Drums are a primary element of most electronic genres including dance music, hip hop, and Lo-Fi, and debatably the most important, only second to perhaps a lead vocal. Making a great drum beat involves a lot of things, from a good rhythm/groove to good sample selection, and these are things that you'll likely develop through practicing and making a lot of drum grooves, as well as remaking drums from your favorite songs. What I want to talk about today, however, are some techniques to process these drums. By that I mean sculpting your samples and groups using plug ins such as EQs, compressors, saturators, and more.
One important tool in your arsenal when it comes to crafting the perfect drum loop is EQ. This allows you to control the frequency spectrum of your drums and the overall tonal balance of the section. Some things to pay attention to here include the brightness of your high end (cymbals & percussion), unnecessary low end rumble on things like snare & percussion, annoying frequencies that may be distracting in kick or snare, low end power of the kick, how much high end click you want on your kick, & more. These things will all have a pretty big effect on the vibe of your drums, and will vary from song to song and even more so from genre to genre. Having good reference tracks is a very helpful practice here. Another thing to consider is that adjusting the volume of a track should be done first before diving into EQ to sculpt the frequency, it is easy to think something is too bright or not bright enough, for example, if the volume hasn't been properly dialed in yet. Over EQing to compensate for lack of volume adjustments can have negative impacts on the tonal balance of your drums, so be intentional about that.
Compressors are another key tool in drum processing. These can perform several utility functions, such as making the drums feel glued together, controlling dynamics, and transient design. Two ways to get a drum kit to have more glue using a compressor are: adding a compressor to the drum bus / group and reducing the threshold until gain reduction is happening and adjust to taste (usually best achieved with an attack setting of 30 ms so the transients can pop through), or secondly, using sidechain compression on the cymbal and percussion elements to duck when the kick and the snare happen, key settings to play with to achieve the groove you're after here are threshold and release. I usually will do both of these things with compressors on my drums.
Another thing that you can do with compressors is control the transients of your drums. Often times people want a strong transient on the kick and snare for electronic music, but it is also possible to have too much transient, which is becoming an easier mistake to make as drum sample libraries often come pre-processed with stronger transients. To increase the transient, you want to use a compressor on the track with an attack of 30 ms so the transient will cut through, and then bring down the threshold while turning up the makeup gain to make up the gain reduction. This will reduce the volume of the sustain and bring the attack up of the transient. If the transient is too much and you need to tame it, you can set the attack to a shorter setting so it will reduce the dynamics of the drum. A plug in I like to use that makes this really easy is called Transient Shaper by Kilohearts, but you can manually do it with pretty much any compressor.
Another tool we have to process drums with is saturation. This comes in many forms and plug ins, including saturators, distortion units, amplifiers, and pedals. Try anything you have access to! This can add more harmonics to your drums and make them feel thicker, just be wary of overdoing it, you can easily strip away the dynamics and transients this way. Putting this on the drum bus / group can also be another way of gluing the drums together! One plug in I can recommend that I use sometimes on drums is the Decapitator by Soundtoys, which can make things sound grittier and has a nice round texture. Another more subtle plug in I use quite often on drums is called True Iron by Kazrog, with this one I will typically try to make the difference just barely audible for just a little extra glue and thickness, a final touch on the end of the drum bus processing. If you don't have these plug ins, the Ableton stock saturator is a good one to play with as well!
The primary purpose of reverb is to make things feel like it is in a space, so especially when you just have a drum kit made of individual samples, it can really go a long way towards the illusion of the drums all being a part of a single drum kit. With drums, I like to usually set the predelay of the reverb long enough that it doesn't blur the transient, so somewhere around 30 ms (predelay is the time before the reverb begins). Also, usually I'll set a pretty short decay time so it doesn't make the drums too messy. If you're applying reverb to the drum bus, the thing that you can pay most attention to in order to hear what's going on is probably the snare. Once you've applied the reverb, if your reverb doesn't have a filter in it that cuts out the low end, you'll probably want to manually do that so that you're not making a mess with the subby thump from the kick. I also usually like to gradually filter out the harsh highs of the reverb (like 10k plus or so).
So that pretty much covers what you need to know to start making some fire drum loops! We talked about shaping the frequency with EQ, gluing the drums together with compression and shaping the transients, thickening the drums with saturation, and putting them in a space with reverb! I'd love to know if you guys are enjoying these blog posts so I know whether to keep publishing them, so please do me a favor and give this post a like and a comment down below to let me know if these are helpful or interesting to you, or if you have any other questions or ideas for future posts! As always, I encourage you to hear how I use these techniques by listening to my dance music over at Ryahu and my Lo-Fi music over at philip j loaf eye.
Until Next Time,