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  • How to Beef Up Your Beats

    By Anderton |

    How to Beef Up Your Beats 

    Toughen up wimpy analog drum sounds 


    by Craig Anderton


    Ah yes…those classic analog drum sounds. When you think of all the hip-hop, techno, trance, and other dance music productions that were powered by legendary devices like Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909, you realize just how influential these drum sounds have been.


    But that was the 20th century, and we can use some 21st century processing to make them even bigger and stronger. You probably have some drum module or soft synth somewhere with these vintage electronic drum sounds (these tips are designed for the TR-808 drums, but work with other analog drum sounds), so let’s make them come alive.


    I’ll be using the modules in Cakewalk SONAR but they’re fairly standard, so you shouldn’t have much trouble translating the settings to your particular DAW.






    A little distortion can help the kick cut through a mix. Softube’s distortion (which is also available in Studio One) is ideal if you set the switch to Keep Low, because it maintains that solid low end for the kick, then adds hardness to the top so the kick cuts better. A setting around 2 to 3 o’clock works for me. With other distortion effects, you may need to place the distortion in parallel with the kick, with a filter in front to reduce the very lowest frequencies so the distortion affects only the low mids on up. Or just distort the crap out of the kick for your “Tribute to Late 90s Belgian Hardcore” project.


    If you have a console emulation processor that models the sound of an input transformer, you can get some “iron” into the sound. With SONAR, I prefer the N-Type processor with Trim at 2.0 and Drive turned up to 6 dB. Driving it this hard adds some non-linearities and just a tiny bit of crunch.






    Adding a bass boost (try a bass shelf at 130 Hz with about 6 dB of boost) gives more “wood” to the sound, as if it was an electronic snare with a wooden shell. Try it and you’ll hear what I mean. A slight upper mid boost around 5 kHz adds some “snap.” These two EQ boosts give a more defined snare sound.


    Snare is another sound that can benefit from a little distortion, but this time I’m using SONAR’s Tube distortion module because it has two distortion flavors. Type II doesn’t distort highs, which keeps the snare from sounding too much like sandpaper. If you’re using an amp sim or other type of distortion, as with the kick parallel processing can give the sound you want. Split off the low frequencies, send them through your distortion module of choice, then mix them back together. Again, I’ve taken advantage of console emulation to add a bit more punch by overdriving it.






    Now we have a big kick that takes over the low end (but not so much that it will fight with the bass; the distortion gives it more highs, so it gets out of the way of the bass), and a tight snare that handles the mids. Next, we'll process the hi-hat to fill in the high end.


    Cutting the lows and boosting the highs allows the hi-hat sound to complement the processed kick and snare. By emphasizing the highs, we can bring the hi-hat down in the mix to leave room for other high-frequency instruments, but you’ll still be able to hear the metronomic hi-hat at work.


    The low shelf filter cuts response pretty dramatically under 1 kHz. Meanwhile, there’s a major boost around 7 kHz to really bring out the hi-hat’s sizzle—but to prevent it from going too nuts on the high end, set the Lowpass filter for a steep slope (I’m using -48 dB/octave) and a cutoff of 20 kHz. The residual rolloff below 20 kHz lets the hi-hat occupy a “slice” of high frequencies where you can hear it well, but it doesn’t take up too much of the audio spectrum.






    I’m not a big fan of the TR-808 tom sound; it tends to be “bottom-heavy” and has no stick sound. My preferred fix is some limiting with an 1176-type emulation, a low-frequency shelf rolloff, and a high-frequency shelf boost. Problem solved.




    Play the drum part, then try bypassing all these effects…the change will be substantial, and your beats will be a lot beefier. Also consider adding just a little bit of ambience using short, prime number delays (e.g., four sends or delay taps with 11, 13, 17, and 23 ms of delay), and you’ll provide a little depth to the otherwise “flat” direct sound.  -HC-






     Craig Anderton is Editorial Director 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.


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