Great drum tracks are essential for any songwriter or producer and there are a variety of ways to get the track you want. Following are some of the basic "software-based" drum track workflows if you want a live drum sound, but don't have a studio and session drummer at your beck and call. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
Song-Length Drum Tracks: You buy a fully produced and mixed song-length live drum track and write and produce to that track. It's a recording of a real, live drummer, so it's real, but you don't have much control. The more generic the track the better. You can use cut and paste in your recording software to do some edits, but you pretty much use the track as is.
Drum Loops: A live track has been cut up and edited into smaller segments. Generally, you have a bunch of one- or two-measure, beats, fills, etc. You preview, then drag and drop to build the track you want. There are a few variations on drum loops, including longer segments (4 bars or 8 bars -- many times called "stems") and multitrack options. The strength here is you've got live drumming and a lot more control to edit. But generally you are dealing with stereo loops, so you don't have full control of the mix, unless you go multitrack. And the level of editing is generally at the half-bar level. You can change the tempo of the loops through tempo tags (Acid, Apple Loops or REX format.) You can do some "note" editing, but the strength to this approach is you can drag and drop to get a track with some level of control very quickly. The learning curve is relatively low. Another thing you want to look for here is good organization.
Both of the above can be used in pretty much every software or digital workstation out there. A high level of compatibility and a relatively low learning curve are the advantages.
Drum Sample Instruments: Drum sample instruments or drum sample kits are created by recording single hits of a drummer striking different parts of a drum set in increasing levels of velocities. The hits are then programmed into a software plug-in that is accessed and played via a keyboard, drum pad or MIDI. In very simple terms, MIDI is like a piano roll on an old player piano. What's great is you have a live drummer playing the hit, but unless you are a drummer you have a computer playing the beat. So in some ways you are back to square one trying to find the beats and fills you want (via MIDI loops). There are basic virtual drum kits that are simple and inexpensive all the way up to complex, high-end drum kits costing hundreds of dollars with incredible levels of control and editing capabilities. But again, the cost is there and the learning curve is higher. And in the end, you are still relying on the beats (MIDI) that are available in the program.
There are other "virtual drummer" programs out there that comprise various combinations of drum samples and/or drum loops sliced up in a variety of ways. You choose a groove and then adjust parameters but the "drummer" is still making a lot of the decisions. You don't say I want fill X. You just say I want a fill and listen until you get what the virtual drummer program plays.
Beat Apps: There are lots of beating-making software and apps out there, both on the web and on mobile devices. They are pretty easy to use, and fun to play with, but they sound very machine-like and are good only for simple beats and grooves. Most are very toy-like.
Custom Drum Tracks: Another approach is to hire a drummer to play a live drum track to a recording you've made using a click track. You send a WAV or MP3 of your song to the drummer, communicate what you want, and he/she records and sends you back the drum track. You can then place it into your project. These sound great but are relatively expensive.
In sum, there are a lot of ways to get to the final destination of a great drum track. No approach is necessarily right or wrong. What's important is that you remember your experience level, your budget and the amount of work you want to put in to create the track. In the end you are not only buying the the sound/mix, but also the playing and feel of the performance. At Drums On Demand, we try to provide creative solutions for many of the above workflows.
Quint Randle is the co-founder of Drums On Demand, a leading drum loop manufacturer. He has written for Guitar Player, Mix Magazine and many other industry publications. He is the author of the book "Making Money, Making Music" and an award-winning songwriter.