Bang the Drum All Day

Well here we are in 2015. I hope your holidays were enjoyable and restful. Mine certainly were!

Between Christmas and my birthday I accumulated a little bit of gift money. Which I quickly blew on Toontrack EZdummer.

One word summary: Wow!

A bit of history... Drums have always been the weakest link in my recordings. I don't have a kit and even if I did, I'm a pretty crappy drummer. I had a drum machine in the late '80s and early '90s - a Roland TR-626, Back then, drum machines didn't sound very realistic. The samples were really short and lo-fidelity, and the grid-based sequencers in those devices tended to yield repetitive, regimented, and mechanical-sounding patterns, rather than something that sounded like it was played by a human being. That kind of thing might work well in EDM, but it doesn't work so well for my more traditional rock/blues/jazz stuff. For me, the TR-626 was better as a metronome than as a drum track generator, although I used it for the latter purpose as best I could.

Later, I graduated to using software and hardware sequencers to compose drum tracks manually. That was my primary way of working up drum tracks for many years. With good drum sounds, you can put together decent tracks this way, but it's an incredibly tedious job. Keyboard controllers and piano roll editors are really clumsy and ill-suited for dealing with drum parts (I never invested in a drum or pad controller). For awhile I used a Roland XP-80 which didn't even have a piano roll editor; if you wanted to edit individual drum hits, you had to use an event list editor (the MIDI equivalent of assembly language) on a 320x80 pixel LCD screen! Ah, good times. Some DAWs have grid-based editors which make drum pattern editing very easy, but then you've dumbed down your badass DAW to a hardware drum machine and you're back to stiff, mechanical beats.

I've also used audio and MIDI loops, which are the closest thing I'd found to ideal. At a macro level, loops are dead easy to work with because it's just dragging and dropping drum clips into an arrangement in a DAW. This approach can also yield very realistic tracks since the loops can be recordings of actual drummers. But if a loop isn't exactly right and you have to edit it, things get tedious quickly. If it's an audio loop, then you have to slice up the audio and rearrange it, while trying to maintain its natural sound, which isn't easy. (By the way, FL Studio has a very interesting tool called Slicex for slicing and dicing audio drum loops that I've dabbled with, but it still seems like a hell of a lot of work.) MIDI loops are a better option in my opinion just because they're easier to tweak, but even then, you're still back to the creative buzz-kill of editing drum parts in a piano roll.

For the last couple of years, I've sometimes used the Karma feature on my Korg M3. Even though Karma is really designed for live performance it has actually been a fairly decent tool for developing recorded drum tracks because it provides a way to get human-like variation in the drum part without editing notes individually. My approach was to find a drum kit I liked on the M3, then find a Karma drum pattern that was close to what I needed for my song. Then I'd map the Karma parameters that affect rhythmic, velocity, and timing variation, as well as note density to some sliders on the M3. Then I'd sync the M3 to the recording, play back the drum pattern with the song, while controlling the sliders to add fills and variation at the proper places in the song. I recorded '57 Fun this way and to my ears it sounds very natural.

But for my drum track purposes, Karma has some definite limitations. One, if I can't find suitable Karma drum patterns for my song, I'm basically hosed. It's possible to design my own Karma patterns using specialized software, but that process is incredibly tedious - especiallyh when the end goal is just to lay down a decent drum track. The second limitation is that sometimes the variations that Karma comes up with are not what I want. It's like having a drummer who has a fairly sizable repertoire of fills, but none of them are right and he refuses to learn any more. But the worst limitation of Karma for drum tracks is that Karma is just flat-out complicated! It has an enormously steep learning curve, even to get to the point where you can do the simply things I just described. Spending hours reading Karma parameter descriptions out of a manual is the ultimate creativity killer. But at least once I've put together my Karma patch, actually using the patch to create the drum track is very easy.

So, after over 25 years of doing this, all drum solutions I've tried have in one way or another been a pain in the ass. Enter EZdrummer.

At the most basic level, EZD provides libraries of drum samples and MIDI loops. But it augments that with some very clever searching and arranging features that make assembling drum tracks fast, easy, and actually fun. It also provides some Karma-like capabilities to add human-sounding variation to the loops, making the need to fire up the piano roll editor very rare. These features address pretty much all of the complaints I've had with drum recording solutions in the past.

I'll just say up-front that EZD's drum samples are excellent. There are two kits, but with several alternate individual drums to provide a lot more variety. The drums are pretty generously multi-sampled and there's enough variety in the instruments, the sample velocity layers, and the processing capabilities that you can cover a lot of tonal and stylistic ground.

For finding stuff in the libraries, EZdrummer has a nicely designed category- and filter-driven browser to drill down to sounds and loops. But even better, you can play a drum pattern into EZD live (with a mouse or with a MIDI controller) and it will find patterns in its library that provide the closest match to what you played. This sounds like one of those whiz-bang features that seems cool on paper but doesn't actually work very well. I can tell you - it works bloody great! It's much easier to play drum rhythms using a mouse than I imagined it would be. Once you find a suitable pattern, you can drag it into the "Song Creator" panel and EZD will present you with a bunch of complementary patterns - fills, intros, outros, and alternates - that fit aesthetically with your selected pattern. Its choices in that regard are very good and having easy access to complementary loops makes it really fast to find the material you need to flesh out the song. Song Creator can even spit out a full song arrangement for you if you want. Or you can create your song arrangement by stringing together selected loops, dragging them into a linear timeline called the Song Track.

The Song Track resides in EZD, not your DAW. It will follow and synchronize with your DAW's transport, so pushing play in your DAW will play back the drum track, at the right location in the song, and in sync with the rest of your recorded tracks. You can leave the drum track in EZD or export to a DAW track. You'd export it if you needed to edit individual notes. But you can't put the genie back in the bottle - once the drum track has been exported, you can't get it back into EZD. [Actually I've discovered that's not true. At the least, EZD's browser can incorporate your MIDI loops. But I don't know if the other features such as Edit Play Style can be used with your loops. I'll have to experiment and find out. I'll update this when I do...]

By keeping the track in EZD however, you're able to use my favorite feature of the program, called  "Edit Play Style". When working with MIDI loops in the past, if I needed to tweak the pattern even a little, I had to open up the loop in a piano roll editor and edit notes individually. Edit Play Style allows you to tweak the contents of a MIDI drum loop in a more musical and drummer-like way. For example, by simply dragging an icon from one instrument to another you can change a loop from being hi-hat based to being ride cymbal based. Or by turning a knob, you can adjust how busy the playing is and EZD will "busy up" the loop the way a real drummer would, by adding notes in a musical way. So if you want a more elaborate snare drum part with ghost notes and little ornamental rolls peppered in, you can just turn a knob instead of having to add the notes one-by-one in the piano roll. And you can go the other way too - if a fill is close but a bit too busy, you can dial it down and get a simpler variant.

Edit Play Style also lets you scale the velocity of drum hits up and down for the loop. Because the drum kits are generously multi-sampled and mapped to velocity levels, doing this gives you very easy control over the tone and energy level of the track. So if you, for instance, are working on an up-tempo country song and you find a fast drum pattern that's perfect except it's just a bit too metal-sounding because the drums are really being hammered, you can scale down the velocity and have it sound lighter and more relaxed so that it's more style-appropriate. And all of these things can be done individually for each drum, or on the whole kit all at once. With all the variation possible, Edit Play Style allows you to get a ton of mileage out of the loops!

Edit Play Style provides the sort of thing I was doing with Karma, but unlike Karma, it all works out of the box without having to configure anything, and with a few intuitively named controls so that you don't have to pour over a user's manual to figure it out.

There is also a simple but sophisticated mixing and effects processing system. It cuts some corners in terms of routing and control, but it strikes a great balance balance between control, ease-of-use, and sound quality. In other words, ToonTrack has cut the right corners. Based on what I've experienced so far, I think the onboard mixing and processing facilities are good enough for 99% of what I do. And for the odd project where I need more granular control, EZD supports individual outputs for the drums so I can route them to separate mixer channels in my DAW for independent processing.

Toontrack sells a bunch of sound expansion packs but I don't see myself buying more than a couple because the kits in the base package sound great, and can cover a lot of ground. The way I see it, if I were a drummer I would probably only own one kit and I would use it for whatever music I needed to. So I don't feel like I need a whole bunch of different virtual drum kits; a handful of good ones will do. But where I do need variety is in the loops! There's no escaping that. Loops are the core building block in EZD and even with all the features that stretch their utility, having a wide variety of them is necessary to keep parts fresh and to tackle a lot of styles. In fact, on the first week I had EZDrummer, I recorded a song with measures of 5/4 and 6/4 time that EZD didn't have loops for (I ended up reworking some 4/4 loops into the other time signatures using my DAW). I also set out to record a blues shuffle and couldn't find an appropriate loop in the stock set since its selection is rather thin on shuffles. So I hit the loop selection wall pretty quick with the base package. I ended up buying a 6-pack bundle of loops to augment the standard set. On the other hand, I know people who never play anything other than straight 4/4 time and could work with just the standard loops for a long time.

Realistic drums without enormous effort - that's been the holy grail for me and I think I'm now there.