Let me start by saying that I am a firm believer in “real drums,” and I’ve spent countless hours tracking and mixing them. The main thing I’ve learned is that everything matters. I can get good sounds in my little project studio near home, but for anything with a budget I’m heading to the best room I can book. On the other hand, I’ve also learned not to stand on ceremony – if the drummer insists on bringing in a poorly tuned kit with completely shot heads, I’m likely going to augment with samples at mix if needed before I’ll risk getting into a pissing contest. This is, of course, a slippery slope. There are so many overbaked sample sets out there, and it’s easy to smother your drums in audio “cheese” if you’re not careful. Some of the extremely processed sample sets sound incredible in isolation, but they rarely sit right in my mixes.

During the pandemic, I found myself in need of programmed drums to support my creative impulses while largely stuck at home. I heard a couple of trusted sources singing the praises of both Superior Drummer 3, and in particular, The Rooms of Hansa SDX expansion set. Long story short, these (new to me) tools kicked off a very fertile period of home recording and, when Toontrack released the new Legacy of Rock SDX expansion, I had to check it out.

Recorded by Eddie Kramer at Air Studios’ Lyndhurst Hall in London, this collection of drum sounds pays homage to his work with John Bonham, Charlie Watts, and Mitch Mitchell. Kramer and the Toontrack team gathered up four different vintage Ludwig kits and one Gretsch, along with a host of different snares. Representing Bonham, a Ludwig Amber Vistalite kit was chosen, with every piece picked to honor the original as closely as possible, down to the timpani and, yes, the gong. Granted, in essence, it’s Bonham’s live kit recorded in the studio – Led Zeppelin didn’t book Madison Square Garden to cut drums. Alternately, there’s a period-correct silver sparkle Ludwig for Bonham’s studio sound. In both cases, the bass drum is set up with relatively little damping for a more resonant sound.

For a more damped drum sound, a black Gretsch kit representing Charlie Watts’ setup was chosen, with an Oyster Ludwig kit for a more open-sounding Rolling Stones vibe. A “Silver” Mitch Mitchell kit is tuned higher, in honor of Mitchell’s jazz-inspired drum sound with Jimi Hendrix. All the kits are meticulously mic’d and sampled, occupying several gigs of digital space.

Legacy of Rock includes a ton of interesting presets, and I can totally see using them, but personally, I’ve gotten really into exporting the microphone channels pre-mixer and applying my own processing in Pro Tools. One of the absolute strengths of this set of sounds is that Eddie Kramer has given you a host of mic’ing options to blend. On one song I found myself using the Amber Room Ambience preset as a starting point, which boasts several stereo and mono room mics at varying distances. Faders up, it holds together but sounds a hair soft, and just a tad murky. Nonetheless, what’s so exceptional about the Kramer sounds is that when you peel away the layers, you’re left with tight, punchy, extremely well-recorded drums of various flavors. Bring some of the ambience back up, and now you have an almost transient-shaping level of control over how focused the kit sounds!

Of course, you might want to use one of the included larger-than-life presets – they’re very well done – and I have used them on certain tunes. What I find so cool about this set is that the raw sounds remind me of when I’ve received well-recorded drums to mix from an incredible room with a killer console. It’s all there, and maybe a little different than if you’d tracked it yourself, but your hands aren’t tied in terms of mix presentation – plus those raw sounds can be obsessively EQ’d, compressed, and gated, or not – it’s up to you.

Superior Drummer 3 is a deep application and includes a huge assortment of drum kits. My experience has been that the Legacy of Rock drums (as well as Hansa) work a tad better for me, making the extra investment well worth it. There are numerous ways to use Superior Drummer 3, including playing it with whatever MIDI device you’d like. In practice, I found myself taking an existing beat from ToonTracks’ MIDI library, then editing it down to a few simple bars for, say, the verse of a song. As I build up the composition I can add in fills and other variations, that support the arrangement as it grows.

Conversely, on a client project I received some challenging drum tracks cobbled together inexpertly from the drum performance of a totally different song. There were loads of bad edits, which I was able to fix within my DAW. Yet, it still didn’t quite hang together, and the phase relationships on the close mics seemed to have drifted some due to the client’s wonky editing. Superior Drummer 3 came in handy here. I got the overheads sounding good, and then replaced most of the other mics using the Tracker function in Superior Drummer 3. Tracker works similarly to other modern drum triggers, except that you pull audio files into Tracker rather than instantiating a plug-in on each drum track you want to augment. From there, Tracker does a commendable job of converting the audio files to MIDI, but I do recommend careful listening prior to committing, as it will occasionally add an erroneous hit (the Learn Drum feature really helps though). You also need to make sure that the start time of the audio you pull into Tracker lines up with your host session. After chasing my tail with this early on, I realized I could consolidate all my files to 0:00 in my session to avoid any sync issues. But the real point is that this only took me maybe a half hour and it resulted in much more mix-ready drums. In a perfect world, I’d have tried to nudge the client back into the studio for a ground-up re-record. For several reasons that wasn’t possible here, and I was able to deliver a mix that the artist was very happy with despite the challenges.

If these had been excellent sounding drums from a pro room would I have used Tracker? Yeah, maybe – the ambience mic samples sound more realistic to me than the plug-in reverbs I have (or have had) access to. So not only does Legacy of Rock provide excellent, malleable drum sounds to play with, it also serves as an exceptional drum ambience tool for mixing. I only wish I’d had it on a recent, extremely well-recorded EP I got hired to mix, as there were no room mics on the drums at all! In that instance, because I felt it needed a little something, I triggered just the far room mic from a snare hit I’d recorded at Wally’s Hydeout. The result was good, but it didn’t quite offer the results I was getting with Superior Drummer 3 to trigger drum ambience. I’m stoked to have these modern options in my ever-evolving tool kit – both my personal projects and professional work are better off. If you are at all interested in or are already using drum samples in your production, the Legacy of Rock SDX expansion set is worth a listen.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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