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How to Synthesize Drums – Digital Sound Design Tips

How To Synthesize Drum SoundsWhile there’s endless drum samples out there, why not take total control and make your own using synths? Any analogue or FM synth can be used to make amazing electronic percussion tones, but the likes of Sonic Charge Microtonic, Max For Live, FXpansion Tremor and NI’s new Maschine 2 Drumsynths feature focused parameter sets designed with the creation of powerful drum sounds in mind. Every producer should own at least one dedicated drum synth.

While step sequencing or manual programming of drums is a route to accuracy, it’s much more fun – not to mention creatively more rewarding – to play them in live. OK, so you’re not a drummer, and you don’t have any drum pads… No problem! Your MIDI keyboard can be used instead of pads, and by slowing the tempo of your track right down and recording in cycle/overdub mode, you can give yourself plenty of time and opportunity to hit the right notes.

Ghost notes are the quiet offbeat strokes and embellishments that many drummers play in between the main beats, primarily on the snare drum. They’re among the most important factors to consider in programming realistic acoustic drums, bringing life and syncopation to any groove. As well as single ghost notes, drags (two or three very quick, light notes in succession) can emphasise the offbeat – just keep it tasteful and don’t go overboard.

Many DAWs can impose the timing of one audio or MIDI groove onto another, which can serve many creative purposes, and systems like Logic Pro’s Groove Track can even match an entire project to the timing of one part. But more generally useful is being able to apply the timing and velocities of, say, a live drum loop to a programmed part, or vice-versa.

A more creative alternative to transient-shaping plugins is to use the pitch and filter envelopes of a sampler to shape the bodies and tails of hits independently. The trick is to set the attack time to let as much of the transient through as you need before the pitch/filter adjustment kicks in. Or conversely, set the attack and sustain to zero and then adjust the decay time to process only the attack.

Whether using a sampler or a synth for drum sounds, if you have the relevant mode active (it’ll be called Gate or similar), adjusting the lengths of MIDI notes – and thus the sounds triggered – can have a radical effect on a groove. Try using a MIDI modifying plugin such as Ableton Live – Note Length to adjust notes in real time.

While for many tracks, realism is often desired, people have been applying out-there effects to acoustic drums since time immemorial. Whether you’re after a dab of psychedelic phasing or something more overt, there’s no sound or character that can’t be had using DAW-bundled or third-party plugins. If your processing is making the volume erratic, just throw a limiter onto the end of the chain.

To jazz up a lacking percussion part, try applying an LFO- or envelope-controlled filter (low-, high- or band-pass – try them all) to it. We’re not talking anything too drastic – just enough cutoff frequency modulation to impart some movement, variation and bite. Play around with the LFO wave-shape and depth, being sensitive to the timing and feel of the part.

The great thing about drum tracks is that – being essentially non- pitched – it’s easy to add to your regular kick, snare and hi-hat sounds with… well, anything! So, plug in a mic, grab some pots, pans and cutlery from the kitchen, take to the streets with a field recorder and go nuts. With the right editing, processing and programming, you can take your sounds in any direction and create unique end results.

You can apply a laid-back feel or a sense of urgency to a drum groove by pushing or pulling the beat – particularly the backbeat snare. By moving the snare hits on beats 2 and 4 forward in time, we can pull the beat back for a funky, lazy feel. By pushing them backward, we make the beat sound more frantic as the backbeat lands slightly earlier. Stick to tiny distances from the quantise grid, mind – too much and your drum part will start to fall apart.

Most DAWs offer ‘random quantise’ functions in the shape of a Humanize parameter that can be applied to MIDI. This can be incredibly useful for bringing life and authenticity to programmed grooves – particularly those triggering virtual acoustic drum kits. The biggest benefits are to parts where multiple drums/cymbals are struck at once, and on fast rolls. But don’t overdo it, or your part might sound more ropey than realistic.

For big electronic drum sounds, layering complementary (or not!) elements of multiple sounds into one can deliver better results than a single synth or sample alone. EQ and filtering will be your main tools for carving space between sounds, but using the attack of one sound to lead into the tail of another also works well.

Velocity is oft-overlooked in drum programming, yet it can make a huge difference, particularly with a sampler that supports velocity modulation of pitch,filter cutoff, etc. Even just lowering the velocities of less important notes can make beats more dynamic, human and interesting.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to reveal your hastily programmed acoustic drum track for the sham that it is, it’s the machine gun effect. This is where all of the snare and/or hi-hat hits sound exactly the same due to either laziness on the part of the programmer or a lacking sound source. Do everything you can to avoid it – many drum samplers do this automatically, but if yours doesn’t, get busy with velocity, filter cutoff and alternating ‘round robin’ samples, cheers.

Also check: 10 Best Drum Machines VST Plugins

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  • Amory Amplifone

    This is an article about sequencing drums, nothing about actual drum synthesis.

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