Drum samples can be a life-saver when your live drum recordings fall flat. They can be used to correct technical problems, modify the tone, or alter the dynamics of a live drum recording. But when used improperly, they can stick out like a sore thumb, causing your mix to sound dissonant—both literally and figuratively.
In this blog, we’ll break down some of our favorite tips for blending drum samples with live drum recordings to help you dial in the perfect mix.
COMPLEMENT THE ORIGINAL RECORDING
Before you open up your sample library and start scrolling through an endless selection of samples, first determine what your current drum sound is missing. Instead of looking for samples that sound good on their own, identify what your drums are lacking and look for samples that complement the recording.
For instance, if your kick has plenty of low-end, but not enough attack, find a tight, punchy kick sample and blend it in with the original until the sound feels balanced. If your kick is super-snappy but lacking in the lows, try a sample with lots of bottom-end. If you’re looking to add some consistency to a dynamic drum recording, try using ‘one-shot’ samples, which trigger with the same velocity or intensity every time.
One simple way to zero-in on what your drum sound is missing is to use REFERENCE to compare your mix to the drums in one of your favorite songs. Load up the reference track and select a portion of the song where the drums are featured, then playback your drum recording to compare the tonal balance, punch, and stereo width of both tracks. This makes it easy to see if you should add a sample with more highs vs lows, or attack vs sustain. Don’t forget to hit the level-match button for a fair comparison.
MAKE SURE THE NEW SAMPLES ARE IN TUNE
Once you’ve selected the right sample, it’s time to make sure everything is in tune. Most drum replacement software programs feature built-in tuning controls, allowing you to fine-tune each sample to taste. If not, you can always print your sample tracks and fine-tune them using a dedicated third-party plug-in or the built-in pitch adjuster in your DAW.
Hopefully, your original drum recordings are already in tune—if not, this is a great time to touch them up too! Samples can gel better with a production when they’re tuned to the same note as the original, or a complimentary note, such as the 5th. If you’re having trouble identifying a certain note, just open up your DAW’s built-in tuner plug-in.
AUTOMATE THE TRIGGER THRESHOLD
Drum samples work best when used for major percussive transients, like the downbeat of the kick, or the backbeat of the snare. When it comes to intricate rhythms with ghost notes, rolls and fills, drum samples tend to become more noticeable.
Most drum sample replacement programs use a threshold level for triggering samples. Samples will only trigger when the original drum recording reaches a certain level. To prevent samples from misfiring during more complex performances, automate the threshold level above the level of the more intricate drum hits.
WATCH FOR PHASE ISSUES
After adding sample tracks to your mix, it’s important to check your phase to make sure no frequencies are getting canceled out. When using sample replacement software, samples occasionally fire too early or late, which can cause phase problems. The more samples you use, the worse the problem becomes.
One of the easiest ways to make sure you’re not causing any phase problems is to quickly check your drum mix with LEVELS. Add LEVELS to your drum bus and playback your mix with both the original and the sample tracks playing. If there are any phase issues, the Stereo Field section will light up.
If that’s the case, adjust the latency settings on your drum replacement software or DAW. If that doesn’t work, tweak the start time of your sample until it lines up with the original. And if all else fails, you can always print your sample tracks and nudge them in time by hand.
APPLY BUS EQ
Once you’ve sorted out any phase issues, it’s time to shape your drum tracks so they feel like one cohesive kit—instead of a live recording with obvious drum samples poking out all over the place.
In most cases, it’s best to apply EQ via bus processing. If you try to EQ each drum track individually, you run the risk of introducing even more phase problems.
Try bussing your live and sampled kick drum channels to a dedicated ‘Kick Bus’ and applying processing to all of the tracks at once. This makes it easy to quickly dial in the low-end by selecting one of BASSROOM’s carefully curated, genre-specific EQ target curves.
In some cases, you may need to filter a sample to help it fit in the mix. In this case, try using a linear phase EQ to prevent introducing more phase problems. Remember, it’s not just about the phase relationship between the kick recording and the kick sample—you have to consider how the samples interact with the rest of the kit, too.
PUT YOUR TRACKS IN THE SAME ROOM
After tweaking your tone, it’s time to add a little depth to your drum mix. By sending both the samples and the original drum recordings to the same reverb, you can easily create the illusion that they were played in the same space, making them feel more cohesive.
This trick is particularly effective with snare samples, but can also be used on kick and tom samples as well. Use an EQ to clean up any excess low-end on the reverb channel. That way, the snap and attack of the drums will still resonate through the space.
FINAL STEP… GLUE IT ALL TOGETHER
After you have a rough drum mix dialed in, send all of your channels to the drum bus. Send any sub-buses like a ‘kick bus’ or ‘snare bus’ to the drum bus as well. Then, grab your favorite bus compressor and use a low ratio and slow attack and release times to glue everything together.
By compressing all of the tracks together—the live drums, the samples, and the reverb—you’re able to blur the lines between each distinct piece, making it harder for listeners to identify the individual sounds.