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Drum samples: It's a trap!

When you start to have a group of musicians, you really need some way to keep all of them together in synch. In classical music, you tended to use a conductor to keep everybody on time, such that the drums are used as an accent. But jazz, rock, and blues all come from a different root and all of these bands really need a proper drummer to keep time.

For a given musician who seeks to record, there's a few schools of thought. First, there's the group of musicians who finds a real drummer. Part of why drummer jokes exist is because the drum kit is big and loud and expensive and somewhat tempermental... so you tend to put up with a lot of crap because you know finding a drummer is hard.. but finding a new guitarist is easy. Second, there's the group of musicians who do not especially care to understand drumming and do not want to actually figure out how to make a drum part, so they are content with loops and drum machines.

But there's the third school of thought, which I am part of, which is the people who like good drum parts but do not want the hassle of a drummer and/or drum-kit.

I'm on the more eccentric end of this. Having listened to tons of prog metal over the years and growing up in the 80s, when the Simmons drum pads were big... I tend to be less concerned with the worship of the properly recorded real drum kit and more interested with producing a wide variety of interesting percussive tones out of drum tracks.

This has been a longstanding battle for me. And knowledge makes it worse.

The problem with drums and drum sounds is that drums are extremely difficult instruments to deal with. They produce frequencies all over the spectrum. And they can't be muffled without ruining the sound. And any real-world microphone is going to have issues with some part of the sound because it's all over the place and each piece of the kit operates differently. And if you throw a bunch of microphones in, you rapidly discover the fun that is phase cancellation.

And there's an absurdly huge amount of ways to get sounds out of the drums. If you listen to somebody like Gary Husband from Level 42, you realize that he gets an absurd amount of mileage out of the snare and bass drums with little ghost notes and flams and other rudiments that make simple samples just sound wrong.

Now, back in the days of yore, when I had 8 bit samples, I didn't know what great drums sounded like, so I didn't mind the cheesy rough samples I had available to me. Eventually, I started using 909-ish samples for the snare and bass and then added some fairly crappy cymbal samples. You have to remember that the best you could get was about 8 megs or so of samples... and those samples needed to cover the entire range of 127 general MIDI instruments plus a drum kit.

Eventually, this got old. I daresay my inability to decide what to do to get some better samples actually ruined the fun of my music... because I'd get these ideas in my head only to be let down by equipment. (You'd enter a rant here about how a poor craftsperson blames their tools.. and that's true, but misleading. Carpenters have massive arguments about what sort of hammer they use and painters argue for hours about brushes)

A year or three ago, there was a big huge deal from IK Multimedia. They had a 'group buy' thing where you paid a fairly small amount of money and the more people who joined in meant that you'd get more samples. I impulse-joined in. Which means that I now have a copy of SampleTank and a decent assortment of samples. And the mere addition of some actual decent samples makes a huge difference.

But it's not perfect. There's a few things going on. First, SampleTank is really built along the lines of the ROMplers of youre... the Roland JV-1080 or E-Mu Proteus. It's intended to be a nice little DRMed package for a bunch of pre-constructed presets that you can mildly edit and tweak. So there's really no good way to take the toms from one kit and the kick from another and assemble them into a new drum kit. And not all of the sets have enough toms mapped in the right areas.

And, second, it's not nearly a drumming-oriented product, which means that you get the same crash sound every time because drumming-oriented samplers really need round-robin mode where you feed in ten hits at the same velocity and it will select a different hit for each note whereas most other instruments can get away without that. So I can't play certain drum beats convincingly.

And, finally, I want to be able to use things like rototoms and ocotobons. One kit has rototoms. And, it turns out, even if I want to SPEND MY OWN FREAKING MONEY ON SAMPLES, it's actually remarkably hard to get the more exotic drums in any format at any price. And even when I look at BFD or Battery, which would solve the SampleTank issues... I'm either not sure if roto-toms and an otherwise generous selection of toms are included or I can specifically tell that they aren't.

Now, I'd done a google search recently, just to see if the new world of sample sales had caused somebody to start marketing a decently priced roto tom set. Which hasn't happened. But I did somehow find out about a fairly old sample CD that is now sold in downloadable form -- Ross Garfield Drums 1 -- that does have some Roto Toms and is within the range of money I'm content to impulse-purchase.

Now, I can talk about listening to samples, but the real proof is when you start to play with a mapped drum bank. Now, SampleTank sucks at importing new samples into the system. I haven't found too many people talking about doing it... but, as it turns out, you CAN make drum banks from purely your own samples in SampleTank, even though it's incredibly tedious and frustrating and non-intuitive. The process goes something along the lines of this:

  1. Make a 'dead key' WAV file that's just a few samples of silence.
  2. Design your key layout. SampleTank will very helpfully span the samples across keys. What you want here is to prevent SampleTank from spanning anything other than the 'dead key' WAV file across the keys. You'll probably end up having multiple 'dead key' WAV files in the directory.
  3. If you want to have individually controllable reverb, you'll probably want to do that to the samples, because there's no way to do individualized per-sample sends to the effect.
  4. Name your samples and place them using the preferred naming scheme -- e.g. "8x8 Gretsch e2 v64.wav" and "8x8 Gretsch e2 v127.wav
  5. Import the whole directory and ensure that your samples are mapped properly.
  6. Because SampleTank isn't designed for drumming, once you've got your samples loaded and mapped, you will need to go back and adjust the pitch of every single drum sample in the SYNTH section.
  7. Because SampleTank isn't designed for drumming, you will have to go through every sample in ENV and set the attack to zero, the hold to zero, the decay to zero, and then the release to somewhere around the length of the sample.
  8. If you screw up in any way... or if SampleTank doesn't like the name of your samples, it'll crash and potentially take your DAW application with it. I quickly learned to run the stand-alone SampleTank.

I'm playing with the drums. I can tell that the Ross Garfield drums are a bit dated because they have fewer velocity layers and fewer snare varieties than I'd might have expected. Likely because they had to fit onto a CD-ROM. But I do love the selection of toms. There's a set of seven Gretsch toms that goes from 8x8 down to 16x18. And the roto-toms. I think the snares are really the let-down, but at least snare samples are a bit more common than roto-tom samples... so it's probably worth it just for a different set of tom samples than most every other drum sampleset I've seen marketed.