Your drum sound can make or break your track. Get them wrong and the rest of your song will suffer. Get them right and they can be the catalyst to a fantastic mix. With so many tones, textures and types, ranging in pitch, sound and size, there are thousands of variables – and decisions – that go into choosing, recording, sampling and mixing your drums.
In electronic music, the right drum sounds can drive a track alone, making them one of the most important considerations when mixing for the dancefloor. Our courses cover a huge range of concepts for powerful, dominating drums and we thought we’d cherry-pick ten of our faves to get you started towards better beats.
When you’re ready for the next step, find out more about our London Master Diploma course here. With a dedicated live space for recording drums and an industry-standard 48-channel SSL Duality Delta console, our Live Sound Engineering module – part of our Music Production and Sound Engineering Master Diploma – covers recording, acoustics, miking techniques and more. It’s just one of the twelve modules on our Master Diploma – find out more here. If you want to come and see the facilities for yourself, we host tours on Wednesdays at 5:30pm and Saturdays at 12:30pm. Click here to book a tour.
There are thousands of variables when it comes to achieving your own drum sound
Live Drums – use an unusual mic
When mic’ing a drum kit, you’ll find plenty of advice about which microphones work particularly well on individual drums. It’s also important that you try out alternatives whenever possible, as this will help you impose ‘your own sound’ on the kit, rather than a by-the-book approach. One thing which will guarantee a unique sound, is to incorporate an ‘unexpected’ microphone source in your recording chain. Try a cheap podcasting microphone, or record to your phone through its headphone mic. You could even try a contact mic strapped to the side of a drum, or one of the drum stands. Blending this deliberately low-quality signal in alongside your ‘regular’ spot microphone choices will provide edge and individuality. Just watch for an phase issues.
Parallel compression and distortion busses
If you’ve ever wondered why your programmed drum parts lack the power and punch of those heard on commercial records, there’s a decent chance that at least part of this will come down to the use of parallel mix channels. Most mix engineers layer drum sounds by sending their dry original sounds to auxiliary busses set up with distortion and extreme compression plug-in settings. Hard compression channels can add weight to transients and/or extra energy to the decay stage of a sound, while parallel distortion channels add grit, weight and drive. These extra channels are then added to the mix under the original samples.
Doubling drums for extra power
Another effective way to add power and individuality to your beats is to layer two or more drums of the same type. Layering the ‘click’ portion of an aggressive kick drum with something deep and subby can be particularly effective, for instance, and there are equivalents for snares, claps and other drums too. The best place to start is to import two or more drum sounds into your DAW and either set them on separate audio tracks with separate fade in/out data, or the same track, with crossfades controlling the transition between sounds. Treat each source to the effects and off-line edits of your choice before rendering the resulting sound as a new audio file to be imported to your sampler.
Drum sounds are mono so the stereo field created around them can define how ‘big’ they sound
Ambience Stereo Pairs
If you’ve ever worked with a professionally-recorded multi-track drum session, you’ll be aware of just how significant a role stereo pairs of ‘ambience’ microphones play in the overall sound. Whereas the spot microphones on each drum provide definition, the stereo pairs are often a huge part of the power in the sound, either captured via the overhead microphones, or from other microphones in the recording room at assorted distances. Remember this whenever you’re making live drum recordings, making sure you take the placement of stereo pairs away from the kit as much as a priority as the close, spot microphones.
Vary Velocity Routing
Ask most programmers what parameter velocity controls and they’ll say ‘volume’. In fairness, this is almost always true – velocity usually does control the loudness of the virtual instruments we play. However, as you probably know, velocity is simply a controller message, capable of being routed to a number of different parameters. Why not send velocity in the direction of pitch and/or filter cutoff too? You can always keep the amount of these routings relatively small, to prevent the results sounding too extreme or novelty, but some subtle variation to parameters beyond output volume can often give your beats a different edge.
Lo-Fi Timestretching Is Your Friend
When we reach for time-stretching tools, more often than not, we’re looking for a ‘clean’ result, without the glitching and aliasing synonymous with digital shortening or elongation of files. Sometimes, however, drum samples can benefit from exactly the opposite – sounds which are obviously time-stretched. If you’re looking for one way to create variation in a clap or snare part, create multiple versions of the same sample and stretch each one by a varied amount using the lowest quality digital processing available. Suddenly, some sounds will appear buzzy, or with a digital pitched whine, or even stuttered and broken. Every once in a while, throw one of these replacement samples in as an alternative to your ‘regular’ snare or clap. Check out Jon Hopkins’ ‘Open Eye Signal’ as a great example of how effective this can be on snare sounds.
Bass and drums are often one and the same when it comes to ‘rhythm’. Make sure your bass notes and drum hits don’t clash
Rhythm Sections: Better Together
It might seem old-fashioned or irrelevant to talk about the grand old days of rock ‘n’ roll but there are always lessons to be learned from the golden ages of recording and there’s certainly a pertinent point here. The drummer and bass player of a rock ‘n’ roll band is collectively referred to as the ‘rhythm section’. This is because both parts – together – provide the foundation of a track. When basslines and drum parts fight, with clashing notes, different quantise values, or wildly different patterns, energy is always lost. When you’re programming, ensure that you’re building a relationship between bass and drums which locks your groove together.
Re-amp programmed beats
One popular technique favoured by guitarists who have DI’d their guitar performances is to re-amp them, whereby those recordings are passed through an amp at the mix stage and re-recorded, as if played live. Why not try this approach with your programmed or recorded drum parts? As we’ve already discussed, adding parallel distortion channels almost always adds something crunchy and worthwhile and it therefore stands to reason that blending dry drum sources with re-amped versions will add something unique.
Re-amping your drum sounds can give them grit, power and clarity
Trigger Other Sounds With Gates
Adding crackle, hiss and other extraneous sounds to pristine samples can often make them sound warmer, richer and less ‘digital’. Another approach is to add textural sonic layers to audio tracks and trigger these from your beats. Go out and make field recordings of environmental sounds, or set up a mic in your studio and record anything you like as a sustained layer. Then, set up a gate on these audio tracks and feed your programmed beats into these sounds via the side-chain input of your beats. Every time a drum hit happens, the gate will open and you’ll hear a snapshot of the sound. When the gate closes, the audio file will be silenced by the gate. It’s a great way to keep your beat parts evolving and changing.
Grouping and Separating
Think carefully when treating your drum parts at the mix stage. It’s highly likely that you’ll want to apply different compression, EQ and reverb treatments to different drum sources, so triggering kicks, snares, claps, hats and cymbals from the same instrument isn’t a good start. Separate these instruments to allow each to be treated individually. However, make sure you’ve also got auxiliary channels set up which can add different amounts of the same effect – reverb, parallel compression and distortion – to a number of sources. Lastly, make sure you’ve got a drum group fader so that if you decide that your entire drum treatment is the wrong volume, you can adjust every source at once. Different producers have different ways of handling these demands but with some careful thought, you can make your drum mix streamlined.
If you want to learn more sound design, production, mixing, mastering and composition tips, our Online Master Diploma course is perfect for you. Taken from anywhere in the world for up to 64 weeks, it’s one of our most comprehensive courses and has been taken by the likes of Claude Von Stroke, Plastician and Jon Rundell. Find out more here.
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