Over the years I’ve been asked for my opinion on the mixdowns of hundreds of young hopefuls’ tracks and almost without fail, the biggest problem is always a lack of beef in the basic percussion. Although this is a question of taste and different styles can be busier in the beat department than others, there are a few basic rules that will toughen up your beat and lay the correct foundation to drive the rest of your track.
Take these as guidelines to a basic 4/4 beat only though – more creative percussion elements can be added over this framework to create the groove you`re after, but this will make sure that what you have there is tough enough on its own.
Naturally we start with a proper 4/4 kick , and you`ll save a lot of trouble if it’s not more than an 8th note long with a short fade. Sample packs are notorious for having crap kickdrums so I suggest you load up wav versions of songs you like from established artists and look for lonely little kicks on their own without background noise or hi-hats for you to slice out and sample. It’s been done for years folks so don’t feel bad about it. Of course there are plenty of ways to make your own kicks and I highly suggest it, but that’s a whole article on its own and it’s a path that often ends in disappointment.
At the moment, I make hybrid kicks with the punch from one kick sliced out and crossfaded together with the body of another. Simple but very effective if you line up the zero crossings zoomed in on the waveform – this way you also end up with a unique kickdrum you can call your own and tailor make it for what you need.
Simple but essential – find a neutral non-resonant (no hectic EQ spikes) closed hi-hat to put on every kick drum and make it as short as possible with a sharp fadeout like (32nd note or so). It may sound like a throw away step, but it raises the overall loudness of your track and will make it much more punchy – especially in those all important kick and bass parts of the song where you might be losing the loudness wars.
Layer snares and claps to get the sound you want. I`m normally on about 3 snares a track. One that has nice weight around the 200-300hz range, and others that are more for bite and character. EQ them respectively to focus on what they`re giving the track i.e. – cut low end on the ‘bite’ snares and roll off tops on the low end snare.
Play with the length of the snares whilst trying to keep them as short as possible from 16th note – to 8th. The shorter they are, the more space you leave in your mix for other sounds as snares are nailing most of the ‘intelligent’ frequency range, but too short and they`ll mysteriously ‘disappear’ as a result of transient masking. Open hats on the offbeat are also frequency hogs and should be as short and snappy as possible.
As a last resort or as a creative option, shifting snares and claps a few milliseconds before the beat can make them jump out but also makes the track more ‘jacking’ at best and sloppy at worst.
Another simple and effective background step is to find a simple drumloop to add as a ‘filler’ layer to add more backbone to the beat. Vengeance Sounds makes good loops for this.
Choose a loop that isn’t too busy on the hats and top end but has nice midrange percussion elements and a beefy snare to fill the gap there and maybe create more movement in the groove if you need that. Slice this loop into individual parts and tighten up the fades on the various elements, play with the volumes and mute out things that clash (most likely the snares). You can cut a lot of lows and highs out of this layer as it’s only meant to fill in the background – not to take up too much space.
This last step should actually be the first, but anyway – Get to grips with groups!
If you`re layering a lot of sounds whether it be percussion , leads, bass etc – you need to send all these layered sounds to the same group and make sure they are compressed or limited together as transparently as possible to keep the levels under control. Then there is no problem layering 10 snares on top of each other if it sounds good and your levels are under control. You can go wild.
I can’t tell you how to create group channels in whatever software you`re using as it’s totally different in each DAW. What I can say is that I’ll have my kick and bass grouped together and compressed, my snares, percussion and filler beats running into another group with a low cut below 200hz and my hi-hats, hats on the kick and cymbals running into another compressed group with a low cut below 1kz. Remember not to squash these different groups with compression! It’s just to keep the levels of the grouped sounds under control.
So all this is pretty simple stuff, but if it’s so simple how come I keep hearing them noob sounding beats?
Hope this helps folks! Have fun.