Percussion lines in many electronic music genres, particularly hip-hop/rap tend to sport larger-than-life drums. Its a sound that’s easily recreated but not immediately apparent if you’re new music creation / composition.
This isn’t an all inclusive post on every possible technique but rather a starting guideline. For brevity’s sake, I’ll be using a pre-existing loop as my template, this isn’t a requirement but rather an easy starting point. Loops are a tool just like a virtual instrument, but easy to abuse. Using using pre-existing loops may get good out-of-the-box results but you’re exceptionally limited in your expressive abilities, loops are best manipulated to become something new.
This loop is pretty straight-forward and I selected for a few traits, its relaxed and isn’t a percussion line that I’d associate with the beefy/meaty qualities of a hip hop boom-bap percussion line.
This is the raw unprocessed loop. Unprocessed is a relative term as this loop was obviously recorded/arranged/mixed by someone else other than me, but I have not altered it in any way.
Most people are familiar with Photoshop so I’ll be using it as my analogy. Photoshop has plugins/filters that allow certain effects to achieved quickly. Back in the late 90s, web design was particularly fond of plugins, garish lens flares, drop shadows and bevels. Some of you may even remember AlienSkin Eye Candy, which became the standby for cheesy flames and textures. Many would-be graphic designers relied too heavily on the effects, and not enough on the composition. Effects are best used when they’re subtle, they should never be the focus.
Audio is similar, there isn’t a magic plugin that will make things suddenly sound amazing, and its easy to over do it. However, effects are more part of the process chain than visual arts as they alter the dynamics of the sound. A better analogy would be in audio they’re both like photoshop plugins and core-techniques like masking, levels, blending modes and so forth.
If you’re not sure what the difference is between a limiter and a compressor or overdrive vs distortion, you should probably start reading up. Its a blog post in itself.
Even if you’re not a mixing engineer, core techniques are necessity. You should be familiar with EQing, and not just EQing but parabolic EQs and multiband EQs. It may sound daunting at first but they’re easy to pick up on after you start using them.
As a genera starting point there’s a few things you can do easily to make drums sound bigger. EQing and Compression should be your first attempt but this can only do so much.
A mild Overdrive (I used PSP Vintage Warmer) makes drums a bit crunchier as it simulations over-saturation akin to analog hardware. Analog isn’t intrinsically better than digital (so don’t start believing the hype) but it does have some desirable properties that can be emulated/simulated rather easily in digital.
For hip hoppers, older drum machines like early MPCs often either defaulted or were limited to 12 bit sampling instead of 16 bit. Bit depth dictates sound pressure levels in audio. The higher bit depth, the higher dynamic range (range between absolute silence to the maximum volume). Lower the bit depth, the dirtier a sound will sound (often hissier). To keep with the image editing analogy, bit depth dictates the amount of total colors can be used. With audio, it dictates how many steps in sound pressure. The grittier sound that’s associated with 12 bit samples sonically can be desirable. Its not a dramatic effect but it does add to the “roughness” that can be heard in many golden-era hip hop songs.
Below I’ve added a mild overdrive and bit crusher, effect to lower it to 12 bit with a very slight EQ adjustment to tone down the the 2khz-5.5khz range to tame the high hats.
Percussion isn’t just about effects, a very popular and very old technique is to layer different percussion sounds on-top of each other. This works best with kicks and snares. Pairing drums often requires a bit of guess work but the results are well worth it.
Below I selected one-shot drum samples, neither of which would be my first choice to start a track with. Below I’ve compose loop that nearly matches the kick and snare pattern but not entirely at the end.
Combining the two sets of sounds will yields what now sounds like a percussion line fitting of a hip hop track. Notice that in the loop below that in the later part a few of the kicks are absent from the original loop. This creates a level of complexity, when only the original loop’s kick can be heard.
These sort of techniques can create change ups or drum fills, even in hip hop you shouldn’t ever lock yourself into a 4 or 8 bar loop without any change ups/fills.
Between effects and layering, its easier to create larger-than-life drums. Experiment and play around.
Additional Beginner Tips:
The Snare Pattern
One other tip that took me a few weeks to figure out the very basics for hip hop patterns, the snare almost always falls on the ¼ and ¾ notes, with minor deviations. Kick patterns vary more. Club sounds tend to be more minimalist whereas underground/indie percussion lines vary more, and often sound (and are) like they are lifted right off an old vinyl record.
Don’t over mix the high-hats
Just as this the title suggests, beginners tend to over mix the high hats, having them at the forefront. Usually high hats are more recessed and lie much lower in the mix. Avoid cranking the volume and do the opposite, and let them hang in the background.
This concludes the very basics on making fatter drums, feel free to drum me a line.