As a songwriter, one of the biggest challenges can be the lack of a Drummer. Luckily for us, the modern world is full of options to help us overcome our drum deficiencies. Let's take a look at tools you can use to get your Groove flowing. From Loops to Plug-Ins, songwriters have more options than ever before.
For many songwriters, singers, and musicians, one of the most frustrating parts of writing music can be the lack of a drummer and drum parts. The addition of drums to new musical ideas can help solidify the groove of the song and allow the songwriter to figure out what works best for the arrangement. Luckily for all of us, modern technology is here to help. From the tried and true method of using audio loops, to virtual drum software, there are several ways you can add drum parts to your songwriting. We will discuss using Loops and Samples, Plug-Ins and Software, as well as Sequencing drums.
Loops and Samples
Audio loops are one of the most common ways people add drums parts to their songs. No matter what style of music you write, there are drum loop libraries that allow you to quickly add groove and feeling to your tracks. Since the early days of samplers, loops have been used to allow singers, mc's, and musicians to have readily available drum parts without having to learn how to sequence or learn fancy drum programs. Furthermore, most of today's DAW software, such as Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, will automatically tempo map the audio loops to your session. Whereas your parents and I had to learn to time-stetch & manipulate loops with hardware such as an MPC, your software will do it for you automatically. Another advantage to using loops is you have full license to use the audio files however you want with fear of legal issues.
Audio Loops: Where To Get Them
Since audio loops are so widely used, many companies exist to create loop libraries. A simple web search will yield a huge assortment of websites catering to whatever type of music genre you are into. Furthermore, you can purchase loops in any format you want, whether it's WAV file, Apple Loops, Ableton, iOS, etc... Companies such as Big Fish Audio, SoundOnline, Loopmasters, and a host of others, exist for the sole purpose of offering sample libraries of every style and variety.
Popular Audio Loop / Sample Library Websites:
Audio Loops: Importing To Your Project
Once you have your loop library, importing them into Pro Tools is as simple as using the Workspace Browser (found in the Window Menu). You can use the Workspace Browser to search, audition, and import audio files directly to your session. It can even automatically mapped the loops to your song's tempo.
Utilizing the Workspace Browser window in Pro Tools you can search for and audition any audio file, including loops you're purchased. Furthermore, if you select the Elastic Audio button at the top of the window (looks like a metronome) your audio files will audition and import directly to the tempo of your session. This way, if you already have a song idea in mind, you don't have to spend extra time forcing the drum loops to your tempo, it's done automatically.
Once you find a loop you like, simple drag it to the Tracks column in the Pro Tools Edit Window, which will import the audio file by placing it at the beginning of your session. What's more, once the loop has been imported, it is automatically Elasticized, which means you can freely change the tempo of you session and the loop will follow the change. You can continue importing as many audio loops as you want to allow yourself full flexibility in arranging drum tracks to match the style of your song.
In Pro Tools, you can use the Trim Loop Tool to freely draw a loop length in your session. For example, if your loop is only 2 bars long, but you want it for 16 bars, you can Trim Loop the 2 bar loop to play back for 16 bars. To use this tool, Right-Click on the Trim Tool at the top of the Edit Window. In the drop-down list, select the Loop tool:
Once you have the Trim Loop Tool selected, you can click-and-draw the audio loop across the timeline
Start with this: 1 Bar Drum Loop
End with This: 1 Bar Loop playing back for 16 Bars
Most DAW platforms have specific features dedicated to helping you search, import, edit, and arrange audio loops. No matter which platform you use, you're not the first person to need drum tracks in their song. Another aspect of working with audio loops is that you always have the ability to edit them and use only the portions you want, such as a singular kick drum hit, or a snare drum. In the era before modern computer software, many people did just this in order to create their own drum library.
A great example of editing and using audio loops is how Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock utilized drum loops for "It Takes Two" from a song by Lyn Collins called "Think (About It)", as well as a song called "Space Dust" by Galactic Force Band. Check out the comparison page on whosampled.com
Plug-Ins and Sofware
One of the exciting areas where drum performance has really taken off is in the usage of plug-ins and software. Virtual Drum plug-ins can mimic a real live drummer with pattern and dynamic changes. Most of these plug-ins actually utilize a real drummer as their backbone, giving you the same groove capabilities you would have if that drummer were with you in your session. Software like DrumCore, BFD, and Superior Drummer, utilize live performance drum parts played by drummers such as Matt Sorum, Sly Dunbar, John Tempesta, and many more. It allows you to vary the performance dynamics of the parts as well as perform pattern variations, the way a live drummer would perform.
EZ Drummer by ToonTracks
The big advantage to using Virtual Drum plug-ins is that you don't have to be a programming whiz, you can use the many built in patterns with a simple click of the mouse. While they all possess a huge amount of editing capabilities, most of these plug-ins are very user-friendly for songwriters, singers, and musicians to allow a free flow of ideas without having to entirely learn a new piece of software. As easy as these plug-ins are to use, they all have great capabilities to allow fine tuning of things such as drum mix, fx sends, customized kits, and many more features allowing you to engineer your own drum parts. Check out the video below to see how simple it use to use a plug-in such as EZ Drummer:
Virtual Drummer Plug-in & Software options include:
I've saved the hardest part for last. If any of you feel overwhelmed, it's ok to stop now. For the rest of you, a world of MIDI mayhem awaits!
First let me address something: the term "Sequencing" implies several things, primarily that we are dealing with MIDI devices (synthesizers) and Performance Data, akin to digital sheet music telling the synth what notes to play, how long to hold them, sustain, velocity, etc... This implication means it is up to you, an me, to learn the technology of our synthesizers and how to properly use them. Sequencing in Pro Tools is no different than sequencing in Digital Performer, Logic, MPC, etc..., the primary thing is to learn how to use the synthesizers aside from just knowing how to use the DAW software. MIDI, Synthesizers, and Sequencing, have not really changed in over 30 years.
The first assumption I have to make is that you want to take time to learn how drum & percussion parts are structured. Furthermore, I have to assume you have synthesizer capable of performing drum sounds, such as a Virtual Instrument plug-in or a Hardware Synthesizer you have already connected to your system. Lucky for you, Pro Tools comes with a drum synth called Boom, which looks and acts like a vintage drum machine.
There are so many drum synth's available it would be fruitless to talk about them all. Aside from the plug-ins discussed earlier in this article, some popular plug-ins include:
Stylus RMX: by Spectrasonics
Battery: by Native Instruments
Geist: by FXPansion
Punch: by Rob Papen
Slate Drums: by Steven Slate
Whether working in Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, Cubase, etc..., the process to begin sequencing is very similar.
1. Create Instrument track
2. Launch Synth plug-in
3. Beginning sequencing by performing or writing data.
Once you have prepared your session, you now have to perform, or write in, the Notes necessary to trigger each sound of the drum kit, as well as create a pattern of that performance that sound like what you want. Seems simple enough? No lie, it's not that easy. Several issues come into play, especially how drum sounds are mapped to the keyboard.
Since performance data is basically digital sheet music, it is referenced across Octaves and Semi-Tones, as if it were a piano keyboard. However, drum sounds are considered "Non-Pitched", unlike a traditional instrument. Playing different "notes" will trigger a totally different drum sound, such as Kick, Snare, Toms, Hi-Hats, etc... Furthermore, each synthesizer maps the sounds to totally different keys: a note triggering a kick drum on one plug-in might trigger a snare sound on a different drum plug-in. Oh the fun you'll have with this one.
The people that tend to be proficient at this method tend to be drummers in real life.
It might be overkill to try learning drum sequencing when you're primary focus is songwriting, and playing guitar.
Here's a video on how to set up Hardware Synthesizers and Sequence MIDI data
With all the available option at your disposal, find one that works best for you. If loops are enough, use them. If you like more control of realistic drums, use that software. Whatever you decide, the end result should allow you to better express yourself. Don't overcomplicate things if you don't have to, a good song is a good song, even if it's acoustic.
- Mihai Boloni
Audio Engineer, Published Songwriter (ASCAP), Dog Lover, Record Label Owner, AVID Certified Pro Tools Instructor