How to Record Your Own Drum Samples
Using your own drum sounds to build realistic drum presets in Sensory Percussion is a fun, useful, and rewarding way to develop a unique sound for yourself. While, there’s a variety of methods for recording drum sounds and building these preset kits, we've outlined one method using Ableton below.
I like to call these detailed, realistic acoustic percussion presets "virtual instruments," so you'll see me refer to that througout this post.
Because it’s such a detailed method, a lot of the best practices for creating less detailed instruments are covered along the way.
For the accompanying live stream I used a standard dynamic microphone (Audio Technica PRO 41) plugged into a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface and connected to Ableton Live 10 Suite for recording and processing the acoustic drum sounds; Izotope Alloy 2 (predecessor to Izotope Neutron) for further effects processing; and Sensory Percussion’s samplers and effects for building the virtual instruments.
But the techniques outlined in this article can be applied to pretty much any mic, DAW, effects chains, and samplers. With Sensory Percussion you have the unique ability to map 10 zones across the drum, but similar mapping techniques with fewer zones can be used in the samplers of EZDrummer, Superior Drummer 3, and even samplers more suited for beat making and recording production.
The goal of these virtual instruments is to capture a realistic response of each gesture at every velocity of the drum. I like to think of it as instrument preservation: you are preserving the drum at its current tuning (drumstick choice, mic position, FX processing, etc) in a sampled format. This preservation could be useful for recording songs, as well as performing live.
Picture yourself recording your drums, and they're sounding just right! You spend an extra hour sampling your drums, which allows you to use that exact drum sound in overdubs and new songs! You can now even take that preserved drum on tour with you. That's the power of this technique!
1. Recording Best Practices
There are many great ways to mic a drum. Below is a good overview of different mic techniques for a standard kit.
Once you’ve picked your mic position and have the drum sounding just right, record a little sound check: it’ll be helpful for later on! Next, it’s time to start the detailed recording process.
The biggest concern for this part is your signal-to-noise ratio. You’ll be recording the drum at a wide range of velocities, but even at low velocity-levels it's critical to be recording a healthy signal from your microphone. This is because if your signal (the sound of your drum) is too quiet, the recording will sound noisy and bad because the noise floor will be audible when you scale the samples to the same level at a later step (which is a crucial part of this kind of virtual instrument building).
But you don’t want to clip, either, so the trick is to record the low velocity hits with the channel gain turned up high, and then turn the channel gain down for the medium and high velocity hits.
In my experience, it’s best to record as much signal as possible without clipping. And clipping isn’t as big a concern with this kind of recording as it would be for recording songs, because it's so very easy to redo a drum hit or two if the audio distorts due to peaking.
It’s not nearly as easy to re-record musical performances damaged by clipping. And this is why we are so often cautioned against turning the gain too high when recording, but don’t shy away from cranking the gain for the low velocity hits, your final virtual instrument will sound much better if you get a lot of signal at this stage!
2. Detailed Sampling
You’ll want to record at least five different hits for each of three velocity levels on your drum: low velocity, medium velocity, high velocity (and then you'll need to repeat that for all of the different zones you want to record). We’ve found that around ten hits per velocity level is even better than five! But more than ten hits doesn’t seem to make much of a meaningful difference.
Turn the gain up on your interface, press record in your DAW, say out loud: “Center, velocity 1,” and then hit the drum quietly ten times in the center, watching the meter to make sure you have a healthy signal on each hit, and taking enough time between hits for the sound of the drum to decay completely.
Stop the recording. Feel free to listen back to the recording to make sure it sounds the way you want it to. Then turn the gain down a bit on your interface, press record again (later in the timeline), say out loud: “Center, velocity 2,” then hit the drum ten times at a medium velocity.
Repeat these steps for the loudest velocity (velocity 3). You’ll probably want to pull the gain down a bit more, too.
Repeat this entire whole process for every gesture you wish to capture on the drum. For Sensory Percussion presets we often record: center, edge, rimshot center, rimshot edge, stick shot, damped, cross-stick, rim tip, rim shoulder, and sometimes shell. With 30 samples per gesture that’s up to 300 samples per drum!
Having slight variations in volume within the three velocity categories is great, so each hit doesn't need to be perfectly the same volume. Everything will be normalized (scaled to the same volume) at a later step, so it’s no problem if, for example, sample seven of velocity 2 is slightly quieter than sample six: as long as they are both in the ballpark of the same velocity level, then it will sound great.
3. Post Processing
Now you can process the drums even further. Be sure to “save-as” your session (or just save it at the very least).
Add light compression, transient design, EQ, reverb, limiting, and/or other effects at this stage. I find it’s best to loop the sound check to dial in the effects. It’s easy to over do it at this point, so be careful not to go too crazy with the effects. I often do this step on a different day from the initial recording session, just to give my ears and brain a rest.
You’ll probably want to export or print the processed effects tracks after this step, because, in my experience, it’s best to chop the samples with all of the effects baked into the audio file.
After exporting the files. Drag them back into the session and get to chopping!
4. Chopping Samples
Different DAWs have different methods of chopping samples.
In Ableton you can highlight a section of the waveform and press command + e to make two cuts on either side of the highlighted selection. That’s useful, but even more useful for this process is the Slice to New MIDI Track feature. If warp is on you can right click the waveform and select Slice to New MIDI Track which will automatically detect each transient and put each one inside its own pad of a drum rack instrument.
Once it’s spread across the pads of the drum rack, you can add fades and adjust the trim point if necessary. Light fades at this point are okay, but you can always add a fade once the samples have reached their final destination (inside the sampler/s of the virtual instrument we are creating).
Now right click on the waveform and select Crop Sample. Repeat this for each drum pad. After cropping the final transient right click on the sample again and select Show in Finder
In Finder select all ten of the audio files (they’ll be named Slice 1 [string of digits], Slice 2 [string of digits]...etc), and copy/paste them into a new folder.
Next, select all of the audio files again and select Rename 1o items, and input a custom format that makes sense. I like this naming convention: [name-of-drum]_[zone]_[velocity-level]-[computer-generated-index-number]
You’ll end up with 10 audio files sliced perfectly that are named something like this:
Repeat this for each velocity level and each gesture.
5. Building and Playing the Virtual Instrument
Now you’re finally ready to load your samples into samplers and play your virtual instrument!Download Virtual Acoustic Template
If you’re a Sensory Percussionist, click the button above to download a handy Sensory Percussion template that will allow you to simply drag and drop your samples into specific samplers to create an extremely realistic sounding drum.
If you use another electronic drumming system, you can still follow along and replicate the techniques using your system.
In the template each pad has three samplers. Drag all of the low velocity samples into the first sampler. Normalize them by holding down command and click the “N” button. Next drag all of the low, mid, and high velocity samples into the second sampler - yes, all of them: every sample for that gesture. Normalize those samples, too. Finally drag all of the high velocity samples into the third sampler and normalize them, as well.
You’ll notice that the first sampler (with the low velocity samples) has a velocity I/O setting that causes the sampler to only play when a very low velocity hit is received, and the sample playback is randomized.
The second sampler has a velocity I/O setting that causes the sampler to fire on relatively low to relatively high velocity hits. A velocity controller is controlling which sample gets played back in the list.
The third sampler has a velocity I/O setting that causes the sampler to play only when a very high velocity hit is received, and the sample playback is randomized.
This method is used so that really quiet hits (like buzz rolls) don’t cause the same sample to play repeatedly (which sounds robotic and unnatural). The highest velocity samples are also randomized so that when you hit the drum at the highest velocity it doesn’t always play the same sample, which also sounds unnatural.
At this point you can add more effects, further trim and fade the sample, but you have an extremely detailed virtual instrument! Have fun playing your unique invention!