Electronic-music producers exist in a universe of sonic possibilities so vast that it's amazing that recognizable genres even still exist. To one producer's ears, a kick drum might sound like, well, a simple kick drum. To the next person, however, a kick drum might be a sub-basement-frequency, feel-it-in-your-stomach-type sonic boom.
Regardless of genre, whether you are sequencing sampled drums, rearranging drum loops or even tracking live drums, a certain amount of drum treatment is usually in order. That might mean a simple, classic approach, such as applying a small room reverb to acoustic drums, to a more atypical and futuristic treatment, such as real-time bit reduction. Whatever your approach, drum processing can be a fundamental ingredient to achieving better sound, as well as an immense gateway to a more original voice. It's a good idea to get a handle on some basic — and some not-so-basic — processing possibilities.
ISOLATE, ISOLATE, ISOLATE
About a year ago, I read an article by Roger Nichols (the revered, old-school engineer of Steely Dan fame), whose words still reverberate in my young head today: “You kids have it easy these days!” I must admit, we do. Gone are the days of only a measly 4-track tape, as well as the time when, if you wanted reverb only on the snare, you had to accept some added tape hiss because some creative track bouncing had to happen just to make room for the bass.
Enter digital audio workstations, where it's a multitrack party and everyone's invited! Have you ever listened to a record and wondered just how John Doe gets those amazingly fat kicks? He might have a banging kick for starters, but try isolating your kick on its own track and throwing some EQ and compression on just that track, and you'll start to see the light. Now, do the same for the snare and maybe add a little reverb. Be indulgent — after all, you have all of those tracks! The more that you isolate each of your drum and percussive sounds, mixing and fine-tuning each to your liking, the better your mix will likely sound as a cohesive unit. All of the major multitrack software platforms that I have used have their own built-in collection of plug-ins, and a plethora of third-party versions exists for every platform, including quality share- and freeware. If all of this flexibility makes us spoiled in Nichols' eyes, then consider me one of the rotten ones!
BOUNCE TO THE BEAT
Another great aspect of the (somewhat) bottomless pit of digital multitrackers is the ability to layer. This is a simple way to make an individual drum sound stand out more and can also be a magic hat of great ideas. Try taking a snare track, turning up the volume and listening. Now, put the track back to its original volume and instead make an exact duplicate of the track's contents on a new track, making sure that the two volumes are the same. Listen now. Does it sound different than just turning up the volume of the single track? You bet it does. Now, try dropping the pitch of the elements of the new track down by just one or two semitones. That often makes a radical difference in the fullness of the sound by adding subtle (or not so subtle) harmonics.
Experiment by dropping it down a full octave. (This is often much easier to do with software-based samplers or drum-machine plug-ins, but if you're trying this with prerecorded audio such as loops, most multitrackers have basic audio editors built in that can handle this.) Another creative layering variation is to add a strong effect to a track and bounce that down to a new track. Suppose you put a flange on a ride cymbal to give it some movement. If you rerecord (or bounce down if the program allows) the flanged ride and layer it on top of a dry version, the resulting flange may become subtler because the dry ride still cuts through. Moreover, you can now, for example, fade the dry ride in and out while the flanged ride stays in the mix. Or try panning the dry version right and the flanged version left to create an interesting spatial effect. Bouncing tracks, by the way, is an excellent source of CPU conservation because it eliminates real-time DSP.
WATCH YOUR Es AND Qs
Probably one of the most flexible yet fundamental tools for processing is equalization. Proper EQ can not only go a long way toward changing sonic mud into clear mixes but also shape drums like a chisel fashions a sculpture. For example, a track I just finished needed a lot of help in the lows and low mids. In the final mix, the first thing I did was solo the kick drum; then, I homed in with a parametric EQ, centering on about 200 Hz (fairly high in the spectrum for a kick). I also applied a highpass filter at 80 Hz, effectively eliminating the frequencies below. I then applied the same highpass to the bass, this time at 120 Hz to leave breathing room for the kick. Presto! The whole mix sounded a lot better: A ton of muddy rumble vanished.
Percussion sounds (and other elements) can also be shaped with EQ to make them sound quite different from the original samples simply by boosting or eliminating select frequencies. (I prefer eliminating to boosting.) If, for example, you have a ride cymbal or another element that occupies a lot of sonic real estate and you trim the bands on both sides to make a narrow frequency window, you can thin out the ride until it becomes very sharp, like a closed hi-hat. Naturally, every track's elements will be different, so there are no hard-and-fast rules with EQ. But with practice, you can begin to create your own presets that will work many times over.
The array of plug-in processors available and the vast choice of hardware — not to mention the open architecture of select software packages that allows you to build your own processors — make the topic of drum processing far too large to be discussed in depth with just one column. Nevertheless, these examples can serve as a rough guide to achieving a richer percussive sound while inspiring you to explore relative experimental pathways.