Expressive Drum Loops: Yes, It's Possible
By Anderton |
Make your drum loops come alive
By Craig Anderton
Drum loops: Boring. Repetitive. Yawn.
The cliché is that drum loops are boring and repetitive. This isn’t really surprising, because many times, they are. But you don’t have to succumb to dumb drums—there are lots of ways to make drum loops anything but a yawner.
ADD INDIVIDUAL DRUM HITS
Drum loop libraries often include individual drum hits. So, you can set up another track adjacent to the track containing the loop, and drag in some additional snare or kick hits. The occasional off-beat hit can liven up a part by adding an element of surprise, or increasing emphasis as needed.
REMOVE, THEN REPLACE
Programs like Adobe Audition and Wavelab can cut specific frequency and amplitude ranges, as monitored in a spectral view. Use this function to remove the kick part from a loop while retaining the other drum sounds, then overdub a kick part with more variations and interest. I’ve also been able to remove some percussion sounds, like triangle and clave.
This technique is not a panacea; it pretty much demands a dry loop, as reverb is such a diffuse sound it’s hard to pin down and remove. Otherwise, this type of editing can be extremely effective.
USE REAL CYMBALS
One technique is to use drum loops that don’t have cymbals. Then mic some cymbals, set up to do an overdub, and play the cymbal part. Not only will the cymbal’s sound provide a richness that’s difficult for a sample to provide, you can add variety to the loops by using real cymbals.
USE MULTITRACK DRUM LOOP LIBRARIES
Multitrack drum libraries, such as the Discrete Drums line carried by Sonoma Wireworks, require a little more work to apply than standard drum libraries—but the results are well worth it. One of the biggest advantages is that because individual drums are on separate tracks, it’s easy to add dynamics to just one sound. You can also add timbral changes, such as pulling back a bit on the snare’s treble during quiet parts, then increasing it a shade when you want the part to cut a little more.
Another option involves altering the room mic levels to complement the song. To make the sound bigger, bring up the room mic tracks a bit; reduce them for a more intimate sound.
Furthermore, you can use a program like Drumagog to replace particular drum sounds, such as the kick or snare. Drumagog works by detecting when a drum hit occurs, then generating a trigger to play a different drum sound. Assuming separate source tracks, replacing sounds is usually easy.
Finally, you can shift the track timing: Lag the snare track a bit behind the beat to create a more loose, laid-back vibe, or push the snare a bit for a more insistent “feel.”
LOOP VARIATIONS WITH CHOPPING
Chopping a loop into pieces and rearranging them can work wonders. For example, cut a 16th note from the loop’s beginning , then paste it in for the two 16th notes that precede the loop. While you’re at it, draw in a level curve so they build up to the loop itself (Fig. 1). The end result is a seductive lead-in.
Fig. 1: The loop beginning (highlighted in black) has been copied and pasted twice just before the loop, providing a cool lead-in.
You can also chop internally to the loop; for example, swap the 2nd and 3rd beats to add some variation. Or, “intensify” a part by chopping an eighth note hit in half, throwing away the second half, and repeating the first part twice (Fig. 2). In this example, you get two 16th note hits instead of a single 8th note hit.
Fig. 2: Cut up a loop, then rearrange the pieces to add variety and interest (the cut and copied pieces are highlighted in yellow for clarity).
CHANGE THE TEMPO
If you’re using REX or Acid-compatible loops (and their “stretch markers” are placed properly), you’re in luck because they’ll follow reasonable tempo changes. Real musicians simply do not maintain a rock steady tempo—not necessarily because they can’t, but because they manipulate the “groove” to add emotional impact. Pulling back the tempo a bit can help emphasize the vocals in a sensitive verse, while speeding up a little bit provides the rhythmic equivalent of modulating upward by a semitone.
THE VIRTUES OF AUTOMATION
Dynamically varying the drum loop levels and timbre via host automation can help restore some of the dynamics that are taken away by repeating a loop over and over again. Even better, assign some of these parameters to a hardware control surface so you can manipulate the dynamics in real time, and do a “performance.”
It does take some extra effort to make a loop really shine, but when you hear how much these techniques can add to a loop, you’ll make that effort.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.