Last Updated on October 8, 2016 by Andrew Culture
A little sample manipulation and processing can help create your perfect drum loop. We wield the scissors and the paste pot…
Drum tracks form the core of many modern songs. While there are thousands of off-the-shelf drum loops and samples, you may still not find exactly what you’re looking for. You may have a loop with a great kick drum but prefer the snare from another loop. Maybe you like the sounds in a loop but the groove isn’t quite right. And if you do chance upon the perfect loop, you still need more patterns for the intro, fills, verse and so on.
In this feature we’ll see how to create your own loops and modify existing ones to create the exact sounds and grooves you need. The principles we discuss can be applied to any type of music.
If you know the exact drum patterns and drum sounds you want for your drum track then you’ve a head start on the rest of us. Your task is to select suitable drum samples from the three million available on the Net and CD – or record your own – and assemble them into your perfect track. This is often easier said than done.
Let’s look at the sound of the drum samples first of all. You usually want the drum sounds to have a cohesion within the drum track; in other words the drums should sound like they fit together, are part of the same drum set and were recorded in the same environment.
If you are going to pull together samples from several different sources, they may not have this cohesion although, to a large degree, this depends on what you want from your drums, and on your music sensibilities.
The main problem tends to be with drum samples that have had effects such as reverb added. A dash of reverb can make a single snare shot sound wonderful but if you try to use it in a pattern with other drums it may not fit. For example, you may need to cut into the reverb with another drum hit, or the ambience on the snare will not fit the ambience of the other drums. So when choosing individual drum samples, you will usually achieve more cohesion by using ones with no effects – they are, after all, easy enough to add later.
Mix and match
Also, you generally want the drums to sound like they came from the same stable. This may be a little subjective – you could probably mix and match drums from different makers’ physical drum kits without too much brouhaha but the scope for mismatching is much greater with samples.
It’s easy to pick a collection of drums you really like only to find that the snare is too low, perhaps, for the kick drum, or the cymbals ring too much for your Dance track. In any event, whenever you find a sample you like, store it for future use. To get a feel for the drums in context, put them together in a pattern and see how they sound. We’ll do this in a moment but first let’s consider the cohesive problem with loops.
Ready-made sample loops are self-contained drum patterns generally made up from a cohesive set of drums, sometimes complete with effects. The problem here is that you find a great loop for the chorus but what about the verse, the intro, the middle eight and the fills? Unless the loop comes from a sample CD continuing all the ‘extra’ bits created from the same samples then you may struggle to find other sample loops in the same vein to fit other sections of your song. We see how to do this shortly, too, but first let’s see how to create your own drum patterns from individual samples.
Voice of the machine
There are two ways. The first is simply to drop individual samples onto tracks in a sequencer to create a drum pattern. This can be fiddly as you could well be working with snap values of 1/32nd of a beat – or less! – which also makes it tricky to experiment by changing the samples or, indeed, the pattern itself.
Far easier is to use a sampler or a sample-based drum machine such as Native Instruments’ Battery, Steinberg’s LM•4 or Fxpansion’s DR-008. Load in the samples and play them from a MIDI keyboard. Playing live gives you a particularly good feel for the sounds, even if you can’t quite master the pattern you eventually want to use.
Alternatively and in addition, you can create MIDI drum patterns in a sequencer and use them to trigger the samples in the sampler or drum machine. If you do this, when you load new samples you will, of course, have to ensure that drums of the same type go into the same slots so the snare drum line isn’t suddenly being play by a hi hat.
Using a sampler in this way allows you to quickly and easily audition many samples, see how they work together, and save any collections of drum sets that you think are interesting and worth keeping.
The drum tracks for many types of music sound better if you add a splash of reverb. This is easy to do if you’re playing a virtual sampler or drum machine through a sequencer, for example – simply add the reverb at the output stage. Again, this helps you appreciate what the final sound might be like.
A peg to hang your loop on
Although you can record your own samples and make your own drum loops, most people probably start their search for good loops with a walk through sample city – loop CDs – in the hope of finding something ready-to-go off-the-peg. If the question of originality bothers you, worry not because you can still customise commercial loops to add your own musical stamp to them.
But there are two potential problems with off-the-shelf loops. While many sample CDs offer a range of loops created from the same sounds – thus ensuring cohesion – the patterns may not cater for all the variations you require. You may have discovered a fantastic groove, ideal for the chorus, but is there a slightly lighter version for the verse, Are there suitable intro, middle eight and ending loops and do any of them contain that magic sprinkling of percussion runs around the kit for the drum fills?
In most cases the answer will be No. And even if there is a selection, you’ll either have to be very lucky or very easily pleased to find so many patterns which slot perfectly into your song.
The second problem is that the groove may be superb but one or two of the drum sounds are not ideal. If only you could change them.
Well, you can with the aid of software known as beat slicers. These divide a loop into its individual hits and allow you to perform such miracles on them as was never before imagined prior to the development of digital editing.
The drummer and the song…
Most songs are divided into sections such as intro, verse, chorus, middle eight and outro. You will probably want slightly different drum patterns for each section (although the outro could be an extension of the chorus, for example). In addition, there’s usually a drum fill between sections to ‘lead’ the transition into the next section, and there may be a smaller fill every eight or maybe four bars. This is mainly to break up the pattern and add interest. The small fills can be as simple as adding one extra hit to the main pattern.
In addition to that, you might also want to vary the verse or chorus patterns as you move through the song so the verse 2 pattern, for example, may be a little bit busier than the verse 1 pattern and so on.
Also, remember that drum patterns do not have to be one bar long. Many are two bars long and some are four bars long. All this adds interest to the drum part so, when working out how many different drum patterns your song requires, you may find you need more than you first thought.
You can use a sequencer or audio editor to create the patterns but you may find the process easier with a beat slicer.
Slice and dice
The first beat slicer was probably Steinberg’s ReCycle, developed by Propellerhead. Other programs you should look at include Button Productions’ Zero-X BeatCreator and Native Instruments’ Intakt.
Using ReCycle as our example, the program looks for peaks in the audio waveform and positions markers at those points. As software is not yet intelligent enough to be able to extract individual drum sounds from an audio file, the program is simply marking ‘hit’ points rather than individual drum sounds but this, as they say, is near enough for jazz.
You can change the sensitivity of the peak selection, add and remove markers manually (for those quiet hits the program will inevitably miss) and you can lock markers into position to make sure specific hit points are not removed.
Once a loop has been sliced into its component hits, they can be moved, edited and processed in all manner of ways.
One of BeatCreator’s most interesting and addictive features is the ability to rearrange the slices – and the most oft-used button in this section is undoubtedly the one marked Random. It’s amazing how many musical and downright groovy grooves can be created simply by shuffling around the existing hits in a drum pattern. Not all hit the mark – sorry! – but it would be surprising if you didn’t discover a least a couple of good alternative loops with this method.
You can also move slices manually, taking the element of serendipity out of the hands of the muse, and there are options to mute slices and replace them so you have a lot of control over the loop creation process.
BeatCreator has several other excellent features such as the PCP (Pattern Controlled Processor) which lets you apply a range of filter, EQ, overdrive and reverb effects to the slices. The Slice Processor processes each slice individually, applying various filter controls to them, and it has the all-important Random button, too.
Virtually all beat slicers have a reverse function and you’ll find this in most audio editors, too. You can use it create the infamous reverse cymbal effect, but in a slicer it can be applied to individual slices within a loop which can create many highly distinctive patterns.
While you can slice up loops in a sequencer or audio editor and do your own processing and manipulations, slicing software makes the process much easier.
If you have a busy chorus pattern, you can create less-busy patterns for the verse by muting some of the slices. If the busy pattern has, say, two hits on the third quarter beat, you could mute one or remove them both and substitute a slice containing a single hit. In this way you can create alternative patterns from a couple of loops and maintain cohesion between all the drum sounds. Of course, you can still be off-the-wall and throw in an oddball drum sound every now and again if you wish, to add interest to the pattern.
It’s all about timing
At one time or another you will almost certainly discover a perfect loop that plays at the wrong tempo for your song.
The most obvious way to change a drum loop’s tempo is to time stretch it. To make it play slower, you time stretch it or increase the length of the sample. To make it play faster you time compress or shrink it. This works fine although the sample is, of necessity, processed, both to change its duration and to preserve its pitch. There is another way to change tempo without any processing at all and that’s to use our friend the beat slicer.
When a loop has been divided into slices you can load it into a sequencer and change its tempo simply by changing the sequencer’s tempo. If that sounds a bit implausible, let’s run through a simple example. Let’s say you have in a sequencer a four-to-the-floor one-bar sample consisting of four bass drum hits on each quarter beat of the bar. No matter how far you crank up the sequencer’s tempo, the sample is will still be triggered once and will play for its allotted duration.
However, if you cut the sample into four and increase the tempo, the four hits will play faster because each one is being triggered more quickly – instant tempo change! You can easily try this for yourself by loading a sample loop into your sequencer then cutting it into segments and changing the tempo.
I’ve started so I’ll finish
Of course, this is a simple example and a rather rough way to go about it. With a more complex loop, if you crank the tempo up too high, the start of one slice will begin before the previous one has finished.
If you slow down the tempo there will be gaps in-between the slices. But as long as the tempo is not changed by a radical amount, there should be no problems. However, to help in situations where you want to decrease the tempo, ReCycle has a stretch function which extends the tails of the hits to fill up the gaps.
Some slicers can export files in formats directly compatible with a range of software. BeatCreator can save loops in several formats including SoundFont, LM•4, FruityLoops, Mixman and, for loop creators, the all-important REX file format.
Good boy, REX
With the release of ReCycle, Steinberg created a new file format called REX which is essentially a sample loop cut up into slices by ReCycle. You can load REX files into a sequencer and the loop will correctly play at any tempo you select, within reason.
You can open REX files in Propellerhead’s Reason, principally in the Dr. Rex module designed to process and play REX files.
A growing number of audio software sequencers and editors supports the REX file format and many sample CDs include REX files so you can take advantage of the format without owning ReCycle or doing your own carving.
REX files can be loaded into a sequencer (providing it supports the format) and then you can freely alter the tempo and the drum pattern will change with it. It’s much like using MIDI parts.
In fact, both BeatCreator and ReCycle can export a MIDI pattern to play the REX samples so you can change the order in which the samples play by changing the MIDI notes in your sequencer. And if you quantise the MIDI part, you also quantise the audio. If your sequencer has a quantise audio function you’ll be able to quantise the audio slices directly to create a swing feel, for example.
A moving experience
Another benefit of REX files is the ease with which slices can be moved around. The sample in one slice can quickly be swapped for another sample, although this is often easier in a dedicated beat slicer if you’re still experimenting with the pattern.
But in a sequencer, you can drag individual slices onto different audio tracks. This enables you to do several interesting things. For example, you can pan slices to different positions in the stereo image, even creating dynamic pan effects either with an effect or using your sequencer’s mixer automation function.
Individual slices can be processed on a track-by-track basis or in groups as you run them through the sequencer’s mixer. It’s amazing how much difference a little EQ can make to the tone of a drum.
For a really down and dirty track, add a dash of distortion. For special effects, add echo to a hit. Try letting the echo run on as the rest of the loop plays, and try cutting it short at the end of the hit. Compare the two versions.
It’s easy to remove slices, substitute one sample slice for another, and you can double up on hits by placing an additional snare slice, for example, on a track so it plays at the same time as the kick drum. This is a quick and convenient way to create the range of drum loop variations that you need for a song.
One trick to enhance or beef-up a hit is to add a synth part to it which you can do by placing a note on a MIDI track at the same position as the hit and played by a soft synth. Add a low-pitched bass sound to beef up a kick drum or tom, or add gentle bells to an agogo run around the kit.
The technological drum
Finally, in your search for drum loop variety, let technology help. There are now several programs that create and manipulate loops in all manner of weird and wonderful ways. We’ve already mentioned several including Intakt which can slice and perform myriad loop manipulations, too.
Check out Steinberg’s Xphraze which can not only create drum patterns but also bass lines, arpeggios and melodic riffs, too. And take a look at Groove Agent and BeatBurner.
Some purists might argue the case against the use of such software and that’s their prerogative but then some folks were against CDs and now their vinyl is warped and twisted.
The technology is there to help you make totally new loops from the vibrations of virtual reality, and to manipulate and process existing samples and loops and mould them to your musical vision.