Disk speed and multi-tracking

A friend recently asked me about disk speed as it pertains to multi-tracking:

“I’m getting in a new laptop next week, and have a bit of extra cash to
spend as well. It comes with a 1TB 5400 RPM drive. Would it be worth
it, performance wise, to splash out on a 7200 or 10000 RPM drive and use
the 1TB as extra storage? In terms of multi tracking and sequencing,
would there be a noticeable difference between using the 5400 as a main
drive and using a faster one?”

I figured I would share my response here, as it may help others facing the same decision:

“It really depends how many tracks you’re tracking at once. If
you’re doing a couple at a time then it probably won’t make much of a
difference for recording, but if you’re doing like 8 or something then
you definitely want the fastest drive possible.

The other thing to
consider is how many tracks you’ll be playing back. The default
behaviour of most DAWs is to stream from disk, and of course the more
tracks you stream the more likely you are to hit the limitations of disk
I/O. If your DAW supports loading audio to RAM (Ableton Live does, for
example), then you can ignore this bit.

One trick to get better
(not necessarily faster, but more consistent) disk performance would be
to partition the disk and dedicate one partition solely for recording
and/or as a scratch disk (if your DAW supports it). This way you don’t
need to worry as much about fragmentation, since they will “fragment”

Finally, if you’re running Windows 7 you could get a large USB thumb drive and use it for ReadyBoost, which basically gives you solid-state caching of frequently
accessed files (system files and the like). This way the DAW can get more
“exclusivity” of the mechanical drive.”

Hope this helps somebody out there! If you’re wondering about my setup: I have a mechanical drive and a solid-state drive. I use the SSD for ReadyBoost and as a scratch drive (for Ableton and Photoshop). Plus I have a 16GB thumb drive that I use for ReadyBoost as well, when USB bandwidth permits.

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!

Drum recording for The Wax

So my indie pop/rock band, The Wax, has started recording a 6 song EP. We ripped through the drums in a weekend. Here’s what we used for gear:

  • Overheads: Samson C02 pencil condensors
  • Kick mic: Shure Beta 52A
  • Snare: Shure SM57
  • Audio interface: ART Tubefire 8

We didn’t have the best room so I tried out the Recorderman technique for the overheads. Overall I’m pretty happy with the results. Here’s a clip of an early mix of one of the tracks.