that the drummer would be available to play on the song. So, I sent the tracks I’d already finished to him to record to.

When he sent me back his tracks, I imported them into the Pro Tools project and noticed that my rhythm guitar and bass parts were no longer quite as locked into the rhythm. Even though we recorded everything to a click, there was enough variation, feel-wise, between the MIDI drums and the multitrack drums to make the parts I played along with the former not groove as much with the latter.

It was a relatively easy problem to solve, but it meant that I had to re-record all my parts with the new drum track as my reference. The result was a much tighter-sounding rhythm section.

My takeaway was that for the next song, which will also include the drummer, I won’t spend so much time creating the initial tracks as I’ll probably have to redo them anyway.

I wasn’t surprised by what happened. In some previous projects where I used MIDI or audio drum loops, I’ve noticed that if I tried changing the drum part significantly mid-project, it almost always detracted from the groove and required redoing of other tracks.

For me, including a live drummer means a change in the overall workflow so that the multitrack drum parts become the foundational pillar of the groove. Anything tracked before will only be of the “scratch” variety, temporary placeholders to give the drummer reference.