Indie Rock Opus pt.1: Building Drum Tracks

By Mitchell Sigman


Hey all! Thought I’d break down a new tune I’ve been working on with Mixcraft 6 called “Intermission”. We’ll assume you’ve already clicked that handsome MP3 player above and are listening. :) I’m going to go through its individual parts in the next couple of blog entries, and you can download the entire Mixcraft 6 file below to see exactly how I constructed it. Be aware some plugs may be disabled depending upon which Mixcraft version you’re using ( I used the top-of-the-line Mixcraft Pro Studio 6 edition because I’m special).

It’s a sort of post-punk Joy Division/Editors/Interpol-ish affair that began while improvising some guitar riffs over one of Mixcraft’s included rock drum loops. I used the colorfully named “Beat 1″ from the Dark Rock song kit, created by Dj Puzzle. Its native tempo was 115 BPM, but dragging it into my song automatically locked it to my speedy 150 BPM tempo. Here’s how to add a loop:

inide rock loop window

- click the “Library” tab at the bottom left in Mixcraft. You can preview loops (or sound effects) by clicking the green triangle. To narrow down the selections displayed, click the “Library” and “Sort By” pop-up menus. You can also enter search terms in the “Search” box. If you want to find the beat I used, you could type something like “Beat 1 Dj Puzzle”.

- to add a loop to the Track View window, you can either click the blue plus sign in the library window, or drag and drop a loop to the appropriate track in the Track View window. If you drag and drop, just remember that these loops and sound effects are audio, so they must be dragged to an audio track (audio tracks have a speaker icon).

- one nifty aspect of loops is that it’s easy to manipulate their length by simply grabbing the left or right edge and moving them, thereby “closing up” the window of sound that plays. This is handy if you only like part of a drum beat within a loop, for example (I recommend setting the “Snap” pop-up at the top of the window to a musically relevant value to ensure that the loop start and end points end up on bar or beat lines).

Though Mixcraft makes creating music with loops material super easy, in this case I just used the drum loop as a temporary backdrop. Why not just use the loop for the “real” beat? Loops sound great, but they’re not always ideal for a “traditional” drums/bass/guitar-style rock song, for a couple of reasons. Drum fills and rolls aren’t that easy to create with a fixed loop (though some collections include variations including fills). And if you like mixing drums as you would a traditional multi-miked drum kit, you’re out of luck because all the components are typically combined into one stereo audio file. Using programmed single-hit MIDIed drums samples, we can split the individual instruments across separate audio channels. This offers tremendous flexibility to compress, EQ and reverb individual instruments, just like a real, live drum kit (the best example is that you frequently want a huge reverb on snare drums, but that same reverb usually sounds awful on a kick drum). BTW, if you downloaded my Mixcraft song file, you’ll notice I left the “Beat 1″ drum loop in the final song with the mute button on – just click the mute button to hear it.

indie_rock_drums_3_121513After composing most of the music with the simple loop, I used five instances of Acoustica’s Studio Drums instrument on individual virtual instrument tracks to replicate working with a real drum kit. Here’s how:

- Create a new virtual instrument track from the Track menu by clicking Track>Insert Track>Virtual Instrument Track, then click the keyboard icon on the track. Select “VSTi Instruments”, then “Acoustica Studio Drums”. Now click the red X in the upper-right corner to close the instrument selection window.

- Make four duplicates of the Acoustica Studio Drums track by clicking on the track, then selecting Track>Duplicate Track from the top menu (alternatively you can insert, delete, or duplicate tracks by right-clicking).

- Rename the five drum tracks by simply double-clicking on their names. Name them “kick”, “snare”, “tom”, “hats”, and “cymbals” (or “Bob” and “Larry” and “Xavier” if you really want).

- I then grouped all five channels using a “Submix Track”. Not only does this make things look pretty and organized in the track view window, it also lets you control (and automate) the volume of the entire drum mix with a single fader, and better still, it lets us run the whole kit through a single compressor or any other effect. Submix bus channels are also super handy when you have tons of layered backing vocals, but we’ll cover that in a future entry. Here’s how to create a submix track:

- At the top of the window, select Track>Insert Track>SubMix Track. If the new submix track isn’t already there, grab it and move it above the kick drum track. This won’t affect how it works, but it’s a good idea to keep things visually organized.

- Rename the submix track by double-clicking on the name – something like “Drum Submix” would be good.

- This part’s important- we’re gonna reroute the drum channel audio outputs to the drum submix channel fader. Click the “Mixer” tab at the bottom left. Make sure the drum channels are visible in the mixer- you’ll see the track names at the bottom of the mixer window. If you don’t see the drum channels, grab the scroll bar beneath the mixer and slide horizontally ’til they’re visible. Now click at the top of the kick drum channel, just beneath “Output”, and select the “Drum Submix” send channel. Repeat this for each drum channel.

With the drum kit set up, I set about  programming a beat similar to the loop, making use of Mixcraft’s nifty “lanes” feature. Here’s how it works: when Mixcraft’s loop mode is enabled, a new recording lane is created with each pass – in other words, a separate clip for each pass. There are lot of convenient uses for lane recording; in the this case I used it to quickly record kick, snare, and high hat parts on a single track, resulting in separate clips for each. Here’s how:

- Select the kick drum track by clicking on it.

- Click to enable loop recording by clicking the loop button in the transport.
Set the loop start and end points at the top of the track view window by dragging them- I recommend a two- or four-bar length. Make sure the snap drop-down menu at the top of the window is set to “Snap To Measure”, otherwise you’ll end up with funky loop points (and by “funky”, I don’t mean in the good, everybody-dancin’ way).

- Turn on the recording metronome (this may already be on) by clicking the metronome icon.

You’ll see this window:

Set it as above for click during recording only and a one-bar (i.e. four click) countdown before recording begins.

I set up a two-bar region in loop mode and recorded an instrument on each pass of the loop, i.e. kick on the first pass, snare on the second pass, and hats on the third pass. Ready to lay down some beats? Sure you are…

- To begin recording, click the red record button in the transport, or press “R” on the keyboard. When you’re done, click stop on the transport, or hit your computer’s space bar. Now you should have something that looks like this:
drummy lane

I left the kick drum clip in place, then dragged the snare clip to the snare track and the high-hat clip to the hats track, which looks like this:
drummy lane2

“Hey”, you say… “now my kick drum track is big, and the clip is tiny and there’s all these extra lanes I no longer need.” Ok, let’s get rid of them and get that kick drum clip back to normal size. With the kick track still selected, select Track>Lanes>Delete Empty Lanes (you can also access this command by right-clicking, or if you really want to impress your friends, use the hot key command  alt-K ). Much better now:
drummy lane3

If you play like me, there’s a good chance the drum beat is sounding a little off time, so let’s quantize that guy to inhuman perfection. Double-click the kick drum clip- the piano roll window will open. Now click MIDI Editing>Quantize. This defaults to sixteenth notes, which should be good for our purposes. Click “OK”. With the quantize window open, it should look something like the screenshot below (you can click the picture to embiggen):
indie quant

Now repeat the process to quantize the snare and hat clips and we can all dance like Asimo The Robot.

You can create more patterns by repeating the above steps, or make copies of existing ones by highlighting clips and option-dragging (remember to be aware of Snap menu settings). Once I have basic patterns sorted out, I’ll go back and add cymbal crashes, and snare and toms fills using a mix of “live” recording (i.e. playing the keyboard) and drawing in notes using the pencil tool in the piano roll window. For maximum realism, I like to determine where a real drummer’s high hats would drop out during fills and edit the appropriate notes out.

In our next installment, we’ll talk about how to add compression, EQ and reverb for monster-sounding drum tracks!