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15 Tips for Producing Great Trance Drum Grooves

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It is almost unanimously agreed upon that while seemingly simple compared other melodic and harmony elements in a production, the drums and percussion form the foundation or backbone of most electronic dance music. In this tutorial I will share 15 simple yet effective tips for producing great drum grooves to help you set a solid foundation for your trance productions.

About the List

This list is a collection of tips I find myself using almost every time when producing a track. As this knowledge is from my own personal workflow, this list is by no means meant to be a complete list of techniques that are available. If you have a technique you wish to share that was not included in this list, feel free to share it in the comments.

1. Multi-channel Output

The first tip is a basic but vital one. Programming your drums using a multi-channel set-up is going to not only make entire production a lot easier but will also allow for programming otherwise not possible. 

For my personal workflow I use Battery 4 in an 8Stereo, 8Mono configuration. This allows me to use up to 16 total separate outputs. I can process each drum part independent of the rest with it's own mixer channel strip, while only dealing with one MIDI sequencer lane.

Using a multi-channel setup allows for maximum flexibility with minimal clutter in your project.
I personally don’t like to have a mess of audio clips and sequencer tracks just for the drums. This setup allows for all the flexibility without any of the project mess or potential errors like parts being out of sync when looped.

2. Musically Tuned Bass Kicks

Using a tuned bass drum kick can really go a long way in adding tonal cohesiveness to your production. There are may great drum samples available for free, or you can buy tuned drum samples. 

I don’t personally make a process out of tuning un-tuned kicks, but if you want to try your hand at it, you can download a frequency equivalence chart that shows you the frequency of all the notes on piano. Using an EQ plug-in you can then pitch correct the sample to make it match the note of your choice.

The free drum kick sample pack from Markus Hakala (linked in the Layering Kicks tip below) offers over 500 tuned kick drums. for ease of use I have organized them into folders, grouping them into their respective keys.

3. Listen and Watch

You want to look at your audio as well as listen to it by using any metering utilities you have available. You may have heard people say something along the lines of “Use your ears.” This is true in that it is audio production, and you ultimately want to go with what sounds good or what gives you the sound you’re after; but there is an inherent technical side that requires visual inspection using various metering tools.
Using metering plug-ins allows you to visually inspect your audio for artifacts that may otherwise go unnoticed by listening alone.
One tool I use every time is an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope gives you a visualization of a sounds waveform and is a great way to monitor your drum samples. The s(M)exoscope from smartelectronix is a great free oscilloscope plug-in.

4. Transient Needles

You want to keep an eye out for extreme transients as they can quickly eat away all of your headroom. If you look at a kick sample using an oscilloscope, you can see that there may be what I call a Transient Needle. By "Transient Needle" I mean a very high, very quick transient spike that is adding nothing at all to the sound. Because it’s adding nothing of value to the sound, you wouldn’t know this is here by just listening to the sound.
Amplitude is not the same thing as frequency. Having a high amplitude spike in a kick drum does not necessarily mean it will have the high frequency crunch you are after.
If we run this through a dynamics processor, as is very common in the form of a compressor for example, this Transient Needle is also going to be problematic because unless you use your compressor in RMS mode, which looks at the overall sound level, it is going to be this transient that triggers the compressor. In other words, the part that is adding noting to the sound is the part that is controlling the dynamics processor.

I’ve used the Transient Designer, one of the built in effects processors in Battery 4 to remove the Transient Needle. There is little if no change in the sound, and now you are saving headroom and any dynamics processors will give a better result.
Trimming the Transient Needle will save headroom.

5. Layering Kicks

The next tip is layering samples to help the kick break through the mix. Don’t confuse this with what we just undid by reducing the transient of the kick to preserve headroom. In this instance you are wanting to build up a nice kick sound with both bottom end and some snap to help it not disappear  in the mix.

Just like with tuning, I don't normally make a process out of building kicks from scratch aside from occasionally using a closed high hat sample to add more presence to the kick. Mainly because you can download quality EDM samples for free that are already tuned and layered for you. 

If you want to have your hand at it, Tuts+ author Mo Volans goes in depth on how to effectively layer drum sounds. This is also an easy way to achieve the effect of having a filtered kick during an intro for example, then on a downbeat the bass frequencies are added in.

6. Read Between the Kick

The next tip is to read between the kick. Most dance music uses a bass line that sits between the bass kick. You want to make sure there is a nice pocket so to speak for the bass instrument to sit in. This will help with phasing issues, when is when the bass kick and bass line cancel each other out or the opposite and reinforce each other and clip or otherwise do something unintended.

7. Layering Snares

Along the same lines of layering the bass kick, the next tip is on layering the snare samples. I like my snare hits to have a lot of high end, almost to the point of being noise. To do this I'll usually start with an acoustic snare that I like, then I’ll add another digital style one to it. Then what I'll do is add a distortion to the digital snare to basically turn it into an airy noise hit. 

The character of the noise depends on what you use to distort it, I’ve used basic distortions from the Logic Pro X included plug-ins to a guitar amp simulator to blast it into a distortion noise hit. In the below audio examples you can hear a layered snare soloed and in context of a production.

Layered Snare Solo


Layered Snare in Context


8. Sample Cutoff

The next tip is you can utilize the sample envelope of the plug-in you are using to program your drums to easily give you a hard cutoff when triggering samples. this is a classic effect used on high hats, crashes and how the noise snare in the previous tip is achieved. 

Setting the amp envelope Hold value to 100% and the Sustain and Release to 0% will give you an instant cutoff when releasing the midi note in the sequencer. You can adjust length of the notes to taste.
The crash cymbal using the volume envelope to control the release allows for a cymbal choke style effect, a common technique where a drummer grabs the cymbal quickly after striking it to quickly cut off the sound.
The following audio example demonstrates the above picture showing a crash cymbal using different lengths with the release set to zero, which gives a cymbal choke style effect.

Cutoff Length

9. Clap Offset

Next is getting a clap to sound as if it is slighting leading into the kick drum. Simply offset the sample a bit by positioning it slightly ahead of the downbeat. You can hear the subtle difference in the audio examples below.

With Clap Offset


Without Clap Offset


10. The Haas Effect

The next tip is to use what is called the Haas Effect to get quick stereo width from a sound. The Haas Effect has to do with the fact that our ears are spaced apart, which means that everything we hear has some amount of delay from the time a sound reaches one ear versus the other. We don’t hear a delay in everything because our brains will compensate for delay that is shorter than about 80 milliseconds or so. After that point, we hear a detectable delay.
Using the Sample Delay plug-in included with Logic Pro X is a simple way to add stereo width using the Haas Effect.
If you’re a Logic Pro user, the good news is you can use one simple plug-in to create the Haas Effect. The Sample Delay unit in the Delay category of the factory Audio Effects will allow you to independently delay the left and right channel. 

If you don’t have a plug-in that is comparable to the Sample Delay unit, there are some free units available like Free Haas from VescoFX. You can also do this manually by hard panning left and right the same sample and then offsetting them in your DAWs sequencer. 

In the audio example below, the Sample Delay plug-in is used in the last 4 bars to give the open high hat a wider stereo spread using the Haas Effect.

The Haas Effect


11. Rhythmic Panning

The next tip is to use rhythmic panning to create interest to percussion parts. For example I’ll usually hard pan a high hat sample on each quarter beat and have another high hat every 16th note panned the opposite way. This can help make a percussion part sound more interesting, without having to add more to it and make it overly and needlessly complex. 

The audio examples below use a slight variation in the panning to give a more complex sound, without actually adding any more parts.

With Rhythmic Panning


Without Rhythmic Panning


12. High-Pass Filter

The next tip is using a high-pass filter for both creative and corrective adjustments. Corrective in using a high-pass filter to keep the drums from muddying up the mix, because even samples such as hats and shakers have some low-end content that you want to get rid of. Creative in that you can use them to isolate the sound that you want from samples. For example using a high-pass filer to thin out a cymbal or shaker sample and push it into the higher end of the mix.

In the following audio example you can hear the difference high-pass filtering can make, most noticeable in the higher frequencies because high-pass filtering creates a wider separation between the bass frequencies and high frequencies

With High Pass Filtering


Without High Pass Filtering


13. Side Chain Compression

For this next tip, this is where the multi-channel setup come in handy. You can use an aggressive side chain compression to turn otherwise static percussion sequences into driving ones that help move the track along and give it forward energy. 

Setting up a compressor for side chaining is a slightly different process in each DAW. You can watch how to set up side chain compression in PreSonus Studio One here. The two examples below are the exact same drum progression, the only difference is the compressor plug-ins used to side chain compress the shaker and high hat parts have been disabled.

With Side Chain Compression


Without Side Chain Compression


I usually add a limiter on top of the compressor because without the side chain source the channel is going to be real loud.

14. Top Layers

The next tip is to use Top Layers. Top Layers are loops that don’t have either a kick or a snare, or neither, allowing you to add them on top of your existing drum groove. Computer music can tend to have a mechanical feel and Top Layers can help give your drums a more human or analog sound.

 You can buy Top Layers from professional production houses such as Samplephonics and Wave Alchemy. If you don’t want to purchase any you can also get many great Top Layers for free. If you use Logic Pro X you can also try you hand at creating your own loops using Drummer. Another option is to use a high pass filter and remove all but the top frequency content of full drum loops. 

Listen to the difference using Top Layers can make to an otherwise plain drum passage.

With Percussion Top Layer


Without Percussion Top Layer


15. Atmospheric Hits

The final tip has to do with creating atmospheric hits with drum parts already used in your mix, like a crash or kick. You can and should use a variety of sounds when creating atmospheric effects for your production; but using existing sounds and changing the tonal characteristic with effects processing can help to add a subtle yet effective unity to a track.

I’ve found that using a plate reverb gives a characteristic sound to filtered kicks when making a boomer type sound. Creating a cymbal crash atmospheric effect can be achieved by feeding a delay into a reverb. Having the delay before the reverb helps feed the reverb so to speak and gives a more open and wide sound.

You can adjust the delay or decay time of the effects to lengthen or shorten the effect, but a nice way to make the sound seem to fade into the background of the mix is to adjust the frequency delay. This is sometimes called the brightness or the dampening, which will cause the higher frequencies to roll off as the delay or reverb evolves over time.

Conclusion

Programming drums for electronic dance music can be a mini-production in it’s own right. A lot of consideration goes into making a part of the production that most often times seems to take a back seat to the other melodic and chordal elements in a song. But having a good solid foundation is the key to a great production. 

I hope these tips help you along your music creating journey.
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