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5 Simple Ways to Add Punch to Your Drum Parts

This post is part of a series called Producing Rhythm: How to Add Amazing Feel to Your Tracks.
4 Must-Know Tricks for an Amazing Drum Mix
7 Quick Tips on Drum Loops

In this tutorial we are taking a look at how to add punch, shine and edge to your drum parts. So whether you have a cool drum loop that lacks that certain something or an entire drum group that needs a lift, these simple steps should point you in the right direction.

As with many of my tutorials you can more or less ignore the specific DAW or plug-in I'm using as these techniques are generic in nature. You should be able to easily recreate the results I achieve here by using a similar plug-in your chosen DAW.

Step 1: Simple Gating

One of the most effective ways to add focus to any drum part is the use of a simple gate. I have friends who are producers who literally swear by this production technique. The beauty of using a gate to effect your drums is that it's super quick and leaves the core characteristics of your drum sound untouched.

Simply insert a gate plug-in on your drum group or loop channel and move the threshold all the way to zero. At this point you should hear nothing as the gate will be completely shut. This is also a good time to change any attack, hold and release functions to zero.

The untreated loop.

The initialised gate.

With your gate in this initialised, silent state you are ready to start processing your drums. Slowly bring down the threshold until you hear the peaks of the drum part trigger the gate. Now keep going until the main drum hits are almost completely exposed. You can now alter the release setting to bring the other parts of your loop into focus.

The loop through our raw gate.

The threshold and release are finely tuned.

The loop with our tuned gate applied.

What this achieves is a basic 'cleaning' of your signal. Excess reverb, delay and general noise is reduced and the focus is returned to the main hits. This can be perfect for treating a sampled loop that is perhaps a little busy. Remember you can also use gates to clean up single drum hits that display similar issues.

Step 2: Surgical Equalisation

If your serious about your beats and drum production the humble EQ has to be part of your essential toolkit. Even tiny tweaks here can make the difference between something dull and lacklustre and a full, energetic drum sound. When treating an entire group the real trick is not to go over the top.

The best approach here is to use something called subtractive equalisation, this basically means you are using the EQ's filters to take certain frequencies away as opposed to adding them. For instance if you wanted to boost a loops high or low end, you would actually remove the opposite frequency and boost the overall level. This has a similar effect to boosting frequencies except you should end up with a more natural end result using less processing.

An overhyped EQ setting.

The hyped high end in action.

A more natural subtractive EQ setting.

The loop treated with subtractive EQ.

You can also use this approach to remove very small problem areas from your drum parts. With pretty high Q points dialled in you can home right in on a single sound within a loop. Maybe there is too much cowbell ;) or an annoying click within a loop you what to subdue, try this method it can be very effective.

Thinking about your sequences carefully can really help during the mixing process.

Step 3: Easy Compression

Another great tool for bringing out the nuances of your drum parts is compression. Again, it really pays to go easy here and not overcook things. This is basically buss compression and when you are treating large groups of instruments or entire loops you should always use subtle settings.

A pretty moderate compressor patch is applied to our loop.

The loop is lightly compressed.

Try strapping a good quality compressor across a complex and dynamic drum loop. Dial in 3-4 dB of gain reduction with reasonably slow attack and release settings. Even this sort of subtle treatment should help bring out the quieter elements of such a loop and reign in any wayward peaks.

Step 4: Transient Design

A quick and simple way to add real punch to your drum sound is to use a transient designer (or shaper). These deceptively simple processors can become your secret weapon when mixing any form of percussion. Quite a few DAWs now feature transient designers but the best plug-ins for the job are currently made by third party companies.

An SPL transient designer adding attack and sustain effects

The loop is treated to both attack and sustain enhancement.

The undisputed king of the transient designer is SPL and their excellent algorithms are available as both native and DSP driven plug-ins. The two controls can increase (or decrease) both the attack and release phase of a sound, giving a drum part more snap, extra room sound or even a shorter more aggressive tone.

The same SPL removing some sustain from the loop.

With the sustain setting reduced we get a similar effect to the gating we saw earlier.

Step 5: Saturation and Distortion

A great way to add instant grit and attitude to your drums is the use of some flavour of distortion. Of course there is a huge range of sounds you can achieve here from warm tube like saturation, to complete sonic destruction and everything in between. I tend to find the former works very well when treating entire drum parts.

Logic's Bitcrusher creating a nice saturation effect

The soft clipping adds warmth and grit to the loop.

Try a tube or tape emulation strapped across your entire drum buss and you might be quite surprised by the energy that can be injected to your sound. This simple treatment can go a long way, while more powerful distortion effects might be btter left for individual sounds and parts.

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