Why You Should Always Record Drum Samples

Ever thought about recording samples of your kit before you start the session? Here's why making your own drum samples for every session is important!


What does your process look like when you're recording drums?

Probably something like this:

  1. Drum kit setup
  2. Tuning
  3. Microphone setup
  4. Soundcheck
  5. Recording

Today I'm telling you that there's something very important missing! Between 4 & 5 there should be "Record Drum Samples".  And I'm not talking about 3rd party drum sample libraries or anything like that. I'm talking about samples taken from your own kit and recording setup.

Now what exactly are drum samples, actually?

Drum samples are recordings of single hits of all the individual parts of the drum kit. So you record one snare hit, for example and cut it very precisely. Then you can copy and paste that single hit and use it for different purposes during editing and mixing. I'll explain how to exactly do that, later in this article.

The moment your drum kit is set up and sounding amazing, you should immediately record drum samples

There are three main reasons for that:

1. Drum Samples as a tuning/sound reference

When you record drum samples right at the beginning of the session you always have a tuning and general sound reference that you can go back to as you keep recording song after song. This is huge! Drum heads wear out and loose attack and/or clarity over time, the tuning will change due to temperature, humidity or just through playing and constantly hitting the heads. And you might not even notice it if you don't have a reference to check against your current sound. 

With the samples you'll have an easy way to check if you need to retune, change the heads, or reposition the mics. This is especially important if you spend a lot of time on the same song and still want a consistent sound. 

2. Drum samples can save your ass

Imagine your drummer playing the ultimate take. Everything is perfect, the feel is there, the groove, everything. And then - he/she misses that one snare hit and during the tom fill there are two hits that are just too quiet compared to the cymbal that comes right after the fill. Shit. All over again, right? Not if you have samples that sound exactly like your snare and toms (because they are taken from your actual snare and toms). You (or your editing/mixing engineer) can now place those samples in there on the missing hits and save the amazing take! Without it sounding weird or fake. 

Or imagine you're done tracking, listen back to the song and realize that the bridge would have way more impact if it started with both crash cymbals on the first beat. But you just played the smaller of the two, which now sounds kind of weak, unfortunately. You might have never realized it until now. So what do you do now? Well, did you record samples? Great! Just put the big crash in there on top of everything else and boom - there's the impact!

3. Wanna keep it natural? Use your own drum samples!

Many drummers don't want to believe it, but it's true - If you want to get big, punchy, modern rock drums, you will have to use samples in the mix, most of the time! The majority of your favorite records probably have drum samples on them and you might not even notice. And there are good reasons for it:

First of all, so many drummers just don't hit hard and consistent enough to make it sound right with only the natural drums. I'm talking in more detail about this in The Top 10 DIY Recording Mistakes and in The Key To Better Drum Recordings.

Also, you need a lot of separation between the drums and cymbals to be able to EQ and compress them the way you need to, to get that desired sound. With samples, you can easily enhance the individual drum hits to make them cut through better and have less cymbal bleed. 

Now, I'm all about natural sounding drums and I know many drummers are afraid of a mixer using samples on their performance, because they fear it will sound fake or "overproduced". That's where your own drum samples come in!

We want something exciting and unique, right?

If your mixing engineer can blend in your own samples with the raw drums, it will sound so much more natural, organic, unique and authentic then using the same libraries everybody else uses. And even if she uses her own custom samples, chances are they will not quite blend as nicely, as the ones taken directly from the same kit. That said, all of this is only possible, if the kit sounds awesome, the tuning is right, the mics are positioned carefully and the overall source tone is just a great fit for the song. If any of those things are not the case, she might have to use external samples to make it work. But that's a whole different story and she can always do that if there's no other way. 

So, how do you actually record drum samples properly?

Recording drum samples:

Once everything is setup and sounding exactly the way you want it to sound for the session, you basically have your drummer hit each individual drum and each individual cymbal a couple of times.

From very soft to very hard, very quiet to as loud as possible, with all the different articulations you can possibly think of. Rimshots, no rimshots, hi hats open, hi hats closed, everything in between, ride bell, ride crashed, left foot, right foot, etc. 

Make sure you wait until the decay is fully gone before you hit the drum or cymbal again. Do a few variations of every articulation. 

You should end up with at least about 20-30 hits of every piece of the kit. I know this probably sounds like overkill and it might take a little time, but it's so worth it!

To speed up the process, write down in which order you want to go through all the drums, cymbals and articulations. Follow that order when recording the drum samples. This makes exporting and labeling them much easier. 

Cutting & editing drum samples: 

When you are done recording, cut each sample up, so that it starts exactly at the transient (the very beginning of the wave form). Be careful not to cut into the transient. When in doubt, leave a couple of milliseconds of space before the hit. The mixing engineer will have to align them to the raw drums a bit, anyway. Leave all the decay in. 

This is an example of a single snare hit (close mic snare top) and where you should cut it

This is what it looks like when you zoom in even further. You can clearly see where the transient (the very first spike) is.

Do that with all the close mics, all the overhead and room mics and all the "character mics" you might be using. So basically with everything that might be important for that specific element's sound.

So for every snare hit, for example, you should have a snare top sample, a snare bottom sample (if you are using a snare bottom mic), a snare overhead sample and a snare room sample (one for every room mic or room mic pair you have). 

For every cymbal hit you might just have overheads and rooms. That's ok, if that's all you're using to capture these. If you use spot mics for the cymbals, cut those up, as well.

Time offset, attack & sustain, fade in / fade out

Be careful to leave the decay in on the overhead and room mics. They ring out longer than the close mics on a drum! Also be careful to always use the closest mic as a reference for where you're exactly cutting. The hit will be delayed a bit on the mics that are further away. So if you use the overheads to find the right spot for the beginning of a snare sample, you will be eliminating the transients on the close mics. 

This is what the offset between a close mic, the overheads and the room mics could look like. Make sure to preserve that and not destroy the transient or sustain of any sample.

Also, make a tiny, short fade in and fade out on every sample to avoid clicks.

This is what a single sample looks like after carefully cutting and placing tiny fades in the beginning and end of it. 

Exporting and labeling drum samples:

After carefully cutting, label all the samples and export them as individual WAV files into folders labeled accordingly. The samples of one individual hit could be labeled like this, for example: 

  • "snare top_rimshot_hard_1.wav"
  • "snare bottom_rimshot_hard_1.wav"
  • "snare overhead L_rimshot_hard_1.wav"
  • "snare overhead R_rimshot_hard_1.wav"
  • "snare room L_rimshot_hard_1.wav"
  • "snare room R_rimshot_hard_1.wav"

Finally, include the sample folders when you send your files to your mixing engineer. Be sure she will be very happy, impressed and thankful for it!

And your record will thank you for it, as well... 😉

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