Drum samples are more popular than ever, and while many of them sound great all on their own, it can be tricky to make them work together in the context of your mix. In this blog, we’ll break down some of our favorite tips for working with drum samples to help you dial in the perfect sound on your next mix.
The first step to dialling in a professional-sounding electronic drum mix is starting with the right samples. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on a new pack of drum samples—you just have to find a sample that fits the vibe of your song.
Having said that, don’t waste too long looking for the perfect sample, because it doesn’t exist. Instead, find a sample that has the right lows, mids or highs, and then layer it with an additional sample to achieve the sound you want. The second sample may not sound great on its own, but it adds to the first sample to create a rich, full tone.
For instance, if you find a kick sample with a powerful low-end, pair it with a punchy kick sample with lots of attack to help the kick drum cut through the mix. Or maybe you find a snare drum with lots of snap, but it’s lacking in the lows—simply pair it with a sample that has plenty of bottom-end. When pairing samples, try to find two opposite, but complementary sounds.
Just be careful; using multiple samples can cause phase problems, and the more samples you use, the more likely you are to cause issues. You should be able to get the sound you want with two or three samples. Any more and you run the risk of muddying up the mix. One easy solution to quickly finding the right sound is comparing samples with your favorite tracks from other artists using REFERENCE. Simply load up your favorite reference track and look for a sample that closely matches that sound and feel by demoing a few different options on different tracks.
TUNE YOUR DRUMS
Drums are technically considered inharmonic percussive instruments because they do not create a precise pitch. However, they do create a fundamental pitch, which can be heard ringing through the noise. This ringing sound can cause some nasty dissonance in your track if it doesn't harmonise with the key of your song. It doesn't necessarily have to be the root note of the key, the dominant 5th sometimes works well too.
Thankfully, there are several ways to solve this problem. Most drum designer software offers pitch adjustment controls to tweak the tuning directly in the plug-in window. If you’re working with pre-recorded samples, most DAWs include a pitch-shifting plug-in which can be used to alter the pitch of a sample. Alternatively, some plug-ins like Waves Torque are designed to fine-tune the pitch of drum samples.
If you’re not sure what key your track is in, sites like AudioKeychain make it easy to quickly find the key of your songs online—just drag and drop!
Drum samples can sound lifeless and boring—especially when programmed instead of performed.
Programmed drum patterns can sound lifeless, boring and robotic when every note is triggered with the same velocity. To keep your drum tracks from sounding stale and stagnant, spend some time tweaking the velocity of drum hits to create a natural rhythm.
Tap out the rhythm on your desk and pay attention to which notes should be accented. Start by making those notes louder than any of the others. Then tap out the pattern again and try to find any notes that should be played more quietly, like ghost notes.
By varying the velocity of each hit, you can create a more realistic and lifelike drum performance. Most DAWs also features an option to randomize MIDI velocity—just be careful not to undo any of your work highlighting the accents! Depending on the track, a small adjustment of 10-20 velocity should be plenty to shake things up.
Another simple way to breathe a little life into your drum mix is to add some automation to the drum bus. Most drummers tend to play a little louder during the chorus, so by bringing up the level by 1 dB or so, you add a little variety and excitement to an otherwise static performance. And if you’re really good, you can even bump up the tempo by 1 or 2 BPM during the choruses to really give your track an organic feeling!
CARVE OUT SPACE
EQing drum samples is a much different task than EQing live drums. With live drums, your first goal is to correct any issues with the recording process. However, drum samples have already been pre-mixed to sound their best. There’s no drum bleed or resonance or slapback to fight against. Instead, you’ll need to focus on making all of your different samples sound cohesive together.
Drum samples are designed to sound good in isolation, which often leads to clashing frequencies. Start by carving out space between your layered samples. For instance, if you’re using one kick for low-end and another for snap and attack, try using a high-pass filter to roll off the lows on your punchy sample and use a low-pass filter to tame the highs on the bass-heavy sample.
Next, make sure each of the drum sounds works well together. For example, if the low-mids in the kick drum are clashing with the bottom-end of the snare drum, try carving out some space on the kick drum to make room for the snare.
Finally, take the same approach with the rest of the instruments in the mix. If the kick and the bass are clashing, decide which instrument should occupy that frequency range, and use subtractive EQ on the other track to make room.
Once you get all of the samples sounding cohesive, it’s time to enhance what you like best about them. Try emphasizing the low-end of the kick drum with BASSROOM. Bring out the snap of the snare drum with a subtle EQ boost in the upper mids. Or bring out the brightness in the cymbals with a high-shelf EQ.
ENHANCE DYNAMICS AND ADD GLUE
When it comes to dynamics, most drum samples are pretty consistent, so there’s no need to use a compressor on every track to control the dynamics. However, dynamics processors can still be excellent tools for shaping the color and character of drum samples.
If you’re looking to add sustain to your drum samples, try using a compressor with a long release time. To add punch and help them cut through the mix, use a compressor with a fast release time, or a dedicated transient enhancer like PUNCH.
Bus compressors with gentle ratios (around 2:1) and automatic release times are great for glueing samples together and making things sound more cohesive. Advanced compression techniques like side-chain compression can be used to duck the bass to make room for the kick drum, or even create a Deadmau5-style pumping effect on your synths. Parallel compression is another great tool for fattening up drum tracks and making them feel like part of the same ‘kit’.
USE REVERB TO CREATE SPACE
Unlike with live drum recordings, there are no room mics to give your samples depth. In order to create space, you’ll need to send your drums to an effects bus and simulate the sound of a room. By sending each track to the effects bus individually, you can adjust the level of each drum in the ‘room’ for added control.
Don’t worry about sending your sub kick sample to the reverb bus, but you should definitely send the punchy kick sample. If you’re only using one kick sample, or simply want to keep the low-end clean, use a high-pass filter before the reverb plug-in.
Similarly, placing an EQ after the reverb and rolling-off the high end will push the reverb back in the mix and make it less prevalent. Adding reverb to your drums is also a great way to create a more organic feeling.
Last, but not least, bus effects are like a cherry on top of a killer drum mix. They give your tracks that little something extra and make them stand out to the listener. Adding harmonic distortion on the drum bus with IGNITE is a great way to fatten up your drums, make your samples sound more cohesive, and help them cut through the mix.
Stereo widening effects like GROW are another great option for adding ear-candy to your drum mix. Just make sure you don’t overdo it—widening a track too far can cause phase problems. Keep an eye on your stereo field (among other things) with LEVELS and make sure your mix is radio-ready before you bounce!
Follow these simple tips and your electronic drum mixes will be bursting out of your speakers in no time!