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Music Production: Liven Up Your Drums Without Changing Them
Why Does This matter?
With dance music it's very common for producers to forget about creating interesting drums as drums are often thought of something that's really easy and quick so they throw some drums together really fast and then move on to the bass and synths and all of the other "more interesting things". What producers are forgetting is that drums are the basis of dance music, they are the fundamental piece that makes the dance floor move. When people go to a club, they want to feel that "boom" in their chest with each kick drum. The problem with producers just throwing their drums together and not giving them much thought is that it's already giving their tracks a more generic computer generated vibe right off the bat. So, how can we fix this? Let's explain a few very simple things you can do to your drums without adding any effects, changing the samples, or changing the arrangement.
Velocity is described by Music-Dictionary.org as "How loudly a note is struck." Picture a drummer hitting the same cymbal over and over again. It would be impossible for that drummer to hit that cymbal with the same amount of force every single time, therefore, there are slight fluctuations in volume of the cymbal as the drummer continues. We can apply this to our cymbals and percussion and any extra pieces of your drums that aren't the kick as the kick is generally kept at the same volume as a general rules of dance music production. But hey, rules are meant to be broken so do whatever you want with that information. By slightly automating the velocity of these elements as closely to random as possible, you can give them a more realistic feel, you can make them seem closer to being played by a real drummer. Ever wonder why live drums sound so much better to most people rather than the same loops being played by a computer? It's because that computer is going to play everything perfectly in time and it's going to play everything at the exact same volume. The slight variations that you hear when listening to live drums make them sound less boring and repetitive to our ears.
As we established before, a live drummer can't play 100% perfectly in time like a computer. Some of the worlds best drummers can get close, but it's not possible to be 100% on time with every single hit 100% of the time. So, let's apply that to our drums. By going into our drum arrangement and off putting a few hits ever so slightly (a few milliseconds) we can make our drums one step closer to sounding like they are being played live. How much you want to move your drum hits is up to you, but keep and mind that the more you move them, the more noticeably out of time they are.
Panning is probably the most important piece of advice you could take from this article. If you don't retain any of the other pieces of information, at least retain this one. When you put together a basic drum arrangement everything is going to be centered (assuming your samples aren't pre-panned) and that's a bad thing because if we take a look at a drum kit, not all of the drums are centered, they are scattered around the drummer. To start out, we want to make sure our kick is centered as it's a general rule in dance music to keep lower frequency elements like kicks and sub basses in the center of the stereo field, but again, rules are meant to be broken, yada yada yada. Now that we have our kick centered, let's take a look at the picture below. The picture below is a typical drum set up from the point of view of the drummer. Here we can see the snare slightly to the left of the kick drum, the hi hat even more to the left, the toms scattered starting from the left and going right as they get lower in frequency, and the rest of the cymbals scattered around from left to right. Each drum kit will vary depending on the preferences of the drummer so when you are panning it could be helpful to look up an image of a drum set and use it as a sort of template. Just like with the velocity and timing, make sure to create very subtle effects with your panning. As we can see in the image, the snare is to the left of the kick drum, but not by much, so in order to pan the snare you would use a small percentage of panning to the left. To pan the hi hat you would use a larger percentage than the snare, but beware of hard panning. Hard panning something to one side can make things feel unbalanced or like there is more going on in one speaker and a lot of listeners don't enjoy that sound.
Using the simple tips featured in this article you can liven up your drums and give them a more interesting feel without changing the arrangement or sample choice and this can be achieved in any DAW.