Using EZDrummer to Make Great Sounding Drum Tracks
This article focuses on Toontrack's EZDrummer, which has now been replaced by the newer EZDrummer 2. Feel free to explore here if the original EZDrummer is your thing, but for everyone else check out my newer article focusing on EZDrummer 2.
The Virtual Conun-Drum
Let's face it: drums are awesome. They are the arch support of rock n roll, the heartbeat of the dance floor, the rhythm for the rhyme. Any fan of music, regardless of genre preferences, cannot speak ill of the percussive imperative. Recording musicians probably appreciate them more than anything; a decent drum track can really make a good song come alive, it can literally give it the oomph that is so desperately required. That said, recording drums can be a daunting process, and, given the skill and time required to trigger and perform on top a kit, an ultimately frustrating task. Fortunately, there is a cure for the drum recording blues in the form of virtual instrumentation.
There are several reasons why a recording musician may choose to enlist virtual drums into their sonic arsenal. The obvious statement of convenience quickly comes to mind. Setting up an actual drum kit for a recording session takes up a lot of time and space. Drums are big and heavy and need lots of tuning and specific acoustic settings to sound effective. Performing the drums requires precision and ability, and in the process of recording, aspects of trial-and-error may consume too much time for those who lack such qualities. On the other side of the fence, there are recording musicians who simply cannot drum but wish to create tracks that need a percussive backbone.
In any case, the song must go on, and that's where the implementation of virtual drums comes into play. Nothing is going to beat the tonal qualities of actual drums that are properly played and recorded, but thanks to software like EZ Drummer, recording professionals, enthusiasts, and hobbyists can get really close without having to lay a finger on a real kit.
This article will discuss EZ Drummer on a detailed level. It can be used as both a summary of features for the curious consumer and as a beginners guide for the uninitiated.
What Is EZ Drummer?
EZ Drummer is a drum synthesizing software plug-in developed by Toontrack. It is MIDI-based and hosts a wide sampling of recorded drum sounds. To go alongside its drum sampling capabilities, EZ Drummer also hosts an extensive library of MIDI patterns which users can employ using simple drag-and-drop techniques. It is available for both MAC and PC workstations and currently lists for $179 on the Toontrack website. With a little searching, it can probably be obtained for a lesser price elsewhere.
It is not a standalone program; it works within any given digital audio workstation (DAW) that has virtual instrument (VST) support. It is important to understand this before committing to a purchase: EZ Drummer will not work by itself right out of the box; it needs additional music software in order to function. Any DAW with VST support should do the trick, and it does not necessarily have to be an expensive one. This article presents images of EZ Drummer working within Garageband, which usually ships free with most new Apple computers (or can be purchased for $14.99). Sony Acid Studio, which starts at $64.99, works fine as well. Cockos Reaper is another relatively low-cost DAW option that works with EZ Drummer. This list does not exclude premium software; FL Studio, Logic, Cubase and Pro-Tools are all heavy hitters that are compatible the EZ Drummer.
EZ Drummer is not the only software of its kind, but consumers in need of an effective virtual drumming solution may be hard pressed to find a competing program that produces similar quality at this price-point. If used correctly, the drum sounds created by EZ Drummer are remarkably life-like, and only the most hardened audiophile will likely find a reason to complain. It is a recommended purchase for recording musicians who need great-sounding drums without having to sacrifice much of their checking account.
What Can EZ Drummer Do?
EZ Drummer is a software synthesizer, which means that it contributes specific drum sounds within a MIDI landscape. For example, if a MIDI track is given instruction to perform a hit on a snare drum, EZ Drummer is the software that will sound out the snare. If this explanation does not satisfy the needs of a curious mind, it may be beneficial to equate the role of EZ Drummer within the process of painting a picture. If DAW software is the canvas and the MIDI file is a pencil sketching, then EZ Drummer is the color that finishes everything up.
With that stated, the quality of the painting is solely dependent on the abilities of its artist. Users familiar with writing and sequencing MIDI files have the ability to use EZ Drummer for solely as a sound finishing tool. MIDI controllers can be configured to EZ Drummer within their DAWs, thus making live recording a realistic possibility. For experts of the craft and virtuosic prodigies, the picture has great potential to be a masterwork. For everyone else, EZ Drummer provides a color-by-numbers approach in the form of its Groove Library, which will be discussed later on.
Loading EZ Drummer into a DAW
As mentioned, EZ Drummer is not a stand-alone tool and thus requires a compatible DAW with VST support in order to function. There is a wide variety of DAW's available for consumer purchase, and each and every one of them function a little differently, but loading EZ Drummer is usually a simple process. This is not a DAW tutorial, so it is expected you know the basics of your favorite recording software in order to continue.
- Step One: Install EZ Drummer. It is available as both physical media and as a downloadable purchase.
- Step Two: Open up a compatible DAW.
- Step Three: Create a new MIDI track within your DAW
- Step Four: Assign a VST for your newly christened MIDI track. This is also sometimes referred to as a software synth and sometimes a software instrument.
- Step Five: Choose EZ Drummer from the selection of VST options available. This should result in the loading of the EZ Drummer interface. It should look something like this:
- Step Six: Go ahead and play around a bit. This guide will dissect the user interface in greater detail with following sections, but a little free-form noodling around can never hurt.
Note: if you aren't seeing EZ Drummer as an available VST option, you may have to manually insert the EZ Drummer files into your DAW's virtual instrument folder. This is usually as easy as copying the ezdrummer.dll system file and pasting it into your DAW's VST plug-in folder. I have not had too much trouble getting most of my DAW's to recognize EZ Drummer immediately upon installation, but your mileage may vary.
Making the Drum Track
Making a great-sounding drum track with EZ Drummer can be as simple or as complicated as the user desires. Those familiar with MIDI sequencing and writing drum tracks may wish to use EZ Drummer solely as a synthesizer. If that is the case, then most of EZ Drummer's work is already done for you. Once assigned as a VST to an already-assembled MIDI track, EZ Drummer will process the file with its drum samples and sound remarkably realistic. How it all sounds can also be tweaked within the EZ Drummer mixing options, which will be discussed in the mixing section of this article.
MIDI drum files may be pre-assembled within the DAW or a drum sequencing program, but users who wish to take on a live approach are given the opportunity to use EZ Drummer with a MIDI controller. A properly configured MIDI controller will sound out the EZ Drummer samples based off a MIDI pattern pre-determined by a DAW. A keyboard is a very common MIDI controller used in recording settings. When a MIDI keyboard is properly configured with a DAW, then the samples used with EZ Drummer are in accordance with a piano roll.
Using the Groove Library
For the drumming-inclined recording enthusiasts everywhere, there is an easy to use groove library for your song production needs. This is the "color-by-numbers" approach. Users are simply required to explore the library, find desirable grooves and literally drag them into the MIDI track. Here is a step-by-step explanation for using the groove library.
- Step One: Open the groove library. Within the user interface, click on the button that says "Open Grooves." The button looks like this:
- Step Two: Select a desired library. EZ Drummer automatically comes with a pop/rock library and cocktail drum library.
- Step Three: Choose a type of groove. The library is broken down into several style options.
- Step Four: Choose a groove. They are numbered "Groove 01" to "Groove XX." These grooves provide the backbone for the various pre-made drum patterns available. For example, Groove 1 in 4/4 Pop/Rock is a very basic bass drum on the first and third beat with a snare on the second and fourth. Groove 19 has the the bass drum hitting twice on the first beat, the snare hit followed by the bass on the second beat, the bass drum hitting once on the third beat, and snare-bass combo repeating itself on the fourth beat.
- Step Five: Choose a playing variation. These are numbered 1 - 20 and are consistent throughout. At this point you may wish to explore the various groove options available. Users can get a decent idea as to what type of sound the groove entails by simply listening to the first playing variation, which has the hi-hats playing fourth beats hard closed.
- Step Six: Click and drag the playing variation into the MIDI track. This will result in the pattern appearing into your MIDI track. It's totally a drag-and-drop exercise from this point onward. Go ahead and place in as many grooves as you want. You can repeat the same groove over and over again or you can throw in a different one to change things up a bit. Toss in a fill here and there to keep things interesting. You now have drums for your next hit song.
Editing the Grooves
The beautiful thing about these pre-made grooves is that they are all just MIDI patterns. After performing the simple drag and drop exercises, users have the ability to edit them to the hearts content. Accessing the structure for the MIDI file from the DAW will present specific drum notes, which are all just little dots arranged on top of a beat, usually in the form of a piano roll. These drum notes can be added, moved around and deleted, so drum patterns can be tweaked until a desired pattern is attained.
Mixing in EZ Drummer
EZ Drummer is a realistic instrument synthesizer, regardless of whether a user has a pre-designed MIDI file or choose to use the included pattern library to develop your drum track. This means that the primary goal is to make these virtual drums sound a little less like computer wizardry and a little more like an actual kit. The default setting is not bad at all, but a little tweaking can almost never hurt.
To access the mixer, one must click the button labeled "Open Mixer" on the EZ Drummer user interface. It looks like this:
Clicking this button will open the EZ Drummer mixing interface.
The mixer breaks down each part of the drum-kit into separate categories. One option is to adjust the volume and stereo-panning of each individual part. For the unadventurous, there are a few preset mixing options available by clicking the "Presets" button towards the upper left of the mixing screen. Mixing is a highly subjective art, but here are a few pointers to make the journey a little easier.
- Turning up the kick drum a little bit never hurt anyone. That bass beat is literally the pulse of your music, and you want it loud enough to get listeners to dance along with song.
- Use the overhead control to adjust the excitement of your song. If you wanna keep the hips shaking, keep it at the default setting. If you want them to keep up their fist-pumping and head banging, turn it up so they can really feel your drums crash into the sky. If you want listeners to appreciate the subtleties of your beautiful piano driven melody, it's probably a good idea to turn in down.
- Use the room control to determine how live-sounding you want everything to be. Turn it up, and listeners will literally hear the drums bouncing off the walls of your underground virtual studio. Turn it all the way down, and they'll really appreciate the studio polish and sophisticated artistry present within the percussion section.
As with the process of recording an actual drum kit, each mixable subsection is defined in relation to where a microphone is placed. The "bleed control" toggle switches allow whether or not certain drum parts leak into a microphone that is placed to pick up a differing section. In any realistic drum recording session, it is virtually impossible to not have sounds bleeding in with one another, and therefore the most realistic sound is achieved by allowing this phenomenon to take place.
Other Mixing Options
The mixer is one specific way to get the drum sounds you desire out of EZ Drummer, but there a few more ways to customize a final musical product.
Changing the Drums
EZ Drummer has a few differing drum piece options available out of the box. To change pieces on the drum click, click the arrow placed on top of an individual piece. Clicking an arrow gives a sub-list of all available pieces.
The Velocity Setting and Humanize Control
Users have two easy options to help make the virtual sounds made by EZ Drummer sound more like-like: velocity setting and humanize controls. The velocity control is a MIDI setting is how intense a particular note is played. For drum tracks, the velocity is related to how hard a drum hit is perceived. A small velocity setting would provide a soft hit, while a large setting would provide a hard hit. The velocity control in EZ Drummer is a knob to the right of the "open grooves" button. Turning the knob left turns down the velocity, and turning it to the right increases velocity.
The humanize setting randomizes the velocity portion of the MIDI file, giving the track a more life-like tone. This setting is crucial when using the groove library since it often makes the difference as to whether or not the MIDI pattern sounds more like a real drummer and less like a piece of software. The Humanize Control can be turned on and off via the Humanize button placed to the left of the "open grooves" button.
Hopefully this beginners guide will answer all the basic question a new EZ Drummer user may have. Additional information will be presented in this miscellaneous section.
- Tempo control: the tempo of the MIDI file is controlled within the DAW. Users of the groove library can additionally choose to have the drums played in half-time or double-time by the tempo control, which is placed directly underneath the "open grooves" button.
- Additional Kits: additional drum kits for EZ Drummer can be purchased on the Toontrack website. The "Drum-Kit From Hell" addition is a strong recommendation for those who wish to create heavy metal tracks. The stock kit works fine for just about anything else.
- The EZ Player: EZ Player is a free program provided by Toontrack that allows EZ Drummer to be accessed without a DAW open. This can be a great option for those who wish to use EZ Drummer in a live setting. It should be noted that this is not an editing program, and drum tracks can not be assembled within it.