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How to Effectively Layer Drum Sounds

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Read Time: 7 min

When you're working with beats it always pays to know some techniques for creating a larger than life sound. Your drum tracks can be pumped up using a variety of different methods such as parallel processing, heavy compression and transient design but sometimes even these can fall short.

A more simple and direct approach is to layer different drum samples to create a fuller, richer sound. If the right samples are used a really impressive drum track can be created without the need for excessive processing. I'll run through a few real world examples showing the technique in action.

Step 1 - Sample Selection and Envelopes

When layering any drum sound, sample selection is hugely important. If the right choices are made here you can often get away with very little processing. To understand why sample selection is important let's take a look at layering kick drum sounds as an example.

The kick drum is possibly the most important element of modern drum tracks, especially if you are creating electronic music. Of course some kick drum samples are fine left as they are, especially if you are sampling directly from other productions. You may find that these sounds don't need a huge amount of processing.

If however you prefer a more original approach and want to create your own drum sounds from scratch, you will find the process to be a little more involved. When using more basic samples and untreated sounds things can sound a little thin and lifeless, this is where layering comes in and it can be the perfect way to create deep, punchy kick sounds.

A really great kick sound tends to have clear attack phase, containing some high end and deep, controlled lows. If you like things a little dirtier you may want to introduce an element that contains some noise or crunch as well. To get all these elements it's often necessary to layer two or three sounds.

The key to layering kick drums is ensuring that each sound used is occupying its own frequency space and that they also have a unique dynamic signature. This basically means that if one sound contains a sharp, bright attack phase, the other sounds you use should compliment these qualities. To put it simply a deep boomy kick is likely to work well with a bright sound with a harsh attack.

Try using the envelopes on your sampler or drum machine to raise the attack of one sound so that the attack phase is being supplied by only one of your samples. The same can be achieved in the sustain and release sections of the samples. Using your instruments envelopes or automation the samples can be individually moulded so that they live together nicely.

The original kick drum untreated:

The original kick with light filtering:

Some mild high pass filtering on the first kick

The second kick:

The second kick with some envelope and filtering:

A low pass filter and some added attack on the second

The kicks layered in Reason's NN-XT sampler

The two kick drums combined:

The same thought needs to go into the equalisation of each sound used but we'll check this out in the next section.

Step 2 - Using EQ and Filters

Let's take a look at a different sound group and some theory on how to use filters and EQ when we are layering sounds. For this stage we'll use high hats and high end percussion as an example.

As you may of gathered by now separation really is the key here. These small differences that define the separate sounds within a layer can be achieved in a number of ways, including the manipulation of the sounds frequency. If you find your self with a high hat sound that is a little weak or thin you may want to layer it with a chunkier hat sound, containing lower frequencies. To achieve this you in most cases will need to reach for a EQ or filter plug-in.

First of all start by using a high pass filter to remove all the bottom end from you initial hat sound. This may seem redundant but you would be surprised how many rogue low frequencies lurk in a sound that appears not to contain any! This process will clean up the sound and carve a gap for a more substantial sound to be placed underneath.

Original High hat sample with high pass filtering

The first high hat:

After selecting a chunkier sound for the new layer, use a high shelf EQ to remove some of the high end. This does not have to be that extreme but enough attenuation must be taking place to allow the original sound to sit nicely.

Second layered hat with some EQ to remove top end

The second high hat:

There are no hard and fast rules to exactly which frequencies should be filtered here, it differs from sound to sound. The main point is that common sense should prevail, some frequency overlap is ok but generally each sound in the layer should occupy its own space.

The two high hats combined:

More than two sounds can be layered using this technique and really interesting sounds can be produced when the qualities of a few hats are mixed together. Try using tambourines or other high end percussion instruments in conjunction with traditional hi hat sounds to create something a little unusual.

Step 3 - Creating Stereo Width

With the previous techniques we are layering sounds to create extra depth or a sharper high end but this is not all we can achieve by combining drum sounds. One very useful application of layering is to increase the stereo width of a sound, making it generally more interesting to listen to.

There are a few different approaches here, the more simple option is to layer two or three sounds (making sure you follow the previous steps when doing so) and simply pan the different samples across the sound stage. This gives a real feeling of width with minimal effort. The extra separation the panning introduces also means that any envelope or frequency processing can be toned down a little.

Another route is to duplicate a sound and pan the two new versions hard left and right. Any difference in treatment to these sounds will now create a widened stereo image. A really simply way to create this widening effect without colouring the sound is to introduce a small amount of delay to one side. Even a few milliseconds can make a difference here.

The original snare in mono

The untreated mono snare:

The snare is then duplicated.

... Panned hard left and right

And finally one side is delayed to create the stereo effect.

The new wider sound can then be combined with other sounds that display more 'mono' characteristics. Layering sounds in this way can give you the best of both worlds, supplying both stereo width and depth. I have demonstrated how stereo width can be added by delaying one side of a duplicated snare sample in the audio example below.

The final stereo snare:

Step 4 - Special Effects and Extra Processing

Layering sounds does not just have to be a problem solving or enhancement process, it can simply be a creative one. Some of the best percussion sounds come from layering sounds that may not be obvious partners. Try layering effects samples with traditional acoustic percussion instruments. Vocal clips layered with drums can also make great percussive sounds.

Making these (or any) sounds gel completley can often be a struggle and even when employing all of the techniques discussed here, you may find that some sounds don't marry completely. To get round this issue try sending the layered sounds through a universal group and then treating them as one.

Using saturation, compression or even small amounts of delay and reverb can really help give the impression that the layers are one unified sound. of course if none of this works you may want to go back to the drawing board and select some new samples!

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