Wiki: Zircon's ReMixing Tips Compendium/Part 1: Groovy Drums

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Explains how to create and process catchy drum grooves and fills, even with low-quality samples.


A very common problem I've heard in a lot of electronic songs is the lack of a substantial drum line - one that can provide a solid rhythmic foundation but also keep the listener's interest. Many times, People will construct a groove that is too repetitive, too spastic, not coherent, not fitting for the song, or just not interesting. Here are some ways to spice things up.

  • Layer your samples to create a new sound. Don't simply look for one acoustic snare and stop there; look for two, three, or four, and layer them. Adjust the volume levels of each to find the right mix. This will often give a fatter sound, and it'll allow for many more sonic combinations too.
  • Add fills and small variations in the groove. Little snare fills, changes in the hihat rhythm every other measure, extra bass drum hits, tom fills.. any of these things can breathe more life into a drumline and make it more human. It is too easy to make a 1 bar loop and just let it go. Don't fall into this trap! Put the extra effort in to making the drumline change at least over the course of 4 bars.
  • Don't overlook hihats. While the bass drum and snare are probably the most important elements of a groove, hihats (and other 'small' or high end percussion instruments like tambourines and shakers) round out the loop. Don't stop at just one or two hihat patterns; add a whole bunch and layer them with the rest of your drums. This way, you can tweak volume levels until you find the right balance between the hats and the drums, and decide which patterns best fit with the groove.
  • Edit velocities! This can be very tedious, I know, but it's important, even in loops used for electronic music. 16 straight hihat or tambourine hits in a row is boring. But edit the velocities, even slightly, and it will sound much more natural. In terms of emulating acoustic drums, this is absolutely crucial. What kind of drummer hits the bass drum or snare with exactly the same strength every time?
  • Use your sequencer's swing quantization, if it has that feature. If it doesn't, try to manually add swing or humanization to your rhythms. Unless you're making the most straightforward electronic music possible, just about every style of drumming calls for non-exact timing. The exception would be the backbeat; the fundamental bass drum and snare rhythm that lets the listener tap their feet to your grooves.
  • Process the individual drum parts with separate groups of effects. Hihats can sound sharper and brighter with some high end EQ and reverb, but that might not work well for a bass drum, which instead might need some fat compression and light distortion with low end EQ.
  • Once you've sequenced and processed all the parts, consider mixing them down and sending them to a single mixer track so you can add some final compression and EQ. This is a very common technique among many electronic musicians, who very often draw from massive pools of unrelated samples. By processing them individually and then sending them to a single track, they can be made to sound more natural, as if they came from the same kit.

Rhythm Example

Here is a sample groove I made in about 15 minutes using only FL default samples (no FPC either) and a few of the techniques I described above.

The project file can be found here:

Here are some things you should note in the FLP:

  • The effects; three tracks in all (bass drum, snare, hihat).
  • The small amount of swing (feature of the FL step sequencer).
  • Small variations and fills every other measure, and a larger fill at the end of four measures.
  • The layering: two bass drums, three snares and a clap, five hihats, a tambourine, and a ride.
  • The small-scale velocity editing in the hihat patterns and the snare/tom fills.

So, while the samples used here aren't the greatest, the groove still has a nice flow and sound balance, and it could probably fit in a few different styles.

Breakdowns / Fills

Another important aspect to constructing grooves is making breakdowns or extended fills, which can be placed into parts of the song where your main backbeat is not playing. While this isn't essential, even the best grooves can get boring if they're repeated for straight or more minutes straight. Here's an example:

The project file can be found here.

Here are some things to note.

  • The drumloop. Oh no, a drumloop! Actually, using a drumloop creatively can be a great way to add more spice to your own drums. In this case, what I did was take one of the FL default drumloops, loaded it into the slicer, removed the bassdrum and snare hits, and put a highpass filter on it. It helps to add more material to my own hihat/shaker/etc sequencing.
  • The assortment of rhythms used. I did not use the same hihat rhythms as my first example. Instead, I used some more offbeat ones.
  • The samples used. By the time you arrive at a break section, the more prominent bass drum and snare sounds you've been using might be getting kind of boring. With this in mind, I switched them up, and added some new hat samples, a triangle, and a wood block hit. I also changed around the effects processing to keep things fresh.

There are no real 'rules' for making these types of fills, of course.

End of Part 1

By no means are these the only ways to construct funky grooves, fills, and percussive lines. However, taking these pointers and applying them is a very solid start to creating a good rhythm section in your mix.



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