Introduction: How to Record Electronic Drums
Acoustic drums are great for playing live or practicing. However, if you are recording, they have some downsides.
- Outfitting each drum with good microphones is incredibly expensive. The mics might cost more than your drums.
- Even with good mics, you will need a good sounding room to record in. The garage or basement is not likely to be a good sounding room.
- You’re also going to need a multi-track recording console. Eight tracks would be a minimum for drums. Ten or twelve can be helpful. The one or two track interface your guitarist or vocalist might use isn’t going to work for drums.
- Even if you have good quality analog recording equipment, editing and producing your analog drum tracks is a major challenge. If you’re off time anywhere, it means chopping up, shrinking, stretching, and sliding your multi-tracked analog clips to get the super-tight rhythm you want in a high quality recording. In reality, it probably means many takes just to get something close that is even worth the editing time.
- Even with good mics, you are still going to need EQ, compression, and other modifications to each drum and cymbal track to get them sounding great.
Electronic drums are a fantastic alternative for recording.
- Microphones are not needed.
- The room does not matter.
- You need only a single channel MIDI interface to your computer. There are even MIDI-to-USB cables with the interface right in the cable.
- Once you’ve made your recording, it’s easy to move MIDI notes around in your audio workstation software.
- Your MIDI will trigger your choice of very high quality professionally-recorded drum and cymbal sounds made with mics that probably cost as much as your car and in studios you could never afford.
If you’re convinced that you want to record with electronic drums, read on to learn how to do it.
Step 1: You’ll Need an Electronic Drum Kit and an Amplifier
To start with you’ll need an electronic drum kit with a MIDI output. There are many options. This example uses a Roland TD-9 V-Drum kit. Roland is the market leader in electronic drums and most of the Roland electronic drum modules should work similarly to the TD-9. If you have something else, your manual should help you figure out how to accomplish the steps I list with the module you have. If you are going to be purchasing an electronic kit for recording, I highly recommend one with mesh heads on the drums. The sensitivity and feel of mesh is far better than rubber.
An amplifier with speaker cabinet is required for your electronic drum kit to produce drum sounds. Amplifiers are not sold as part of the kit. A guitar or bass amp will do in a pinch, but full-range amplifier/speaker combos made for drums or keyboards are a better choice. Twenty watts of power will work for solo practice or recording, but 100+ watts starts to become important if you are practicing on the electronic kit with a loud band or if you perform live with the electronic kit and will need your own amplifier if venues where you play do not have a PA system you can use. No particular brand or model is important to have.
Step 2: You’ll Need Digital Audio Workstation Software (DAW)
In order to record and produce your drums, you’ll need some specialized software called a digital audio workstation, or DAW for short. Your DAW needs to have a drum synthesizer, also known as a synth. Choices for software depend on the computer you have or are going to get for recording.
If you will be using a Windows computer, there a quite a few good DAWs. For this example, I am using Cakewalk Sonar X3. Other popular software choices on the Windows platform are Avid Pro Tools and Image-Line FL Studio. Sonar X3 comes with XLN Audio Addictive Drums as a drum synth plug-in, and this is what I’ll be using. If you are using a different DAW and it comes with a drum synth, you may want to use it. If your DAW does not come with a drum synth, Addictive Drums can be purchased separately.
On the Macintosh platform, Apple Logic Pro is the overwhelming favorite DAW. Apple Logic Pro also has several excellent options for drum synths built right in and ready to go.
Installing the software on your computer is not in scope of this tutorial. I’m assuming that you can follow the installation process for your particular software and computer combo.
Step 3: You’ll Need a Computer
Chances are that you already have a computer that will work. The minimum computer requirements for digital audio workstation software are not usually too demanding.
The recommended minimums for Sonar are:
- An Intel i5 processor
- A 500 MB hard drive
- A USB port
- Speakers (either external or internal)
- A headphone jack with headphones
These requirements can be satisfied with laptop or desktop computers and for both Windows and Macintosh operating systems as you prefer. If you don’t have a computer with this kind of capability, you’ll need to get one to record and produce.
Step 4: You’ll Need a MIDI Interface
You need to connect your electronic drum module to your computer to record. There are very few computers that have a MIDI interface built-in, so the typical options are to use an audio interface with MIDI capability or to use a MIDI-to-USB cable with the interface built in.
If you already do some recording of vocals or guitar, you probably already have an audio interface. Typical examples are the Focusrite Scarlett series, the PreSonus AudioBox series or the M-Audio M-Track series. If you have something like this and it has MIDI input capability, it would make sense to use it.
If you don’t have a MIDI interface box, a low cost option for recording is a MIDI-to-USB cable. In this example, I am using a VicTsing USB IN-OUT MIDI Cable.
Step 5: Connect Your Drums to Your Computer
- Insert the MIDI plug marked “IN” on the USB MIDI cable to the “OUT/THRU” MIDI port on the Roland TD-9.
- Insert the USB plug on the USB MIDI cable into an open USB port on the computer.
- Turn on your drum module and your computer if they aren’t already on.
- If things are working correctly, the red power light will be illuminated on the USB MIDI cable and the yellow IN light will be blinking rapidly and faintly. Striking any drum or cymbal should cause the yellow IN light to brighten momentarily in synchronization with the striking.
If you are using different drums or a MIDI interface box, be sure to connect the MIDI output from your drum module to the MIDI input on your MIDI interface.
Step 6: Open a New Project in Your DAW
On your computer, launch your DAW software and create a new project. On Sonar, you create a new project by clicking the Create a New Project button after the software opens.
Enter a name for your new project. Accept defaults for location and path. Choose a “Normal” project template. Click OK when done. The Sonar interface will open.
Step 7: Create a MIDI Instrument Track for Your Drum Synth
In the Sonar Browser:
- Select the Plugins tab
- Click the Instruments button
- Open the VST2 folder by clicking the plus sign to the left of VST2
- Double-click Addictive Drums to open it.
Accept the defaults on the options dialog and click the OK button.
This will open the Addictive Drums property page and insert a drum instrument track into Sonar. You will see a big Addictive Drums window pop up. Minimize this window in the normal way for your operating system. You will see track 1 added to the Sonar track view. Hover over the bottom boundary of the track until you see the cursor change to parallel lines, click and drag the bottom boundary down until you can see all the controls on the track.
Step 8: Set the Track Input to Your MIDI Adapter
In the Console area at the bottom of the Sonar window, in track 1:
- Click the down arrow in the “I” button in the IN/OUT section of the track
- Select “USB to MIDI adapter”
- Select “MIDI Omni” from the pop-up menu that appears
If you have a different MIDI interface the name of the adapter to select will likely be different, but should be the only option. If given a choice, selecting MIDI Omni will let the MIDI signal come in regardless of which MIDI channel it might be on.
Step 9: Open the Window to Map Your Drum Module to Your Drum Synth
Find the minimized Addictive Drums window at the bottom of your computer screen and restore it to view in the normal way for your operating system.
Click the Beats button and then click the Map Window button to open the MIDI mapping window. This is where you make sure that each part of your drum kit triggers the corresponding synthesized drum in the software.
Step 10: Check Your MIDI Signal
Strike several drums and cymbals on your kit. At the moment you strike, the IN light should blink at the bottom of the map window in the MIDI monitor section. The IN line will indicate what MIDI note was received at the computer. In the screenshot, the MIDI note received is 38. If the IN light does not illuminate with each strike on the kit, something is not right with your MIDI connection from the drum module to the computer (step 5) or the connection of the MIDI adapter to your instrument track in Sonar (step 8). Review these steps and repeat them carefully to resolve the problem.
Step 11: Set the Map Corresponding to Your Drum Module
Addictive Drums has a built-in MIDI map for the Roland TD-9. In the Map Preset section at the top left of the map window:
- click the button which may show Default or Startup
- in the pop-up menu, click Roland
- click TD-9.
After loading this map, test everything on your kit to make sure that the part you hit triggers the same part on Addictive Drums. You can see in the map window what is being triggered by the name on the key that lights up on the MIDI keyboard or the name of the sound in the MIDI Monitor section (as shown in step 10). Be sure to check things like rimshots, cymbal bells and open/closed hi hat in addition to regular open hits.
Step 12: Customize the Map (optional, If Needed)
If you find anything wrong when checking the map in step 11 (e.g. you added a 2nd floor tom to your TD-9 kit and it isn’t registering any hits in the software), you need to manually change the mapping. To do that:
- Select the kit piece you are trying to map in the set of buttons below the preset area.
- Click on the “L” box next to the stroke you want to map for that piece.
- Strike the corresponding piece on your drum set. The software will map the MIDI note sent from the drum module to the correct drum sound in the software.
If you make any manual changes like this, save them by doing the following in the Map Preset section:
- Click the button which should show TD-9
- Click Save As
- Enter a name for your modified map (e.g. “TD-9 mod” – this is the map name you will select in step 11 in the future)
- Click the Save button
- Click the OK button in the Map window to close it
- Minimize the Addictive Drums window
Step 13: Set Your Meter (recommended, But Optional)
When recording, you should know the meter of your song. It is beyond the scope of this tutorial to teach meter.
Sonar starts up in the most common meter of 4/4. If your song is in something other than 4/4, change the meter by:
- Click the meter display in the control bar
- Change Beats per Measure and/or Beat Value to the appropriate values for the meter of your song
- Click OK
If you don’t know about meter or you choose not to change it, you can still record. However, you won’t be able to listen to the metronome click from your DAW to help keep your playing on time. There is almost zero chance that the default tempo and measure would be what you want. Your MIDI notes from the drums will also not be in nice, orderly measures on the DAW. This would make it much more difficult to fix any timing issues with your playing or find any major mistakes where you might have missed part of a measure or happened to play some extra notes beyond a measure boundary.
Step 14: Set Your Tempo (recommended, But Optional)
When recording, you should know the tempo of your song (how fast you play). If you don’t know the tempo you want, I’d recommend running through a few takes of your drum part or other instrument parts of the song along with a metronome and adjusting the tempo of your playing and the metronome until you are happy with the tempo. Then read your tempo from the metronome.
Enter the song tempo into directly into the control bar of Sonar by clicking on the tempo number and entering a new tempo in beats per minute.
The problems with not setting tempo are the same as not setting meter. You can still record, but not with a click from the DAW and editing is much harder.
Step 15: Final Equipment Check
- Plug your headphones into the computer audio output or make sure your computer speakers are powered on so you will be able to hear the metronome from the DAW while you are recording.
- Make sure the amplifier you use with your electronic drum kit is plugged into the audio output jack of your drum module and is powered on.
- Play a bit of what you intend to record with the same intensity you expect for the real take.
- Adjust the computer volume and the volume from your drum amp so you can hear your live playing from the drum amp and you can hear the drum synth sounds from the computer at the same time. The drum synth will be delayed a bit, which is fine, since you won’t be listening to it during the real take. During recording, the only sound coming from the computer will be the metronome, which will be at about the same level as the drum sounds you adjusted with.
Step 16: Arm Your Track and Turn Off Input Echo
In the Sonar track view, in track 1:
- Click the button with the red dot – this prepares or “arms” the track for recording
- Click the button immediately to the right (with circular arcs and an “A”) to turn off Input Echo (button should be gray, not blue)
While you are recording, you want to listen to the metronome from the DAW, but you do not want to listen to the drum synth process what you are playing. The processing takes some time which delays the sound behind when you hit the drums. Even if this delay is just 10 or 20 milliseconds, it will drive you crazy in trying to keep time. Turning off input echo fixes this problem.
Step 17: Record
When ready to record, click the button with the red dot in the Sonar control bar. This is the master record button.
Sonar will count in one measure with metronome beats and then begin to record. Use that count-in measure to get on time and then start playing.
When you are done, click the stop button (square icon) in the Sonar control bar. Congratulations, you’ve recorded electronic drums!
Step 18: Load Drum Sounds Which Will Be Used in Playback
To play back what you just recorded, you need to select the set of drum samples you want to use with your synth. To do this:
- Maximize your Addictive Drums window
- Click on the Samples selection box at the top left
- Use the menus to select the sampled kit that you want
- Minimize the Addictive Drums window
Step 19: Play Back Your Recording
The Sonar control bar has common playback icons.
Click the play button on the Sonar control bar to play back your take with your selected, sampled drum kit. When finished, you can press the stop button (square icon). To go back to the beginning of the track, press the rewind button (two arrows pointing left).
Step 20: Edit Your Recorded MIDI Notes
To view your MIDI notes in detail, and to edit positioning, duration, velocity, or to add/delete notes, open the Piano Roll view from the Sonar Views menu. The piano roll will open at the bottom of the Sonar window.
You can see how my example track here has some little timing issues. I’m mostly ahead of time by a bit. As you produce, you might want to leave the human inaccuracy in the track or you might want to slide some notes around to get closer to perfect time. Sonar even offers options to automatically fix time in the whole track, leaving a little inaccuracy or none at all. The good news is that with the MIDI track you have choices and if you choose to edit, it’s much easier than editing in the analog domain.
Use the help file in Sonar to learn how to edit MIDI or find an Instructable or video on this topic.
Now that you’ve gotten started, keep learning and make some good music with your electronic drum set and your DAW.