Believable Beats

A Drummer’s Guide To Studio Recording

When people talk about sampling in the context of music production, they can mean different things. In general, sampling refers to taking a portion of one sound recording (the sample) and using it as an element in a new recording. The process we’re concerned with here is recording an instrument at various pitches and volumes in order to reuse it at a later date. Let’s get started.

Why Sample?

There are a variety of reasons why you might want to invest the time into sampling your kit. One reason might be for the sake of the instrument itself. In our example, Dan Dills is sampling a 1964 Slingerland kit that originally belonged to his father, Tony. Not only is this a collectable vintage set, it’s a family heirloom, so Dan wants to protect it from the wear and tear of the road.

Some drummers add samples to their live show, either as part of a dedicated electronic kit, in the form of a trigger, or replayed via computer. Having your drums sampled can also be useful in the studio. Samples can be used to replace bad hits or to augment the studio kit you used. If you write or produce demo songs, you can program your playing in your software’s drum editor, and then have it use your kit for playback. This allows you to make demos without waking the neighbors. Instead of generic drums, your demos will be more believable since they use your personal kit. Another purpose is to generate income: Some people like to sell, trade, or rent samples among their fellow musicians. Finally, you might simply just be adventurous and want to see what this process is all about.

Traditional Sampler Format

A sampler is an electronic device that can play back recordings (or “samples”) of different sounds. In traditional hardware-based samplers, the samples are usually stored in RAM. Since RAM was very expensive when samplers were developed, only portions of an instrument were sampled (say, one key per octave on a piano), and the files were compressed during storage. When the sample is triggered (meaning to invoke playback), the sampler outputs the audio. Consideration is given to variables such as modulation, volume, sustain, and so on. For example, if you command for a piano note to be held for ten seconds, the sampler will decompress the source sample, then loop it over and over to give the impression that the note lasts long enough. If the note requested is not one of the originally sampled notes, the sampler will perform a pitch-shifting process in order to return the proper note. In theory, the pitch-shifting algorithms are transparent. However, many accomplished musicians and audio engineers disagree, suggesting the results sound artificial.

Producers and engineers familiar with this technology tend to classify samplers as either phrase or studio samplers. Phrase samplers are more suitable to drum production. Each key (or velocity pad) is mapped to one drum sample. This allows users to play and program rhythms by hitting the pads of the sampler. The Akai MPC series is one of the most popular types of phrase sampler, being used extensively in rap, electronic, and live production (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

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Studio samplers often use piano keyboards to trigger samples – even for drums. The samples are mapped across the notes of the keyboard (a process known as “keymapping”). For example, if we were playing back a sample of a xylophone, each note would be triggered by its corresponding note on the piano keyboard. Obviously, this approach works well with note-based samples.

Both phrase and studio samplers can recognize how hard the user plays a key or strikes a pad. The harder a person plays (known as the velocity of the note), the louder the sample. In simplistic setups, the sampler simply raises the volume, but more advanced units will recall a separately recorded, louder sample. This is crucial for creating believable sounds, especially for drums.

Hardware-based samplers are stable (especially when compared to their computer-based counterparts), have a streamlined user interface, and are portable. They’ve also been around long enough that most manufacturers have had time to work out kinks and bugs with their systems. Popular brands of hardware samplers are made by Akai, Roland, E-MU, Korg. Yamaha.

Computer Samples And Disc Streaming

With lower prices and increased processing power, it was only a matter of time before computers became legitimate competition for hardware samplers. Today, scores of software applications have the ability to sample, play back samples, or sequence samples (the process of mapping out which sample plays, when it plays, and what it sounds like). Popular software sequencers include Propellerhead’s Reason, Cakewalk Sonar, MOTU Digital Performer, Steinberg Cubase, Apple Logic, and Image-Line Software’s FL Studio.

Of particular note is “hypersampling,” a term Propellerhead coined to refer to the process by which each drum is recorded at multiple velocity levels, from multiple angles, using different sets of microphones. While other sequencers can play only one sample, or stack multiple samples on one key, the Reason approach is closer to the real world. For example, when the command for a snare drum hit is received by Reason’s NN-XT Advanced Sampler, not only will the primary (or close mike) sample play, but the sample collected from each mike during the recording session can play back. This is similar to being in a real recording studio with a real drummer. By routing the NN-XT tracks to different mixer channels, you can blend the sound of the samples as if you were actually using all of those microphones.

In recent years, a completely new approach to sample playback has emerged. Instead of using short samples, and then reconstructing them at playback, each note of an instrument is recorded at full length and stored in high resolution. Known as disc streaming, this process plays actual recordings instead of reconstructed, pitch-shifted, or looped fragments of audio. First made popular by Tascam’s GigaStudio application, the advantages of disc streaming include a level of authenticity never before achieved by a sampler. Instruments that were difficult to sample (such as strings and cymbals) are now fully realistic (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Tascam GigaStudio

Consider the low bass notes of a concert grand piano. Some notes take up to 30 seconds to decay. No loop could begin to reconstruct that type of situation. Of course, this fidelity comes at a price. Disc streaming systems require large amounts of hard drive space. For example, a piano on a hardware sampler might require 300KB of RAM space, while the same piano would take over 2GB of space. It also takes a state-of-the-art system to play complex instruments without glitches. In addition to GigaStudio, Steiberg’s HALion and MOTU’s MachFive are two popular applications that support streaming.

Why the science lesson? It’s important to know what type of sampler will be used to playback your drums. Additionally, it’s important to know where the industry is going in terms of technology and practice. In our example, Dan wants to sample his vintage kit so he can use the audio for years to come. Had he done this project a few years ago, he might have taken only a few, short samples. He would be limited in the variety and quality of his sounds, not to mention how unconvincing his cymbals would have turned out. Now, armed with a little background on sampling options, we’re ready to do a better job with this project.

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Capture Software

There are a variety of quality applications available that will let you record, edit, and save your audio. The following is by no means an exhaustive list. As a studio owner, I recommend you use a studio in your area. They will have microphones, preamplifiers, and an acoustic space designed to give you the best quality. However, if you want to try this at home, you’ll need to have a capture program to help you. I found a great title called SAMPLIT by SAFTA CONSULTING, Inc. (http://www.cdxtract.com). With SAMPLIT, you can record your drums and cymbals, edit the file, and convert the sounds to a sampler library. As a bonus, SAMPLIT works on both PC and Mac OS X. All you need is an audio interface, some microphones, and a preamp. These items are beyond the scope of our discussion, but have been covered in these pages in past issues of DRUM!

Standard Practices

For the most straightforward project, we are going to record each drum and each cymbal in the kit. Each drum will be miked separately in a room that has minimal or no reflections. We want this “dry” sound to allow users of the samples to be able to add their own ambience based on the needs of their project.

Moving from drum to drum, Dan will hit each drum three different ways: soft, medium, and hard. We’ll capture the audio in our capture software and in a little while we will have a complete sample of his kit.

Suggested Practices

The following are some suggestions for sampling your kit. You may or may not want to follow these depending on your needs, time, and budget.

Set Up The Entire Kit. In the real world, you don’t play your drums with each drum in a different room, so why sample them in isolation? When you hit the snare it vibrates the other drums and reflects off of hardware. Although subtle, this added ambient information is captured when you record. I believe this can help increase the depth and believability of your samples. In our session, we placed ten microphones using two Latch Lake Mike King 2200 stands and several Xtra Boom add-on arms.

Three Is Not Enough. Traditional samplers might have had only enough storage for three volume intensities, but that’s changed. If you are going for authenticity, consider five or more levels of striking force. With kick and snare, you definitely want more than three options.

A Little Ambience Is All Right. While there is significant merit in avoiding effects such as reverberation when we sample, the fact remains that we don’t often play our drums in a completely dead room. From a small club to a recording studio to a stadium, the spaces in which we play have some degree of liveliness to them. Provided there are not significant slap-back echoes or pronounced reflections, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to sample your drums in a room that is not completely flat and dead-sounding. In our session, we included two overhead microphones and a monophonic omni-directional room mike.

Strike Different Areas Of The Head/Cymbal. We’re not all perfect – sometimes we hit a drum slightly off center. Make sure to record striking at different parts of the head (this is especially true for the snare). When recording cymbals, the hi-hats and ride samples will benefit from hits at different parts of the cymbal. Don’t forget to try different parts of the stick as well. Side-stick sounds and rimshots are two crucial samples for drums.

Use Different Sticks/Striking Devices. Speaking of sticks, consider using wood and nylon tips on the cymbals. You might also want to take advantage of the numerous alternate devices on the market: brushes, dowel rods, polymer brush-things, broom stick stalks, and so on. Many drummers utilize these products to open up their sonic palette. Don’t leave them out in the sampling process – especially if you have a favorite.

Multiple Microphones. For delicate work, like brushes, it might be a good idea to use multiple microphones. A large-diaphragm condenser mike placed farther away from the drum can often do a better job picking up nuances than a close-on dynamic model (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3.

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Don’t Forget The Rudiments. While it’s conceivable that you could re-create any drum fill using single hits, I’m convinced that strikes based on flam and drag families will be more believable if you record them for real.

Consider Multiple Head Types. If you are wed to one type of head, this may not apply, but having recordings of single- and double-ply heads, live and focused, will give you more flexibility down the line.

Remember Different Tunings Especially for the snare, but also important for the kick, you’ll want to try to get samples across the usable tuning range of your drums. This can be helpful when changing styles and for capturing more or less of the shell in the tone.

Loops Are Samples Too. Blame Sony Acid for making looping even more fun. Loops, or short one- or two-bar phrases, can be loaded into computer programs such as Ableton Live or Apple GarageBand. From there you can time-stretch (change the speed of the loop with minimal impact on the tone of the instruments) to fit your track.

Strange Perspective. With lo-fi beat-box sounds so popular, you might want to consider adding an actual boom box or other limited-range microphone to the mix. We added a Bing Carbon Mic, which is based on telephones of the 1970s. (myspace.com/carbonmicrophone) (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Bing Carbon Microphone.

Geek Can Be Good. If you find yourself agreeing with some of these suggestions, you probably already understand that the scope of this project will expand quickly. If you have access to a spreadsheet program, it would be a good idea to begin by making a grid of what you plan to do (a piece of graph paper works fine too). In one column list the drums you’re sampling, and in another you can note intensity levels. Add items such as stick and head variations. Take this to the session and have the engineer call them out and check them off as you complete them.

Geek Can Be Good, Part Two. If you go in a specific order, it will make it easier for you to name each sample as you save it. Remember, a sample has no use if you can’t find it when you need it.

Cleaning Up

During the recording, you’ll have more audio than you’ll need for the sample. You’ll need to trim the excess audio at the beginning and the end of the section. I suggest avoiding cross-fades and letting the sound fade out on its own. If you must end the clip before the audio ends, do your best to zoom in to where you can find a zero crossing (where the audio wave hits the center line of the graphical scale). This can happen when the audio is moving up or down, just as long as you stop at a zero crossing. This will help to eliminate pops or glitches at the end of the sample.

Publishing To Sampler Type

Once your samples are trimmed and ready to go, you’ll need to export your audio files into a format that’s recognizable by your sampler. The SAMPLIT software used in our example can output information recognizable by the nine most popular software samplers. If you need to convert to a hardware sampler, you’ll need to use something like TRANSLATOR from Chicken Systems, Inc. (chickensys.com), which can translate into various hardware formats.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to keep a backup copy of the original digital files. These will be useful for tasks like sound replacement. They will also serve as your archive and the source from which new sample formats are developed.

Conclusion

Although there is a good bit of electronic lingo involved, sampling your drums is not terribly complicated. With a little bit of planning, some simple organizational tools, and a good audio engineer, it’s possible to capture an accurate recording of your kit. Provided that you record to a high-resolution digital file, you can share your kit for years to come.

And you don’t even need to be there!