Hey champions, welcome to Part 2 of my Percussion Pro-tips series. These are PACKED with juicy knowledge, key concepts and insider secrets in the world of percussion sound design. These tips are the foundation and inspiration for my Blitz Beats Ultra Class and Percussion Sound Design Template, which you can check out and grab here!
How to pick samples and layer your snares. [Caveat: Keep in mind, I write broken beat bass music, so I tend to go for really heavy snares. This is not the only technique for snares, it’s just one of many you could use.] I usually use 3-4 layers for snares. First I select the “body snare”. This is the main sample that will comprise the core of the sound. The other layers are supporting elements to help fill out the body. Then I’ll find hits that add punch, such as a sample with a nice attack (cutting off the body, and just using the front of the hit). I like a lot of top end in most of my snares, so I’ll typically also layer in a clap or white noise. You can use Utility devices to put the body layer in mono, and leave the other layers stereo. If I want to create a really wide sounding snare, I’ll sometimes experiment with a Filter Delay device on the clap, using only the left and right channels, with the left set at 3 ms and the right set at 10 ms, and filtered slightly differently, to create an inter-aural time/timbre difference. Use your ears to adjust the delay times and filters to your liking. As a final stage, if you want to add some low-end meat to your snare, layer in a kick drum (perhaps even the same sample you are using for your main kick), but pitch it up by 12 semitones and mix it in relatively low to start. If you want more of a KOAN Sound, neuro-hop style snare, then try using a tom as your main body snare, but pitch it up by around 3-7 semitones to get the right timbre.
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.
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 when I click 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. This is very instructive; invaluable even, when aiming to create truly pro sounding beats.
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.
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