Layering Part Two – Drums

(Click here for Part One, Layering Synths)

Layering Drums To Get the Perfect Hit

Just like the last lesson, layering drums is a great way to make your drum sounds fit perfectly in your mix. You can also use layering to make your own custom drum sounds, and make your songs a little more unique.

One thing I found when I started using drums from sample packs is that there were a lot of kicks, for example, that I liked, but seemed to be missing something and didn’t quite fit my track. No matter which kick I switched to, it still felt slightly off. By combining a couple different kicks, I managed to get a great sounding kick that really fit my track well.

The Two or Three parts of a Drum Hit

Some people will say when layering drums, you need three parts: click, body, and tail. That’s fine if you want to really customize every part of your drums. Personally, I prefer to just combine the click and tail parts. Only two layers makes it much easier to mix everything, and still gets me a great sound.

This mostly applies to kicks, but you can really use the exact same process for snares, and any other drum sound you want. Stacking up percussion sounds like snaps or claps works really well too, but I usually just leave them all as they are and they add up to a much bigger sound.

How to Mix the Layers to Avoid Clutter

There are two main ways you can go about mixing your drum sounds so they sound great together. The first is the way I use almost all of the time. Start by listening to all of the layers, and determine which will be the focal point for the click, or initial attack sound. (For these examples I’ll assume you’re using two sounds.) Now, you have two choices. Either use an EQ or filter and cut out the high end of one sound and the low end of another, or cut out a notch of a certain frequency, and boost the other. In general, I cut out the high/low end on kicks, and use notches on snares and other similar sounds.

The reason cutting high/low frequencies works more on kicks than snares is the initial hit of a kick drum is a much higher frequency than the tail. You can cut out all but the click sound on one, and then cut out the click, leaving just the tail on the other. For snares, the frequency range is much closer, so using a notch tends to work better. By finding the frequency where the snare hits hardest and boosting it on one sound, then cutting the same frequency on the other sound, you can have both sounds mix together well without as much clashing.

Another Way to Combine Layers

There is one other way you can combine the layers of your drum sounds without using an EQ or filter. Ableton Live uses Simpler and Sampler for playing back sounds like drum hits, but whatever sampling plugin your DAW uses should have the same general functions. The idea this time is that instead of filtering out the frequencies for the initial hit sound or the tail sound, you can use the start/stop points and fades. So in our kick example, the sound that has the click could be faded out or stopped shortly after the initial hit, and the second layer could be started or faded in after it’s initial hit, so only the tail comes through. 

This method takes a lot of messing around to get it right, and with just minor adjustments you can end up with several wildly different drum sounds!

Synthesizers

If you don’t have any good quality drum samples, or just want to try something different and have total control over your sound, you can actually use a synthesizer to create your own drums! They don’t always sound super realistic, but there’s nothing stopping you from layering a synth with a real drum sound. Lots of options!

To create a kick, you can start with one oscillator playing a sine wave. Use the amp to turn off the sustain, and adjust the decay and release to taste. You can get a quick thud type sound, or let it go on for more of a booming 808 sound. Next, if you want a bit more bite on the attack, add in some noise. If you can, route it to the second filter and amp. Copy similar settings for the amp, and use the filter to tone down the noise sound. I like to shorten the decay a little more than the sine wave sound to make it really sharp.

You can use the noise oscillator to make other drum sounds too if you’re creative!

…Or Just Get a Plugin to Do All the Work For You

If you just want good results quickly, or don’t have good quality drum samples, you can always get a drum synthesizer plugin. Kick 2 is one example, or Geist 2. If you’re a fan of Serum, don’t overlook Nerve by Xfer Records either!

These plugins vary in how they approach drums, but they should all let you layer or create your own drum sounds and sculpt them however you want.

Choose your adventure

However you decide to go about layering your drums, make sure you only use as many layers as is necessary. Don’t just add 5 kicks together thinking it’ll make an amazing kick right away. The more layers you add, the harder it’s going to be to mix your drums together, so less is usually better. Watch the video above for a more detailed description of each point.

Action:

Beginner – Try adding two or three kicks together and create your own new kick. Choose one of the methods I mentioned in the video or post to make sure they sit well together. Next, do the same thing but with snare sounds. Make sure you save or export your new sounds and start building your very own custom sample library!

Advanced – Use a synthesizer to create your own drum sounds, or combine the synth with real drum samples. Then create 3-5 kicks, snares, and various percussion sounds. Try adding a high hat to a kick sound for a slight variation too. Again, remember to save them to your own folder!

Question: How have you layered drum sounds before? Did you feel it worked well, or it didn’t work at all? Why or why not?