Making Electronic Drums More Expressive

December 6, 2013

Sequenced electronic drums don’t have a reputation for expressiveness. Although sampled acoustic drums have made great strides thanks to multisampling and careful programming, electronically-generated sounds—particularly from sources like vintage drum machines—are pretty much “sample and forget it.” However, it doesn’t have to be that way, as there are plenty of options for making electronic drums more expressive.

Modulate the sample start point. To add more dynamics, set a sample start point for the sound you want at the lowest velocity, then assign modulation (usually negative) so that higher velocities move the sample start time earlier. Increasing velocity not only increases the level, but also brings in more of the attack to add intensity. Unlike multisampled drums, this creates a smooth change that doesn’t sound “switched.” At left, native Instruments Battery is shown set up with the sample start point offset into the beginning of the sample, with negative velocity to move it forward for louder hits.

Dynamic detuning. Pitch envelopes can accentuate attacks and add more of an acoustic drum vibe because when a drum stick first hits a drum skin, the increased tension raises pitch slightly. Use no envelope attack or sustain. I prefer a short decay and release, so that the envelope is in play whether I keep my finger on a pad (or hold down a key) or just do a quick, triggering hit. Modulate the envelope amplitude with velocity so that higher velocities create more pitch modulation. You can get away with high modulation amounts if the decay is really short (a favorite Kraftwerk technique on their drum sounds). Longer decays give the old Simmons “dooo” decay that was so popular when disco was king and dinosaurs ruled the earth. (Note: This technique is used in most of the downloadable samples.)

Static detuning also has uses, although these relate more to variety than expressiveness. For example, tuning a cymbal down an octave or more, combined with a little lowpass filtering to reduce any grunge, can make an effective pseudo-gong. Tuning acoustic drum samples up a few semitones can impart more of an analog drum sound, and toms lend themselves to detuning if you want to create additional toms. I like tuning a copied tom way down to create an extra “sub” floor tom.


Additional dynamics with filtering. Subtle filtering can also add dynamics—tie filter cutoff to velocity so that lower velocities mute the drum sound somewhat. You’ll want the filter cutoff at lowest velocities to be at least high enough to give a non-mushy drum sound. A slightly more sophisticated option is using a filter envelope and modulating it with velocity, similarly to the previous pitch modulation technique. 

Create your own “analog” drum sound samples. This requires a digital audio editing program with a pencil tool and the ability to generate waveforms and fades (e.g., Sony SoundForge and Steinberg WaveLab). Ancient analog drums were often based on a “twin-tee” circuit architecture—basically a damped resonantor which when excited, generated a sine wave. Triggering it created an attack, but often a somewhat muted one.

You can model these sounds easily. Create a sine (or other) wave at the desired frequency, then add a decay. Now take the pencil tool and mess up the attack by drawing in some transients or distorting the waveform. (Here, the foreground screen in MOTU Digital Performer shows the kick drum sample; the background shows how the first half-cycle has been redrawn to distort it, with a few spikes added to give a clicky attack.) This will give a strong clicky attack. When used as a sound source in a sampler, you can then process it with the filter and pitch envelope techniques mentioned previously. Another option is to create a sample with a long decay, then use an amplitude envelope to control the decay time. 

Layering click samples over specific velocity ranges. Create a click sound you can layer with a drum (e.g., trim just the initial click/attack part of a drum sample, or transpose a wood block sound upward). Restrict its response to a specific velocity range, such as 125 to 127. One application is adding expressiveness to a “four on the floor” kick drum by emphasizing a measure’s first kick beat with the click. This allows keeping the other three beats at near maximum level, but the initial one will stand out more. This click can also emphasize snare drum and other hits.

Overdrive. Using amp simulations in parallel with drums is one of my secret weapons (okay, so it’s not much of a secret anymore). Although you can get some appropriately crude industrial sounds simply by running drums through distortion, they become far more expressive if you vary the overdrive input, particular with individual drums (being monophonic sound sources, there’s no intermodulation distortion as associated with a polyphonic source). This is particularly effective with kick, toms, and snare; hats and cymbals don’t work as well. For example, increase drive to underline a crescendo, or behind an instrumental solo before the vocal comes back in.

Virtual room mics. This technique adds an organic quality to electronic drums. Some amp sims (e.g., Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig and MOTU’s Digital Performer) include “room mics” for miking the amp sim’s cabinet. Choose a clean amp and bypass the cabinet if you want full fidelity (in some cases, though, the cab can add a useful vibe when placed in parallel), and voilà: instant room. Lacking this option, create multiple send buses with paralleled short delays set to prime numbers (e.g., 13, 17, 19, and 23 milliseconds) and mix in some of these virtual room reflections.At left, MOTU Digital Performer’s Live Room G is shown tailoring the virtual mic placement in numerous ways. It can also add pre-delay, cabinet simulations, EQ, and more.


Parallel compression. Once rare, this is becoming more common as plug-ins include wet/dry blend controls. The concept is simple: Retain dynamics from the dry sound, while filling in “body” with the compressed sound. Cakewalk Sonar X3’s PC4K S-Type Bus Compressor (shown at left) incorporates a wet/dry control (lower right of the interface) to facilitate parallel compression.


Modulation wheel/pedal hi-hat control. The best way to humanize a drum sound is to involve a human. For hi-hat parts, I often use only the open hi-hat sound, and control the decay with an amplitude envelope. Set attack, sustain, and release to zero, with a pedal or modulation wheel controlling decay. This makes it easy to change the hi-hat sound from open to tightly percussive—and some of the in-between sounds are pretty cool, too.

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