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The choice of layers and the way those layers are manipulated together contribute not only to the impact and energy of the drums, but also to the style of your track.

This article will help you to create your own layering techniques so that your beats can be unique and stand out above the rest.

 

OVERKILL

If you manage to find the perfect drum or sample for your project, then use it! Don’t feel like every single sample you ever use from now on has to be a layered sample.

Sometimes one sample does the job of 3 just fine. Adding more samples will only clog up the mix with unnecessary frequencies that don’t add any value to the track.

 

TIMING

Try altering the timing of your individual layered samples. For example, push a hi-hat a fraction of a second before or after a shaker sample.

notice the timbre change as the different transients can be heard at different times. As well as giving both the transients room to breath, this is also a very good technique for altering the groove of your drum patterns. A point to note is to be aware of the polarity and phase of your samples as you do this. The last thing you want to do is smear that all important attack transient you spent so long getting right!

 

A Hihat samples timing adjusted relative to the shaker for maximum impact and use of the transient.

 

SAMPLE SELECTION & CREATIVITY

Play around with unusual samples. And mix samples together that you wouldn’t think to fit together.

Kicks are often layered with white noise and hi-hats or filtered down snare samples to give them a bit of bite in the top range in order to help them punch through a mix.

Try layering transposed percussion such as bongo’s, congas and woodblocks with samples such as snares and claps to give them another dimension and make them more unique.

A kick split down into its three component layers in a drum rack for blending and processing

A clap and bongo sample layered together to add a different depth and timbre to the clap

 

FOUND SOUND

Use a field recorder such as the Tascam DR-05 to record every day sounds for use within your layered samples.

Taking this everywhere you go will give you plenty of opportunity to record the most unusual sounds that you would never be able to synthesise in your DAW.

These sounds tend to naturally have a lot more depth to them due to the detail and atmospherics that the mic can sometimes pick up during recording.

the Tascam DR-05 field recorder

 

 ATTACK & SUSTAIN

You’ll often find a case when you have two similar samples, one has the attack and punch that your looking for but lacks body, and the other sample has the right texture and tone but has no impact. In this case it’s logical to layer these two samples together.

An important note is that they should sound like they gel well together right from the get go. If they don’t sound okay at this point then try searching for other samples.

To get them to sit properly we will need to pitch the samples to the same key.

This is easily achieved using a frequency analyser.

Spectral analyser showing us the kick drums frequency content

 

Voxengo Span, a free spectrum analysis plugin that has a good preset for low frequency inspection

A small problem that may arise is that we will lose the timbre of our samples as we transpose them further away from their original pitch, This can either result in a very flabby sound or a very spiked pitch if transposed in the opposite direction.

To combat this we recommend using a frequency shifter as opposed to a standard pitch transposition plugin.

Pitch plugins will transpose the fundamental and the harmonics of the sound whilst still keeping the harmonic ratio the same whereas frequency-shifters will only shift the frequency of the whole sample by a selected amount of hertz which could change the harmonic ratios.

With pitch shifting the frequencies of signal components retain their harmonic relationships. For example, a signal with a 1KHz fundamental and two harmonics at 2KHz and 5KHz, could be pitch shifted upwards by a factor of 2.5, and the signal components would now have frequencies of 2.5KHz, 5.0KHz, and 12.5KHz. The ratios of the frequencies of the signal components are seen to be the same as they were before the pitch shifting.

 

Ableton Lives Frequency Shifter Plugin

 

Ableton Lives Midi Pitch Transposition Plugin

 

In frequency shifting, on the other hand, harmonic relationships between signal components are not preserved. To use the same example as before, if we shift our signal up in frequency (not pitch) by 1.5KHz, the resulting signal will have components whose frequencies are 2.5KHz, 3.5KHz, and 6.5KHz. The ratios of these frequencies are not the same as they were before the frequency shifting. The sound of a frequency shifted signal can be much different than that of a pitch shifted signal. But both techniques can give pleasing and musically useful results!

 

Frequency analysis of a square wave

 

Fundamental and partials shifted by 200Hz altering the harmonic ratios

 

 

Fundamental and partials transposed by 14 semitones keeping their harmonic ratios intact.

 

 

This basically translates to our samples holding their original timbre and attack transients much better than if we were to frequency shift them.

Just remember when using the frequency shifter to also use a tuner or frequency analyser so you can be as accurate as possible when tuning your samples to ensure they aren’t detuned either slightly sharp or flat. Give it a go for yourself and see the difference!

Be aware of the two samples frequency ranges clashing. A good way to prevent this is by turning off the sustain and shortening the decay of the attack sample. This will keep it out of the way of the other samples main body tone. Another way we can do this is by tone balancing.

 

WIDTH & STEREO IMAGE

Using samples with lots of width to them can really help to enhance the stereo image of the whole mix and make it sound fuller, whilst not clogging up the centre frequencies. However too much width can take the mix out of focus, especially the rhythm track which needs to contain the most impact and focus. A technique developed to improve this is the concept of layering two sounds together, one of which provides the mid channel impact whilst the other is used for width.

For example. We can take a snare and a clap sample and run the snare sample through a utility plugin to put it into mono and ensure it is panned down the centre of the mix. This will now be our main driving impact sample.

The clap can now have some stereo enhancement plugins added to it, this could be in the form of chorus, reverb or even using a 1-10 seconds of stereo delay to alter the sound between the left and right channels.

 

the snare sample in mono to add weight to the centre of the mix

 

The clap using a stereo delay in milliseconds to widen its stereo image

Another method of doing this is to duplicate the clap and pan them slightly left and right from each other. From here we can run one of the claps through various saturation plugins to slightly alter the frequency content of the clap from its counterpart.

This will enhance the stereo image without having to change the delay timings of the clap which can cause phase issues when played back in mono.

Once we have given the clap some width, EQ the two sounds together and treat to some bus compression. Also be sure to test how the finished sample sounds in mono by doing a mono compatibility test.

 

TONE BALANCING

As previously mentioned we often find ourselves with two or three samples that combined would make the perfect hit.

We’ve ensured they are all in key yet for some reason they still sound disparate from one another like they are clashing.

This is where tone balancing and spectral EQing can really do your samples justice. Spectral EQing is a technique where we take our two samples and decide which parts we want from each of them.

A good way of doing this is to check they’re frequency content using an analyser to see where they’re main energy sits in the mix. We now use parametric EQs to scoop out common frequencies shared between the two samples.

This could be in the form of Low pass, high pass, shelving or notch filters. Whichever sample you decide to remove frequencies from will make quite a difference to the finished result. so think wisely about how you want them to lock together and prioritise which sound should be more dominant as you blend them together.

Once you have got the samples to nicely compliment each other, try treating them both to some bus compression or saturation to bring them together.

A final note on tone balancing and spectral EQing is to ensure your listening to your samples as a whole unified sound when your taking frequencies out.

This will ensure you know exactly when the frequencies are no longer clashing and avoids removing too many frequencies resulting in a thin composite that just sounds like two separate samples.

 

The shared frequencies between two elements in a mix that will need to be EQed to allow them to slot into each others frequency ranges.

 

PHASE

Phase is of paramount importance when layering drums.

The basics of phase is if we grab two identical waveforms such as a sine-wave. And play them at the same time. The resulting sound will be twice the amplitude of just one of the sine waves. This doubling effect is because they are in phase. If we switch the polarity of of one of the sine waves and play then again we will hear nothing. This is because the two sine waves are 180 degrees out of phase with each other and therefore are completely cancelling each other out. If out sine waves are 90 degrees out of phase we will have phasing issues and a mixture of some parts being higher in volume and other parts being attenuated.

This basic knowledge applies throughout all music. And even waveforms that aren’t alike will have these issues. This is most common in lower frequencies however problems can still occur in the mid and high frequency ranges.

To improve our drums when layering (and also when programming our kick with our bass) it’s good practice to flip the polarity of one of the samples.

When you do this pay close attention to hear if the sound improves and sounds more full and powerful or if the sound suddenly becomes weak and hollow sounding.

If you notice a big difference then your in luck, as this means your waveforms are either in directly in phase (summing) or directly out of phase (cancellation) so you can choose the fuller more powerful sound.

If when you flip the polarity only a slight change is noticed then your samples may be 90 degrees out of phase from one another. This is a simple problem to rectify.

Simply zoom into the waveform of one of your samples and make micro-adjustments sample by sample along one cycle until you find a position where it locks in.

You’ll also usually be able to tell where it is going to lock in, simply by looking at the waveforms next to each other.

 

Two identical waveforms that are directly in phase with one another causing a summing of amplitudes in the resultant waveform.

 

Two identical waveforms which are 180 degrees out of phase with each other (polarity reversal) which results in a complete cancellation of the signal

 

Two Identical waveforms that are approximately 90 degrees out of phase with each other causing a mixture of summing and cancellation and a phasey sound.

 

CONTRAST

Try to pick samples that contrast from one another but still go well together.

For example you may have a high quality recording of a drummer that has been performed in an acoustically treated room. This recording will sound very clean with little to no reverb.

Sometimes it can sound nice to mix this up with something a little dirtier like an old analog sample.

If you don’t have any analog equipment then try running another sample through a bit crusher set to 12 bits or by reducing the sample rate to degrade the sample and give it more of a vintage feel.

These contrasts of gritty as clean can work really well together. Another good contrast is live sounds versus synthesised ones.

 

USE OF EFFECTS

Use effects to your advantage to warp and manipulate the different sounds. This may be as simple as placing a strong and short pitch envelope on one of your samples to give it more bite and attack, right the way through to adding modulation effects such as chorus or phaser. These can be placed on individual layers rather than the finished sound as a whole, meaning that you can effect each sample slightly differently to contribute to the finished sound.

 

A signal with a pitch envelope applied. notice the decay is <100ms to create a punchy attack transient without a noticeable downward movement in pitch.

 

TO SUMMARISE

Drum layering is a fine art form and one that takes years of practice, an acute ear and attention to detail to get right.

We hope you have learnt something from this article and that you can use these pointers to start building your own library’s of layered samples.

 

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