At some point (maybe recently), you've probably listened to your newly built drum loop on repeat, and thought to yourself: "why does it sound so boring?".
If this is you, I've got good news. What makes your drum loop sound boring is not necessarily your production skills or choice of drum sounds. More often than not, it's down missing one of the tips we're going to outline in the article below.
More often than not, the drums are what can make or break your track. And it's often the small things that make a big difference. If you've chosen great sounds and applied all the tips below, you've now taken your track to the next level.
Let's dive into the four secret tips to taking your drums to the next level.
1. Stop Making Your Beats Perfect
Your perfect beats are ruining your tracks.
That's probably the craziest thing you've ever heard, but let me explain.
I don't mean the choice of your drum sounds, your badass groove, or your sweet drum plates. No, what I'm talking about is having your beats in perfect timing.
All DAW's including Ableton have an arrangement view with a grid. You snap your drum sounds (and other sounds for that matter) on this grid to make sure it's on time, in tempo, and on beat.
Why wouldn't you? The goal of a great drummer is to drum as accurately on beat as possible. The more accurate the drummer is, the better. Accuracy has to be important in music production, too, right?
Let's say I played you the sound of two drum grooves:
- The first one is programmed in Ableton, perfectly in time.
- The second one is the same groove, played by a real drummer.
If I asked you which sound you thought was a real drummer and which one is digitally programmed, you'd instantly know.
A big one is timing. The drumbeat programmed in Ableton, precisely on time, would sound too perfect.
You could almost envision a robot playing a drum set listening to it. It lacks life.
The beat by the real drummer, on the other hand, sounds real. The notes don't hit within the millisecond on the beat. There's something human about it, and that's what makes it sound real.
You'd rather listen to a drum groove played by a human over a programmed 4/4 beat that's perfectly on time. The imperfections make it that much more exciting.
Secret: Snap Out Of The Grid
When you've laid out your drum groove, remove the grid and drag the notes just a few milliseconds off beat. Just a little is enough to make a massive difference in how your track is perceived.
Doing this will breathe life in your drum grooves. And, as a result, in your whole track. Trust me on this.
2. Layer Your Sounds
Layering your drum sounds is the key to making your grooves sound deep, vibrant, and full of life.
When we choose the sounds for our drum rack, we usually go with the main drum sounds and leave it at that. We scan our library for deep kicks, thumping snares and bright hi-hats, throw them in our drum rack and call it a day.
In many cases, and I'm sure you can relate, you don't feel fully satisfied with what one drum sample has to offer. You wish your kicks had more click in the top end, but at the same time, the low-end sounds perfect. Can you EQ, so it's more clicky?
Let me tell you something. Your answer to killer drum sounds is layering.
When I discovered this, I was blown away by the result.
Even just taking your same snare, dropping the pitch by -12 octaves, and layer it, you'll be blown away by the snare depth you achieved.
Some samples are great by themselves and need no layering. But I'm telling you if you want to take your drum sounds to the next level, and create something entirely new, layer your sounds.
Just a foley click on top of your snare can do wonders. You can also try adding a spice of natural ambiance or natural noise on top of your drum sounds. Even at low volume, this is what increases the depth and make your productions stand out from the rest.
3. Use FX Buses
Drum sounds should usually be punchy. As punchy as possible.
For this to be the case, you have to leave your original signal dry.
What do I mean by this?
When you add an effect directly to a sound, let's say a room reverb at 50/50 dry/wet, your dry signal will be weaker and lower in volume because it's blended with the wet signal of your reverb.
There's an easy way to combat this, though. Use FX buses/sends.
Route your drum sounds to your FX send channels and adjust accordingly (less is mostly better). Now you've made sure that your original sound is dry, bright, and clear.
As a bonus, your FX are now completely customizable. Equalize, stack more effects on top, or why not sidechain your reverb to your kick? The possibilities are endless and impossible to do directly in your drum channel while leaving your dry signal intact.
4. Use Velocity
Humanizing your drums are a huge part of making your beats come alive.
In our first tip, you already learned what offsetting your note timing can do. This tip is somewhat related, but now we focus on the volume of the sound.
A real drummer can never hit the drums with the same power every time. There will always be a difference in volume, sure. Maybe the differences are small for a great drummer, but it's there.
The change in volume is something we can mimic in our productions, for added feel, emotion, and realism.
In production terms, this is called "velocity." Please don't take it lightly.
If you've never automated the velocity for your drum hits, you'll be amazed at what difference it will make for your productions.
For most music genres, the drums and beat are what make the track. And just like in real life band, how hard you hit the drums can have a dramatic effect in the feel of your beat. Use this.
Just because you use digital drum sounds or samples doesn't mean they have to sound robotic. Automate them, or better yet, use a midi controller with velocity-sensitive pads to manually punch the beats yourself.
You'll be amazed by the difference this can make. And combined with the other tips you've just learned, you've now got a dangerously sweet beat coming your way.
Thanks for reading!
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About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and freelance copywriter, currently active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psychedelic trance. When he's not producing music, he surfs, skates and chugs coffee.
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