Drum recording with electronic drums

Sometimes you need to record a drum track but it’s just not feasible (bad acoustics, bad neighbours). Or sometimes you just want the flexibility to be able to play around with the drums after they’ve been recorded (quantize them, try a different snare, etc.). Enter the world of electronic drums.

What you’ll need:

  • electronic drums (surprise!)
  • computer equipped with a sound card and MIDI interface
  • software sequencer
  • drum VST instrument (optional but highly recommended)
  • a drummer 🙂

Step 1: choose your e-drums

What to look for:

  • Multiple trigger zones per pad: you’ll probably want at least two (the rim and the head)
  • Mesh pads: these feel much more natural than rubber pads. Try to get at least a mesh snare.
  • MIDI: this should be fairly standard
  • Playability!

If you don’t have $1k+ to drop on a decent kit you may be able to rent a kit at your local music store (I rented a Roland TD-6 kit for about $100/month)

Step 2: choose your plug-in (optional)

I have yet to hear a set of e-drums that sound believable. The sample sets are usually pretty small and you’ll get only a few highly-processed multi-samples per drum. Of course as you spend more, this becomes less of an issue, but I’ve found the best bang for your buck is to use a VST plug-in. With VST plug-ins you just use the e-drum kit as a controller to trigger the plug-in via MIDI.

There are a number of options out there: Addictive Drums, EZ Drummer, BFD, etc. I’d recommend Addictive Drums – they offer a freely available demo (one kick, snare, hihat and crash) with no time limitations. Even the demo alone is enough to lay down some basic tracks.

Step 3: Setting everything up

Connect the MIDI out on the e-drums to the MIDI in on your MIDI interface and fire up your sequencer.

If you’re using a VST plug-in, you’ll now need to map the e-drums to your sequencer. You may need the manuals for this 🙂

  • Create a new preset on your e-drums
  • For each trigger zone, decide what exactly you want to trigger. You’ll probably want the snare head to trigger a straight snare hit, the rim to trigger either a cross stick or a rim shot, etc.
  • Map the MIDI note for the pad/zone to the corresponding note on your VST plug-in, i.e. if the straight snare hit is C3, configure the snare head trigger zone to send MIDI note C3. This part can get a bit tedious.
  • Save your preset!

Note you may also be able to do the exact opposite of what I’ve said above: instead of mapping your e-drums to your plug-in, you may be able to map your plug-in to your e-drums. It depends on the plug-in.

Keep in mind that most plug-ins have many different types of hit per drum (i.e different locations on the drums). You’ll probably have way more hits in your plug-in than trigger zones on your e-drums. For this reason you may want to create multiple presets, or map multiple pads to one type of drum (i.e. pad 1 triggers straight snare and cross stick, pad 2 trigger rim shot)

Step 4: Recording

Now it’s time to record:

  • create a new MIDI track in your sequencer and map it to whatever channel the e-drums are sending to
  • adjust the tempo
  • turn on the click track
  • record!

If you’re not using a drum plug-in you’ll need to connect the MIDI out of your interface to the MIDI in on your e-drums so you can actually hear what you recorded. You’ll also need to connect the audio output on your e-drums to an audio interface when you actually want to record a “final mix” of the drums.

In closing…

The major downside to recording drums this way is that you lose some of the subtleties and nuances of recording an acoustic set. For some styles or techniques this just won’t work at all – brushes for example. Otherwise, if the e-drums can capture it, then go for it. I think you’ll be happy with the results.

We actually regret not having done this for The Wax EP, and are contemplating taking an afternoon to re-record with a e-kit!

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