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How to Tune Drum Samples for Better Tracks
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From compressors to transient shapers and stereo imagers, we have so many exciting tools to enhance a drum mix that it is easy to overlook more basic, but crucial steps to getting kicks, claps, and percussion to sound right. I’m talking about tuning drum samples.
In this article, we look at five scenarios where tuning drum samples will improve the quality of your mixes.
Tuning kicks to the song key
If a drum sample has a long pitched decay, like an 808 kick, there is a high potential for it to clash with other bass elements and instruments if it’s not tuned to key. In genres like trap and UK bass where the entire groove and life of the track depends on a whopping 808 boom, it would be neglectful not to tune drums correctly.
This isn’t much of an issue in styles of music where the kick is short and quick, and neither you or the listener can detect a specific pitch. However, if you decide to use a fat kick to replace a bassline, tuning should be considered as it anchors the entire bottom-end.
It is quite simple to change the tune of a drum sample using your DAW’s transpose option, either on the audio itself or in a sampler. The trickier part is determining what the pitch of the drum is and what it needs to be changed to.
The pitch detector in Melodyne is a good bet for the first part—all you have to do is feed in the kick signal and it will display the note of each hit, just like a vocal correction session. If this isn’t an option, many DAWs have a spectrum analyzer that displays the corresponding note for a fundamental frequency. Learn more about how Melodyne 4 essential works below:
Once you know the kick drum note, the next step is to match it to a note in the key of your track. For example, if you are writing in C major, it should be one of the white keys. It's a good idea to shift the kick to the closest possible note, as drastic pitch shifting can introduce wonky artifacts and sound unnatural.
For years, I layered samples from various sources to create kicks. While this is a reliable approach, I recently became more interested in synthesizing kicks from scratch, and have noticed a few benefits—for starters, you can either “punch in” the note you want for a kick or slide it to the desired note location with the piano roll.
This is an alternative to the multi-step audio approach, with the added plus of being able to adjust decay, phase, and pitch envelope with ease. If tuning sampled drums is a frequent part of your production process, and you want to save some time, it’s worth going through the process with a synth instead.
Tuning drums for a tighter feel
Many of the famous breakbeats used in hip-hop and drum and bass, like the “Amen Break” or “Funky Drummer” have a tight, cracking sound. While their groove is undeniable, much of the energy comes from the pitched up tuning of the originals kits. Their sound allows them to stand out above other song elements and really carry a track, time and time again.
Following this same logic, to create a snappier drum sequence, pitch up some of the samples used. Trimming decay time has the inverse effect of emphasizing attack and will enhance this effect even further.
Tuning drums for relaxed grooves
Going for a tuned down approach makes drums sound fatter and more relaxed. This approach is essential to music genres like chopped and screwed and vaporwave, which drastically lower the pitch and tempo of pre-existing songs to create a super mellow mood. These are extreme examples but still indicative of what can be done.
For more conventional options, tuning down a bright kick or tom between 50–250 cents will bring out some pleasant sub frequencies that add extra weight to a thin mix.
Using pitch automation for liveness
We’ve put together a few articles now on using swing to improve the “live” feel of programmed loops, but a different kind of humanizing effect can also be achieved through pitch automation.
Small, automated variations in the tuning of an electronic drum kit or software instrument simulate the natural intonation changes live musicians have when they play instruments. Melodic elements are more sensitive to this kind of automation, so it’s recommended to keep within a few cents up or down to avoid going out of key.
The warp depth parameter in our free plugin Vinyl creates pitch variations that range from subtle to eerily out of tune. Learn how this works below:
If the music you make is more electronic than organic, there are still ways to integrate pitch automation. One tried-and-true method is to automate the pitch of hi-hats upward as other song elements intensify during a build, then slowly bring it down during a release. This trick is also used on snare rolls and choppy vocal samples during transitions from one section to the other.
In a DAW or hardware unit, transposing drum samples is one of the simplest tasks to do. But this does not mean it should be ignored in favour of flashier tricks, as it has a massive impact on the feel and groove of the music you make. During your next session, spend some extra time with the tuning dials on your drums and put these tips into practice to execute clearer and more cohesive mixes.