Expressive Drum Loops

Drum loops: Boring. Repetitive. Yawn.Or at least, that’s the cliché. But there are lots of ways to make drum loops expressive, interesting, and anything but a yawner.
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Drum loops: Boring. Repetitive. Yawn.Or at least, that’s the cliché. But there are lots of ways to make drum loops expressive, interesting, and anything but a yawner.


One technique is to use drum loops without cymbals. Then mic some cymbals, set up to do an overdub, and play the cymbal part. Not only will the cymbal’s sound provide a richness that’s difficult for a sample to provide, you can add variety to the loops by using real cymbals.


There’s a reason why drum loop libraries often include individual drum hits: Set up another track adjacent to the track containing the loop, and drag in some additional snare or kick hits. The occasional off-beat hit can liven up a part by adding an element of surprise, or increasing emphasis as needed.


Multitrack drum libraries, such as those from Discrete Drums, require a little more work to apply than standard drum libraries — but the results are well worth it. One of the biggest advantages is that because individual drums are on separate tracks, it’s easy to add dynamics to just one sound. You can also add timbral changes, such as pulling back a bit on the snare’s treble during quiet parts, then increasing it a shade when you want the part to cut a little more.

Another option involves altering the room mic levels to complement the song. To make the sound bigger, bring up the room mic tracks a bit; reduce them for a more intimate sound.

Furthermore, you can use a program like Drumagog 4.0 ( to replace particular drum sounds, such as the kick or snare. Drumagog works by detecting when a drum hit occurs, then generating a trigger to play a different drum sound. Assuming separate source tracks, replacing sounds is usually easy.

Finally, you can shift track timing: Lag the snare track a bit behind the beat to create a more loose, laid-back vibe, or push the snare a bit for a more insistent “feel.”


Programs like Adobe Audition and Wavelab 6 can cut specific frequency and amplitude ranges. Use this function to remove the kick part from a loop while retaining the other drum sounds, then overdub a kick part with more variations and interest. I’ve also been able to remove some percussion sounds, like triangle and clave — you’d never know they were ever there.

This technique is not a panacea; it pretty much demands a dry loop, as reverb is such a diffuse sound it’s hard to pin down and remove. Otherwise, this type of editing can be extremely effective.


Chopping a loop into pieces and rearranging them can work wonders. For example, cut a 16th note from the loop’s beginning, then paste it in for the two 16th notes that precede the loop. While you’re at it, draw in a level curve so they build up to the loop itself (Figure 1). The end result is a seductive lead-in.

You can also chop internally to the loop; for example, swap the 2nd and 3rd beats to add some variation. Or, “intensify” a part by chopping an eighth note hit in half, throwing away the second half, and repeating the first part twice (Figure 2). In this example, you get two 16th note hits instead of a single 8th note hit.


If you’re using REX or Acid-compatible loops (and their “stretch markers” are placed properly), you’re in luck because they’ll follow reasonable tempo changes. Real musicians simply do not maintain a rock steady tempo — not necessarily because they can’t, but because they manipulate the “groove” to add emotional impact. Pulling back the tempo a bit can help emphasize the vocals in a sensitive verse, while speeding up a little bit provides the rhythmic equivalent of modulating upward by a semitone.


Dynamically varying the drum loop levels and timbre via host automation can help restore some of the dynamics that are taken away by repeating a loop over and over again. Even better, assign some of these parameters to a hardware control surface so you can manipulate the dynamics in real time, and do a “performance.”

So are we grooving yet? You should be if you’ve taken the above tips to heart. It takes some extra effort to make a loop really shine, but when you hear how these techniques can make a tune come alive, you’ll make that effort.