Drum Head: The Power Of Layering

With electronic drum sounds you don’t have to settle for a sound, because you can construct one if you don’t like what you have. I’ll often find that a drum hit is just what I want, except for some small characteristic that wasn’t present in the original. In that case, I come up with a sound that contains the desired characteristic, and layer it with the existing sound. Here are some examples (note that you’ll need a digital audio editor to do this kind of surgery).


The Roland TR-808 kick drum has powered a zillion dance and hip-hop tunes. The original hardware had a trim pot that allowed changing the sustain, and some sample libraries turn up the sustain as much as possible, giving that long, sustaining “hummmmm” sound that fills up a track . . . and also makes the doors of cars with loud sound systems come off their hinges when they’re stopped at intersections!

However, the tail might not be at the right pitch for your particular tune. Or, what if the sample was taken without the sustain set to max? Or you’d like an acoustic kick drum to have the same kind of cool decay tail?

Boot up a digital audio editor, which will likely have a function that lets you create test tones (Figure 1). Create a sine wave at the desired pitch, then add a fade as desired. Layer this with your kick, or for a more permanent solution, mix it with your kick and generate a new waveform that contains the decay. (If the original kick has a long decay but it’s the wrong pitch, then truncate it to the initial transient, and layer that with your new decay.)

Digital audio editors typically include some kind of “paste special” function that allows you to mix two files, as well as adjust their balance. For example, if you want the “hum” in the background, you can set the mix levels with the original at –6dB and the “hum” at –12dB. This insures that mixing the two doesn’t cause clipping. You can then normalize the mixed result for the maximum possible level.


Need a more aggressive attack to make a drum stand out better in the mix? It’s easy to make your own custom attack if your digital audio editing program has a “pencil” tool for drawing waveforms.

Figure 2 shows a transient being drawn in Sony Sound Forge. Open up a blank file, grab your pencil tool, and draw a bunch of short pulses over about a 10ms range. The more pulses you draw, and the steeper the transients, the more “bright” and “clicky” the transient will sound. Save this click file, and mix it in with your drum sound to give it some real snap. As with the previous example, you’ll want to adjust the mix of the two; the click works best when it’s not mixed too high.


Layering two conventional drum sounds can often work well too. I give cymbals more “gravitas” by mixing a cymbal sample along with a different cymbal pitch-shifted down a semitone or two—the composite sound is bigger and deeper. Or, try adding a short white noise burst to an acoustic snare for a more “drum machine”-type sound.

And of course, save all the composite sounds so you have them in the future. As always—have fun!