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Drum Software/Machines/Beats; What are they, and how do I use them?

May 21, 2020 Hilton Scott Blog Post

I don’t play drums myself, so how the hell can I record a song without a drummer?

Drum Software/Machines/Beats; What are they, and how do I use them?

Given the nature of last week’s blog about tele-recording tracks, the subject of using some type of drum recording software or drum machine seemed to be a natural follow up. Last week, after all, I was busy discussing how we tele-tracked the vocal parts for My Blue Heaven (link) without having the singer come to the studio, and many of you were perhaps left wondering, “ok, what about all the other instruments in the track?” That’s what this blog is going to be all about. Note---this blog is going to focus more on what drum machines/software/beats are and how to use them in your songwriting endeavors as opposed to debating the pros and cons of using a live drummer for tracking songs you’ve written. That will be a blog for another day when I have a few hours to pontificate on the subject. For now, this blog is focused on utilizing drum software, or “virtual drummers,” to accompany the music you’ve written.

Before I continue, I want to briefly take a moment to discuss a little bit about what you see and hear on the Hilton Website and Hilton tracks. Aside from the recording that took place for the Hilton EP, I do record (or my brother) basically everything you hear on any given Hilton Scott song minus most of the drum tracks. All guitar, bass, piano, keyboards, harmonica, and misc instruments were recorded by Aaron and myself at one time or another over the past few years. (This was not the case for the EP. All guitars were recorded by Aaron and I, but the bass guitar and drums were recorded by the in-house studio interns working on the project. The keyboards were a little mix of myself and the intern on the project) That being said, the majority of music you hear in the demo tracks for Hilton Scott songs were recorded by Aaron and myself with one major exception; the drums. I say this not to stroke my already ENORMOUS ego, but to point out an issue I get asked about from time to time. “What if you don’t play all these instruments---How do you record at home then?” That’s where the beauty and convenience of drum machines, drum software, and pay for play beats comes into play…no pun intended.

Having spent the better part of my formative youth trying to master the guitar, I eventually ran into the problem of being left playing with myself…though I still have very strong wrists to this day. (I’ll let the reader insert the joke there). I could play the guitar, but without a singer or drummer, there wasn’t much else I could do. I briefly attempted the route of virtuoso, but my short fingers and penchant for blues riffs and hitched rhythm style eventually put those dreams to bed. If I was going to be heard, I needed to find a drummer, or at least something to fill the empty rhythm section of my guitar riffs. Suffice it to say, it took me a number of years teaching myself the drums and a little luck to eventually figure out I could utilize the magic of technology and use a drum machine or drum software to further my songwriting and musical pursuits.

If you’re not familiar with the difference, or even what I’m referring to, here is a brief overview of each method. As with last week, I’m going to be very surface level in order to get to the important aspects, so if you want to know more, feel free to post or ask questions.

Drum Machine--- An external piece of equipment that usually comes preloaded with a number of different drum tones, drum kits, and already looped playback beats. While some are much more sophisticated than others, the key point of a drum machine is that it’s an external piece of equipment as opposed to software on a computer or within a recording program. This is what I started on, and, frankly speaking, it sucked. Because I didn’t want pre-loaded generic beats that simply kept me playing in time, I had to program many of the drum tracks myself, which is to say, very, very tedious work. Because you tap a little pad (in time) to design your own drum beats, I would take my little unit outside for hours on end in the summer and tap my fingers thousands of times (not exaggerating) to lay down the bass drum, snare, toms, hi-hats, etc each one individually. It was long, frustrating, and if you messed up one beat, you typically had to start over again. (And this was all just to lay the drum beats. This didn’t even include placing the beats in order to program the actual flow or structure of the song). Needless to say, it sucked. Unless you have some weird hang up on nostalgia for that retro 70s and 80s box snare drum sound, I encourage you to avoid this route.

Drum Software---The drag and drop method. After about five years of doing the drum machine thing, I wised up and got on board with drum software (though I’m pretty sure I still threw a hissy fit about having to make the switch). Needless to say, I did make the switch, and I haven’t looked back. My productivity and ability to customize drum tracks in a much shorter time isn’t even debatable. A song that might have taken me three hours of literally banging my thumbs on the machine is now easily doable in close to an hour depending on the customizations and structure of the given song. Like the drum machine, the software method has preloaded tracks, but they are much more realistic and intricate. (If you aren’t convinced, ask me sometime to share some of my song recordings from 15 years ago).

Pay to Play Beats---This is a method that I won’t pretend to have a lot of experience with. Primarily, it’s simply not the kind of music I spend a lot of time at the moment working on. Pay to play tracks are essentially hiring a producer or drummer to create a backing “drum” beat to usually either rap or sing along to. This situation is most prevalent in rap music, free rhyme, dance music, etc where the drum is really the only instrument in the background. Because there are not many structural changes throughout the song using the beat, it stays pretty steady throughout the entire track. That is not to say, however, that songwriters and producers haven’t learned to master these tracks and add elements of modern sound to them in order to create very vibrant and “electronic” sounding backing tracks. But, as I said, this really isn’t my forte at the moment. However, that is not to say I don’t hold an appreciation for those who do work in this medium. If I could knock out a pay to play backing track for an early 90s Mariah Carey song, I would in a heartbeat! I just haven’t spent much time doing it myself.

I hope this article was of help to those who didn’t know much about the world of virtual drummers out there, and maybe, just maybe, you won’t have to suffer the years of “playing with yourself” that I did. (I’ll let my clever readers insert their own joke there). Nevertheless, this should have given those singer/songwriter types a bit more information on the subject, and allow them to think about branching out with one or more of these options in order to add that next element to their music.

Thanks,

HS

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