Wednesday, August 13, 2008

5 Tips for Better Sounding Drums

I get a lot of demos and bands asking me to check out their music on MySpace looking for feedback. These obviously vary a lot in production quality, but in most cases, it seems that the most lacking aspect of the mixes are the drums. Many times these are buried in the mix or simply sound thin and weak. So here are a few tips aimed more at beginners as to how you can get better sounding drums.

1. Keep 'Em Separated
If you're not doing it already, you should really be recording each individual drum sound on its own track. Thus, your kick is on a track by itself, your snare is on a track by itself, you hihats are on a track by themselves, etc. Not only does this give you more flexibility in terms of balance at the mixdown stage, but it allows you to effect each sound separately. This is especially helpful when it comes to EQ and compression settings since settings for one instrument in a drum kit are probably not appropriate for all of them. And speaking of EQ... always make a habit of EQing out frequencies that aren't needed in a particular sound. For instance, hi-hats are high frequency sound, but oftentimes, there will be lower frequencies present in the sound as well. These don't really contribute to the timbre of the hi-hats and will just end up stealing bandwidth in your mix and creating mud when combined with other tracks that have unneeded lower frequencies, so get rid of them!

2. Give Them a Squeeze
Compression is probably one of the most important effects you can utilize on drums to achieve a more professional sound. It's also one of the most difficult effects to learn to use correctly. Basically, it reduces the dynamic range of a track so the overall level of the track sounds louder, even though it is peaking at the same level. Using different settings, you can also use compression to add 'snap' to a snare drum, add sustain to a big 808 kick, or have your hats 'pump' in time with the music by using a sidechain. Most software compressors have a variety of presets for different types of instruments. No 'drum' preset is going to sound great on all drums, so just use it as a starting point and experiment with settings until you've found the sound you're after. Experiment with the order you place compression on your channel strip, too. Having compression placed before a reverb effect sounds very different if you place the compression AFTER the reverb.

3. Maximum Overdrive

If you're after a heavier, more aggressive sound, it's worth exploring overdrive effects. You could think of overdrive as the less extreme sibling of distortion. With sensible settings, there will be some clipping of the signal, but some dynamics are preserved as well so the drums still breathe a bit. Of course you can use more extreme settings as well if that's what you're after, but these tend to work best in a 'parallel' scenario. To do this, bounce out your drum track and add it to an empty track in your mixer, while keeping the unprocessed drums where they are. Now, add really extreme overdrive to the bounced track and slowly bring the level up so it sits 'behind' the unprocessed drums. This will add balls to your drums, while still preserving the transients and punch. This works great with extreme compression settings as well.

4. Bits n' Pieces
There is a school of thought among many electronic musicians that there is something very special about the sound of 12-bit drums, and I concur. Try feeding your drums (or better yet, individual drum sounds) through a bit crusher set at 12 bits, but with no drive to distort it. This should clip the drums a bit and add some 'chunk'. This effect is really better on breakbeats and electronic sounds than it is on pristine, acoustic type sounds, but it's worth experimenting with all around.

5. A Little Ambience
There is no 'magic plug-in' that is instantly going to make your drums sound great, but I'll be damned if
Ambience by Magnus @ Smartelectronix doesn't make snares sound fantastic. This is by far my favorite reverb to use on snares. If you get a lot of use out of it, be sure to donate. And check out all the Smartelectronix plug-ins while you're at it. They do amazing work.


kent said...

I think it really depends on the sort of music you're making. You're describing what I'd call 'classic rock drums' techniques.

When I've done drums in recent years, I've used a mono overhead, a mono kick, and a stereo pair for room sound. You avoid having to play phase games, you still get some bottom, and they sound like a real drummer.

Post processing I'll cut below 100hz on the overhead, and buss everything together to compress -- I like 2 compressors chained: the first one set for fastest attack and highest ratio, then adjust the threshold so it's only catching the biggest peaks, and the second set for 2:1, medium-slow attack and release, then threshold adjusted so that it's riding the mix -- you're always getting a small amount of reduction.

I also like bussing the drums together, and splitting the signal -- one part straight to the main mix, and the other through agressive compression and on to the main mix. You can do this with an effect send, or some vst compressers do you the favor of having a wet-dry mix. If you do this, you can adjust how thick the drums are with respect to the full mix, by controlling the amount of squashed signal.

Tom said...

Good tips, Kent! The last bit you describe is the 'parallel processing' I was referring to. And yes, obviously how you produce drums depends on style... these are just 5 tips, I hope to do more in the future. :)

rob said...

Thanks for the tips Tom and Kent!
One thing I've been struggling with is just programming beats, so I've been listening to my favorites artists and dissecting the drum parts. Any other tips or resources for this aside from what I am already doing?

Tom said...

Listening to and attempting to imitate drummers whose work you enjoy is definitely a good thing to do. If you happen to have any friends who are drummers, convince them to maybe give you a simple lesson on the basics of drumming. It sometimes helps to understand the layout of a kit and how a drummer thinks when putting together a rhythm. When I was in high school, the drummer in my band had to store his kit at my house for a summer, and I taught myself basic drums. It REALLY helped my drum programming further down the road.

maude25Alex said...

Thanks for the tips you shared on how to make a good sound of our drums. Drums must have a good sound in order to captured the attention of people that listen to you. Thanks again for this because I really don't have idea on how to play drums , and to make a good sound of it. Thanks again.