Drum Programming (Part 8)
A Series By Warren Cann.
Article from Sound On Sound, December 1992
Choosing the right drum sounds is crucial in producing polished tracks — but so is knowing just when and how to do it.
The latest crop of drum machines and drum expanders boast practically hundreds of sounds. Some manufacturers bend the truth a little by giving you voices that are stacked composites, the ingredients of which are already individually available on the unit. Well, alright, but I draw the line at certain practices, such as taking voice sample 'A' from one slot, tuning it down, shifting it to another slot, and calling it sample 'B'. It's just not on. Is that a lie or a fib? You decide... It is a wasted opportunity.
Hundreds of sounds... 40 or more bass drums, 30-odd snares, 40 sets of toms, and so on. Include the variations obtainable through tuning and you're stuck for choice, yes? Don't get too twisted over it, however, because whatever anyone says there are really only a few you'll ever actually need to use. "Heresy!", you cry. No, not really. The real reason that there are so many sounds is that everyone's idea of a 'tight, solid, rock-style bass drum' differs. Ask five different people to play you their best snare sample and you'll hear five different sounds — their theme will be similar but the interpretations will differ. When you're working, don't feel you're ill-equipped if you don't have hundreds of sounds to choose from. You really don't need them. You just need some good ones. True, you may have to sift through a lot of sources to find them but, once you get them, you can tackle just about anything. If you can't work happily without having hundreds of snare drums constantly at hand then you've got a real problem. Get help.
Roughly put, you need; the Apocalyptic Heavy Gated kit; the Rock-Solid Killer Kick & Snare kit; the Dance Mega-Mix kit; the Kickin' Rap kit; the tight Jazzy kit; and the funky Prince/Jam & Lewis/Jackson kit. Those six kits have the capacity to cover pretty much of the scope of popular music today, and many of their sounds comfortably cross over into each other. How do you begin to sort them out? Think in terms of sounds that would belong to the same drum kit, recorded in the same place, played by the same person, for a particular song. That way, you can quickly discount certain sounds and assemble a kit which is thematically consistent.
When you first start assigning sounds to the pads on your drum machine, try to keep sight of the context in which they're about to be used. The monster, gated sounds are great, but they're totally out of place if you're working on a fast, jazz-fusion instrumental. Likewise, tight, dry sounds are totally inappropriate for a Grind Metal track. The big sounds are so appealing, of course, and I understand the temptation to use them all the time, but exercise a little common sense and match the sound to the theme.
It's not always a plus to discover that your drum machine's samples have loads of effects on them, because it precludes you from adding your own. Alesis' HR16 proved to be a more popular seller than its sister unit the HR16B (which featured lots of heavily processed sounds, and an emphasis on percussion), because its drier sounds ultimately proved to be more versatile. Personally, I can't understand why manufacturers don't include dedicated signal processing chips in their products à la most new generation synths — that way you could compress/EQ/reverb/delay/gate your sounds the way you want, if and when you want. Actually, Roland have just done this with a couple of their new machines — nice work, guys.
Don't worry about starting off your writing or recording session with finding The Perfect Drum Sound; it's counter-productive to halt proceedings while you search for the sound to use. As long as you have something that's reasonably close to what you have in mind, that's enough to be getting on with. "That sounds lazy and rather unprofessional to me!" you say... No, not at all. Why not get stuck in straight away and get exactly the sound that you want? Well, I know why you feel like doing that, but the reason you should resist the temptation is that it will all sound quite different the moment you add another track of instrumentation, like bass guitar or a synth pad. I've seen people spend absolute ages sifting through samples, tweaking the compressors and the reverbs, all in the search the elusive definitive drum sound. Before they've finished laying down the basic tracks. When it's smiles all round, when they think they've found it, and proceed with adding the bass, guitars, and synths, then soon after the general consensus is, "Hey! Where did the big drum sound go??"
It didn't go anywhere, and they hadn't lost it somehow — what they were hearing was a phenomenon known as Frequency Cancellation. All of the frequencies common between their great drum sound and the sounds of their subsequent added tracks combined to mask each other out. Sometimes you can 'fix' this by just EQ-ing the drums a tad brighter, but there's a knock-on effect. Now everything else starts to sound different, too. Alright, let's change the bass sound a bit... oops, now the Arco Strings sound a bit naff. Welcome to the world of mixing.
You see, you can't just go for The Drum Sound and expect it, and every additional added track, to always remain the same sonically; each time you add something you have to evaluate the effect it has on what has gone before. This should be an ongoing process, not something you intend on doing all at once later on. That's why I say that you should be happy to initially go with a sound that's very close to what you want; then, every time you add something, you stop, see what effect it has had, and make any necessary changes right away. That way you have a real picture of what is going on and every additional component is relevant to the current state of your song. You will avoid a lot of playing catch-up, chasing your own changes come mixing time.
Be aware of the relative frequencies of the drum parts you've programmed, and try and distribute drum and percussion sounds relatively equally throughout the audio frequency spectrum — what you're attempting to do is find a space in the sound spectrum for each of the parts in your music so that everything isn't clumped together in only a few bandwidths. Think in from the lowest frequencies up: obviously the bass drum comes first, then the toms, then the snare. Cymbals are generally at the top, with the hi-hat somewhere in the upper-mid depending on the sound you're using and the effect you want.
If you're happy with the basic kick, snare, and hi-hat/ride cymbal part, but feel that you want to add more, try to add percussion that has its own space frequency-wise, as well as it's own place rhythmically. You have a lot of leeway with percussion: cabasas, shakers, claves, congas, timbales, all have their own fairly defined range, but you can usually adjust them a great deal without any adverse effects. If the cabasa you decide to add seems to be fighting it out with the hi-hat part, then tune them apart slightly. If the hand-claps are masked by the snare, then tune the claps up or down until you achieve some definition between the sounds. If you don't want to change the tuning you can experiment with panning — stick the claps over to one side and it may make all the difference. If your drum machine has the ability to Time Shift (offset by 'X' clock pulses), you can also try delaying those claps fractionally to achieve some separation.
If your drum machine lets you set different tunings for each pattern, you can use this feature to great advantage. It's a natural, human trait to play with differing 'velocities', even when attempting to be as consistent as possible, and the pitch of drums change slightly as they are hit harder or softer. If you aren't lucky enough to have a drum machine which features this dynamic filtering effect, you can still mimic it with tuning variations; take your 'master template' patterns, the ones that are your source patterns which repeat in long strings, and make several duplicates of each. Now, in each pattern vary the tuning of each sound very slightly on random beats (or on beats you think would be harder/softer), then insert these patterns at will wherever their parent pattern would normally appear. As the pattern repeats itself these tweaked clones will add a degree of variation, helping lose the rigidity of identical beats. Again, take it easy; you want to be just barely aware of it. When you get good at it, try incorporating this into your fills.
There's also no reason why you should stick to your initial tunings on your toms. Fills sound more natural if the toms have slight pitch variations from fill to fill, instead of just depending on the intervals you get from hitting the different size drums. Program your fill, then go into Tune mode and make slight changes; raise the pitch of your high tom by one increment, lower the pitch of the mid tom by one, lower the pitch of the floor tom by two, etc. You don't have to change every strike, just apply the technique here and there. If your machine's tuning increments are too coarse (I wish manufacturers would at least double the sensitivity of their tuning increments; present values tend to be only just adequate) to do this without it sounding like the drums are all over the place, then there's still one last sneaky trick you can try. It's laborious but it can be surprisingly effective. If you want the snare to fluctuate slightly throughout the track, then wait until you're doing a recording pass and putting the drum to tape; if you slowly twist one of that track's high-mid EQ knobs back and forth a few degrees, you'll get the right effect. It works very well on hi-hats or patterns with lots of repetitive tom-toms. I know, there are studio toys that can do this for you, but you get a better feel if you do it manually. If subtlety isn't required, then slow the track down and really go for it.
Perhaps you've been working for quite some time with the drums which you initially recorded; you've put down a bass, some synths, a few guitars, and have decided that you want to make a few updates now that the song has developed further. You write the new patterns, make adjustments to your Song Map sheet, and then enter them into your drum machine's Song Chain. Mute the drums on tape and check your alterations. If everything checks out OK, this up-date can be given some further dynamics by altering the to-tape level while recording the new pass. If it's going to be re-recorded anyway, why waste the opportunity? If your snare and toms are on separate tracks, have those tracks' input levels grouped onto one master fader for those particular channels. That way, when you go to the top of the song and record the new drums, you can follow the arrangement and nudge up the level slightly during the fills for more excitement, then quickly bring it all back to the normal level. Even if you're recording the drums fairly hot, you're bound to have enough headroom to do this.
If your drums sounds seemed good until you came up with that totally killer bass sound, and they're now sounding a little weedy, don't automatically reach for the EQ knobs. Making them brighter isn't going to help if what you really want is for the drums to be 'harder'. Try compressing them; it's amazing how punchy they can get. If you don't have access to a limiter/compressor, and EQ isn't helping, then all is not lost. You can try putting them to tape at a level high enough to induce tape compression, that much loved analogue recording phenomenon.
Feature by Warren Cann
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