October 7, 2011

Electronic Drums/Sampling (Part I)

Beginning in the 1970s and into the 1980s, electronic drum kits became a new innovation in production and performance for some of the biggest bands of the era. Duran Duran, Rush, and of course Rick Allen of Def Leppard with his hybrid acoustic and electronic kit, set a new standard in what electronic drum technology could do to musical creativity. Fast forward to the 21st century and electronic drums have never been more popular. Sales of electronic drum kits have risen greatly in recent years with more and more studios using them for production and artists using hybrid electronic and acoustic drum kits. Software like Toontracks, Ableton, and Battery 3 provide an endless array of drum sounds to pick from to be controlled via a MIDI keyboard or with an electronic drum kit.

I have spent the better part of my life playing acoustic drum kits and have recently been exposed to electronic drum kits and drum samples within production. I began doing some research into how the drumming community feels about drum technology and software dominated drum samples. I found that most drummers are not talking about this and we as a community of percussionists should be discussing how our craft is enhanced or threatened by this burgeoning technology. To get the conversation started I wanted to go through how electronic drums are used in the studio, on the stage, and finally my opinion and projection on the future of electronic drums.

Neil Peart: Combining Acoustic/Electric

Studio Production

Have you ever heard your favorite drummer on a record and wondered how they got the drums to sound so darn good? The answer may be that those drums are not coming from a real acoustic kit. I have worked with producers that track live drums in studio, but then go back through the recording and punch in all the drum sounds from their dedicated software. There are producers whose drum tracks sound the same across multiple records from different bands. This is because they found a sound they like, and in post production, punch in all those sounds with a MIDI keyboard. So what you essentially have is the drummers performance, but the producer changes all the live sounds into programmed drum sounds.

Electronic Drums in the studio

This is not the only way producers use electronic drums in studio production. You may be shocked (or not) to find out that many studio productions are absent of any live drum tracking. While much of hip-hop, electronica, and pop music is undeniably electronic, many popular rock records of the last few years are completely absent of any live tracking. If you ever hear a track with drums that are too good to be true, then you may have an electronic drum sound.

Musical purists may see this as a threat to the validity of their performance and feel animosity towards what some call “cheating.” To that I say it only matters as much as your taste in music. Some people enjoy the tight, expansive, and creative sounds that electronic drums, or overdubbed MIDI sounds, can provide. Others like the stripped down and bare bones sound of a band tracking live in the studio without additional tweaks to the drum sound. Even if your favorite band has been tweaked to exhaustion on their tracked drums, you can always go to their performance where the sound will be true. Right?

In the second part of this blog, I dive into electronic drums for performance, the future of electronic drums, and my final thoughts on electronic drums and sampling.



  1. Kevin Lorance says:

    I’m not a drummer personally, I’ve only engineered and tracked drums, but for me there’s sort of a love/hate sentiment with capturing drum sounds. Ultimately, it just depends on how it affects the feel of the song. Sometimes sampled drum sounds add a uniqueness to a song (the opening beats of Anberlin’s PRAY TELL are a standout example), while in other instances, you can’t help but marvel at how well an acoustic kit has been tracked (such as the latest Foo Fighters release.) In my experience thus far, it’s best to capture the absolute best quality acoustic performance possible first. If you feel like samples would give extra life to a song, all you need is half an hour and Beat Detective.

    1. taylor says:

      I totally agree Kevin. Sometimes sampled drums do make the song great and Anberlin as a perfect example of that. For me its all about the band, the song, and the sound the producer and artists can agree is best for the track. Great response Kevin!

  2. ZarifR says:

    I played drums in a band both acoustic kits and electronic kits…i honestly prefer the acoustic kits because u feel the music more as to that of electronic kits. electronic kits do add alot of versatility to a musical set in terms of the ability to have tons of different tones that can be programmed to a particular pad or trigger. while these new technology add variances in the music it takes away from the real skill. also in terms of productions producers find it alot easier and faster to complete productions using the electronic samples as they can easily go back and remove a snare or a hi-hat in a sequence…if it was live acoustics they wud have to record the entire set back again. to me both acoustic and electronic has its pros and cons.

    1. taylor says:

      Thanks for the comment ZarifR. I have been in the studio and used both acoustic and samples on the same record. Some of the tracks were a hybrid of the two much in the same style as Linkin Park. For me personally I like the sound and feel of acoustic kit too but I do see the advantages to sampled drums when trying to finish a record with the least amount of headache.

  3. Frank Sparti says:

    I’ve always used a “punching in” technique for vocals (ie. recording scratch ones listening for a few weeks so i “expect” vocals to be in those spots then re recording them when it comes without thinking and i can focus on feel.) Recording a drum track & electronically manipulating them initially having the drummer listen for a while and re record may result in a cool production technique.

    Or maybe recording midi on an electronic kit or programming samples and then routing the volume envelope of an acoustic track to the velocity envelope of the midi can possibly allow you to have the “feel” of an acoustic kit. I’m more of a synth player and like the mechanical feel programming gives but hopefully these give somebody an idea that ends up in an awesome track.

  4. Mike Burdine says:

    (Sorry, I had to say it…)

    I’m no drummer, but I produce hip hop and some experimental electronic music.. and I have literally somewhere between 25-50 musician friends, who most have recorded a record or who are engineers now…
    A lot of rock and metal bands will record their drums in the studio to mic’d acoustic kits, then the engineer goes back in Protools or another DAW and uses programs like Slate Digital Drum Trigger and aligns the drums for a more perfected sound. Sometimes drummers just get sloppy on the snare hits or hats, so the engineer will go back in and layover a previous snare hit over top of the weak one. It not only keeps a real sound to it, but makes the drummer sound WAAAAY better than what they really are. Granted, purist will complain about how its not REAL DRUMS, but its the 21st century, and nearly everything is digital.. I mean, we have TV’s in our mirrors in the bathtubs now!!
    I feel that digitizing and perfecting the drums in a record not only takes care of the sloppiness of drummers, but keeps the bar higher for amateur to keep up with. They all like to play along with their favorite songs, and if they learn by replaying a raw drum track and they try for that digital sound, which I think improves upon future drummers.

  5. Josh E. says:

    Very interesting article here, Taylor. Having dived into acoustic and electronic drumming myself, I encounter that same debate all the time on what’s better or what’s more “pure”. I agree in that it all depends on personal taste and the genre of music you’re producing. I personally believe that innovating instrument technology is beneficial for advancing many facets of music whether its drums (like in this article) or in DJ culture (turntables vs controllers).

  6. taylor says:

    So true Mike. Many producers will go in and clean up the sloppiness of the drum track but sometimes it gets way overdone in my opinion. As Kevin notes at the top, a band like the Foo Fighters got a great live drum track on tape and not ProTools which is a testament to a great performance and great production.

    As a side note, Rick Allen had two arms for the production of Pyromania and that record has that signature Mutt Lange overproduced sound much like his latest work with Nickelback. I am still a huge fan of Leppard and Mutt despite my desire for a raw drum sound.

    I look forward to the future as well and still enjoy a good beefy kick and cracking snare even if I know its not the real thing.

  7. Paul LaGreca says:

    Honestly, I think a classic acoustic drum kit is always the way to go for “pure drumming”. I am a DJ, and I use Traktor Pro 2. I like to use 3 track decks and 1 Sample Deck. I have mostly One Shots in the sample decks and play a loop in the third deck along with the other 2 tracks. For the 3rd deck my loop is usually going to either be a bass or a drum loop. What I do is record my own little loop I make on the drums or the bass. Of course I tweak it a little bit, but not much. It still sounds acoustic and everything so I have no problem with people who tweak like I do. What I don’t like is the people on the 4 by 4 grids finger drumming. Not that I don’t like the fact that they do it, I mean I do it all the time for fun. But to put it in a track I just can’t stand. To me, its fake.

    However, I do understand the reasoning behind the electric drums. I mean you can have all these sorts of other instruments to choose from in one kit. So instead of a hi-hat, you get a brass ensemble. I guess it is helping out with the evolution of all the genres, but from what I understand is that half of the world just listens to Rap, so all people ever need to make a song that hits number one is just the same pattern that keeps going on and on for the entire song.

    Clearly, I am on the fence about this subject, but that can be a good thing or a bad thing. And as long as it sounds perfect to me I don’t care.

  8. ryandigweed says:

    Wow, so many drums replaced by this one unit. I think thats cool, but i wonder if it feels and sounds like the original stuff.. I don’t know, its cool and all.. but i wouldn’t want to see this all over replacing actual drums. I think im a bit old .. (on from facebook, but my username here is different =] )

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