How to Make Devastating Drums in Ableton Live

 A while back I started a little series of daily Facebook posts with some percussion sound design tips.  I had tons of requests to consolidate them into one place, so here they are.  This is part 2.  If you missed part 1, you can check it out here: How to Make Devastating Drums in Ableton Live Part 1.

So, without further ado, here are the tips for round 2.  Enjoy!

Sampler Pitch Env

Protip 6

Making your own kick drums. There are lots of great kick samples out there, but sometimes you want that “uniquely yours” factor, or perhaps you just can’t find the perfect sample. To make your own, start with a sine wave, either in a synth or a sampler. You can now easily tune the drum to the key of your song by playing in the correct MIDI note. Kicks in F are quite deep sounding, while kicks in A are more punchy. Use both the volume and pitch envelope of the synth or sampler to shape the sound. I really like Ableton Suite’s Sampler instrument for this, because it has more advanced envelopes with slopes for the attack, decay and release phases (unlike Massive and most synths). Slopes allow more precise control over the sound. Start your pitch envelope at around +36 semitones, and adjust from there. You want 0 attack, a nice short decay, and 0 sustain. The key parameters to play with are the decay time and slope. That takes care of the body and tone of the kick.

Next you need texture. You can add that by layering in “kick tops”. I set up a couple of Samplers (set up as 128s) loaded with a bunch of kick samples highpassed at around 600 Hz, then use the Chain Selector to rotate through them to pick the best sounding ones. I usually layer in 2 kick tops. This will fill out the texture of the sound, and give it more bite and character. After that, you process the kick with a chain of effects, but I’ll talk about that in another tip.

Reference Waveforms

Protip 7

Use a reference sample. It’s tough to make a truly pro sounding drum in isolation, so I always use reference points. When I hear drums I like, I slice them out of tracks and keep them in a “reference beats” folder. When it’s time to do some percussion sound design, I load them up as examples. Keep in mind, if you’re slicing reference examples out of a track, then they’ve been crushed pretty hard through master compression and limiting. They may also be colored by things like mastering exciters, stereo wideners, and possibly even decay tails of other elements in the track. So, use your ears and get the cleanest slices you can find. I look for areas of a track where the beats are relatively exposed, such as fills, intros and outros.

Then, when you’re designing your drum, setup hotkeys in LIve to do quick A/B comparisons. I do this by mapping a key to the track solo and then deactivating the track it’s on. That way when I press my hotkey it solos the reference example, and then I take the hot key off, the reference example is muted and I can hear my drum.

Beyond using your ears, you can also bounce your sample to audio and visually compare the waveforms. I can’t exaggerate enough how useful this is. You can see things in a waveform that are difficult to hear, such as how much saturation has been added to the sample, compression and amp envelope settings. All very instructive and invaluable when aiming to create truly pro sounding beats.

EQ8 Q Boost

Protip 8

Add EQ to each of your layers. Don’t be afraid to use really extreme EQ on percussion samples. On my main, core sample, I’ll often find the fundamental frequency and boost it quite substantially. Let’s say your snare is tuned to A3. That’s 220 Hz. I’ll boost that a lot, sometimes between 5 and 15 dB. I usually use a farily narrow Q on this and adjust it to taste. The adaptive Q function on Live 9’s EQ Eight is also useful. You can experiment with placing this boost before or after a compressor or limiter. Sometimes I get better results boosting after the gain reduction stage, but not always. Here are some useful frequencies to know for tuning and boosting snare drums. F#3 = 185 Hz, G3 = 196 Hz, G#3 = 207.65 Hz, A3 = 220 Hz, A#3 = 233.08 Hz, B3 = 246.94 Hz, C4 = 261.63 Hz. Important: If you’re going to boost the fundamental, first ensure you’ve properly tuned the drum using transpose. Boosting 220 Hz, for example, on a drum that’s got a 196 Hz fundamental will usually sound bad.

Camel Phat Transient Shaper

Protip 9

Add layers of saturation to get your drums to really cut through the mix and sound fat. Add saturation in parallel layers, a little bit at a time, as this will give you better results. I put my saturation plugins on each drum because I tailor them specifically to the drum, rather than the bus.

Some plugins that allow you to do this are Ableton’s own Saturator, Camel Audio Camel Phat, and iZotope Trash as each has a wet/dry function. Another ace plugin is Shaack Audio Transient Shaper. It doesn’t have wet/dry, but it does have an absolutely amazing saturation function that I use on pretty much all my drums, basses and leads.

It sounds very different when you add saturation a little bit at a time, as opposed to just cranking up the saturation/drive knob on one instance, so experiment with this and see for yourself. The reason is the higher you turn up the saturation, the more higher order harmonics you get. The sound starts to get brittle, too aggressive and grating on the ears. When you keep the saturation lower, it adds more of the warm and fat sounding harmonics. So when you add multiple layers of small amounts of saturation, the sound stays really fat. Saturation will also make your sounds seem louder and in some cases reduce dynamic range like compression. This is especially true with the Transient Shaper plugin.

I saturate my snares a lot more than my kicks. Kicks sound nice when they’re pretty clean, or perhaps when you distort the upper layer(s) of a kick while leaving the sub/bottom layer more clean. For snares, it’s not uncommon for me to use 3-5 different saturation plugins and upwards of 10 actual instances of the plugins. For example, I might use 5 Transient Shapers adding a little bit of saturation each, then several instances of CamelPhat running the tube algorithm in parallel, then an Ableton Saturator.

Saturation is an essential part of percussion sound design, so get busy and start experimenting. Enjoy!

Sampler Pitch Env Macros

Protip 10

Secrets to add speaker crushing punch to the front of your drums. Do you ever hear certain producers drums that pop and slam better than everyone else? Whenever I do I slice them out of the track and start studying them. Call me weird, but I love to do this for hours. It fascinates me. By doing this, I’ve noticed that there are 2 techniques that set truly amazing drums apart from average drums, with respect to punch.

The first is adding an additional pitch envelope to the front of your drum. Drums naturally have a decaying pitch, but you can enhance the drum’s natural pitch behavior with an envelope in a sampler. If you’re layering, first resample the drum so you have a single audio file. Then load it into a sampler. I prefer Ableton’s Sampler instrument because it has sloped stages to it’s envelopes.

Activate the Pitch Envelope on the Pitch/OSC Tab. Increase the amount to between +24 and +36 st. Then group it into an Instrument Rack, and Macro map the Peak, Decay, and Decay Slope parameters to different Macro knobs. To see Decay Slope (which does not show by default) you will need to click on one of the blue dots mid-way through the envelope stages in the Pitch Envelope Display.

In the Macro Mappings window, range restrict your Peak Amount from 0% to 100%, your Decay from 15 ms to 100 ms, and your Decay Slope from 0% to 100%. Then start playing the drum and adjust to taste. This technique should work well on snares, kicks and toms.

Stay tuned on this page for technique number 2 where we go even deeper into Sampler…coming soon….

Sampler FM

Protip 11

Making drums that punch (and bite) harder than Mike Tyson. This is a pro technique that you see the sound designers from Vengeance using on their newest packs (such as Vengeance Essential Dubstep), as well as KOAN Sound. In this technique we’re going to employ FM synthesis & sampling.

Take your drum, bounce it to a single audio sample, and slap it in Ableton’s Sampler (you can’t do this in Simpler). Go to the Pitch/OSC tab and activate the Mod Oscillator (labelled Osc). Leave it in FM mode, but change the type to Sine 4 Bit (feel free to experiment with other types too, but I’ve found this to work best for me). Jack the volume all the way up to 0 dB.

Then throw the Sampler into an Instrument Rack and Macro Map the following parameters: Peak, Coarse (ratio), Decay and Decay Slope (to see the Decay Slope parameter you will need to click on one of the blue dots in the Osc Envelope Display.

In the Macro Mappings window, range restrict your Coarse from 0.125 to 4, Decay from 15 ms to 100 ms and your Decay Slope from 0% to 100%. Then tweak the Macro knobs to your heart’s content. Resample and look at your waveform, zoomed in.

This will add a serious burst of harmonics to the front of your drum making it cut through the mix and slam hard even on laptop speakers. It sounds different than just layering in a hi hat sample, or using distortion. It cuts better at the attack. Enjoy!

Pro Q Latency

Protip 12

When you’re EQing individual layers of samples to make a drum, use a linear phase EQ. This will make sure that phase shifts aren’t smearing out your samples.

My favorite EQ for this is the FabFilter Pro-Q. It’s not in linear phase mode by default, you have to set the mode. I like using the mode “Linear Phase – Maximum Latency” as this achieves the best resolution.

An interesting side effect of running this mode is that when you render your drum to audio, it produces a pre-echo. It’s visible in the audio waveform as a tiny little crescendo into the main attack of the drum hit and gives it a subtle, but unique added sound I like. I picked up that aspect of this technique from my label-mate MakO, a true master of sound design.

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