Writing MIDI Drums in REAPER

In this day and age, MIDI drums have become ever-present in music production regardless of genre. Even though some music styles like EDM and Rap are pretty reliant on MIDI instruments, this tool has managed to find itself a place in other areas like Rock, Metal, and even Jazz. Either to create mock-ups, enhance the sound, or even fuse new electronic sounds with acoustic instruments. Thus, writing MIDI drums has become indispensable for modern music production.

MIDI drums in REAPER

In a previous article, I covered how to set up and use the REAPER MIDI Editor, and on top of that, I like to add a few tweaks to my MIDI setup for working on MIDI drums. So, I wanted to go ahead cover that in this article!

Basic Setup

Let’s start by loading a drum Virtual instrument in a new track. Today, I’m going to use Sitala 1.0 by Decomposer and SSD 5.5 Free by Slate. Both are pretty complete and functional VSTi and are available for free.

Sitala & SSD5 VST

If the Virtual instrument is capable of it, REAPER may present you with a prompt to automatically load and route the plug-in in ‘Multi-out’ mode. I will decline it for now and cover it in a section later in this article.

build routing confirmation REAPER

Next, is creating a new MIDI item and opening it. Aside from the customization I showed in the MIDI Editor article, let me show you a few configuration tweaks aimed especially at writing drums in REAPER.

configuration tweaks writing drums in REAPER

Using Triangular or Diamond Notes

The first step is to change the default note shape from rectangular to Triangular or Diamond, so that you don’t have to worry about note length. To do this use the buttons on the MIDI toolbar, or right click just above the piano roll and navigate to View > Piano roll notes > Diamonds (drum mode).

change note shape to triangular or diamond REAPER midi drums

Rename Notes

Not all drum virtual instruments have the same drum mapping, so it’s usually a good idea to name the notes on the piano roll according to the drum mapping of the plug-in. You can do this by Double-right-clicking on any note of the piano roll. The naming will stick to all of the MIDI items in the same track.

renaming notes piano roll REAPER

Still, most drum virtual instruments allow you to save and load custom drum maps, So I recommend you stick to one and set up the rest of your virtual instruments to the same one. In my case, I prefer to use the General Midi Drum Map.

Hide Unnamed and Unused Notes

Naming your notes in the piano roll may be enough for most, it certainly is for me. But some people may prefer hiding the notes they won’t use altogether.

For this to work you will need to change the ‘Piano roll view’ to ‘Named notes view’ in the MIDI toolbar.

change the ‘Piano roll view’ to ‘Named notes view’ in the MIDI toolbar REAPER

Then, open the MIDI action list using ?, search the action ‘View: Hide unused and unnamed note rows’, and activate it. You will be left with something like this.

activate View: Hide unused and unnamed note rows REAPER

Rearrange Notes

Using the ‘Named notes view’ also allows you to rearrange the order of the notes. For example, you may want to keep all the similar elements beside one another. Also, you may like to have your Kick and Snare on the top instead of the bottom of the rest of the parts of the kit.

rearrange notes MIDI Editor REAPER

To do this, hold Ctrl on Windows and Cmd on Mac while dragging the note in the list up or down.

Drawing Notes With a Mouse

Once you have your drum kit loaded and your MIDI editor set up, It’s time to work!

For drawing or ‘Painting’ notes, I like to keep all the MIDI in one track, usually the same where the Virtual instrument is loaded. That makes it easier to edit all the drum parts, loop sections, and control all the MIDI CC lanes for expression.

MIDI and VST in the same track REAPER

I usually start writing the Kick and Snare pattern, which is going to give the drum part a foundation. Double-click on the background instead of dragging your mouse to add notes.

kick and snare pattern REAPER MIDI drums

For most Cymbal parts, there’s an awesome shortcut. Set the grid to the pulse (1/8th or 16/th), then hold Ctrl+Alt on Windows or Cmd+Opt on Mac and drag along the Cymbal of choice.

cymbal parts REAPER drums midi

Even if you want to add a few embellishments to the Cymbal pulse, you can erase notes using the Alt modifier and add more if you feel that you need them.

erase notes using 'Alt' modifier REAPER

Next are the other Cymbal sounds and accents. Crashes, chinas, or even other electronic samples. These are up to you, each person likes to accent differently. A great rule of thumb for starting is accenting the first beat of each new section.

accenting first beat of each new section REAPER drums

Recording With a MIDI Keyboard

If you prefer recording your performances, here are a few ways you can do it.

First, connect your MIDI device to REAPER and set it up for recording. For most devices, be it keyboards, pads, or electronic drumkits’ the initial set up is very similar.

AKAI MIDI keyboard

Then, make sure that your MIDI device is correctly mapped to your virtual instrument.

MIDI device VST mapping

If you already have a drum map that you use for ‘painting notes’, most of these MIDI devices can be reprogrammed so that you don’t have to change the mapping on your Virtual instrument. Check the manual on how to do that.

Using Multiple MIDI Tracks

The workflow I like the most is using different tracks for each group of sections of the Drums, something like this:

REAPER drums workflow

This means that I load the same Note names (drum map) to each track’s MIDI and that each track has to be set up with the same MIDI input, but there are a few benefits.

MIDI input for tracks REAPER

You can set up each track to a different MIDI input quantize.

MIDI input quantize tracks REAPER

Also, you can loop element groups differently. For example, you can loop the same Kick and Snare pattern of the Chorus to the Bridge of the song, but using a completely different Cymbal pattern.

Overdubbing on One Track

If you prefer overdubbing your performances, you can set up only one track and input. Then, right-click the Rec Arm button and select Record: MIDI Overdub/replace > Record: MIDI Overdub.

record MIDI overdub REAPER

This may lead you to a faster recording workflow, as you don’t have to change the Rec Arm between different tracks constantly, so it works wonders if you’re not planning to loop anything but play the whole song instead.

faster recording workflow REAPER

Multi-Out Drums Instruments

If you’re working with a mixing engineer, they are probably going to ask for an audio multitrack of your drums. And even if you’re the one mixing your own productions, it’s probably a good idea to process each element of the drums separately using the tools you have available in REAPER rather than limiting yourself to the processing that is included inside the plug-in.

processing drums REAPER

So it’s time to address that prompt I talked about earlier. If the Plug-in is ‘Multi-out’ capable, REAPER will ask if you want to load it that way unless you change that behavior in your Preferences.

build routing confirmation REAPER

If the Automatic prompt does not appear, you can trigger that same behavior by going to the upper left corner of the FX Chain with the plug-in loaded and opening the Edit menu, and then clicking on the option ‘Build multi-channel routing for output of selected FX’.

Build multi-channel routing for output of selected FX REAPER

Each multi-out capable plugin has a certain amount of output channels, so REAPER will create tracks for each of those outputs. Some instruments like Sitala change their outputs automatically to match the REAPER multi-out routing

REAPER multi-out routing

On other instruments like SSD 5, you have to manually set up the Plug-in outputs, that will depend on the plug-in you’re using, so you may want to check your manual.

SSD 5 Routing

Once every plugin channel is paired to a REAPER track, name them accordingly, erase the unused ones to avoid confusion, and put them all inside a folder track.

I know that at first sight, this can be quite a tedious process, but I would strongly recommend you do this only once per instrument. Then, add these tracks to your production template or save this setup as a track template by right click on the track and then on ’Save tracks as track template’

save tracks as track template REAPER


Creating MIDI drums Is an integral part of modern music production, but creating an organized workflow and taking advantage of the REAPER features can help you supercharge your productions. It will also make it easier to get consistent and quality results that suit your music best. I dare you to experiment with your workflow and happy drumming!

Jose M.
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