Easy to use drum and synth tools
August 27, 2013 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Bedroom musicians - I need some tools to create basic drum and synth parts while recording. It needs to be stupid easy (as in "I am stupid, make this easy") to use. What are your recommendations?

I use Reaper for a DAW and just bought a Korg nanoKey2 to input MIDI parts (hopefully a step up from the previous mouse-and-keyboard combination). I'm currently using a free version of Magix Independence as a sampler workstation and I'm just not satisfied with it - too complicated, too hard to use, and I don't need most of the features. I feel like I'm spending more time troubleshooting software than actually recording anything. All I want to do is input some simple drum tracks, bass lines, and maybe synth parts to back up my guitar and vocals.

What are your recommendations for free/cheap and easy to use drum and MIDI/snyth programs? The nanoKey2 came with a license for EZ Drummer Lite - is that worth using? I'd like to avoid installing three dozens different programs to try and weed out the ones I don't like. I am also am slowly turning into Crotchety Luddite so if it's not super simple to use I'd really appreciate some excellent, well-written documentation (along the lines of "insert Tab A into Slot B" type setup and use instructions - I'm moderately confident with Reaper but there's still a lot I don't really understand, especially with this electronic music stuff).
posted by backseatpilot to Technology (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Not free or cheap but it is AMAZING!
If you have a Mac lying around, Garageband is free/cheap and Logic X is 200$

You can make serious, pro tracks with those 3 for sure.

(EZ Drummer is very cool too)
posted by Studiogeek at 11:40 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention that I also have a valid student ID for the next year, so if there's anything good that's significantly marked down with student ID I would like to hear about that.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:44 AM on August 27, 2013

You should definitely check out Hydrogen for drums. It's really, really fun, and can sound pretty great. I use it when I'm dicking around with new tracks.
posted by General Malaise at 11:47 AM on August 27, 2013

And Reason Essentials is $129 for a somewhat stripped down home version.

I have a Maschine and their suite, which is pretty awesome for plonking around. I'm intending to lay down some backing tracks and then import them to Garageband vocals, bass, and guitar. I hope to have something up on Music after Labor Day weekend.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:49 AM on August 27, 2013

Reaper is all the software you need. You just need to download some VST synths and drum machines, and you can find plenty of awesome ones for free on the internet.

You just drop the downloaded plugins in Reaper's FX folder, then open Reaper, create a new track, and add the FX to the track. Set your MIDI keyboard as the track input and record to the track. Then you can quantize afterwards so everything lines up nice and cleanly.

I'm not sure what sort of sounds you're looking for, but you can turn up lots of stuff by googling "free VST synths" and "free VST drum machines." DSK makes a bunch of nice free VSTs, and I absolutely love the elektrostudio synths (don't be put off by the sketchy-looking Polish site, they're totally legit).

All of my tracks as Resistor were made like this -- Reaper, a MIDI keyboard, and free VST plugins. I'd be happy to provide more guidance if you need any.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:50 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

For drums, I have a hard drive folder full of drum samples and I just copy/paste the individual drum hits into tracks and assemble the drum loops that way. I use a few virtual instruments for drums, as well, but I find that importing and copy/pasting audio almost always sounds better and allows me more freedom in mixing and editing. Of course, it takes some time to build a good drum sound library, but there is a ton of free audio out there to get you started, and then you can keep building your library with drum sounds from your favorite songs and albums. Pulling drum hits from recordings has become my personal version of record digging over the last few years. Then you can edit and effect the crap out of the individual sounds and make them totally new. It's a blast.
posted by The World Famous at 12:29 PM on August 27, 2013

And if you find some drum samples that you want to work with (you can find a bunch of free samples in the link at the top of this page for instance), you can follow the same procedure I outlined in my previous comment, but stick ReaSamplomatic 5000 (which comes with Reaper) as an effect on the track. Then load the sample in the plugin window, and it'll be mapped to your MIDI keyboard, and you can record it to the track.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:06 PM on August 27, 2013

I guess this is where it becomes obvious that I didn't read the manual for Reaper. Or that I know terribly much about VSTs. Sounds like a simple solution, great!
posted by backseatpilot at 2:10 PM on August 27, 2013

I use Reaper and love it, and if you are good using Reaper and want to program all of your parts out, that should work well for you.

However, Reason can make things really really easy. It's got tons of loops and patterns and other stuff that makes it really cool for just writing and being creative. I don't use it anymore, but when I was getting going with virtual instruments, I used Reason for years and years and loved it. It makes things very very easy.

So, if you want to program every note, and tweak away, than sticking with Reaper will get you there. If you want to just create without doing all of the programing and tweaking, Reason will do that for you (but will also allow you do to a good amount of tweaking).

If you use Reason, here's a little nifty trick to get some neat beats. Load up a drum loop (which is sliced into each of the individual little sub beats) and save that beat pattern as midi notes to a track (there is a button that does this). Then, load up a different loop, and use the original midi to play the new loop. The original midi will be a completely different grove and pattern, so you'll get these wild random beats. Sometimes they're terrible, but sometimes they're amazing. This is one of those things that takes seconds to do in Reason, but is somewhat difficult in other programs.

Whatever you do, if you are writing stuff that is supposed to sound like a real drummer, it's worth finding some midi loops that were played by real drummers to use to trigger your sounds. It is very difficult to program a midi drum file to sound real unless you are a drummer and understand all the little things that go into a good drum groove. Finding a midi file of a drummer playing a beat on a set of E-drums will give you the human element to add into the mix, which will help make your samples sound more real.

If you are going for a techno/dance/electronic/drum machine sound, than obviously you want it right on the beat, so you can just input that with the keyboard or mouse.
posted by markblasco at 2:28 PM on August 27, 2013

Another good trick: Make a cool four bar beat. Copy it once (so it's now an eight bar loop made of 2 copies of the four bar loop) and tweak a few bits in the 7th and 8th bar. Now copy that and do the same with the 15th and 16th bars. Ditto, and tweak the 31st and 32nd bar.

Bam, you just made a nice organic 32 bar drum loop that won't make people think a robot is fucking their earholes (term of art).

For ios software I really like Nanostudio - great combination of easy to use and powerful.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:09 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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