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Drum Production Tips for EDM

May 30, 2014
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EDM producers are on a continual quest to create powerful, impactful sounding drums. Many producers — from Pendulum to Noisia to Skrillex to BT to Morgan Page and many more — have developed their own signature sounds largely based on the way their drums are mixed.

Designing a single drum sound can be quite involved, making use of everything from filters to distortions to sub-bass tones to high frequencies. Layers are key to the sound design of an effective kick, snare or hi-hat.

PRO TIP: The BreakTweaker Factory Library contains thousands of pre-layered, pre-mixed drum sounds to save you the time. Using these as source material for additional layers can help take your drums to a new level!

Raw sample libraries provide elements that can be layered, and drum synthesizers / samplers can help you out, but how do you go about it? Let’s take a look at designing two typical drum sounds using BreakTweaker, one of which is a dubstep snare.

Important notice: Breaktweaker is no longer available for purchase from iZotope. We are continually developing new products, services, and solutions to enable and innovate on journeys in audio production. We occasionally need to retire older products in order to focus our resources and development efforts on building new, innovative products and features. Support for this product will remain in effect for 12 months from your date of purchase up through October 27, 2023.

Designing a Dubstep Snare

First, it’s important to define the key elements a dubstep-style snare drum should have in order to sound competitive with the general aesthetic of the genre. It should have:

  • a solid low end, and a strong fundamental frequency as part of this. This is because in the dubstep genre, the snare is often more important than the kick. It’s where much of the emphasis is placed, particularly given the roots of dubstep, and the half-time feel.
  • a consistent frequency balance that covers almost the entire frequency spectrum.The dubstep of late is more powerful and aggressive in sound than it used to be, and a small sounding snare centered around just one frequency area doesn’t cut through a mix as effectively as the audience expects.

These elements can each be considered a separate layer that you have to create. Now that we’ve established that these are our layers, let’s design them! The two characteristics are going to be designed using three layers, as we will use a third layer to further enhance our high energy. Each track in BreakTweaker allows us to create and edit up to three layers for that optimum drum sound.

Layer 1: Main Snare

Layer 1: Main Snare

  1. Start by loading in a snare drum sample into BreakTweaker, or another sampler of choice. Typically an acoustic snare with a big bottom end, or an electronic snare with a good, strong low mid range tend to work well. The former yields a snappier sound, the latter will sound more sustained and stronger. "Working with a pre-mixed sample from the BreakTweaker library can be a great starting point. They already sound pretty complete, but can be enhanced further using the very tutorial methods that created the snare sample to begin with."
  2. Giving a little bit of harmonic distortion to the source material will definitely liven it up a bit, especially if it’s tube based distortion (such as the Warm algorithm here), which sounds fantastic on low end material.

Layer 2: Sub Bass

Layer 2: Sub Bass

  1. The first layer is simple, but this one is a little more involved. First, load in a Sine or Triangle wave, and tune it to the key of the song, and pitch it down an octave or two. Tuning it to the key of the song is important, or it won’t sit right in the mix.
  2. It’s important to make sure this sounds like a snare drum and not a melodic synth line. Use an envelope, as seen above, to modulate the amplitude of the synth’s output, so that it dies away very very quickly. A Decay of less than 200ms, and a Sustain of 0 will help out here. Now, as soon as this sub bass synth tone hits, it fades away, meaning it’s presence is only heard and felt for a very short amount of time. This helps the snare sound powerful, as it’s acting almost like a kick drum.
  3. In the sub bass layer for a dubstep snare, add a very large amount of distortion to the signal, even though it might sound over the top to begin with. The distortion can be filtered later, but the strong harmonic adjustment will remain intact.
  4. Use a lowpass filter set to around 1kHz to get rid of most of the high end. This prevents it interfering with the snare sound, so as to focus on the sub bass. Modulate the filter with the same envelope used in step 2, so that as the volume dies away, so does the frequency bandwidth.

Layer 1: Main Snare + Layer 2: Sub Bass

Layer 3: High Energy

Layer 3: High Energy

  1. Load in either a noise sample, or an 808-style clap sound. This will work well to create and enhance a strong high frequency presence in the snare sound. Even if there is only high end information and very little low end, this frequency balance is perfect.
  2. Certain types of distortion work really well for this layer, particularly bright, brash distortions that make the high end sparkle, so add some of those. By adding unique distortion and filter sounds to individual layers of a single snare drum, we are getting a much better sounding, more precise result than trying to wrangle a single sample into the ultimate sounding snare.

The final product, an effective dubstep snare drum, has a very strong frequency response throughout the entire spectrum, as seen in the spectrum analyzer.

Layer 1: Main Snare + Layer 2: Sub Bass + Layer 3: High Energy

Be sure to read the companion tutorial, on making a minimal kick.

These drums were designed in BreakTweaker’s drum synthesis engine. Try BreakTweaker for yourself by downloading a 10-day free trial.

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