Whenever someone asks me for advice on making their beats better, the first thing I always mention is drums. Whether I’m offering tips or giving detailed feedback, it’s always the drums that I listen to first because to me, no matter what the genre is that you are producing, the drums are what will get people’s head bobbing.
Some of you may argue that drums are not that important, and that it’s much more important to get a solid foundation first (like a bassline), but drums are so unique because they can really set the mood of a track. Unfortunately, a lot of beats that I’ve heard don’t have the proper drums in place, and that needs to be fixed.
Perfecting Your Drums
As with any instrument that you have in your beat, drums, namely the kick, snare, and hat, are crucial to having a successful beat. Just the other day I was piecing together parts of a piano sample that I grabbed from a 1970’s Jazz song, and everything seemed fine – until I started working on my drums.
I made the mistake that I often make, which is that I picked the wrong drum sounds when I was creating my drum loop. I always try to use drum sounds that just sound good to me, and that match the mood of the melody that I have, but it’s difficult to do sometimes, unless you have a massive drum library that you want to sift through for the next six hours.
EQ and Layering
Most of the time I will take whatever sounds good enough and create my loop, then I will listen to it along with the melody. If the drums don’t sound right then that’s when I have to either look for different drums, or start using EQ – or layering.
EQ is great because you can take your kick drum, for example, and thicken it up, but layering along with EQ is even better.
If I have a thick kick to begin with, then I’ll add another kick from another sample source, but I make sure the kick is not thick, since that’s what I already have. Instead, I will grab something that’s in the upper EQ range, so I can have a much fuller kick. If I can’t find a decent upper range kick, then I’ll use whatever I can and just EQ it until it fits with the other kick.
A great way to get your drums to sound really good are to compress them with some sort of plug-in, but the problem is that producers tend to rely on compression too much.
When I first discovered how to use compression a long time ago, I thought to myself, “Well, why doesn’t everyone just use compression on everything? This thing is awesome!”. But thinking like that will lead to disastrous results.
Compression is a great tool for drums, but they shouldn’t be the end-all solution to obtaining great drum sounds. This is why I actually very rarely use compression unless I just can’t quite get the right sound with just EQ and layering.
Matching It Up
Even with all of the options laid out above, you still might not get the desired results for your drums. When I was looking for the right drums to use for my Jazz loop, even my EQ and layering didn’t really help me that much. The problem wasn’t that those techniques didn’t work, it’s just that the drum sounds I used to begin with just plain sucked for that type of melody.
It’s like having a Classical violin solo that you chop up and recreate for your beat. Once you’ve done that, you then use some 808 drums on top. It might work, but it probably won’t. This is because the two were not made for each other, and you can tell just from the mood of both the melody and the drums.
Most of the time you can just tell what drums will work well with whatever sample you have, but it’s still a guessing game most of the time, so that’s why it’s important to know how to solve that puzzle. Should you use other drums? Layer and EQ? Compress?
One of the easiest ways to get some decent drums is by using a breakbeat. You could use ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” drum solo as is or chopped, or you can use it as a reference point with your own drums.
If, after all the techniques and tricks have been applied, your drums just don’t seem to match up with the rest of the music, then you could also try other things, such as:
Dump your drums to cassette and sample it back in.
Run your drums through a plug-in.
Getting the proper drum sounds will make a world of difference in your beats. Time and time again I’ve done my melody and then thrown whatever drums I could on top then called it a day. A lot of times my beat turned out okay, but there’s always room for improvement, so that’s why each time I make a beat I try to challenge myself by making my drums sound better than the last.
And you should do the same too.