Layering Percussion

Since starting producing full time, I’ve more and more used layering of percussive parts, especially hi-hats, cymbals, snares, and claps.  This isn’t exactly a revelation in music production,  as a lot of producers seem to discuss the same technique as commonplace in articles I read (as a basic example, almost every article I read in Sound on Sound from a famous producer or engineer, seems to discuss supplementing live drums with samples… esp for the kick and snare).  But, I think it’s definitely a change to how club music was produced 10-15 years ago.  When I started producing, sample CDs were relatively expensive, and sometimes of dubious quality… I can remember it was not even easy to get an 808 or 909 set that was cleanly sampled.  Ofcourse fast forward to 2016 though, and packs of 100s of highly varied, and high quality percussion samples are available relatively cheaply (e.g. from websites like Loopmasters).  In the past, you’d often be lucky to find say one hi-hat sample that would fit a track well, without even considering whether the sampling of it was decent (this is probably a fact that helped make the X0X sounds so prolific in club music, as they just seem to fit lots of styles well).  But nowdays I often find that I’m spoiled for choice, finding 5-10 samples which all fit a track equally well.

Given this significant increase in the choice of sounds available, to me layering makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons…

  • Layering can be used to supplement an existing sound that fits into a track well, but is lacking something… e.g. a snare which sounds a bit thin, or hi-hat which lacks high end.
  • Uniqueness – If you find a really nice percussion sample in a sample pack, if you use it in isolation, there’s always the possibility another producer has used exactly the same sample… hence the uniqueness of your work can suffer.  If instead you layer the same sample with 2 or 3 others, the chances of someone else using that same combination of sounds (especially when you consider the levels and potentially filtering of individual layers) is very slim.
  • It gives you the chance to combine the best parts of a bunch of individual sounds… e.g an acoustic snare sample which has a lot of ‘meat’, but weak snap, with a synthesised snare which has a lot of bite and high end.

In my case, some of the common situations where I use layering include…

  • I use a really ancient drum synth program called Stomper.  The program is really good for creating snare drum samples with a really ‘meaty’, solid low end.  It’s not so good though at synthesising the stick attack and the sound of the snare wires…  so, I often use the low-pass filtered low end sound from Stomper, layered with a high-pass filtered drum machine, or acoustic sample.  I used this exact technique in the snare/ clap sound for ‘Push On‘.
  • I come up with a lot of rhythm patterns on the Korg Volca Beats.  Often if I’ve tweaked the individual Volca Beats drum sounds a lot, I’ll be quite happy with them, and want to replicate the pattern and a similar overall sound using Reaper and Kontakt.  The problem I often find is that when you record the Volca Beats directly into a DAW, it doesn’t sound as good as it does through the internal speaker.  The internal speaker is tiny (like 1 inch or less), and so it can’t properly handle the output levels of those analogue drum sounds, especially low frequency stuff like the kick drum and toms… so when you play a pattern through the internal speaker, you get lots of often-pleasant grittiness and distortion, which gets lost when you record directly.  To remedy this, on a couple of occasions I’ve recorded the pattern and/or individual sounds from the Volca speaker into a mic.  This retains the grittiness, but ofcourse has no low end at all… so I then supplement the recorded sounds with either the same sound recorded directly, or synthesised low end (e.g using the Stomper program mentioned above).
  • I often record some live sound to use as percussion.  The live sound might be close to the sound of a percussion instrument I’m trying to emulate, but layering it with an actual sample of that percussion instrument gives a sound which sits in a mix more easily, but is also quite unique.  A specific example occurred other other day… I recorded some sounds of cicadas (on a hot Summer day in Sydney).  It was a fairly clean recording, and I wanted to use clips of these sounds as a shaker/cabasa-type sound in a new track.  The cicada sound on its own was unique and interesting sounding, but a didn’t have enough upper-mid frequency ‘weight’ to it… hence I layered it with a cabasa sample from a drum machine, and got a quite unique, but also much more useable, ‘mixable’ sound.
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