Programming Realistic Sounding MIDI Drum Tracks

How do you take a midi drum track, and make it sound great? Read on . . .

Top Tips

  • Start with midi patterns played by a real drummer, and modify, rather than programming from scratch
  • Randomize timing very little, if at all
  • Randomizing volume: 5% goes a long way
  • Start with a good drum vst
  • Become aware of what a real drummer can and can not do

Let's go through these one-by-one, with examples.

Start With 'Live' MIDI Tracks

There are lots of most drum patterns out there, that were created by recording real drummers, and then turning the drum hits into MIDI information. In other words, timing and volume variation are already baked in. If you have a good drum vst, these will be indistinguishable from real, recorded drums in your music productions.

Starting with a MIDI pattern played by a real drummer is the absolute best way to make your MIDI drums sound realistic.

Programming MIDI Drums For A Song

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Finding A Groove

What I usually do when I start a song, is create a rough drum track with just one drum pattern. I go through my library of drum patterns, and start auditioning them to the music. I find one that's close to the idea I have for the song. Then I'll just stretch it out for the length of the song.

If there are any particular parts where the drum parts are critical, I may adjust the main pattern to be closer to the end result, so it's easier to track the other parts.

The main thing I'm looking for is the right groove. If you don't have the right groove, the other parts you have won't fit the way you want them to. Getting the groove down allows you to get a better feel, and this better performances as you record your other tracks.

Moving The Song Forward

At some point in the recording process, usually after most of the instrument tracking is done, I revisit drums. I'm looking for how the drums change and evolve with the arrangement. It's big picture stuff.

For instance, drummers often use a hi-hat beat in some parts of the song, and the ride cymbal in other parts. Other arrangement based changes could include opening up or clamping down on the hi-hat, going to a tom based beat, or breakdowns -- in which the drums drop out, or become simplified.

Drum Variations

The drum patterns usually change up at least somewhat between parts of a song.
So, I make those decisions, and get the broad, arrangement based ideas in play.

You can do that by taking your main beat and altering it, by going through different midi patterns from your library, or by programming something yourself, from scratch.

I will sometimes take the hi-hat pattern from a verse, and change it over to the ride cymbal, make a few adjustments in it, and go with that for the chorus. Then I'll look at changing up the kick and snare drum to fit the feel of the other instruments in that section.

Drum Fills & Breaks

Then it's fill and break time. Sometimes I have a clear idea what I want the drums to do in a fill. I either program it myself, or go looking for a fill in my library that's similar, and adjust it.

If I don't have an idea, but I know the section needs a fill, I'll open up my drum libraries, and start auditioning.

I find that more often than not, I simplify pre-made fills, rather than make them more complex. In other words, I take drums out, rather than add them.

Ear Candy

Then it's time to add some ear candy and subtle changes. Real drummers generally don't just hit on the 2 and 4, do some fills, and go home. They do lots of cool little things that keep a song interesting. They drag their stick on the snare for some extra ghost notes. They flam hits. They change up their patterns a little.

It's generally a good idea to have this be a progression through the song. In other words, establish the simpler, main patterns the first time through, and add little things as you go. Each verse can be a little different, and get get more exciting as you go.

As a general rule, I'll start with symmetry. Maybe the same hi-hat pattern, a two beat fill with a crash at the end every 4 bars.

Well, you'll want a different fill each time. Alternate your use of crash cymbals. Toward the end of the song, the fill could change to 4 beats, or to a build. You get the idea.


If I've started with a midi pattern from my drum library and it was played by a real drummer, I leave it alone in terms of quantizing, unless it doesn't feel right.

And if I write a drum pattern from scratch, and every beat is perfect, I also leave it alone, unless it feels mechanical to me. If it feels mechanical, I may vary volume by maybe 4-5%, and see if it sounds better.

If it needs more, I may humanize the hi-hat or ride, or I may decide to drag the snare a little bit behind. You don't have to humanize every drum. But my philosophy with both patterns played by drummers, and written from scratch by me is -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Can A Real Drummer Play What You're Programming?

One last guideline is one I don't always follow myself, is don't program anything a drummer can't do.

For instance, if you have a kick/snare/hi-hat pattern going on and you add a crash/snare/kick to accent a beat, a drummer would usually not hit the hi-hat on that beat because he or she only has two hands

Charlie Watts doesn't even hit the snare and the hi-hat on the same beat. It's worked for him.

I don't always follow this guideline as it's the studio. We already do tons of impossible stuff in the studio. We double guitar and vocal tracks, for instance. So, if there's something that's impossible to do on the drums and I think it adds to the song -- I'll leave it in. Otherwise, I try to stick (pun intended) to what a drummer can do.

About the author

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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