EDM producers are on a continual quest to create powerful, impactful sounding drums. Many producers — from Pendulum to Noisia to Skrillex to BT to Morgan Page and many more — have developed their own signature sounds largely based on the way their drums are mixed.
Designing a single drum sound can be quite involved, making use of everything from filters to distortions to sub-bass tones to high frequencies. Layers are key to the sound design of an effective kick, snare or hi-hat.
|PRO TIP: The BreakTweaker Factory Library contains thousands of pre-layered, pre-mixed drum sounds to save you the time. Using these as source material for additional layers can help take your drums to a new level!|
Raw sample libraries provide elements that can be layered, and drum synthesizers / samplers can help you out, but how do you go about it? Let’s take a look at designing two typical drum sounds using BreakTweaker, starting with a minimal kick drum since the kick usually comes first.
Designing a Minimal Kick
First, it’s important to define the key elements a minimal-style kick drum should have in order to sound competitive with the general aesthetic of the genre. It should have:
A deep, sub bass presence. Minimal, as opposed to other genres (Drum and Bass / Dubstep) can often rely more on the kick drum than the bass synth for that presence. Let’s call this Layer 1.
A healthy punch that hits the listener’s ear without creating too much mud. Let’s call this Layer 2.
Enough high end snap to help it cut through the ambient synths and reverbs minimal EDM often utilizes. Let’s call this Layer 3.
These elements can each be considered a separate layer that you have to create. Now that we’ve established that these are our three layers, let’s design them! Each track in BreakTweaker allows us to create and edit up to three layers for that optimum drum sound.
Layer 1: Sub Bass
- Start with a basic sine tone, and tune it to a low octave in the key of your song. Here, this preset is using the note G1. Certain low notes don’t replicate well on a club sound system. To compensate, many producers tend not to go lower than E, or they might use the dominant 5th for tuning (so, a kick drum tuned to G for the key of C).
- Since this sub bass layer exists to enhance the kick, we want to give the kick a quick burst of sub presence, before having the sound fade. Otherwise, it becomes a low, muddy bass synth. As seen here, an Attack time of (or close to) 0, a short Decay time, and no Sustain can help shape this note to roll off very quickly.
- Adding some distortion, even a small amount, can help boost the fundamental sine tone, while also creating higher harmonics that will still be heard and perceived on playback systems that cannot support sub bass, such as headphones.
Layer 2: Punch
- Start with a electronic kick sample of some kind. Using a TR-808 sample works well, as these have a strong fundamental anywhere between 50-100Hz depending on tuning, and a decent mid range click sound. Tune the sample to match your sub bass layer so they sit together, in this case up 4 half steps.
- We want to use this layer as the main body of our sound, but we don’t need all of the high end ‘click’, as we’ll be adding a more finely tuned high end in Layer 3. Using a low-pass filter, reduce the filter Cutoff to reduce some of the high end. Increase the Resonance until you start hearing it kick in, which can add a lot of energy to the mid range.
Layer 3: High Snap
- With so much going on in a mix, and with the first two layers physically moving a lot of air around and letting you ‘feel’ the bass, it’s important to have that high, rhythmic snap. Load an acoustic kick drum sample from a recording or sample library. Tune this sample so that the high end (not the low fundamental) sits comfortably with the pitch of the other two layers. This is important, as it’s the high end that we will hear cutting through!
- If the acoustic samples seem quite boomy, use an Envelope to tighten up the decay of the sound.
- Lastly, blending in a lot of distortion (especially Tube distortion) works particularly well to add a solid crunching sound to the highs, rounding off the full spectrum layering and compositing of our final kick drum sound!
We’ve got our finished kick drum loaded into our sampler / synth, and our track is sounding pretty powerful.
However, we aren’t done yet. To finish off our kick drum, apply a transient shaper. A transient shaper is a tool that allows dynamic control over the initial attack of a sound and the resulting decay/sustain. Increasing the Sustain can increase the perceived power of a kick drum in particular.
Overall, what we’ve designed is an effective kick drum, that as we can see in this spectrum analyzer has plenty of bass presence, a well-managed mid range, and some important peaks in the higher end which will help it cut through a dense mix, especially when combined with sidechaining.