How to Add MIDI Drums to Guitar Backing Tracks

Mapping out MIDI drums is easier than you think! This tutorial guides you through the process of adding MIDI drums to your backing tracks, and recommends the best tools for getting the job done well.

Building your own guitar backing tracks from scratch and don’t know any drummers? Adding MIDI drums to your backing tracks is easy — and it won’t bother your neighbours! This tutorial will take you through the process of creating a basic MIDI drum track for a song from start to finish. It is intended to supplement my main backing track tutorial, so make sure you’ve already studied that tutorial before proceeding. It will also be helpful for you to have already viewed my tutorial on building tempo maps.

Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this tutorial, you will understand how to:

  • Set up your virtual drum kit (VST) for MIDI mapping
  • Download and use drum maps for your preferred drum VST
  • Map out each individual part of the drum kit
  • Copy and paste commonly repeating drum patterns

If you are unable to meet these objectives, feel free to reach out for assistance via YouTube. Be sure to include the title of this tutorial in your comment, so I’ll know which one you’re referring to.

Gear Requirements

To complete this tutorial, you’ll need the following equipment:

  1. Digital audio workstation (DAW)
  2. Virtual drum kit
  3. MIDI controller (optional)

I’ve written previously about my preferred DAW for backing tracks, Cubase. You’re free to use any DAW you like, but Cubase’s drum editor is particularly well-equipped for mapping out MIDI drums, so do consider it. For the purposes of this tutorial, I will refer to Cubase throughout. Be aware that each step will differ slightly if you’re using anything other than Cubase.

Also, as mentioned in my main backing track tutorial, there are a number of different virtual drum kits (henceforth referred to as “drum VSTs”) to choose from. I personally use Superior Drummer 3. This VST is quite expensive, so if you want a cheaper alternative, consider the following third party drum VSTs:

Many DAWs also include basic drum kits with small drum sample libraries. While you’re getting your feet wet with MIDI drum tracks, you might want to consider using those basic kits before upgrading to paid third party drum VSTs.

As for MIDI controllers, you only need one if you want to map drums out in real time. I think it is much easier, personally, to map drums out using your mouse. If you want to take a more musical approach to the process, however, any key-based or pad-based MIDI controller is up to the task. You can even use electronic drum kits, if you like!

Tutorial

Step 1: Select Your Drum VST Track

Scroll through your instrument folders in your backing track project and click on your drum VST track to highlight it.

How to Add MIDI Drums to Guitar Backing Tracks
Click to expand the screenshot.

👉 Please note! This step assumes you have already completed my How to Build a Tempo Map tutorial and have completed up to Step 8 of my How to Create Backing Tracks for Guitar Covers tutorial.

Step 2: Open Up Your Drum VST

Click the “Edit Instrument” button on your drum track. This button is indicated by the small MIDI keyboard icon, to the left of the Read and Write automation buttons.

How to Add MIDI Drums to Guitar Backing Tracks
Click to expand the screenshot.

Step 3: Tweak Your Drum Sounds

Find a preset you like that suits the song you’re covering, and tweak the sound of each drum kit element as needed. This will be the subject of a future Tones post, so I won’t go into the process in any great detail here.

How to Add MIDI Drums to Guitar Backing Tracks
Tweaking a Superior Drummer 3 preset.

For the purposes of this tutorial (using U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as an example), I selected the Big Rock preset in the Rooms of Hansa expansion pack, and swapped out the default snare for a 7.5 x 14″ Wahan Wood snare, tuned to 0:02.0.

Step 4: Add Separate MIDI Tracks for Kick, Snare, and Other Percussion Elements (Optional)

Some people like to build up their drum parts on one single MIDI track. Others like to separate the kick and snare parts from everything else to make humanization easier. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Do what’s easiest for you! I personally alternate between both options depending on the song I’m covering.

If you want to add separate MIDI tracks to your Drums folder in Cubase, do as follows:

  1. Select your drum VST track.
  2. Click Project > Add Track > MIDI.
  3. Give each MIDI track an appropriate name (e.g. “Kick”).
  4. Ensure that the output of each MIDI track is routed to your drum VST (this is the default setting, but you can check to ensure that all is good by looking at your output settings under each MIDI track’s Inspector window to the left hand side of your screen).
How to ensure that the selected MIDI track is routed to your drum VST.

If you just want to place all of your drum notes on a single MIDI track, refer to Step 6 and add your empty drum pattern block(s) directly to the drum VST track.

Step 5: Select a Drum Map (Optional)

Cubase makes MIDI drum mapping incredibly easy via its Drum Editor and Drum Map features. The drum map essentially links a MIDI note with the name of a corresponding drum type in your drum VST. If you do not have Cubase, or if you do not have a DAW that supports drum maps, you will have to use your DAW’s default piano roll MIDI editor to map out your drums.

To select a drum map in Cubase:

  1. Click on your drum MIDI track.
  2. In the Inspector window, click on “No Drum Map”
  3. Select a drum map from the list.
  4. Click on the Editor tab below your backing track timeline. When there is a MIDI block on the track (see Step 6), the piano roll in the Editor tab will be replaced by the drum map you selected, along with the Drum Editor interface.
    • You’ll know you’ve done done this step correctly when you see a “Pitch” column and an “Instrument” column in the Editor tab. If you see a piano roll, you’ve done something wrong.
Selecting a drum map for Superior Drummer 3 in Cubase.

Cubase’s default drum map is called “GM Map.” GM stands for “General MIDI.” It will work with some drum VSTs, but for the best results, you’ll want to use a drum map that is specific to your preferred drum VST. You can create drum maps yourself, but it is much faster to simply search for drum maps others have made and load those into Cubase.

Some handy links to some premade Cubase drum maps:

To load those drum maps into Cubase, click on Drum Map Setup (see the image above), then click on Functions > Load to find the drum map you downloaded.

Step 6: Use the Draw Tool to add an Empty Drum Pattern Block

Now we’re getting into the fun stuff.

  1. Select the Draw tool in Cubase’s uppermost toolbar.
  2. Ensure the Snap tool is selected.
  3. Hover over the beginning of a bar on your selected MIDI track. Click your left mouse button (LMB), hold, and drag your mouse to the right to create an empty pattern block.
  4. Release your LMB when you’ve created a block of an appropriate length. The length of this block is up to you. It can last for one bar, two bars — the entire song, even.
Click to expand the screenshot.

I recommend adjusting your pattern blocks to lengths that make musical sense. For instance, if there is a commonly repeating kick pattern that is one bar long in duration, simply create a one bar pattern block for that particular kick part. The main kick drum pattern for “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (see image above) is a good example, as the kick drum falls on every quarter note in every bar throughout the song.

Step 7: Give Your Drum Pattern a Unique Name

Since you’ll be copying and pasting multiple drum pattern blocks, it helps to give each pattern a unique identifier. For my example below, I want to call this the “Main Kick” pattern.

Click to expand the screenshot.
  1. Click on the empty pattern block you just created to select it.
  2. In the top left hand corner of your screen, you’ll see “Name,” along with the default name given to your pattern block (in the case of my example, the default name is simply “Kick”).
  3. Highlight the name, and change it to a unique identifier — in this case, “Main Kick.”
  4. The name given to the drum pattern will change appropriately in the top left hand corner of your screen, and also on the drum pattern block on your timeline.

Step 8: Add in MIDI Notes for Your Drum Pattern

Click to expand the screenshot.
  1. Double click the empty pattern block you created in the previous step. This will open up the MIDI Editor tab below the timeline, replacing the Mix Console tab.
  2. Scroll down through the drum map in the Editor tab until you find the right drum type. Click it to highlight it. In the case of my “Sunday Bloody Sunday” example above, I’m looking for the kick drum hit.
  3. Adjust the note velocity to 127 (loudest possible hit) in the Editor’s tool bar, as kick drums tend to be loud and powerful. For ghost notes, you’ll want to set a lower note velocity. See the image above if you can’t find the velocity settings window.
  4. Select the drum stick tool, and ensure grid Snap is turned on in the Editor toolbar.
  5. Click along the highlighted section of the grid in the Editor tab to add in MIDI notes that sync up with your reference track. In the case of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” you’ll want to click on every quarter note when you’re building up the main kick drum pattern.
Adding in MIDI notes with the drum stick tool.

Step 9: Copy and Paste Commonly Repeating Drum Patterns

It would be hugely time consuming to add in MIDI notes for every single drum hit throughout a song. This is why we copy and paste any pattern that repeats itself.

There are two ways to do this in Cubase.

Method 1:

  1. Click on a particular pattern.
  2. Press Ctrl + C on your keyboard to copy the pattern.
  3. Click on a particular bar division along the grid ruler.
  4. Press Ctrl + V on your keyboard to paste the pattern.
  5. Repeat as needed.

Method 2:

  1. Hover your mouse over the pattern you want to copy.
  2. Towards the far right side of the block, you’ll see two black squares, one at the bottom of the block, and one at the centre.
  3. Click on the square at the centre of the block, hold, and drag your mouse right. This will duplicate the pattern to the adjacent area.
  4. You can drag as far as you like; before you let go of your mouse, you’ll see a preview of what you’ve duplicated, along with the number of times the pattern has been repeated. This is handy if, say, you know the pattern needs to repeat a certain number of times before the next commonly repeating pattern occurs.
Click to expand the screenshot.

💡 Important: Before you copy and paste any hi-hat patterns, you will likely want to humanize them. Be sure to check out my tutorial on how to humanize MIDI drums!

Step 10: Repeat Steps 6-9 for Every Drum Pattern in the Song

To complete this final step, you’ll need a pretty good ear to pick up on what the drummer in your reference track is doing on each part of the drum kit throughout the song.

Click to expand the screenshot.

If you’re struggling (I personally struggle with hi-hat patterns sometimes), try watching drum covers or concert videos on YouTube with the playback speed slowed right down.

You may also find it helpful to use an audio splitter application like Moises to isolate the drum track and eliminate the distraction of hearing other instruments in the mix.

💡 Important: Remember that (most) drummers have two arms and legs! That is to say, take care to ensure that your drum track could be played by a real drummer. Don’t add in hi-hat hits when both hands would otherwise be working the snare.

Conclusion

After following the above ten steps, you’ll have your MIDI drums mapped out in perfect time with your reference track. There are a few more things you’ll need to do before your drum track starts sounding “human,” however — and that’s a subject for the next tutorial.


Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

See Also: