Should Musicians Use Midi Drum Loops or Live Audio Drum Loops?

An In-Depth Look into this Long-Debated Topic Midi Drum Loops

So, you’re inspired, and you want to write some new music.

But, no matter what ideas you have going in your head, you are likely are going to need some drums to truly take your rough ideas to a more final product.

Now, what?

Unless you have a personal drummer on call, your drum track isn’t going to appear out of thin air! For most songwriters without a drummer at their disposal, you will usually find two distinct options to create the drum track that is going to carry your song: MIDI or audio.

How do these two options compare? What are the advantages or disadvantages of using either? What is going to give songwriters the best result?

If you’re asking yourself these very questions, then you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’ll explore both MIDI drum loops and audio drum loops, the pros and cons of using each in your songwriting, and give you a straight-forward verdict on which route you should take for your own songwriting efforts.

First off, let’s get started with some basic definitions before we explore the merits of each:

What is a MIDI Drum Loop?

The first question to answer might be: what is MIDI? MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This digital protocol allows for communication between computers, synthesizers, samplers and other hardware, essentially connecting these devices to create and control sound. The MIDI messages sent between these various devices is the key to interactivity. Need more MIDI info? Learn everything you want to know about MIDI.

Since MIDI is a digital protocol controlling communication and synchronization between devices, it actually doesn’t create any sound in and of itself.  Instead, it is the digital data responsible for what is to be played concerning musical notes, dynamics, and rhythm. While MIDI can be used for any instrument, we are going to focus on MIDI drums in this article.

So, what is a MIDI drum loop? It’s a digital file with all the instructions for a computer, synth, or sampler to produce a drum rhythm. The MIDI file controls which element of the drum kit is to be played (kick, snare, toms, cymbals, etc), at what time and place in the measure (quarter note, eighth note and so on) and at what dynamic value (loud, soft, or anywhere in between).

Being able to change voices, velocities, or tempo without any change in sound quality is truly one of the greatest advantages of MIDI.  And, as we mentioned earlier, not everyone has the capacity to record a live drummer in the studio. Even if you did, recording physical drums is no easy undertaking. You need a quality recording room (the key is having adequate space for the drums to actually resonate and breathe), drums that are tuned and great sounding, and a capable player behind the kit.

Of course, the recorded performance is “locked in” when the recording is done, whereas MIDI offers plenty of options in terms of the ability to edit your drum beats both in rhythmic composition and style.

So, in theory, it sounds like MIDI drum loops are the perfect solution for any songwriter. You can program or edit the MIDI drum track in endless ways, giving you the exact groove want no matter the feel, tempo, or dynamics.

If only it was that easy or “perfect.”

We’ll cover the downsides of MIDI drums in a section later in the article. For now, let’s get back to our other contender in the quest for the perfect backing drum track: audio drum loops.

What is an audio drum loop?

Well, as you might imagine, it’s just as the name signifies. It’s an audio file that contains an infinitely repeatable rhythm that can be looped again and again to create a longer drum track. Audio drum loops are created from the live performances of a drummer, then manipulated in audio editing software to capture the precise “beat” or rhythmic phrase that is desired. These loops can be drum beats or even drum fills.

In fact, many drum loop libraries have been expressly designed to include all the necessary components to replicating an actual live drum track (right down to the single hit samples of drum and cymbals). All of our drum loop packs are expressly built for song construction.

Additionally, it should be noted that audio drum loops come in two varieties. One category of drum loops is recorded live by drummers in a studio. The other is the product of programming a beat using drum samples. Programmed drum loops are a hybrid of sorts. MIDI is used to create and control all aspects of the beat, but it is exported in audio form. All of our drum loops offered here at Beta Monkey are 100% live performances but just know that many vendors sell programmed audio loops — be sure you know what you’re getting and, please, insist on nothing but the real thing.

Drum loops recorded by a live drummer have an undeniable advantage of having the musicality and feel of a real drummer. Can there be anything more realistic and authentic when producing drum tracks for your project than an actual human performance?

Now that we have defined both type of loops, let’s move forward and see which type is right for you and your music.

Live Acoustic Drum Loops vs Programmed Drum Loops vs MIDI Drum Loops: Let’s See How They Each Stack Up

So, now that we have some clear options for creating drum tracks, let’s do a side-by-side comparison of the two main ways to do so.


Criteria Live Acoustic Drum Loops MIDI Drum Loops
Can the sounds of the drum kit be changed? No. All sounds are “locked in” during the initial drum recording. If a vintage Ludwig drum kit was used in recording, that is the sound you will have to work with (and hopefully want in the first place). Yes, different sounds can be chosen for individual drum voices or entire kit. Only limited by samples or available drum VI options.
Can the drum mix be changed, either overall or the individual drum levels? Limited. Audio is generally “as is” but additional enhancements can be accomplished through additional EQ, compression, and other EFX Yes. All individual drum voices (MIDI notes) can be altered with the click of a mouse.
Can individual drum hits be rearranged? Can the rhythm? be changed? Limited. Audio can be sliced and diced to re-arrange rhythmic components. Dedicated plugin exist that will accomplish the same. However, it is not unlimited. Yes. All MIDI notes can be altered with the click of a mouse.
Can loop tempo be adjusted to a project tempo? Yes, but limited. Audio loops have workable time-stretch range of +/- 20 BPM (depending on source material). Extreme tempo changes will audibly alter the sound. Yes, unlimited adjustments possible.
Are products commercially availability? Yes Yes
Virtual Instrument Required? No. No additional software required except for a DAW. Yes. Although many DAWs have built-in virtual instruments, additional software for drums is an additional cost.
Ease of Use? Extremely easy. As easy as hitting play in many case or “drag and drop” in other ones. Yes, for the most part. But, definite technical knowledge and expertise with virtual instruments is necessary.
Does the drums sound realistic? Yes. The obvious strength of audio drum loops is the fact they are played by a human drummer. You can’t get any more realistic than that. Limited. For simple pop styles, MIDI will do the job fine (it has only been doing so since the 1980s!). But, in styles requiring a greater level of feel and dynamics, your mileage may vary. And, if you’re thinking of doing MIDI drums for jazz, please don’t. Just don’t.
Are the grooves inspiring? Yes. With a seasoned drummer behind the kit developing a unique yet undeniable pocket, it’s hard not to draw some inspiration from the DNA of any live drumbeat. Limited. It’s an approximation of a live drummer and actual acoustic drums. At best, MIDI drum tracks can do the job for styles of music that are not particularly dynamic or organic. At worst, it’ll sound like a cheap Casio keyboard drum track — of course, if that’s what you’re going for, then the choice is obvious!.
Does musical style make a difference in deciding whether to use audio or MIDI loops? Yes. If you’re writing anything along the lines of modern pop or electronic types of music, you might find audio loops just an “OK” option. If you do go this route, you’ll likely enhance the audio with some type of programmed MIDI anyway.

But, if you write rock, blues, fusion, jazz or metal, then audio loops are the only way to go.

Limited. Not a good choice for anything organic or “classic” in nature (think music pre-1980). Straight-up pop, electronica, rap/hip hop, of course. Maybe even MIDI drum loops for metal might be useful if your drum just doesn’t have the chops.

Overall, MIDI drum loops have their place but it’s not in any style where the human feel is paramount.

So, which is the better option?

Ultimately, that is a decision you’ll have to make based on your musical preferences and seeing where your choices fall in the above chart. Perhaps a few final questions will help you make the best decision regarding MIDI vs. Live Drum Loops.

  • Do you want to have the authentic feel and flavor of a live drummer supporting your music or do you prefer the ability to edit and manipulate your drum track to get precisely what you need?
  • Do you want the immediate and visceral inspiration of playing along with a live drummer or do you want to click away with your mouse hoping to achieve something remotely motivational?
  • Do you like to control everything independently or are you more of the “go for it ” type who is more creative interacting with other musicians?

While MIDI drum loops do offer more versatility, they are unable to offer the feel and dynamics of a live recorded performance. We have yet to hear a MIDI drum track swing the way a real drummer can. No amount of “humanization” can ever capture the utterly unique feel of any drummer — not to mention the legendary ones like John Bonham, Ringo Starr, or even Charlie Watts! — drum fills to bring energy and anticipation from one song section to the next. There’s no feel that’s not the right one when it comes to rock music.

And, sure, drum virtual instruments have come a long way since the early days, but they have not yet managed to capture all the subtleties of drums and, more noticeably, the cymbals.

What’s more, give all the option available to MIDI users, like the ability to change drum kits and drum sounds, drum dynamics with velocity adjustments, and even note placement, you might find that you’re spending more time moving around MIDI notes than you are actually performing and writing. Paralysis by analysis is a real thing and is all too likely to happen when an abundance of choices are given.

Think of audio recording as the sound of an actual human performance and MIDI as the ‘data sequencing’ of a musical performance (performed or programmed).

Drum loops, whether of the live audio type or MIDI variety, are indispensable tools for the independent artist looking to write, record and produce music. Short of having an actual drummer in your studio (which we would ALWAYS recommend over a technological substitute), audio and MIDI drum loops can be a part of the creative process for many musicians.

Regardless of what you choose, we wish you nothing but future success in any and all of your musical endeavors.

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