Last updated on November 28, 2018 by Drew Swisher

In this article you’ll learn how to program MIDI drums that sound realistic.

A drum kit that sounds fake can suck the life out of your song. By following these quick and simple steps, you can make your MIDI drums sound as good as the real thing.

But first, be sure to grab our FREE Drum Programming Cheat Sheet. The cheat sheet, along with this article, will tell you everything you need to know to get your MIDI drums sounding like they were tracked in a pro studio.

Get it here:

 

How to Program Realistic MIDI Drums (TODAY!)

 

Step 1: Make the Performance More Realistic

Right off the bat, this article is for musicians who want to make their MIDI drums sound like an ACTUAL drummer. If your music is particularly electronic in nature, you may not need a realistic sounding kit.

But for those of you who do want real drums without blowing all your savings to rent a studio, step one is making sure your performance sounds great.

Making your raw tracks to sound as good as possible is one of the best things you can do for your mix. If a recording sounds bad, mixing can only improve it so much.

This goes for MIDI performances as well. As you improve the sound of your MIDI, you’re making it possible for your final mix sound amazing.

One of the easiest ways you can improve MIDI performance is by using a MIDI instrument.

If you’re already a drummer but don’t want to go through the hassle of miking and tracking a kit, get an electronic drum kit. By playing an electronic kit into a drum software like EZdrummer, you can easily achieve a very human performance while using samples.

If you aren’t a drum virtuoso, you could also use a drum pad or MIDI keyboard.

Regardless of what tool you’re using, recording your samples with an actual instrument will make them sound believable. This is because you’re recording the MIDI with changes in volume and timing already baked in.

It would be strange to hear a drummer play every beat at the exact same volume. It’s impossible for a drummer to play every beat perfectly on time.

Playing a MIDI instrument will immediately make you think like a drummer.

But you can still get the same results if you’re writing your MIDI by hand. It’ll just take a little more effort to get the volume and timing right.

Whether you’re performing the part or writing it, there are MIDI editing tools you can use to help you think like a drummer and sound more realistic.

 

Step 2: Think Like a Drummer

Honestly, this part is an extension of improving performance. But thinking like a drummer is so important that it deserves its own section.

Write MIDI that fits the mold of what an actual drummer might do. If a drum part would be impossible to play, it’s not going to sound like a real person played it.

But what does it mean to think like a drummer?

Like any instrument, drums are infinitely complex. But volume, timing, and playability are the main things you need to focus on.

Whether using electronic drums or a step editor to write in MIDI, there are three concepts you need to know. These will help you think like a drummer and capitalize on your performance.

Let’s start with volume.

While performing, a drummer will hit certain beats harder to accent certain rhythms. A straight-ahead punk anthem will likely accent the 2nd and 4th beat of each measure. On a funk track, a drummer will probably put more “oomph” into the 1st and the 3rd beat.

Drummers highlight important beats by hitting a drum harder. In MIDI terms, this is called velocity.

Every MIDI note has a velocity. Velocity describes how hard the sample is triggered.

A MIDI note with a low velocity will play very lightly. A high velocity will make the note louder and more brash.

The red and yellow MIDI notes have a higher velocity. And the blue and green notes have lower velocities.

It would be strange if a drummer hit every beat with the same volume. When entering in MIDI data, you’ll want to vary the velocity.

Think like a drummer while assigning MIDI velocities. There are certain beats that you should accent in your song. That’s where you’ll want to turn the velocity up.

On the non-accented beats, you’ll want to ease off the velocity.

Next, let’s think about timing.

As the rhythmic foundation of a song, drummers also need to focus on their timing.

Quantization relates to the timing of MIDI notes. With quantization, you can take a kick hit that is just after the first beat of a measure and snap it perfectly into place.

Quantization is the process of snapping your MIDI notes to the rhythmic grid.

Many DAWs allow you to quantize a bunch of MIDI notes at once. If your DAW allows this, you should be able to simply select the MIDI you want to quantize and hit enter.

Quantization is helpful in tightening up your track. But perfect quantization tends to sound robotic. Humans don’t play flawlessly in time the way a computer program might.

That’s why adding some variety to your timing can go a long way in making MIDI feel more real. Instead of quantizing and calling it good, go into your MIDI and move some notes around to be imperfect.

Practiced drummers tend to either anticipate the beat or stay just behind it. Think about which one your imaginary MIDI drummer tends towards. The image above emulates a drummer that lays just behind the beat.

If you don’t want to take the time to move every note around after quantizing, try using quantization strength. Quantization strength determines how close each note is brought to the grid.

By default, Logic’s quantization strength is set at its highest value, 100. Since the quantization is so strong, it brings notes perfectly into time.

I usually set quantization strength around 75. At 75, the quantization is still strong enough to tighten up the beat, but not so robotic that it sounds fake.

Quantization strength is mostly helpful for those using a MIDI instrument. If you’re writing the MIDI in yourself, you’ll likely get more use out of humanization.

Some DAWs allow you to automatically humanize your MIDI data. Humanization is related to both the volume and timing of MIDI notes.

Humanizing is the exact opposite of quantizing. Instead of putting your notes ON the grid, it moves them OFF the grid. Humanizing adds light randomization to the velocity and position of the MIDI. This randomization makes the MIDI sound less robotic without taking as much time.

Be careful with humanizing velocity, though. Establishing which beats are accented and which ones aren’t is crucial to your song’s rhythm.

You don’t want to assign velocities willy-nilly. It could make your drums sound even less realistic than a consistent velocity.

Humanization is the #1 reason why using a MIDI instrument will help you save time.

By performing these parts yourself, the MIDI has changes in velocity and timing already baked in. Instead of manually changing velocities, you can just hit the accented beats harder while recording.

You may still want to do some light quantization afterward, but all in all you will save a lot of time and avoid strenuous editing.

Finally, let’s check out playability.

Pay close attention to the drum parts in songs you like. Listen to the types of rhythms the drummer is playing.

Learn from actual drummers what a drummer could reasonably play.

A real drummer probably couldn’t play straight 64th note hi-hats at 140 bpm. (If you are a drummer who can do this, please message me. I’ve never wanted to start a progressive metal band, but you are the inspiration I need to make it).

A real drummer could definitely play a steady “four on the floor” rhythm though.

Make sure whatever drum part you write is possible for an actual drummer to play.

Step 3: Consider Using Premade Loops

I realize this step is unappealing for a lot of people. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to create your own unique drum patterns.

But there’s also no shame in using tools that make writing easier! After all, these premade patterns are usually made specifically to sound realistic.

If want to save time or if drums aren’t your forte, consider using the premade loops in the drum software you use.

Many virtual drum instruments come with premade MIDI patterns. For a super quick fix to fake sounding drums, load in one of these patterns.

You can even edit the MIDI data from a loop if you’re worried about sounding unoriginal. For example, you could take every other snare hit in the pattern and move it to be a rim click instead. Or you could swap out hi-hat hits for a subtle, washy ride.

If you’d like to use loops for your drums, consider adding them to your song sooner than later. Sometimes throwing a drum loop into a song at the tail end of writing works perfectly. Other times… not so much.

To help ensure the loops you choose fit the song, bring them in early in your writing process. That way you can tailor your other parts to suit the rhythm you’ve chosen.

Step 4: Choose Your Kit and Samples

Once you have something you’re happy with, take a look at the types of drum sounds you’re using.

If you’re using a virtual drummer, experiment with the different kits available to you. Loop a section of your song and cycle through kits to listen for which sounds the most believable in your song.

There’s no objectively correct choice when looking for a kit to use. It’s up to your personal taste and the needs of your song.

You can save yourself some time by knowing what you want ahead of time.

If you’re writing garage rock or lo-fi indie, you’ll probably want a kit that sounds suitably DIY. In that case, you’ll want to look for a kit that sounds grungy and loose.

If you’re writing pop, you might want a tighter, more studio-sounding kit. Listen for something punchier that sounds like it was professionally recorded.

For example, after looking through Logic’s stock drumming program, I was able to find this kit that felt very natural for the feel of the song I’m working on.

If you’re using samples, you’ll follow the same process but by looking through your favorite samples one by one.

This can take quite a bit of time. I recommend saving custom kits with your favorite samples so you can access them easily.

Step 5: Mixing Your MIDI Drums to Sound Realistic

Use a Reference

When mixing MIDI drums, be sure to have a drum reference track on hand. A drum reference track is a song that has the drum sound you’d like for your mix.

Listen to the mixes of some of your favorite songs.

Pay attention to the drum sound within the mix. Once you find something that sounds right for your track, choose it as your reference.

Side note: be sure to have a reference track for your full mix as well, not just the drums. Mixing with a reference track will help you get a radio-ready mix every time.

Try to recreate the drum sound from your reference for your own song. You want to mix your MIDI drums the same way you’d mix a real drum kit.

Pay attention to how loud each of the drums are in comparison to one another.

What is the the tone of the kick and snare?

How much reverb did they use on their snare?

Are the cymbals harsh or tame?

You want to aim for the closest recreation of the reference’s drum sound that you can. By focusing on the sound of a real drum kit, the steps you need to take to make your fake drums sound better will become clearer.

Create Your Own Reverb

Once you have your reference, mute any reverbs that were automatically applied to your drum sound. You’ll want to use your own reverb instead of the one in your drumming software.

You should mute the drum kit’s stock reverb because you’re probably going to use a room reverb for your mix. To help your drums sound like they’re in the same room as the rest of your mix, you want them to be going through the same reverbs the rest of your mix is.

You’ll also want to figure out how you can get all of your drum kit’s elements onto their own channels in your DAW. That way you can mix them like you would the rest of your instruments instead of mixing within the drum kit’s internal mixer.

The process for turning each drum in your virtual kit into its own channel in your DAW depends on the software. Google how you can do this inside your preferred drumming software.

Once you’ve dialed in the volume, tone, and reverb of your kit, there are a couple last mixing tools worth trying.

Use Saturation

See what saturation sounds like on your kit. Not every song needs saturation on the drums. Sometimes it can enhance the believability of your MIDI, though.

Saturation will add some excitement to the high frequencies of your kit. Kits from drum software can sound a bit too pristine. Saturation adds natural artifacts to your sound that a recorded drum kit would have.

Try using parallel saturation on your kit. Send your drum bus to an aux track and place a saturation plugin on it. Then use the gain knob to dirty it up as much as you’d like.

Listen to your drums and think to yourself: how can I improve the tone? If it’s lacking any top end sheen, try turning the tone knob to the focus on the upper-mids or top end. If it’s sounding too thin, try turning the tone knob to focus on the lower-mids or mids.

Once you’ve got the tone where you’d like it, turn the aux channel fader all the way down and slowly mix it back in. Once it sounds good to your ears, it’s perfect.

Use Parallel Compression

You can also try using parallel compression to make your drums more realistic. Parallel compression is a common tool used when mixing drums.

Instead of compressing the whole sound and calling it good, you mix the compressed sound in with the original. That’s why it’s called parallel compression.

To use parallel compression on your drums, either place a compressor with a mix knob on your drum bus or send a signal from your drum bus to an auxiliary compressor.

Once you have your compressor on the channel, you’ll want to apply heavy compression. I’m talking about really crushing that sound with around 10 dBs of gain reduction. It will sound terrible at first, but don’t worry. We’re going to mix it in very lightly.

Take your compressor’s mix knob or the fader of your aux channel (depending on which one you’re using). Turn the volume of your parallel compression all the way down.

Play a looped section of your song.

Slowly turn up the volume on your parallel compression until it’s barely audible. The added parallel compression will give your drum kit more energy.

Conclusion

There are 5 simple steps you can follow to make your MIDI drums sound more believable. Let’s recap.

  1. Make the performance sound more realistic. Use a MIDI instrument to perform the part and adjust the velocity and timing of notes. That way, we can make MIDI drums sound closer to the real thing.
  2. Think like a drummer. There are certain things a real drum can’t possibly do. Write drum parts that would make sense for a real drummer to play.
  3. Use premade loops. If you want to make them more original, edit the MIDI data.[MC4]
  4. Choose the right kits and samples. Lean into the style of your song by choosing drum sounds that fit it. Your drums will sound more realistic if you use drum sounds that fit the overall song.
  5. Mix your MIDI drums as if they were real drums. Find a song with a drum sound you like, and use it as a reference. Try to make your drums sound like the ones from your reference as you mix your song.

Follow these steps and your listeners will have trouble distinguishing your MIDI drums from a real drummer with a kit.

Before you go, don’t forget to grab our FREE Drum Programming Cheat Sheet.

It’s got all the best tidbits from this article to help you make realistic sounds from your MIDI drums.

Grab it here:

Drew Swisher

Producer and composer for film and video games. Helping you make music a little more fun and a little less tedious. Check out my work at Juniper Tapes.

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