Welcome To MIDI-evil Times


By Jake Wood Originally published in DRUM! Magazine 2010 Issue

Playing electronic drums can be a lot like practicing to make out with that hideous pillow a certain grandma once stitched for an ungrateful eight-year-old’s birthday (sorry, nana). While it’s not the real thing, at least you’re getting the practice in without anyone complaining about your lack of technique (or threatening to call the cops).

But with perks that extend beyond the gates of silent campiness, electronic drums also have amazing advantages in the recording field. For example, there’s no need for thousands of dollars worth of microphones, a live room that costs $400 a day (engineer not included), and tones aren’t set in stone when the red light turns on Perks (and pillows aside), the electronic kit serves two functions in the studio: as a substitute for the real thing and as its own entity, capable of sounding like all the things an acoustic kit never could. While these two electronic tenets are radically different in both purpose and sound, their tones can be captured and treated in much the same way.

Prior to getting your mitts dirty with the details of deconstruction, the first order of business is determining the origin of the sound source. When recording electronic drums there are two options for the audio source: either an out-of-the-box performance with a sound module (for instance, Roland’s TD-20X), or an inside-of-the-box job triggering tones from within a computer using drum synthesizing software like BFD or EZdrummer.

Recording with a drum module (brain) is a straightforward and glitch-free procedure: Hit a pad, the pad sends a signal to the drum brain, and the brain spits sound into an audio interface, which is then routed to the multitracking computer. (FIG.1)

Unfortunately, most drum modules don’t offer more than just one or two measly pairs of stereo outputs, and there’s only so much mixing to be done with such a limited arrangement. Thankfully, the designers at Roland realized these problems and solved them with the TD-20X, the gateway to a new era of electronic drumming professionalism. It has ten analog outputs, making the channel array of an electronic drum–tracking session very similar to that of an acoustic session.

Regardless of the module or the number of outputs, a solid performance on an electronic kit hinges on avoiding latency. Even a few milliseconds of latency can disturb a drummer’s performance. For monitoring purposes, it’s best to avoid all potential latency-causing scenarios and monitor the tones before they are sent to the computer. There are two easy ways to wire this: 1) monitor the drums from the headphone jack on the sound module while mixing the rest of the band through an auxiliary input within the module (thankfully, most brains have this feature), 2) If, however, there is no aux input, most modules come with an additional aux out/send that can be plugged into the studio’s headphone monitoring system. Voila! Latency crisis scenario #1 is averted.

The other scenario for performing and recording electronic drums is with soft-synths. And having just graduated from pupation with a set of wobbly legs, there is still much to be developed for a seamless plug-’n-play operation. The basic setup for a soft-synth is to send the trigger signals through either a drum module or a MIDI converter, and have that information control a synth drum kit on a computer. While there’s usually a bit of tedious MIDI-parameter programming involved with every system, the basic scenario looks a little something like FIG. 2.

One of the really cool things about this scenario is that it’s a much more malleable triggering system. Additionally, the Alesis Trigger/iO MIDI converter is half the price of any drum brain (keep in mind, however, that unlike a drum brain, a MIDI converter has no tones of its own), and only requires the addition of software like FXpansion’s exhaustingly magnificent BFD2.

Latency is a much more common beast with soft-synth drumming, and installation isn’t recommended unless it’s on a fairly powerful computer. Even then, fiddling with the buffer is usually a necessary balancing act.

While it’s possible with the setup described immediately above to send MIDI information from an electronic kit into a computer that is running both the multitrack recording software and the soft-synth, this can bog down the CPU. To lighten the load on the multitracking computer, it’s best to have the soft-synth running on another computer (essentially the drummer’s computer). While the one-computer method is obviously cheaper, it’s more likely to encounter latency, crashes, and buffer overloads. Additionally, if the soft-synth needs to be transferred to the studio’s computer, bunker up and be prepared for a frustrating battle of transferring software licenses.

For a hybrid of software and hardware, the tones of both a drum brain and a soft-synth can be captured simultaneously by feeding audio and MIDI from the brain into the multitrack session. This allows the simultaneous triggering of any soft-synth alongside the audio from the brain, tracking two completely different-sounding kits. In order to achieve this, two channels in the multitrack software are necessary: one stereo audio track for the brain, and a second MIDI or instrument track with the drum-synth software enabled as a plug-in. Additionally, even if there isn’t any synth software on the computer, the most valuable aspect of recording electronic drums is capturing the MIDI. With only a MIDI cable connecting the brain and interface, the editing and tonal possibilities thereafter become stunningly articulate.

Imagine a scenario in which the timing of a drum take is so asthmatically bad that it needs to be straightened out and quantized (see dictionary under “soulless”). Thankfully, the MIDI was captured as a fallback during tracking, and the perfect performance is only a few steps away. Take the MIDI coming out of the audio interface, send it to the drum module, make a new play list for the audio portion of the drum tracks, hit record, and watch the virtual drumming humanoid nail that part better and more sterilely then a puny biped ever could!

How about recording three different drum sets at once without the chaos of three drooling egos in the room? All it takes are some triggers on an acoustic kit, a drum brain (not a MIDI converter), and a computer with a soft-synth. The three drum sets are comprised of microphones on the acoustic kit, the tones triggered from the drum brain, and the additional MIDI drums from the soft-synth. All three kits are played simultaneously and can be tracked as such. (FIG. 3)

When adding the audio from drum set microphones, the waveforms may be slightly delayed and will probably flam with the MIDI performance. Listen to it for proof. Eyeball it to double check if the MIDI is in fact arriving before the audio, and adjust the waveform by adding pre-delay compensation (making it earlier). The amount of compensation will vary with every system, but anywhere from -3 to -10ms will probably solve any flamming. To have a much easier referencing experience, track a few isolated kick or snare hits to make sure that drum sets are in unison.

Triggers can be a lot of fun, but their sensitivity is a huge hurdle. Crosstalking and retriggering (the unintended triggering of additional notes that weren’t played) are a much more common annoyance with acoustic drums. This is due to the fact that they, unlike electronic drums, actually resonate. While it’s definitely possible to eliminate the unwanted triggering with acoustic drums, it’s done so by forfeiting an unfortunate amount of sensitivity and response from the triggers. It’s a battle of art verses technological restrictions, with ghost notes on the frontlines.

It’s imperative for musicians to track while monitoring what their instrument will probably sound like in the master. Imagine a guitarist tracking a solo with a wimpy clean tone when later in mixdown it’s going to get doused with over-the-top distortion and “go long” delay. Not only is this discombobulating for the guitarist, but the subtleties and nuances of how he or she might normally play a distorted solo will potentially be lost, because the clean and distorted tones aren’t really the same instrument.

Similarly, if a drummer records a song with a naturally staccato-sounding tone bank, replete with thirty-second-note ballyhoo and extreme doubles in the kick, the articulation of those notes should probably be preserved. If, however, in post-production the ol’ one-second-long window-rattling 808 kick drum sample becomes the staff favorite and replaces that original snappy sample, then things might start to sound a little strange as the drums become a murky mystery of masticated mumblings. A drummer with big ears plays differently (sometimes unconsciously) when presented with different tunings and drums, so every effort should be made to track while monitoring the end-result kit.

Along with the judgment of choosing one of the three tonal origins as a foundation (drum module, software, or acoustic), there are also a few methods for treating the electronically generated tones that range from simple embellishments of acoustic character to timbre renovations that require city permits.

Especially when electronic drums are acting as surrogates for the tried-’n-true wood-’n-glue option, hi-fi plug-in effects are an absolute must. Some brains have built-in reverbs and compressors, as do most soft-synths, but additional high-quality effects are mandatory for professional mixing.

To add an additional layer of ambience and character, setting up some microphones in the room is a great way to capture a performance that doesn’t sound like it’s trapped in a vacuum. Run an aux out from the brain into an amp or P.A., mike the speaker, and set up a room mike or two to capture actual air movement and room noise. If this method was skipped during tracking, it’s possible to revisit it in mixdown by reamping the signal (sending the prerecorded drums out of the interface, into a reamping device — aka a reverse D — and then into an amp), and rerecording it with the additional warmth and effects of the amp and the room.

Want to get bitchy with the brew? How about a dash of DeJonette in the right and a wisp of White in the left? Quite possibly the most interesting mixing trick using these diverse tonal centers is panning them á la Bitches Brew. Stir the cauldron with acoustics to the right, brain tones to the left, and a soft-synth kick dead center. Not only does this paint the sonic gestalt with thick wholesome goodness, it also makes the drums sound wider in an intelligent manner.

For every time there’s been doubt as to whether or not a recording’s drum track is artificial, the cymbals are always a dead giveaway. The quest for a polite, natural-sounding synthetic cymbal is ongoing, and in the meantime, customizing an electro-acoustic hybrid kit with old-fashioned brass cymbals and drum pads sharing the same real-estate can spice things up and bring the authenticity level up to believable.

The mountain of options for recording electronic drums can be exhausting, yet the plethora of choices can lead to amazing discoveries, inspirations, and creations. Just don’t forget that it can also retard the creative process, which is paramount in music making. There are many roads to Graceland, but only two feet to get you there.