Personalise Your Drum Machine Sounds
Masterclass - Drum Machines
Drum machines are cheap, convenient and easy to record, but their sounds are often either too identifiable or aren't exactly what you want. Paul White gives some tips on personalising your drum sounds.
The majority of modern drum machines are really sample replay machines containing a selection of samples taken from different drums and cymbals. There may be facilities for tuning the drums and there may be a choice of drum sounds, with or without reverb added, but ultimately, you tend to be limited by the character of the original drum samples. Fortunately, by using simple processing such as EQ, reverb and even overdrive, the basic sound character can be radically changed.
In my own home studio, I use an Alesis D4 drum module, which has four outputs, though the techniques discussed may be applied to any drum machine with multiple outputs. I find that assigning the kick and snare drums to two of the outputs and the rest of the kit to the remaining two provides the most flexibility for processing; the kick and snare may then be treated quite independently, while the toms and cymbals can be panned in stereo across the other pair.
Working first with EQ, don't limit yourself to simply applying boost, as this produces a limited range of sounds and may result in a boxy or honky sound if used to excess. Often, it's combinations of boost and cut that produce the best results, as can be demonstrated when EQ'ing a kick drum. Applying boost using a lower-mid sweep equaliser set to 80Hz or so gives a tight, contemporary kick sound but it doesn't really pack the low end punch demanded by heavy rock or dance styles. Furthermore, many desks are designed with insufficient range on the lower-mid equalisers so they may not even go down to 80Hz.
An alternative is to use a combination of the lower mid control and the bass control. Simply applying boost with a conventional bass control will certainly increase the amount of bass you hear, but its effect also reaches into the lower mid-range, making the sound rather poorly-defined and messy. However, if the bass boost is combined with lower-mid cut, then the effect of the bass control is restricted to the lower frequencies, resulting in a sound that has both weight and definition. A lower-mid setting of around 200 - 250Hz with up to 10dB of cut may be combined with between 4 and 8dB of bass boost, though the actual settings will vary depending on the original drum sound and the EQ characteristics of your particular mixer. If you don't have a mixer with a suitably flexible EQ section, then try setting up the same thing using a graphic equaliser.
To add more bite to the kick drum, try applying upper-mid boost at between 3 and 6kHz; turn up the boost to maximum and then tune through the frequency range until you find the setting that really emphasises the smack of the drum, then back off the boost until you have the sound you want. Many drum machine sounds are already processed in some way, but it is sometimes possible to increase the sense of power by adding compression. Try using an attack time of around 5mS and a fairly fast release; this should enhance the attack of the sound at the same time as making it more 'solid'. A word of warning here though — always check the drum sound in the context of a mix, because what sounds great on its own might be lost in a mix or, on the other hand, it might be too overpowering.
A similar EQ setting to the above works well on a snare drum, but there are more radical methods of getting an interesting snare sound. For example, before techno snares were standard issue on drum machines, I needed one for a track I was working on so I had to resort to processing. The original sound was a fairly standard snare drum, but by applying maximum mid boost and then sweeping the EQ over the range 500Hz to 1.5kHz, you can change the character of the sound from a popping champagne cork to a gun-shot. If you don't have a suitable equaliser for this trick, then try using a wah-wah pedal and move the pedal unit to achieve the tonal character you're after.
Furthermore, if you turn up the input gain of the mixer channel so that it overloads, the additional harmonics caused by the overload distortion actually add to the aggressive nature of the sound. Overdrive can also be used to produce interesting reverb effects so long as the reverb is either short or gated. When working on my techno sound, I found that grossly overdriving the input to my-Microverb with a gated setting produced a wonderfully brash, trashy sound.
Adding a very short delay to a drum sound can also make it seem more powerful, as it has the effect of making the beat longer. A delay time of between 20 and 50mS is usually best, but ultimately you have to use your ears; if the delay is long enough to allow the drum sound to separate into two distinct hits, then it's too long.
Another worthwhile avenue of exploration is the overdrive pedal or fuzz box. If you're short on studio gear to produce the techno effect described earlier, but have plenty of guitar effects, try feeding the snare sound into an overdrive unit and then feed the output from that into a wah wah pedal. Add a touch of plate or gated reverb to the result and you've got a brand new sound quite unlike the original sample. Snare drums can be radically changed without becoming unusable and some engineers even like to use a modest overdrive setting to warm up toms and bass drums. As a rule, though, avoid using distortion effects on cymbals, as the result is rarely pleasing.
Feature by Paul White
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!