Panning and Volume Tricks for MIDI Drums

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Want to get just a little bit better at electronically produced percussion? Try one of these techniques.

Alternating/Varying Volume Level

Most MIDI drum sets will have sounds like shakers, high-hats, and other sounds that are often played in quick succession, such as once every 16th note when composing in 4/4. It sounds just fine when you listen to a human being moving a shaker up and down, but if you set a MIDI drum loop to play your shaker sound every 16th note, you end up with a harsh continuous noise instead of a soft backing to your other percussion sounds.

The fix for this is fairly simple. A live shaker, played with a simple “up, down” rhythm, will have two volumes: A distinct “shake” sound when the percussionist moves his hand down, and a lighter “shake” at approximately half the volume when he brings his hand back up. Simply keep the “shake” sound at its default level for the downbeat, then alternate every other 16th note “shake” with somewhere in the neighborhood of half the volume. Don’t worry about getting it exactly half, or even anywhere close to half if you like the way it sounds louder or quieter. Also, don’t worry about having each lower volume alternate be at exactly the same level, since the idea is to make it sound more organic and natural.

You can do similar things to any other pieces of your percussion set that play in quick succession. For example, if you have a 16th note high-hat in your loop, that is sounding far too artificial for your liking, reduce the levels on every other 16th note, and slap a modest amount of reverb on to tie it together. A live drummer isn’t a robot, and wouldn’t play each hit at exactly the same level, so why should your loop?

Resetting the Panning

A drum loop sample recorded in stereo will oftentimes already have certain drums panned to a certain place in the mix. It’s rare that each drum sound will be mixed dead center. Drum set MIDI instruments are the same way. Only a few sounds like the kick and snare are centered, and the toms and cymbals will all have a different panning position pre-assigned. Generally, this saves you a lot of time and effort. You don’t have to try to set up a panoramic position for every last percussion sound that enters your mix.

Unfortunately, every once in a while, this is a headache. It’s all preset, and sometimes you listen to what you have and it’s just wrong. That tom is just too far left and that ride cymbal needs to be over there, but a sampled loop is a sampled loop, and far too often, the pan position of a midi drum can’t be modified. So, what do you do now? You could set the drum track to Mono and call it a day, or try to patch together a few sounds on separate tracks that you think should or shouldn’t be panned, but can I suggest a different technique?

Instead of setting your drum track to Mono, duplicate it. Make two identical drum tracks. Now take your copy, and flip the stereo, using whatever technique your software offers. Switch the Right stereo track with the Left stereo track on your duplicate, and play the original and the duplicate together. Your drum sounds should all be coming from dead center now. With every sound playing at the same level out of both left and right speakers, it’s now playing as if it was a single Mono track.

But why go through all that trouble? Because now, you can pick and choose what parts of your drum loop should keep their preset panning positions. On a MIDI drum set, remove any sounds from the duplicate that you want to end up panned like their producer intended. All other sounds will stay Mono. On a sampled drum loop, you can experiment with cutting out pieces on your duplicate that you want to preserve the panning on.

Two things to keep in mind when using this method: The first, don’t mistake inverting the stereo position with inverting the phase. Inverting the stereo will make left become right and right become left, inverting the phase will make your entire drum section play as silence, if both the original and the duplicate are played at once. Secondly, having every drum sound doubled will make your percussion track very loud, so be sure to adjust the levels to compensate for this and avoid peaking.

Now Go Be Amazing

Both of these techniques were tested with Audacity, a simple freeware audio workstation, to ensure that anyone could take advantage of these tips regardless of budget or experience.