How To Make Your Drums More Unique and Interesting

The way drums are arranged and processed can vary so much between genres and especially between producers, but in this episode we really tried to tease out some techniques that we think will be applicable to any type of production.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  1. How to make your drums more interesting
  2. Ways to add groove and swing to your beat
  3. How to make sure your snares are in the right key
  4. How to EQ your drums
  5. Ways to make your drums sound more realistic
  6. How to make your own kick drums
  7. Ways to make your drums more punchy

Tips in this week’s episode come from Pendulum, Claude Vonstroke, Illenium, Seven Lions, Maddix, Dyro and Morgan Page.


You can listen to the full episode below.

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BONUS: Want more tips? Learn Workflow & Arrangement Tricks To Accelerate Your Productions.

1. Creating and processing future bass drums like Illenium

Not too long ago, future bass prodigy Illenium did a livestream on his Facebook page and discussed quite a few of his production insights and strategies.

First off, when it comes to drums, he’s almost entirely sample-based.

He is a big fan of Splice, and will often download random, unique drum samples to layer into his drum patterns.

He has also gotten a number of organic drum soundpacks from friends over the years, as he is a huge fan of layering organic drum sounds together.

When asked about his kicks specifically, Illenium mentioned that he really likes his kicks to be pretty low and thumpy, but not sound like a dubstep kick.

To achieve this sound, he said he combined a ton of layers together to make the kick.

He will repeatedly use the low part of the kick over and over, changing up the high parts.

The low part of the kick is a distorted kind of 808, which he stumbled across during what he called a “happy accident.”

For the top end of his kick, he uses a taiko drum, which is just a Japanese-style drum often used in cinematic performances.

He will layer in different taiko drum samples, processing them in different ways for each track to achieve a slightly different sound.

Lastly, he also mentioned that he uses a guitar amp on his kicks.

Once again, this is very unconventional, but I guess this is how he was able to achieve a new sound.

You’re just not going to come up with a brand new sound using the same techniques as everyone else.


When drums are too perfect

When touching on his preference for organic sounds, Illenium discussed how he’s pretty averse to all of the samples coming from companies like Cymatics lately, as they sound too “perfect.”

To him, they just sound synthetic, and although that may be the sound many producers are going for, its not really his sound.

Now, in his opinion, every producer can sound like a pro without having any real skill as the drum samples available today are just so good.

Illenium even went as far as to say that a producer like Deadmau5 became so well known because of his ability to get his drums to sound perfect, but now that isn’t really a differentiator anymore because of the availability of near perfect samples.

He mentioned that one of the groups he’s a fan of, Odesza, doesn’t have particularly “perfect” drum samples.

But, in the context of their music, their imperfect drum samples work almost perfectly.

Basically, what Illenium is trying to say is that having a perfect sounding kick and snare isn’t always the best thing for your track.

Just in the same way that having a perfectly pitched and timed piano probably sounds a lot less interesting than a vintage, off-time, non perfect pitch sounding organ.


Illenium’s live drumming setup

When it comes to the drums he plays live, he got a little bit more technical.

A viewer on the stream asked how he creates those cinematic drums used in his buildups, and Illenium simply said that those are all taiko drums.

He has processed and mastered a number of taiko drums, and syncs them up to his MIDI controllers to use in his live performances.



2. How Claude VonStroke adds swing to his drums

Now Dirtybird leader Claude Vonstroke put on a masterclass a little while back where he showed off a few of his projects in Ableton Live.

One of the first things he mentioned is that when he’s working on a track, he often likes to drag in multiple kick drums so that in the end, he can see exactly what will work and what won’t.

In the specific track he was showing, he discussed that as he progressed the song, he began to realize that one of the kicks he had in the track just wasn’t working with the others, so he just took it out.

In this case, it was the sub kick, and he said that it was just interfering too much with his bass line.

He was still able to keep his mid and high end kicks, and just do some simple EQ to compensate for the lost low frequencies.

He also noted that in this track, he didn’t even sidechain his bass.

Instead, he just chose some really short, punchy kick samples to layer together. He then just removed the low end, so that it wouldn’t interfere with the bass when they played over each other.


How to tighten up that kick

In this track, Claude did a pretty unconventional trick to make his kick sound even tighter and punchier.

He delayed his kick channel by -2 ms.

This means that each of his kicks are playing 2 milliseconds early, and creates a really tight feeling when you can hear the front end of the kick right before the downbeat.

Aside from that, Claude noted that there really isn’t anything crazy in his track.

The clap just had a little bit of EQ and compression, and that’s about it.

For him, its about choosing the right sounds from the beginning, and making sure all the sounds work together as a whole.


3. Tuning your drums with Dyro

Up next we’re talking about some tips provided by producer Dyro, who’s a really successful electro house producer we’ve brought up on the show in the past.

In this tutorial, he discussed the importance of tuning your drums to the key of your song, which is something that is so often overlooked by producers.

Dyro, an FL Studio user, began by pulling up an instance of Edison to see exactly what key his kick was in.

He moved his mouse right over the white spike shown within Edison, and he was able to see that his snare was in the key of A.

If you don’t use FL, you can just use an EQ to see at what frequency there is the biggest spike in order to determine the root note of that particular sample.

For example, in Ableton you can pull up a Spectrum, put your mouse over where that biggest spike is, and it will show you exactly what key that frequency correlates to.

The specific sample Dyro was working with in the example happened to be in A, but his track was in D.

Right away, he mentioned that with snares in A, it is always better to pitch it up, rather than down.

He stated that when pitching a snare, it is always better to pitch it up rather than down as you can lose a lot of high frequencies when pitching it down.

When pitching it up, you’re able to preserve all those high end frequencies.


How to pitch your tom samples

Lastly he discussed tom samples, which he said can be a little bit trickier when it comes to pitching them around.

First off, Dyro mentioned that tom samples typically pitch down.

To find the root note of a tom sample, Dyro said, you have to look at the note where the tom sample ends.

You should be looking at that final note it pitches down to.

In this example, he used Edison to figure out his tom started at E and ended at C.

By tracking the ending tone of the tom to find the root note, you can pitch it accordingly to ensure it is in tune with the rest of your track.


4. Pendulum’s drum processing strategies

Up next we’re discussing tips from one of the biggest legends in the music production industry, Rob Swire.

Rob became famous for his electronic music group Pendulum, then later Knife Party.

He is notorious for being a straight up production wizard, so finding any advice from this guy is so valuable.

During this interview, Rob was still making music with Pendulum, who utilized a real drummer in their group.

Rob mentioned that they will make their tracks from the ground up, using some of their own drum samples to create the beat in the track.

He will have his tracks in pretty good shape before they have their drummer come in to record some live drums for it.

He said that this is important because they need to know what their drums should actually be doing and what he wants from the drummer, otherwise they would just end up with too much material and not know what to do with it all.

When asked how much processing and EQing he does on his drums, Rob replied “as much or as little as possible.”

By this, he simply meant that he only does what he needs to.

Cuts what needs to be cut, boosts what needs to be boosted.

Its important to him that he starts with good drum samples from the beginning, otherwise he would just end up with more and more problems later in the track.

For Rob, its all about suppression of elements he doesn’t want in the mix, and letting those elements he does want in the mix to shine through.


How Pendulum creates a mental map of their drums

While mixing his drums, he mentioned that he always has a mental map of where each element should be.

The whole time he is listening for those frequencies, and ensuring they are in the right places and covering the right ranges.

If you don’t already have a mental map in your head when producing, be sure to check download our Ultimate Drum EQ Cheat Sheet, where we show you exactly where the frequencies for all of your drums should be.

Rob will often times just mix the whole track with a low pass on the master, ensuring that he can really focus on those lower, driving elements in his track.

This is a common practice by producers, as it is critical to ensure you have your kick, sub and snare mixed and balanced as well as possible before moving on to anything else.

If these elements are poorly mixed, your whole track will have a bad mix, and will sound like shit wherever you play it.

Although the range will vary slightly for each track, Rob has general ranges in his mind for where he wants his key elements to sit in the frequency spectrum.

Pendulum kicks will typically fall between 80-100 Hz and 175-200 Hz for his snare.

If he can’t fit the samples he’s working with in this range, he will just get a new sample.


5. Creating realistic drum patterns with Seven Lions

Now producer Seven Lions has been known to use some crazy drum patterns in his melodic, future-bass tracks.

One thing that has always stuck out to me are his fills, as he is able to process them so perfectly, while still having them sound natural and organic.

He mentioned that one key thing he always considers when making drum fills is how a drummer would actually play it.

If he were the drummer on that specific song, how would he play it?

Next time you’re making some fills in your track, try imaging yourself in front of a drum set like Seven Lions does.

What would your right hand be playing? Your left hand? Your feet?

By asking yourself these questions, you can program awesome fills that still contain a human element and will sound amazing.

If you’re not a drummer, try looking up drum covers on YouTube of some of your favorite songs to get a better understanding of what each hand and foot is doing throughout different sections of the song.


6. Kick drum synthesis with Morgan Page

Producer Morgan Page recently sat down with Izotope to talk a little bit about how he programmed and processed his drums in his track “Fight For You.”

He used Stylus RMX, a plugin by Spectrasonics, to create the drums then processed them in Ozone.

He actually had a live drummer come in to play some real drums so he could add a nice little organic quality in the background.

When he approaches creating drums in a track, he always wants to start with a good kick.

Nowadays, he layers drums a lot less than he used to.

He used to layer 3-4 kick drums samples together, using an EQ to carve out pieces and glue them together.

Morgan mentioned that it’s a crazy way to work, but it will give you a different kind of sound.

He strives for much simpler sounds now, so he will just build the kick drum from scratch.

He starts with just a sine wave, adds some white noise, and begins really getting down to the harmonics on it.

Page was then asked if he is thinking about what frequencies he wants his drum and snare to cover while he’s producing.

He stated that he likes to have the curve of the overall mix and of the drums to be a nice transition, making sure every frequency is covered.

If he hears problem frequencies, he will just nudge those out and possibly even add in some additional frequencies to cover that range.

A lot of times, Page will start creating the kick drum by focusing on the fundamental and will add a sine wave to it to create a little more impact, or in his words, a little more “oomph” to it.

For the kick drum, its all about using a signal generator to generate a bunch of different octaves off of that fundamental, using those to reinforce that sound as a sweetener.


7. Maddix’s drum processing secrets

Now lastly we’re talking about producer Maddix, who recently did a masterclass for FL Studio, which is his native DAW.

He broke down his track “The Underground”, which is a hard-driving electro, almost hardstyle, track released on Hardwell’s Revealed Recordings label.

When discussing his kick, he dove into his EQ process by pulling up an instance of FabFilter Pro-Q in which he boosted both the low end, made a small cut in the mids, and boosted the high end substantially.

For the low end, he said that he wanted the kick to have some extra punch.

Listening to your kick in the context of your bassline is critical here, as you want them to sound cohesive and balanced.

Although in this case, I’m sure the kick Maddix chose to use was awesome and sounded perfect, but in the context of this specific track, it needed some minor tweaks in the low end.

This is also true for the mid frequency range he cut.

He made about a 4db cut right below 1kHz, as he said there was an annoying frequency sticking out.

This is another reason you need to be listening to your kicks and EQing them in the context of your whole track.

Sure, every kick sounds awesome when you preview it, as kick samples today are all so perfect. But in the context of your track, that might be a very different story.

Lastly, he noted that he made such a substantial boost in the high end so that the top end “click” of his kick could cut through the mix.

Your kick might sound great on your studio monitors, but if that high end is missing, it will be inaudible on laptop speakers or cheap headphones.

After his EQ, he also had an instance of Waves TransX Multi Stereo.

This plugin allowed his to boost the transients of specific frequency bands in his kick, allowing him to add more “punchiness” to certain parts of his kick.

In this case, he boosted his mid by 2db, and his high above 4kHz by 3db. This allowed him to add even more punch to that top end section of his kick.


Creating and managing width in your drums

When it comes to gaining control over the width of his drums, Maddix is a big fan of FL Studio’s Fruity Stereo Shaper.

Within that plugin, he has control over delaying the left or right signal, so can be very tactical about how he pans his percussion in the stereo field.

Maddix also mentioned an interesting trick he does with his hats to really make his track feel wider.

One of his layers of high hats, playing 16th notes, will be panned rapidly between the far left and right side of the stereo field.

To do this, he used LFO tool, set to 16th notes, panning from left to right each note.

This layer is very subtle in the context of his whole track, but when played solo, you can hear the width it gives his whole mix.

This is another subtle technique that many producers may not even bother with, but it’s the collection of all the little details together that make a track like this so great.


How to create energy-filled drum builds

One last trick related to his drums Maddix does is something that allows him to add even more energy to his buildups.

He will include a really attacky, short kick underneath the snares during his build.

This allows him to add even more punch and energy to each snare, and says that it really helps add energy when played live during festivals.

Keeping this little bit of low end throughout the build can really go a long way when your tracks are played out on festival or club speakers.

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