For this tutorial, I’m going to demonstrate the importance of tuning your drum samples to fit the track that your working on. I’m going to be using Ableton live, but the theory applies to any DAW.
So you’ve found some good sounding drums, and a good melody that fits the song. Everything seems to be groovin and working together, but perhaps there is something that you may have missed that can make it sound even better? …
Tune your drums!
“But I don’t have a drum key to tune my digital samples.” Don’t worry, that’s not what I mean. Here is a scenario to demonstrate how tuning your drums can enhance your track:
Lets first start with the kick drum. Say you have a melody that sounds great, and a kick drum that you love. They sound okay together, but it doesn’t have that “wow” factor that you hear on the dance floor. Instead of spending a bunch of time going through different kick samples (which can be a very long procedure), try experimenting by tuning your drums. In Ableton, it’s a very simple procedure, and I can imagine it’s a similar process with other DAWS. In Ableton, all you have to do is click on the sample and utilize the “transpose” option. By transposing a kick drums fundamental pitch up or down, you will find that more than half the time the kick will begin to groove with the key of the song better. Sometimes you will find that the original pitch of the sample is the key of the song, but many times by transposing it up 1-3 , or more likely down 1-3 notes you will find a pitch that works better with the key of the song.
Here is a secret that I’ve found if you are having trouble identifying the main note of the kick drum. Because humans can hear with more accuracy for frequencies in the mid and high range, take your kick drum and transpose it up a whole octave (12 steps). Now, go up or down a few notes until you find the one that fits with the key of the song better, then subtract/bring it back down 12 from that. I don’t know if this is something everyone does who tunes drums, but it’s just a little trick that has helped me tremendously over the years.
Now that you realize you can tune your kick drum, why stop there? Try it with the snare/clap. You may find a spot where the snare drum “resolves” better. Maybe the hi hats sound better tuned lower than higher (where they seem harsh.)
Another reason why transposing is good is because you can effectively change the EQ curves of the drums without needing to do extreme EQing. Remember if the sound isn’t good to begin with, no amount of EQing can make that sound work. Tuning a kick drum down (if it works with the key of the song), can now make room for the bass on top, or vice versa. Maybe tuning your hats up, leaves more space for the synth pads to sit behind it. Be creative with it, but know that you can use it as a mixing tool too. At this point you may ask, well why don’t you keep cycling through samples until you find one that does work with the song. Well many times I’ll find that I like the characteristic of a sample, but it may not work with the song, or I don’t like the characteristic of the sound, but it works great from a mix perspective in the context of everything else. The point is to give you extra flexibility with samples, so you don’t have to spend hours cycling through them to find the one that’s perfectly in tune with the track. (Having said that, I do recommend you spend at least some time cycling through sounds to find the highest quality sample that sounds the closest to the end result you want.) Having to pitch and shape the sound is only added work, and if you get lucky with not having the do any of this , of course that’s preferable. But, chances are you will have to pitch and shape your drums at some point, so it’s good to get into a habit of experimenting with it.
Something Id like to also point out is that it is okay to leave some dissonance with your drum tuning. Everything doesn’t have to be in tune. Sometimes it creates a good tension , and makes it stand out in the mix more if a certain percussion isn’t entirely in tune with the rest (think detuning to make sounds stand out). So try around and experiment and see what sounds better.
Another aspect of tuning your drums is to edit the envelope. Similar to how a drummer would add padding and mute the drums so it doesn’t sustain as long, you can do this digitally in the realm of your DAW. Once again, using Ableton , you can take away some of the natural sustain of the samples by adjusting the sustain in the ADSR envelope editor. Very often with snares (especially real snares) for example, the initial pitch (the attack) is different from the pitch of the sustain of the snare. Maybe you find that the pitch of the sustain bends up or down and doesn’t sound in “key” with the track. In this case, try shortening the decay/sustain of the sample and see if it yields better results.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t just find good samples and leave it at that without making them fit with the rest of the song. Chances are they can sound much better with the track. By simply adjusting the pitch, and envelope of samples you can really make or break the drums on a song. So play around with it, experiment, and have fun!
Dan Zorn, Engineer
209 West Lake Street, Chicago IL