This article was written to be featured in the monthly Tapspace Newsletter. If you're not subscribed you can do that here.
It's been over ten years since programming Virtual Drumline – the go-to marching/concert percussion sample library for composers and arrangers. Since then it's been interesting to see how it's used and where it pops up. I just heard it used in an episode of the HBO series Girls a few weeks ago, which is pretty removed from the more common usage of writing marching band shows in Finale or Sibelius notation programs.
VDL sounds quite realistic out of the box, but with some sequencing trickery, you can make it sound even more so. A few months ago, I wrote another article for the Tapspace Newsletter about Humanizing Playback in a Sequencing Application. If you haven’t read that, be sure to check it out. This article is going to rely on you knowing those skills!
This time, I'm going to show you how doubling or tripling a track using different patches can bring more life to that part. The best part is, it’s really easy! For the sake of illustration, we'll focus on four measures of a marching snare line track. This was taken from a TV commercial I wrote for ABC College football.
Start with your initial track
This may be a quantized track due to having imported it from a notation program. Or, it may be a track in which you’ve tweaked some velocities or attack placements to give it a little more life. It doesn’t matter. This will serve as our initial track.
In this example, we’re using the Snareline Manual instrument from VDL. This is probably the most commonly used marching snare patch because it was created using the sound of the full, eight-person snareline section.
Click below to hear what this track sounds like by itself.
That sounds OK, but in the real world, there will probably be some "dirt" (or clarity problems, for the uninitiated) here and there. Rather than simply humanizing this track by slightly altering its quantization, we’re going to keep it as is, but then layer in additional tracks for some extra fuzz.
Double the initial track
Copy the MIDI data from the initial track into a second track. Here’s the important part: Set this track to use a different patch from the first one.
Since the first track used the Snareline Manual instrument, we’re going to set the new track to use Solo Mylar Snare. (For all you drumline guys out there, just suspend your disbelief; it’ll be perfectly okay mixing the sound of a mylar drum with the full snare line!). Click below to listen.
Sounds a bit fuller, right? But, let’s take it one step further!
Add a third track
Let’s get crazy here and repeat this process by copying this MIDI data into yet another track, giving us a total of THREE tracks.
Again, it’s important that each of these tracks is using a different patch so there’s no phase cancellation. In this example, we’ll use the Solo Kevlar Snare patch from VDL.
Click below and you'll ear what it sounds like with three tracks of the same MIDI data being played back by three separate VDL snare instruments.
It has a little more of a unique sound, doesn’t it? But wait … there’s more!
Humanize the second track
Remember our Humanizing tutorial back in October of 2014 (mentioned above)? Do that to the second track.
Below, you'll hear what it sounds like after running our Solo Mylar Snare track through two or three randomizing cycles of +/- 15 attack placement and +/- 5 velocity.
We’ve just created some instant dirt! It’s likely that a real drumline will have some of this fuzziness. It’s still pretty accurate though, so let’s take it just one step further and…
Humanize the third track
That’s right. We’re going to add even more dirt! Just like we did to the second track, give your third track a couple rounds of humanizing by similar variables.
Keep in mind, we’re not trying to make these tracks sound good by themselves. After humanizing it, if you play the track by itself, it may sound pretty wobbly. But in the context of a full mix, it can add some life.
Listen below. This is the sound of the first track (untouched) playing simultaneously with the second and third tracks having been given some randomization dirt.
And for context, here’s what this fuller, dirtier snareline sounds like alongside marching tenor drums (which have also been treated using this same doubling technique) and bass drums.
As much as we always try to play perfectly and accurately, it’s never really the case in a real live ensemble. So in a situation where you’re trying to make your VDL recordings sound as human as possible, this is just one 'dirty' trick to have up your sleeve!
To learn more about the Virtual Drumline percussion sample library, visit the Tapspace site.