Pitching Percussion

As I’ve written about many times in this blog, I learnt a stack of stuff during 2016 regarding production techniques.  One of those that really stood out for me, was the importance of correctly pitching percussive sounds.

For whatever reason, prior to 2016, I can’t consciously remember explicitly re-pitching sounds like hi-hats, snares, claps, etc… which says to me that I either didn’t do it that much, or didn’t see it as being particularly important.  I guess from a theoretical point of view, my thinking was along the lines of “they’re not tonal, harmonic sounds, so there’s no point or need to tune them”.  Ofcourse, now understanding what constitutes a sound much better, percussive sounds are no different to what we consider ‘instrument’ sounds… at the end of the day they both break down to a collection of sine waves… it’s just the sine waves in a percussive sound modulate much more quickly, and are often at more ‘dissonant’ intervals than those in instrument sounds.  For lower pitched, more ‘droney’ instruments like bass drums and toms, it’s pretty obvious that changing the pitch can have a significant effect (since the tail of these sounds is usually dominated by a single sine-ish tone), but I was suprised how much of an effect this can have on snares and cymbals.

Rather than bang on too much about sound theory, maybe it’s best to illustrate with an example.  Below is a raw clip of some of the percussion elements, and the bassline of my track ‘Dystopia‘…

… and here is the same clip again, but with the pitch of all percussion set to the default (i.e. as it was in the original samples)…

Hear the difference?  The pitched version sounds much more cohesive, and has a better groove… mostly due to the hi-hat and clap/snare sounds being more in tune with the bass line and bass drum.  Also there’s a high pitched  ‘woody’ sound played on 16ths (sample of a chopstick being dropped onto a pile of chopsticks)… it tends to stand out and sound incongruous in the unpitched version.  Overall, the unpitched version just seems to ‘lag’ somewhat, and definitely doesn’t have the same integrity and groove of the pitched version.

The actual differences in pitch are usually quite slight.  I use Kontakt for all of this percussion, and these samples would be shifted by at most 2 semitones.  But I find even a change of 0.3 or 0.4 of a semitone, on a key percussion element like hi-hat or snare, can have a profound effect on the overall sound and groove of a track.

It’s important to keep this in mind too, when auditioning percussion samples.  I tend to cycle through sometimes 100’s of snare and cymbal sounds, and when doing this you have to keep in mind that a particular sound might sound slightly off or wrong when directly auditioned, but could be transformed after a slight pitch shift.

Anyway, the importance of pitching percussion been a kind of interesting revelation for me, and in terms of potential effort vs benefit (i.e. it requires little effort to change for potentially a lot of benefit), is a technique you should definitely utilize.


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