Drum Replacement In Mixes

UPDATE: If you’re using the REAPER DAW, here’s a more recent post that provides a far more flexible approach in creating yet another “Poor Man’s Drumagog”, using only built-in functions. Not a single plugin is required!

Drum Enhancement In Mixes Using the REAPER DAW


Ever receive improperly recorded drums for mixing, that just sound flat-out lousy?

This is a very common problem, especially with kick (bass) drums. For that reason, we’ll be concentrating on the kick here, although the same procedure can be performed on any piece of the drum kit.

A few possible causes of crummy sounding kick tracks:

  • Bad microphone placement
  • A cheap microphone, or one that’s not designed for the frequencies required to mike a kick drum
  • Improperly configured recorder settings
  • Out of tune or low-quality drums

Any or all of these can result in a “boxy” or “boomy” sounding kick drum, frequently with pitiful low-end, punch, click and projection.

This issue can also be compounded if the kick drum and bass guitar are “battling” each other due to occupying the same frequency range, which leads to a lack of definition between the two instruments. A common technique to correct this is to pan the bass left or right a bit, then apply EQ to move it to occupy a slightly higher frequency range than the kick drum. This is actually a really a good technique to always use in any mix. While making this mix adjustment may be a possible fix, more than likely it will do little or nothing to affect bad kick drum sound, and may in fact make it even worse.

You can try correcting these kick drum sound issues by using “standard” DAW plugins such as EQ and Limiters, “dynamic” plugins such as a sub-kick microphone simulator (SK10 by Wavesfactory is one free example), mixing techniques such as parallel compression/drum track doubling, and boosting levels to name a few. If you can get a good sounding mixed kick drum using these methods, it’s preferable to what I’m about to discuss since the source remains the natural sound of the drum that was recorded. But, if the kick track is extremely bad, odds are you’ll be tearing your hair out for hours trying to get the sound you’re after and still never be able to dial it in.

As world famous studio engineer Bobby Owsinski says, “You can’t boost something that’s not there in the first place”. That in mind, your only other option may seem to go back, correct the recording problems that caused bad sound in the first place, then re-record. This is actually the most preferable action to take, but if not possible, there is another solution…

It’s a technique called “Sound Replacement”.

One popular DAW plugin package to perform drum sound replacement is called Drumagog, but it can easily run into hundreds of dollars, depending on which version and add-ons you purchase. For home studios such as mine, that’s not a very affordable option for what should be a fairly straightforward task.

All of that said, my intent here is to let you know how you can create what I’ve dubbed a “Poor Man’s Drumagog”, for free!

From a high level, a simple way to implement this is by adding a Gate plugin to the kick drum channel to detect each kick, then output that transient as the appropriate MIDI note. Next in the FX chain we’ll place a VST drum kit, which will then translate that MIDI note into a replacement drum sound using pre-recorded samples.

Here’s the skinny, in detail:

First, install the following plugins on your DAW:

  • A Gate, which must have MIDI output capability

Personally, I prefer “JS: Audio To MIDI Drum Trigger” since I use REAPER as my DAW and it comes pre-installed. One nice feature of this gate is that it allows mixing of the original kick signal with the new kick sample.

Of course, there are many other free Gate plugins which will perform much the same function. ReaGate, which is part of the ReaPlugs VST FX Suite, is another great one. Plus, the suite contains many other excellent, useful plugins such as compressors, EQ’s, and more.

  • A VST Drum Instrument

Like Gates, there are also many free VST drum instrument plugins available online. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using a one called MT Power Drum Kit since it’s very easy to use, but unfortunately only contains samples from one kit. Thankfully, it is one great sounding kit!

Once you get the idea of what’s involved with replacing kick drum sound, you can explore other VST instrument plugins, or you may be totally satisfied with the samples that “MT Power Drum Kit” provides… Whatever trips your trigger (pardon the pun)!

Plugin Configuration

Add the Gate as the first plugin in the FX chain:

Select the MIDI note for the kick drum. This is usually in the range of 34-36, but consult the documentation for the plugin as many have several to choose from, giving you the option of different kick sounds.

The most critical Gate adjustment is “Open Threshold”. If set too high, it will result in multiple kicks for a single note. Too low, and the Gate will not trigger reliably, or not at all. Experimentation is required here, in order to find a happy medium between the level of your kick drum track and this threshold.

As for other Gate adjustments, again consult the plugin documentation, or just dive in and try different settings to hear the results once the rest of the FX chain is configured.

Next in the FX chain, add the VST Drum Instrument:

These can have many different settings, so once again consult the documentation for the instrument plugin you happen to be using.

“MT Power Drum Kit” has its own mixer which controls the level of each drum kit component that you’re replacing. It can also perform stereo panning, has a “Invert Pan” button to switch between “self view” and “audience view”, and even its own built-in compressor for every drum in the kit.

Kick Drum Replacement - MT Power Drum Kit - Main UIScreenshot of the REAPER mixer, with “JS: Audio To MIDI Drum Trigger” and “MT Power Drum Kit” plugins added and configured for internal kick drum microphone replacement.

Kick Drum Replacement - MT Power Drum Kit - MixerScreenshot of the same configuration, showing the “MT Power Drum Kit” plugin mixer with the compressor engaged on the kick drum channel.

Now, solo and play the kick drum track, then go back and adjust the settings of these two plugins to taste.

There you have the basics of my method for kick drum sound replacement.

There are many other articles on the web which get into this at a much more detailed level, so I encourage you to hit Google and see what else you can come up with. Most certainly, feel free to share any interesting information you may find on the subject in the comments of this article to help others out, as well as myself!

Have fun with sound replacement, and good luck…
– Craig

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