One of the biggest weaknesses in the home or small studio has always been recording drums and percussion. Other instruments were easier: whether you went the all-synthesizer route, or chose to mix MIDI sounds with guitar, piano, or other acoustic instruments, you could get some pretty good results.

But setting up real drums in a small studio . . . brrr-r-r. Tricky mic placement, lots of gear, lease-breaking volume levels. The alternative — playing a drum track on a keyboard, or even a good MIDI drum controller, was always a challenge. It's hard to play a credible drum part on a keyboard, even if you are a practiced drummer.

DrumCore Box
DrumCore: the database that grooves.

And if that weren't enough, finding the right sounds was always a challenge. After years of gathering all the drum samples I could find, I actually got to the point where I found that having a lot of drum samples on my hard disk was almost a bigger problem than not having enough. If you take the time to get all that stuff on there, you oughta be able to use it when inspiration strikes. But in reality, you usually fall back into the swamp of searching and auditioning.

Now, from the land of the Experience Music Project, comes a program designed to solve those problems, and it has really helped and impressed me. Submersible Music DrumCore is essentially a database of celebrity drum grooves that plays in perfect sync with Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software such as Ableton Live, Apple Logic, Cakewalk Sonar, Digidesign Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer, Sony Acid, and Steinberg Cubase.

To use DrumCore, you simply pick a famous drummer by his name or style and then drag and drop his groove into a track (audio or MIDI) in your DAW. But you can also customize the sounds and phrases extensively, as I'll explain.

DrumCore runs on both Windows and Mac. It contains stereo audio loops, MIDI beats, and a MIDI-controllable virtual drum instrument (i.e., a soft synth). The version I reviewed lists for $249 but street price is $149. There's even a free version (see the "Different Drummers" sidebar).

Different Drummers

DrumCore is available in a range of versions to suit different tastes and budgets. DrumCore Deluxe ($449) adds 11GB of grooves to the standard DrumCore ($249) reviewed here. DrumCore Rock ($99) contains only the rock content from DrumCore. DrumCore LT (free) is for people who want only one drummer or style. It can be used as a player for Submersible Music's DrummerPack expansion libraries. KitCore ($49) is a MIDI-only drum plugin (no audio loops); it includes 8 drumkits and 400 beats. KitCore Deluxe ($99) bumps that to 100 kits and 3,000 beats. A PDF chart on Submersible Music's home page details the differences.

The Basics

DrumCore comes with a sizable and useful bunch of loops, arranged in a songlike format which Submersible calls GrooveSets that groups a basic beat with associated fills and variations. Different styles are represented by an array of hot professionals like John Bishop of Ernie Watts fame, Missing Persons' Terry Bozzio, Jeff Anthony, Luis Conte doing Latin percussion, reggae master Sly Dunbar, the dynamic Matt Sorum of Velvet Revolver, Brooks and Dunn's Lonnie Wilson, funkmeister Zoro from Lenny Kravitz, and others. You can also purchase a number of add-on sound libraries called DrummerPacks that are mostly great.

The grooves are presented as both audio loops, MIDI versions of the loops and MIDI-controllable samples of the individual drums in the kit. The component recordings feature 48kHz, 24-bit resolution.

So how does this abundance of grooves work with my too-many-samples problem, you may logically ask. And I'm glad you did, because it brings up DrumCore's clever database capabilities. It is really easy and fast to find lots of loops, and audition them either solo or in the context of any tracks you may have already laid down in your DAW. You can also use it to organize your existing loops; the database reads common file formats such as WAV, AIFF, Acid, and REX, Propellerheads' sliced-audio format.

DrumCore's main window (Figure 1) is simple but powerful. You can set the main scrolling area to search by Drummers, Styles, or DrummerPacks. As soon as you highlight any one of these, the "Basic Grooves" area to the right displays the names of all the basic grooves available for that Drummer or Style. At the same time, the area below that shows all the available variations of the basic groove you selected, including fills and single hits, in both MIDI and audio format.

Click on one, hit your spacebar, and it plays, either solo or in sync with your DAW tracks: your choice. It's simple and efficient work to go through the choices this way, narrow them down, and find what you need. Most grooves offer four to ten variations, but some have nearly 80. But overall, there are plenty, and they are plenty useful.

Fig. 1: Main Window
Fig. 1: DrumCore's ergonomic main window gives you about 95% of what you need to use the program. (Click to enlarge.)

Speed of Sound

When you click on a groove, the tempo scale on the righthand side of the window — ranging from 40 to 240 bpm — immediately tells you the slowest and fastest tempi the groove will play without distortion. The red zones show where the samples won't sound optimal; black shows the good range.

This optimal range is usually pretty wide because of the way the grooves were recorded. In addition to the excellent drummers and top equipment, each groove, variation, and fill was recorded in increments of 10 bpm, to capture the subtle differences good drummers naturally impart to any given groove when they play it at different tempi. Digital time-stretching is a minor miracle, but if you've ever tried to use a loop played at 120 for a 80 bpm tune, you know it usually doesn't have the right feel. Obvious as a roach in the salad.

Another benefit of Submersible's multi-tempo approach is that because you don't have to speed up or slow down a single loop radically, you maintain the basic audio quality of the recording. Because DrumCore is a ReWire slave to your DAW software, the two communicate so that DrumCore automatically sets its tempo to the tempo of your project. This not only lets you audition loops at the right tempo, but tells you whether each loop will sound good at your tempo. Very convenient.

Of course, all these programmed decisions on whether a given groove matches a given song are suggestions — usually good suggestions, but suggestions nonetheless. Obviously, you and your muse can choose what you want.

Click on the Main Window's "More" button and you expand the window to show an even more detailed way to search. Dropdown menus and text boxes let you set search criteria by feel, file type, meter, single hits, comments, and filename. (See Figure 2.)

Fig. 2: The More Button
Fig. 2: The "More" button opens a set of detailed search options.

Overall, this setup gives you a fast, effective way to find the groove you need — ideal when you need to play and not spend time pushing computer buttons. For even finer editing, you can change around the drum samples each groove uses via the Drum Editor. (See Figure 3.)

Fig. 3: Drum Kit Editor
Fig. 3: In the Drum Kit Editor, you can modify several parameters of the way the drum samples play back, including Mute, Solo, Volume, Pan, and Pitch.

Rocking in the Real World

The thing about the DrumCore grooves is that they aren't just loops, but are truly grooves, played by real drummers, and that's important. In every flavor of popular music, from jazz to bluegrass and punk to funk, what makes a tune work is the drummer, bass, and rhythm players consistently hitting certain beats of the bar together so they sound like one big instrument. It's important for lead players too, of course, but they usually have a lot more flexibility.

Rhythmic quantization, that great double-edged sword of electronically produced music, has been responsible for luring otherwise passionate musicians into accepting performances that technically are tight and on the beat, but often short on character. Unless you quantize piecemeal, you usually end up with every note locked to the beat or to some unvarying offset from the beat. But a groove played by a good musician has an individual character and feel in its phrasing, where notes on different beats are purposely on or off the beat to different degrees.

For example, a drummer might think of a tune in terms of two-bar phrases. He might hit bar 1, beat 1, dead on with the kick drum, but hit bar 2, beat 1, early. He might then trigger the kick a shade late on the third beat of both bars, and so on. It's really tough to make a drum line do this with quantizing.

But if you have a real drummer playing a groove that has the feel you want for your tune, you can lay in the drum track and then record the rest of the instruments, playing them so they lock to the drums, and end up with a tight, groove-intensive piece. And that's what you get from DrumCore's grooves.

Get Your Re-Groove On

Even with the many CDs full of grooves Submersible Music offers — both with the basic software, and as aftermarket add-ons — it's not out of the question that you may not always find a groove that works for you. But even if you're picky, all is not lost. DrumCore can still help, via the approach I call (with apologies to the Firesign Theatre), "re-grooving."

The idea behind this approach is to lay down a scratch track with any instrument (including voice) that nails the groove you have in mind. Even if you have to sing it with nonsense syllables, record that and get the basic feel of your groove on a track in your DAW. Then find the MIDI groove in DrumCore that's closest to yours, and put it on the timeline next to your scratch track.

Usually, the simplest groove you can find is the best. I started with a guitar track with an eclectic, reggae-esque feel, and found a Sly Dunbar groove that was close, but doesn't fit the guitar groove exactly the way I wanted:

Notice I laid in a number of iterations of a MIDI groove — a practice I recommend, just for flexibility and experimentation. (See Figure 4.)

Fig. 4: Extending MIDI CLips
Fig. 4: Cakewalk Sonar lets you make any timeline event, such as these MIDI clips (the orange squares) into a "groove clip" that you can drag out to repeat itself several times.

But the groove can be fixed. I looped the first bar and visually zoomed in tight, first on beat 1 and then beat 3. In this example, I didn't even have to listen, since the guitar transient and drum note were visibly far off on both beats. In Figure 5, for example, notice that on beat 3, the attack of the guitar strum is earlier than the kick and snare notes. The guitar anticipates the beat while the drum notes come after the beat. So I slid the drum notes earlier to line up more with the guitar hits on these two beats.

Fig. 5: Tardy MIDI Kick
Fig. 5: In this groove, Dunbar plays the MIDI kick on beat 3 later than my guitar strum.

Figure 6 shows you how I've moved the MIDI note right onto the beat. In this case, I wanted the guitar to anticipate the kick a little.

Fig. 6: I slid the kick notes earlier, to line up with the guitar.

After tightening up the kick on beats 1 and 3, I moved on to the backbeats on 2 and 4. When you do this to your own tracks, at this point you should be hearing significant improvement in how the two tracks lock up. But you'll usually need to dig a little deeper. Since my guitar part had a bit of a shuffle feel on top of the reggae groove, I also moved a couple of the off-beat hi-hats to line up with the late guitar off-beats. I moved the second hi-hat at 1:01:572 and the ones just before the 2 and 4 a few ticks later.

You can get as tweaky as you like. As you hear problem areas, zoom in to one of those spots, use your ears to isolate any beats that sound ragged and see what you can do with them. Just sliding a few of the MIDI drum hits earlier or later lets you sting the guitar hits real tight.

The result in my file is a weird reggae/shuffle combination. I don't know if I'd use this in a song, but you can hear how much these small changes can lock the two parts together and give the drums a different feel:

One thing I want to mention is that the MIDI versions of the DrumCore grooves are surprisingly good. They're filled with the same subtle ghost notes, tempo shadings, and generally hot playing as the audio files. So even though you shift a few of the basic notes around, the subtle stuff stays in place and keeps the groove live.

Mix-and-Match Down

The last step is to convert the MIDI clip to audio and, if your DAW allows, convert that into a clip that will let you create iterations of your one- or two-bar phrase like Sonar's Groove Clip feature does. This is where you can stop the microsurgery and get on to recording.

When you get comfortable with this technique, it's time to mix and match. The many variations of each groove you get with DrumCore make that easy. If you used a simple groove to start with, you can more easily find a variation that you can use with little trouble. Notice in Figure 7 how I've put a second DrumCore groove on track 3, below the one I already modified on track 2.

Fig. 7: Dual MIDI Grooves
Fig. 7: You can line up two variations of a MIDI groove file to mix their contents.

Obviously, little or nothing in the first three beats of these two grooves lines up and they'll sound awful together:

But, the cool little 16th-note fill on the fourth beat has potential to add interest. So I deleted everything in the new track 3 groove from beat 1 up to beat 4. Then I deleted the second note of the 16th-note fill, and quantized the three remaining notes to 8th-note triplets to give a shuffle feel. (See Figure 8.) Then I deleted all the notes in the last bar of track 2, and copied the two 16th notes into that track in the same location as they are in track 3. That gives a nice fill that works well at the end of a two-bar phrase:

Fig. 8: Weeding MIDI Redundancies
Fig. 8: By deleting redundant or incompatible notes, and re-quantizing what's left, you can create a new groove.

These changes are small, but provide a simple, effective way to add more life and realism to a drum track. It continues to amaze me how even a simple phrase like this played by a pro sounds better than anything I could produce without hours of tweaking.

Conclusion

I also had fun using grooves from different styles — like jazz brushes with a rock tune — and mixing audio grooves from different drummers, and even styles within the bar and swapping instruments. DrumCore's top-notch sounds and unique database design make it so easy to find and adjust grooves that you may discover, as I did, that the hassles of producing quality drum tracks in a home studio melt away.

To hear some samples using DrumCore on a commercial movie soundtrack, check out Astropuppies in Space, my new DVD for children. For even more audio examples, along with the surprising story behind the company, visit SubmersibleMusic.com.