Are the drum tracks you make not sounding as good as the records you buy? Perhaps these crafty studio tricks will help...
In a genre where a track really lives and dies by its drums, it makes a lot of sense to spend as much time as you can getting them right. Sound choice of course is vital - this can’t be emphasised enough! If you want a big, beefy sound you are going to need some big, beefy drums.
In general, classic analogue drum machines such as the Roland 808, 909 and the 707 work well, and there are certainly sample packs which have some great sounds available. But it’s also worth trawling through your record collection and sampling choice hits to personalise your music. No amount of EQ, compression, or any other processing for that matter is going to help if your original sounds aren't making the grade.
If you find your sampled beats have great tone but are lacking a little meat, you can layer up other sounds to reinforce them: a low 808 kick layered underneath, for example, can make the most genteel hit sound like the Hammer of Thor. The same goes with the snare and the clap: layering, for instance, a snare from a DMX drum machine with a clap sampled from a dusty old 70s record can give you lots of tonal options. One has plenty of grit and snap, and the other provides the crack. Loading different samples and playing them together is a great way of creating new drum sounds. If you're having trouble fitting sounds together, try playing around with the ADSR envelopes - often, just shaving a touch off the attack will blend the two nicely.
It's shuffle time
Although most modern DAWs have their own groove shuffles built-in, there's nothing quite like customising your own rhythms by hand. Drums that are strictly quantised are as dull as having a health and safety manual read to you by a retired judge, so move things around a bit.
It’s useful in general, when programming drums, to play around with velocities and small timing changes to give a more organic element. As the beat continues over the arrangement of your track, try and vary the velocities and timings subtly, to prevent it from sounding overly looped and static. Move them off the quantise grid and vary the velocity a touch to lend a more human feel. Here we have to be careful: too little movement and it will sound like its being played by a German undertaker, too much and it will sound as if you’ve been hitting the sauce like Keith Richards on a distillery tour.
Pulling the snare/clap forward a few milliseconds to push the groove slightly forward and emphasize the downbeat on the two and four is always a good place to start. It’s all quite subtle, but in moving a few things off the quantise grid you give the beat it’s own unique feel.
Ghost in the machine
The use of ghost hits, which are drums triggered at a lower velocity, are important to bring out the swing of the beat and propel the groove forward. Using different sounds for ghost hits helps to give further interest and texture. This, in a way, mimics a real drummer, as they would naturally vary the velocity of their hits as they are playing.
If you want to take your drum programming further, set up your drum sampler so that it triggers different hits according to velocity. For instance, have four different snare drums: one that’s being hit softly, the next a little harder and so on. Doing this gives your drums a much more dynamic and realistic feel, and is a must if you ever want to imitate the sound of a real drummer. Most modern sample players have already done a lot of the hard work for you, but if you are building your own custom kits it’s a point worth bearing in mind.
As for processing, try a little parallel compression, which is basically running the drum track to a compressor and squashing it heavily, then mixing in a bit of the compressed signal alongside your original drum track. This is a great way of getting some serious weight and punch into your tracks while still keeping the compression subtle.
You might also like to try a little distortion, mixed low so it’s not too intrusive: it kind of backlights the rhythm with a touch of filth. In general, both acoustic and electronic drums can benefit from a subtle touch of dirt. Often for EQ on the kick, cutting out a lot of the woolly-sounding lower midrange (250Hz-500Hz) helps, so that we have plenty of low end without the mush.
Experiment and explore
It should be stressed that these ideas are very general, and different genres within the broad church of electronic music require different properties. For instance, a more minimal track with less instrumentation around it allows you much more space for the drums and intricate micro-programing. Producers of that style often go for clean crisp sounds with fast attack and short decay times to really cut through and keep the sense of space in the mix. They will mix everything pretty upfront and achieve a lot of power through the sparseness of the elements. By contrast, many deep house tracks have much warmer-sounding drums that have been sampled from vinyl and processed with outboard equipment, giving a slightly fuzzy presentation. Sometimes the attack will be enveloped to soften the transient, as the focus of that style is usually the melodic content.
There is, in other words, no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to making your drums sound "better". But hopefully this article has given you some ideas to try out... and hopefully you'll have some fun doing so!
Words: Chris Lyth