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Drum Machines on Your Mac: Not for Drummers Only

by - Episode 20 - June 25th, 2004

When it comes to creating drum tracks, GarageBand kinda sucks. Sure you can use loops and many of them sound fantastic, but if you want to record drum tracks from scratch, your choices are as follows:

Record real drums one track at a time, which is both difficult and tedious.

Record Software Instrument drums using a MIDI controller (or GarageBand's onscreen keyboard), which is also difficult and tedious.

The problem is that most MIDI controllers look like a piano keyboard, which just isn't the best interface for playing drum sounds. It's hard to get that real drummer feeling going when you're pressing piano keys instead of bashing drumheads with pointy sticks. Don't misunderstand: I'm not a real drummer; not by any means. But I love drums and I love the sounds they make, and most of all, I love recording my own drum tracks for my songs. What I hate is how limited GarageBand was when it came to drum tracks, or at least how limited it used to be…

In the course of my research for my soon-to-be-released book, GarageBand for Dummies, (which, thanks to the able assistance of our own CONTACT _Con-4343D30120 \c \s \l Bryan Chaffin, should be out in early August, Zulch willing), I came upon two reasonably priced products -- one a software application and plug-in, and the other a hardware device -- that make creating drum tracks in GarageBand a pleasure, and, more importantly, let me record the drum tracks I hear in my head faster and easier than when using just GarageBand.

The first is an inexpensive software program called iDrum, from Glaresoft, a drum machine that runs as either an Audio Units plug-in for GarageBand or a stand-alone application. The second product is a hardware MIDI controller from Yamaha— the DD55 MIDI Digital Drum System -- that you beat on with sticks to send MIDI information to GarageBand (or any MIDI-savvy audio program).

iDrum

iDrum, shown in Figure 1, is a drum machine that runs on your Mac.


Figure 1: iDrum running as a plug-in within GarageBand.
(Click the thumbnail for the very large, full size image)

The stand-alone version looks the same as the GarageBand plug-in; the only difference is that the standalone version can be used without opening GarageBand and offers a number of keyboard shortcuts not available in the plug-in version.

It's possible to create your own drum tracks and loops in GarageBand without iDrum, but the GarageBand software instrument editor isn't designed for heavy drum programming. It's far more tedious doing it with GarageBand's built-in editor@@md and not nearly as much fun.

It's easy as pie to create and modify drum tracks in iDrum. For each of the eight tracks shown in Figure 1, the blue bars represent individual drum beats on that track. The height of the blue bar determines its relative loudness; just click and drag the appropriate bar to add a beat or change a beat's loudness. Creating drum tracks this way is easy, fast, and best of all, fun. If you compare it with creating drum track in the GarageBand software instrument editor, where you have to drag those dorky little dots around, you'll see why I think iDrum is so nifty.

And, although GarageBand comes with some pretty good drum sounds and loops, iDrum comes chock full of even better-sounding drums. Click and hold on the name of a drum sound on a track and a menu appears allowing you to assign a different sound to that track as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2: These are just some of iDrum's included snare drum sounds.
(Click the thumbnail for the very large, full size image)

I find programming drum tracks with iDrum soothing, hypnotic, energizing, and profoundly gratifying, all at the same time and so do its makers, as you can see in this bit from the iDrum Web page:

Drum machine neophytes will get to experience the same magical ‘instant-gratification' fun that hooked an entire generation of musicians on the hardware drum machines of yesteryear. Pros will find that there's simply no faster, easier way to access and manage large unwieldy drum sample libraries, get a phat beat going, and get it exported into the format you need (and for less money than a replacement pad for your MPC 3000).

You don't have to take my word for it -- Glaresoft has a 14-day demo version available.

If you enjoy GarageBand and/or drums (or you cut your teeth programming analog drum machines in the 80s), check out iDrum. With the low price of just $50, I think you'll find it a bargain.

Yamaha DD55 MIDI Digital Drum System - (US$214.99 - Amazon)

There is one other option for recording drums: Use a MIDI drum controller such as the Yamaha DD55 MIDI Digital Drum System shown in Figure 3.


Figure 3: The Yamaha DD55 MIDI Digital Drum System.

Remember the MIDI keyboards I said I didn't like using for drum sounds? Think of the DD55 as a device that serves the same purpose -- a MIDI keyboard with a twist: Instead of sending MIDI information when you press a key, the DD55 sends MIDI information when you whack any of its 7 touch-sensitive drum pads or two cheap, but usable, foot pedals (not shown in Figure 3) with a drumstick or your hands or feet.

It comes with 174 extremely realistic-sounding drum voices that you can assign to any of the pads or pedals. There are 100 drum kit presets or you can create your own dream kit using any of the 174 sounds. And, of course, it offers MIDI In/Out so it can send MIDI information to GarageBand and be recorded as a software instrument. It's also self-amplified and has built-in speakers so you can use it without hooking it up to a computer.

Any drummer will tell you how hard it is to "play" drums using a MIDI keyboard. I'm not a drummer, but I've been using a DD55 for the past few weeks and the tracks I create with it sound significantly more realistic than ones I create using a keyboard.

The DD55 uses standard MIDI cables, not USB, so you'll need an inexpensive MIDI interface to connect it to your Mac. Some USB MIDI keyboards have ports for MIDI in/out; if so you can connect the DD55 to your MIDI keyboard and avoid the expense of a MIDI interface.

Priced under $250 (US$214.99 - Amazon), the DD55 is an outstanding value if you need to record drums that sound reasonably realistic and like to strike things with sticks.

NOTE: If you have the stomach for it, I recorded "Black Sabbath," by (who else?) Black Sabbath using the DD55 as drums. You can download and listen to the tune (and four more songs from my smash hit CD, "Smell the Glove XIII," from my .Mac Web page.

…and that's all he wrote.

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.

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