Six drum design tips
March to the beat of your own drum with these oftenoverlooked techniques
As expert synthesists will know, noise is the perfect raw material for drum design. Lay down a solid stream of noise – be it from a synth, field recording or other source – under a kick drum, then use some kind of rhythmic plugin to chop and carve the noise into a groovy percussion layer. Add distortion, spatial effects, auto-pan and virtual ambience in order to give your new groove extra depth and personality.
Using an 808 or 909 kick is a standard move… but who wants to be standard? Instead, forge your own bass drum by layering unusual drum machine sounds: for example, a pitched-down low tom for weight, a rimshot for transient snap and an enveloped open hi-hat for ‘smash’. Tune the hits to fit each other, meld those layers together with forceful analogue overdrive, then compress to taste.
Give stock drum-machine snares some ‘live’ flavour by recording yourself clapping or finger-snapping into a microphone, then stacking several of these clicky layers over the solid hit. Chop your recordings into separate chunks of audio, transpose each differently, pan them to different stereo positions, but – most importantly – tweak their timings off the grid, so that some fire earlier and others arrive later.
The atonal nature of a frequency shifter makes it a perfect processor for weird drum tuning tasks. Use one to add thickness to overly thin open hats and cymbals: first, shift your sound’s frequency down a fair bit, then use the plugin’s wet/dry mix to cull back the shifted signal until you’ve balanced the perfect blend of thin brightness and density. Plus, you can automate this mix amount in different points in your arrangement depending upon the impact you want.
When personalising beats from drum machines, your first processor should probably be a saturator or distortion stage – and one of the juiciest effects in underground dance music is the sound of a heavy bass drum distorted together with an 808 hi-hat line or cymbal. Take this effect further with a parallel approach.
Find your own eccentric percussion sounds by heading outside with a field recorder and recording yourself hitting all manner of objects – echoey tunnel walls, knocky trees, thuddy bricks and clangy metal surfaces will all produce unique percussive timbres that you can load in your DAW, chop up and process into flavoursome hits that a dancefloor will love.