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When using a drum virtual instrument, should you record each drum to its own individual track?

A post by David Mellor
Tuesday April 15, 2014
You can use the stereo output from a drum virtual instrument just as it is, or you can record each drum, the hihat and overheads to individual tracks. Which is the better way of working?
When using a drum virtual instrument, should you record each drum to its own individual track?

A question received from an Audio Masterclass website visitor...

It would be helpful if you explain why in Pro Tools and using Strike drums putting each instrument on its own track is so much better, or is it? Why with digital created sound should it make a difference? What is the truth?

Hm, "The Truth" - such an elusive concept in audio. The closest you will get to it is whatever pleases your client or sells into the market. In other words, whatever gets you paid. Or you can create 'art' and define it however you like. Moving on...

Examining the question

What's happening here is that the person posing the question is using the Strike drums virtual instrument in Pro Tools. This instrument is only available for Pro Tools, as far as I know, but there are several other similar virtual instruments. I have chosen to illustrate this article with Abbey Road 70s Drums, by Native Instruments, loaded into Kontakt, which will work with a wide range of DAWs.

With Strike, Abbey Road 70s Drums or other similar virtual instruments, you get the ability to load a complete drum set into an instrument track. You can play the drums from your MIDI keyboard, or in some cases use pre-programmed patterns, and route the stereo output of the virtual instrument directly to the mix.

But what you can also do is use the inbuilt mixer of the instrument to route the drums to individual auxiliary tracks. It is also practical, and in fact a better option, to record each drum, the hihat, the overheads, and the room microphones to their own individual audio tracks. This has benefits that I will consider shortly.

When to use the stereo output

Virtual drums instrument such as Strike and Abbey Road 70s Drums are meant to sound like a real drum kit. And they do, to an extent that is truly remarkable. You can never match the range of nuance of a real drummer with a virtual instrument, but for simple drum tracks they can work extraordinarily well. Here's what Abbey Road 70s Drums looks like in Pro Tools, and of course you can use the DAW of your preference...

Abbey Road 70s Drums

You may well find that for the song you are working on, the stereo output of your drums virtual instrument sounds fine. If so, and your ambitions are satisfied, then use it. You should record it to a stereo audio track for reasons explained down the page.

When to record to individual tracks

There are two reasons why you might want to record to individual tracks rather than use the stereo output of your drums virtual instrument...

  • You want more control and flexibility
  • You're going to have your song professionally mixed

What you will gain in terms of control and flexibility is that you can EQ, compress and apply reverb to each drum separately. You can compress the room mic for instance and blend this in exactly to your liking. Depending which drum instrument you have, you might have some of this capability within the instrument, but it won't be as flexible as using the full power of your DAW and all its plug-ins. It's a different mixer to learn too, which is just one more distraction when you're trying to create a great piece of music.

If you're going to have your song professionally mixed (and even if you don't plan on this, who knows what might happen if an industry professional takes a liking to it?), then you will want your mix engineer to have total control over the individual tracks that make up your song. Presenting him or her with drums that are already mixed is absolutely not the way to do this.

How to record drums to individual tracks

If you have created a drum part using MIDI and you decide that it is complete and to your satisfaction, then you are ready to record the drums to individual tracks. Make as many new tracks as you need. For Abbey Road 70s Drums, then nine stereo tracks will be enough to handle all the drums, although you may choose to use more if percussion instruments are involved too. It is useful to label the tracks now. Your mix window should look something like this...

Recording to individual tracks

Here all of the tracks are stereo, which might seem like overkill for individual drums, but that's the way they come out of this instrument. Where there isn't much (or any) stereo content, a mono track will do. Obviously overheads should be in stereo.

Conceptually, the easiest way to record the tracks individually is to make a separate pass for each track, using the solo buttons in your drums virtual instrument. If you are prepared to delve into the workings of the mixer of your drums virtual instrument, you should be able to find a way to route individual drums directly to your new audio tracks, but I'll stick to the simpler (but slower) method here.

If you click the solo button for the kick drum in your virtual instrument and put the kick drum audio track into record-ready mode, then you are ready to go. Hit record and allow the song to play through. Repeat for each other drum, the hihat, the overheads, and the room mic. In this image, the low floor tom is soloed...

Abbey Road 70s Drums mixer

When finished, you can mute or deactivate your original drums virtual instrument track and any additional MIDI tracks you routed to it.

Why you should always record audio

Virtual instruments are great for creating music, but they are not so great for transporting it or storing it. As I said earlier, if you want your song to be professionally mixed, then you will have to create audio tracks for the individual components of the drum kit. You can't expect your mix engineer to have the same virtual instrument to hand, and they wouldn't want to work like that anyway.

But even if you only ever work within your own studio, then you should record audio for every virtual instrument track, not just the drums. The reason for this is that you might want to come back to your song at some future time. If the song is any good then this is very likely to happen - the label that signs you might want an instrumental version, or a change to the lyrics, a radio mix... there are countless possibilities.

But if you have saved your session with only the virtual instrument MIDI data and no audio, there is no guarantee that it will sound the same when next you open it, say in a year's time. Indeed, you might not be able to use the same virtual instruments, or you might have updated to a new version that doesn't sound quite the same. Audio recorded in .wav file format will always be playable, so each virtual instrument track should be rendered into that format before closing your session for long-term storage. While I'm on this point, all of your tracks should be rendered from start to finish as individual .wav files. That way your work can be loaded into any DAW of the present or of the future.

In summary

While it is quicker to use the stereo output of your drums virtual instrument, it is much more flexible to record each drum, the hihat, overheads and room microphones to separate tracks. This will allow more options in mixing. It will allow you to send your work to a professional mix engineer, and you will be able to play your multitrack recording at any time in the future, regardless of software updates or the continuing availability of your virtual instrument.

By the way... If you record your drums virtual instrument to separate tracks you will mix it exactly like you would mix real drums. If the sound of real drums is what you want to achieve, then surely that is a good thing.

A post by David Mellor
Tuesday April 15, 2014
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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