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Re: Realistic drum programming/recording for songs

The situations where I have learned most about realistic drum
programming is when I have been sitting together with a drummer in
front of a computer to program drums for a piece of music. I came to
realize that I had many incorrect assumptions about drumming and the
first area where I had to shape up my knowledge was "tightness and
quantization". I had been thinking that the exact timing of machines
is bad for the feel in a drum track and that human drummers sound more
organic and musical because every hit is not aligned to an exact time
grid. With the first drummer I thought "wow, this is a funny guy that
wants to quantize everything" but then I found this attitude among all
drummers I worked with - no one is so keen on the studio's Quantize
Button as real drummers. This totally opposed my previous assumptions,
and still the drum tracks we came up with sounded better and more
human that I had ever been able to create on my own. Why? Well, the
answer is not "timing humanization" but "accent exactness". So that I
learned by loosing a bit of my ego ;-)  This has directly to do with
"ghost hits" that Buzzrap mentions but there's a lot more to it. With
accents (handled by "velocity" in MIDI along a 128 step range) you
create loops within an on-going rhythm, accent loops that may go on
for long periods like four, eight, twelve or sixteen bars. These tides
of subtle "waves" in accent (how hard the virtual drummer bashes the
skins) has to be applied in balance with drum fills. A related
technique, for more progressive music styles, is to make accent loops
that rely poly rhythmical to the short beat, much like when combining
loops of different length (typical example syncing a three-beat loop
and a four-beat loop). This technique is also common in melody
composition (King Crimson, minimal techno), as a "less is more" way to
create two complementary stories with just one melody line. But
drummers do that all the time within the rest of the music, drumming
can be a poly rhythm factory in its own right.

The bottom line of this is that most sequencer applications "Humanize"
buttons are crap. They apply randomization to the placement in time of
each drum hit, and this is all bad. If you look at how a great drummer
plays it may seem like "a little random is at play" if you only look
at only one or two bars of his playing - and this is where the
programming approach often fails. When looking at how a great drummer
plays along the full length of a piece you will find that any
deviation from a time grid is never caused by random; there is always
an intention present at any level of the drumming. So to take on all
this knowledge and apply it in programming is a huge task. And
technically challenging too, because sequencers are not always
designed by musicians so there are no easy ways to do things like
smoothly letting a hihat pattern drift from slow to an aggressively
leading general timing over a couple of bars. One constantly needs to
balance the general timing of kick drum, snare and hihat. These three
timing areas depend not only on the music and the instrumentation of
the orchestra but also on the mixing. And here is the second thing I
learned form working closely with drummers in the studio: a drum
rhythm carries the music totally differently depending on how "sharp"
or "muddy" the drum mixing is. But there's more to it: modern DAW
mixing environments have plugins that will let you shape transients
like modeling clay and this is a very important technique for
"realistic drum programming"  (but it isn't actually programming but
rather sound design at its most extreme dynamics). If you solo a
"realistic" drum track it may not sound realistic at all, but in the
mix it does, and this is a psychological phenomenon in human hearing.
The brain constantly generalizes sound from the very first
milliseconds of the sound; hence the importance of the attack in
drumming and producing recordings of drumming. The point is that a
recording can not generalize creatively like our ears and brains are
so good at, so all producing of recorded music has to be "cheating" to
find the best ways to "imply directions" that bring up the experience
of "realistic" in the listener. This is why you can press the mixer's
solo button for a timpani drum channel and A/B compare it with
pounding the real timpani drum. The real thing just won't fit onto the
recording medium and the message will get lost. Real instruments have
developed over centuries because they tend to sound great together
when listened to live (with the exceptionally efficient human brain
analyzing early reflections in 3.D). Recording is totally different,
one has to minimize the real thing to make it fit sonically and also
introduce nifty tricks for dynamic processing to replace the absent
"human ear/brain code". Techniques to make this dynamics happen in a
recording also includes setting up sub mixes of drum groups and having
them interact dynamically by side chaining (often includes bass lines
and "effect reverb breathing" etc). Maybe treating certain frequency
ranges of a sound differently.

All this can be heard on records so it is easy to learn by keeping
reference recordings at hand while working on a mix of your own;
compare, adjust your work, compare, adjust your work, compare... doing
that for some time makes you learn progressively as you pick up "new
senses". The more you learn the faster you learn more.

Greetings from Sweden

Per Boysen