How To Utilize Drum Machines And Samplers In The Studio

Take a look at the most successful songs from the past 10 years and you’ll be hard pressed to find a track without any use of drum samples. It’s safe to say if you’re still relying on your trusty drum kit and a live drummer for every beat, you’re limiting your creative potential.

Thanks to forever advancing technology, drum samples and loops are just another color that has been added to your music making palette. Whether they be crunchy and lo-fi or epicly clean, there are drum sounds to foster all kinds of creativity. In this blog, we’ll break down the different ways that you can use drum samples and drum machines in your studio.

MIDI Drums

For most musicians, the easiest way to start incorporating drum samples into your music is by using the stock MIDI drum plug-ins in DAWs like Ableton Live or FL Studio. These powerful processors feature hundreds of great-sounding loops and samples in a wide range of styles. Simply select a preset drum kit or build your own custom kit using sounds from the sample library.

There are a lot of benefits to making beats in the box. For starters, you can build rhythms block by block to ensure perfect timing. You can also create complex patterns that can’t be played by humans, an idea which Vintage King Audio Consultant and music maker Andy Catlin often uses to his benefit.

“Whether it’s a particular swing/pocket or a certain slow/fast tempo, drum machines open you up to accessing the rhythms beyond your physical limitations," Catlin says. "Ableton Live is my favorite way to program drum samples as it offers a set of features designed by musicians rooted in electronics; intuitive workflow, fast editing, and tools that help you break the confines of human performance.”

Some producers prefer to play their beats by hand using MIDI controllers like the Ableton Push 2 and Novation Launchpad Mini. The subtle imperfections found in human performances can help make a track more interesting. MIDI controllers are also great for quickly capturing ideas when writing new material.

More Examples of MIDI Controllers: Akai MPK, Arturia Beatstep Pro, Arturia Keystep, Expressive E Touche 

Step Sequencers

Way before there was MIDI, there were step sequencers. Step sequencers are beat-building devices that trigger samples at various points along a 16-step bar. Sequencers are great for experimenting with new ideas and creating short, loopable drum beats.

Simply select your tempo and press play to start the sequence. Create simple four-to-the-floor dance beats or complex polyrhythms with the press of a button. Sequencers are amazing beat-making tools for those of us who are rhythmically challenged, as you can assemble an entire drum track without ever performing a thing. Due to their rigid rhythms and repetitive nature, sequencers are commonly used in electronic music to create hypnotic rhymic sequences.

“Ableton’s Push 2 is the gift that keeps on giving. With it's constantly updated sound packs and super intuitive workflow, it transforms the often option paralyzing software into a streamlined musical instrument that rivals many standalone drum sequencers," says Vintage King Audio Consultant and synth expert Brandon Murphy. "My favorite feature on the Push is stepped automation, aka, parameter locks. You can automate any plugin on a per-step level to get wildly fluctuating sequences and evolving patterns that break out of the stagnant 16-step paradigm.”

More Examples of Step Sequencers: Polyend Seq, Korg SQ-1, Arturia Beatstep Pro

Drum Machines And Samplers

Some producers feel restricted by the limited number of samples available for a particular plug-in or drum machine, and choose to capture their own custom drum sounds. Most modern drum machines also feature a mic or line input for recording sounds and creating new samples. These devices are perfect for quickly capturing sounds you discover outside of the studio. Never let another moment of inspiration slip away again!

"The world is filled with a plethora of percussion sounds that are always at your disposal like tapping a desk with a pen, clicking your nails on a window, or kicking the trash can," Andy Catlin says. "Drum machines and samplers are a great way to break away from the confines of the drum kit and incorporate field recordings into the rhythmic bed of your music. The Teenage Engineer PO-35 and the Roland TR-8S are great ways to sequence found sounds into grooves.”

Examples of Drum Machines and Samplers: Elektron Digitakt, Akai MPC, Arturia Drumbrute Impact, Elektron Model:Samples

Drum Synthesizers

While organic, analog samples may work well for some genres, some producers want to expand their sample library with sounds no one has ever heard before. That’s where drum synthesis comes in. Early drum machines like the Roland TR-808 featured iconic digital drum sounds sculpted solely by synthesizers. You can create your own drum samples from scratch if you know your way around an oscillator.

“For the more adventurous sound seeker, Eurorack has become a wildly popular option. It allows you to configure your own Frankenstein system for rhythmic creation," Murphy says. "Our Vintage King pre-configured system offers an enormous palate of percussion synthesis (wavetable, granular, FM, subtractive, ETC.) and advanced sequencing from the Malekko suite of sequencing modules. Stop into our showrooms in Los Angeles and Nashville to take this system for a spin!”

If you're interested in these kinds of sounds, but don't feel like creating patches, there are also standalone drum synthesizers to help you get the job done. These powerful devices offer unparalleled control and tonal variety. With features like high-resolution sampling, advanced step-sequencing, and a built-in synthesizer for designed your own drum sounds, drum synthesizers are the ultimate percussive programming tool.

Examples of Drum Synthesizers: Moog Music DFAM, Elektron Analog Rytm MKII, Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator PO-32 TonicJomox Alpha Base, Korg Volca Drum

Whether you’re just looking to reinforce your analog recordings with a few drum samples or take over the dance floor with your next electronic banger, these drum machines and samplers have everything you need to take your productions to the next level.

Andy Catlin
If you’re interested in learning more about drum machines, samplers and loops, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.

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