It starts with the sound
There is one rule that governs all. Get the sound right at source. Old-school engineers have known it for decades: if you get the sound right on the way in then there will be very little, if any, work to do later. We’ve all heard stories about producers who spend 24 hours creating ‘the perfect kick drum’. Most of that is probably hyperbole; if it isn’t then they have a surplus of time on their hands.
If you’re using pre-edited sounds from a high quality sample pack then the raw hits shouldn’t require a great deal of extra production – indeed bear in mind that unless it specifically says so in the marketing text, all drum hits from sample libraries will have been compressed and EQd already. Which means the key job of the beat maker is choosing a selection of sounds that work together straight out of the box.
If you’re using sounds sourced from a single drum machine that’s a doddle: the original sound designers went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their select palettes of sounds complemented each other perfectly.
If you’ve got a large sample library then it will take a little more time. Spend that time auditioning rather than editing: somewhere on your hard drive will be the perfect snare to sit with the kick drum you’ve got rolling. From there all you should need is the occasional tuning tweak, the occasional corrective EQ and a little glue compression on the bus. If you’ve got more than three or four plugins on a single drum channel then unless you’re on an experimental tip more often than not it’s because the sound is wrong at source. Dave
That said… there are of course times when you need more control – when you have a clear idea of the sound you want in your head but no single sample fits the bill. You know you like the low-end of an 808 but have a live sample with just the right amount of mid-range clumph. Or you want a sound that is uniquely yours – one that hasn’t appeared on any other records. On these occasions, don’t be afraid to layer drum hits.
The process itself is simple enough: use filters to focus each constituent sound so that the high end of an 808 kick is removed to give space for the live bass drum, while the low-end of the live drum is removed so that the 808 filled out the bottom.
If you’re new to layering start with just two sounds, one of them supplied by a drum machine. The secret behind layering is an implicit understanding of timbre and character. Want a snare with bulk? Then try a 909. Want a more live-sounding layer? Import a Linn Drum sample. Snare too dull? Bring in an 808 sample. Having a grasp of this will help you understand what you need or don’t need for layering.
When you’ve mastered basic layering, don’t be afraid to add more esoteric layers – from sound FX to human voices to tuned synth shots. And always save the best sounds into your own personal sample collection. Israel
There’s a lot of mis and disinformation around about tuning drums, with some producers peddling the myth that every drum source needs to be tuned to the key of the track. Aside from being impossible – many percussive sounds are simply atonal – it’s a waste of time (very few pop and rock drummers tune their toms to the track key) and can end up creating soulless rhythm sections.
But some drum sounds demand tuning. In genres that require big, sustained kicks that dominate low-end proceedings (particularly EDM), the fundamental frequency of the kick drum is important, and it needs to either mirror the key of the track or be sympathetic to that key (you’re very unlikely to get away with a B-tuned kick when the track is in the key of C).
When a kick has an obvious tone (in the case of 808-based kicks) re-tuning is easy. If you’re not naturally musical or have a kick drum that is less obviously tuned, a quick way of identifying the tuning is to use a spectrum analyser and look for the dominant frequency then use a note to frequency graph to work out the tuning.
When layering kick samples that consist for example of a sub, middle and high element, it’s the sub layer that will require the most obvious tuning. When the kick works in the context of the wider track tuning then add in other rhythmic sounds slowly, using your ear to determine whether retuning adds anything, The most likely candidates for retuning will be percussive elements (particularly congas and bongos) and occasionally hi-hats. Sami
One of the most powerful drum shaping tools of all is – bizarrely – one that many producers either ignore or overlook: the humble ADSR envelopes in their sampler. Once you have the right sound at the right pitch, it’s the transients that exert most control over drum sounds.
Even small tweaks to the attack, decay, sustain and release portions of a sound can radically change both the sound itself and consequently the wider groove.
The most important settings are invariably attack – which delivers much of a sound’s energy – and release. Increasing the attack can help tame unnaturally sharp sounding hits and help give a more vintage flavour to drums while trimming overly-long decay and release times can bring focus to a groove while reducing cloggy mud. Sami
And more transient control…
One thing sampler envelope controls struggle to do is effectively increase the attack portion of a sound (they can only work with material present in the signal). Enter the transient designer – a custom made processor that is able to do remarkable things to both the start and end of a sample. Most DAWs have a perfectly adequate one built-in but there are also a number of excellent third party alternatives, not least SPL’s absurdly simple and powerful Transient Designer.
The transient designer’s most obvious function is to add punch to a sound by dialling in more attack, but it can be equally effective at bringing out detail, noise, dirt and tail at the end of a sound by upping the sustain – great for lo-fi workouts (decreasing the sustain, incidentally, can be used to remove reverb or noise in a sample).
Although those new to transient designers can be forgiven for thinking they’ve found a drum super-sizer, a word of warning: it is very easy to push transient design too far, particularly when increasing attack, creating unnatural and unpleasant volume spikes that generate all kinds of mix problems. Sami
Life in drums
Injecting life into programmed drum sequences is an art. Part of it is governed by the sounds themselves, part by the relative positions of hits and part by subtle variations in those hits. These variations span velocity, pitch and tone, which means setting up your sampler to respond to different velocities and then to map additional MIDI controls to affect filter cutoff and other parameters like the sample attack and release time.
Even if your track demands a rigid on-the-beat kick and snare, play with timing variations on percussive parts and inject ghost notes on hi-hats and even the occasional snare/clap. Try using alternate snare samples on the 2nd and 4th measure instead of the same sound.
Ultimately the difference between a beat that feels staid and soulless and one that bristles with living energy may only lie in the subtle repositioning of a few key elements. Israel
Adding a synced delay to a simple hi-hat line is a great way to add rhythmic interest and flurries of shuffle. Experiment with different sync values and delay types – ping-pong style delay works well here with different sync values set on the left (ping) and right (pong) channels.
For specific sync values, start with dotted and/or triplet values. If your delay plugin has filters on board it can be useful to filter out some of the low-end and high-end from the delayed signal.
Many of the tops loops from House Nation were made using this technique. The trick when applying spot delays is to keep them subtle. This may mean only switching the delay on once in a bar – or even once in a four bar measure. Sami
Here’s a tip for making bulkier hi-hats: place two copies of the same hi-hat sample on different tracks, transpose one of them a few semitones up or down and then pan each sound to a different side of the stereo spectrum (you can try hard panning, but 3 and 9 o’clock will probably work better).
The technique works especially well with 909-style hats and can be extended to other elements too, including percussive samples, snares and claps. Offsetting the samples slightly off the grid against each other can add interest. I used this technique in many of the beats in Jack House and House Nation. Sami
Refining the groove
Unless you’re sticking to a bang-on-measure beat, the final stage in most beat programming is fine-tuning the groove by turning off the grid and manually nudging elements slightly backwards or forwards in time while listening carefully to the impact on the wider groove.
Hits that come slightly earlier give a sense of haste and urgency while hits that come later in time give patterns a more relaxed, groovier feel.
To shift multiple elements at the same time (all hi-hats for example), use your DAW’s sequence or track delay. A plugin like Voxengo’s Sound Delay can also do the job.
Note that while these kinds of micro timing shifts work well for beats, they can be applied to other parts too: synth and bass patterns also often benefit from subtle timing offsets, allowing them the minutest separation from beat elements. Sami
More than one groove
Although using a single groove template / swing pattern across all elements in a beat can sound sublime, next-level beats are often generated by using different groove templates on different beat elements. You might choose an MPC groove for hi-hats and a straight pattern for percussion, for example.
Pushing this kind of experimentation to the extreme results in wonky, often disconnected sounding beats, but by embracing the wonk and moving any obviously ugly hits so that they work, you can generate all kinds of next-level rhythms. Sami
Saturation, distortion and beyond
The drum parts in some genres can take – indeed demand – a significant amount of signal degradation. Chillwave, breaks, electro and dubstep all embrace lo-fi production values. When processing drums this can include using anything from bit-crushers to saturation, tape emulation to distortion to dirty up a sound.
Sometimes effects can be used across the entire drum bus (tape effects being the most common candidate). More often they are used on individual elements – saturation on hi-hats for example, can bestow more bulk and round off ‘spiky’ high-end content.
Remember that distortion and saturation effects not only change the volume of sounds in a similar way to a compressor – effectively filling up space in a mix – but they also change the frequency make-up of a sound. It’s easy to go too far with this kind of processing, especially if they are added in-line. For more control, add the effects on a bus in parallel rather than as inserts. The end result? Adding even barely-audible amounts of saturation can turn a lifeless beat into a magical affair. Almost all of the beats on Chillwave 2 feature some kind of saturation / distortion. John
EQing vintage drum machines hits
Hits like the hi-hats in the 909, for example, have a range of unexpectedly strident resonances that might suit a down-and-dirty techno workout but which will not lend themselves to a cleaner mix.
Use an equaliser with built-in analyser to identify narrow peaks that stick out clearly on the graphical display. When you identify one set up an EQ band with a narrow Q setting and sweep across the frequency range. You should clearly hear the problem frequency when you hit it (it will ring out). When you’ve identified it, widen the Q slightly and then dial in a 3-4dB cut to tame the rogue frequency.
As noted in the Mixing tips, this detailed EQ work has two benefits: firstly it makes for a warmer, cleaner groove. Secondly, it allows you to get more volume from the drums. I used this technique a lot on my packs like East Coast House when working with samples from old drum machines. Sami
Life on the sidechain
You can make drum groups sound more expressive and together by sending constituent elements to a single drum bus and then processing them using a glue-style compressor that is sidechain-keyed to the kick drum. At extreme settings (10+dB of gain reduction) you get an obvious pumping effect, with the snare, hi-hats and any loop elements getting sucked behind the kick drum when it hits (if you want the snare to have more obvious presencce, remove it from the drum group). At less extreme settings drum phrases are given a more rounded flow, breathing subtly against the kick drum.
A surefire way of getting more energy from the drums in a traditional mixdown is to up the volume of the overheads and/or room mics. In dance music where we’re unlikely to be dealing with real recordings you can mirror this technique by sending a feed from all drum elements to a single bus and then processing them using a down and dirty ‘smash’ compressor (Fatso, Distressor or any model inspired thereby) with a high ratio trimming 20+dB worth of gain reduction. Add a little obvious room reverb, heavy on early reflections, or a convolution reverb setting captured in a real drum room, then mix this heavily smashed ‘room’ signal back into the mix at a very low level. John and Dave
Clip for added punch
While compression is a stable drum processing effect, a clipper can also be used to raise the overall level of a beat by reducing the volume of spiky peak transients. And because it takes a more aggressive approach then the average compressor – effectively flatlining transients by using distortion – it can often generate louder results than a compressor.
A clipper is simplicity itself: any audio that exceeds the threshold is immediately pulled down in volume (or ‘clipped’). The clipping process is not, however, tonally neutral as a good limiter should be. Instead it adds distortion and harmonics to the signal as it clips the sound. Although this can be hard on the ears and undesirable if overused, when applied carefully it can deliver extra volume and can really make your beats stand out.
I use clippers regularly when processing drum beats – usually before a final-stage limiter – and it was a mainstay on the drum bus when making the supersized beats in the EDM collection. Sami