There aren't many of us who produce beat based music who don't crave a bigger, badder drum sound. Although producing monster drums is often the audio equivalent of slight of hand, getting the illusion right is essential if you want your new drum track to sit well in your mix.
Let's run through a few techniques here for creating bigger drum sounds. Of course this is a definitive guide, so as always feel free to contribute your own tips and tricks in this area. Also please note that these techniques do not require the specific DAW or plug-ins used in the examples and should be easily translated to your own set up.
Step 1: Tape and Tubes
One simple and effective way to increase not only the apparent power of your drum track but also the perceived volume, is to use some form of saturation. Simply put saturation is very mild distortion and is mainly used to add 'colour' and 'character' to a sound. These qualities are usually associated with the hard ware devices many saturation processors are modelled on.
In many ways saturation behaves like run of the mill dynamics processors such as limiters and compressors. Dynamic range can be heavily reduced, peaks clipped and volume increased but there is a cretin crunch that is delivered by saturation that many of these other methods don't offer.
This is many due to the fact they mimic traditional tubes and tape based devices. This recreation often involved using soft clipping or holdback distortion, some saturation plug-ins even introduce the noise and random characteristics the original devices were famous for. All in all saturation can be your friend when it comes to drum processing.
These processors are often extremely simple to use and feature few controls. So when your looking for something to add a bit of volume and attitude to your drum track, this could quite literally be the quick fix your after. As most saturation effects are reasonably subtle and non destructive they can often be safely strapped across the whole drum buss.
A drum loop is treated using Propellerhead Scream 4's tape algorithm.
If you are not fully up to speed with saturation and the sort of plug-ins that can be used there is a tutorial on the subject here: How to Use Saturation Effectively.
A basic dry untreated drum loop.
The loop after being fed through the Scream 4 tape setting.
Step 2: Parallel Magic
Another sure fire way of pumping up your drum sound is to use parallel processing. Parallel processing involves creating a duplicate stream of your audio and processing the duplicate with any plug-in your like. The advantage of parallel routing is that you have a finer amount of control over the mix of the wet and dry signals. This technique also allows you to mix pretty extreme effects without destroying the character of the original audio stream.
Parallel processing is usually associated with compression and of course this works very well but parallel processing busses can be used for just about any effect you can think of. A distorted signal for example, can be mixed underneath your original drum track to add some serious edge, while maintaining punch and clarity.
Parallel processing is a great way to create denser, louder drum tracks. So for those of you looking for a little more edge but who demand absolute control this could be the route to take. Again there are a few tutorials from me on the site dedicated to the technique of parallel processing. You can find one of them here: Create a Parallel Compression Bus in Logic Pro 8 .
Traditional parallel compression being performed in Record.
Our drum loop after parallel compression.
Step 3: Gated Power
Gates are perhaps not the first plug-in you think of when trying to improve your drum track but they can play a pretty important role when applied correctly. First up gates can be used for creating that huge Phil Collin's drum sound circa 1985. This is actually achieved through the use of gated reverb.
Gated reverb is simply any reverb with a noise gate applied to some part of the signal path. This tends to create an almost synthesised sound, larger than life effect. It worse very well with large reverbs, the gate is then used to cut the reverb's 'tail' early, creating the artificial quality these effects are famous for.
These gated effects are mainly used when we want to apply a large reverb to a drum track without the wash or tail that these effects usually come with. This allows the drum track to breathe and the all important dynamics aren't masked by the reverbs afterglow. Of course the effect isn't for everyone as it can be a little Miami Vice in nature!
One of the RV7000's excellent gated reverb pre-sets.
Another use for gates when processing your drum tracks doesn't really relate to getting a 'larger' sound but is useful none the less. With a standard noise gate placed at the start of your drum buss, you are able to catch the peaks of the whole drum part and decide how much signal is allowed to pass through. This means you can reduce the level of any unwanted effects noise or mic bleed in-between the main transients. Although this actually makes your drums tighter by then feeding the result into a compressor or saturator you are able to achieve higher perceived levels.
The drum loop with some gated reverb applied.
Step 4: Going Wide
To the average listener wide stereo sounds are immediately impressive. Of course in reality too much stereo treatment and / or too many stereo sounds in a mix can reduce punch and overall clarity. Saying this a few well placed stereo elements in our drum track and a well thought out sound stage can give the impression of depth and size.
Try enhancing a percussion loop or split it onto two tracks, hard pan them and delay one side very slightly. Also pay special attention to the sound stage and pan similar sounds apart giving them separation in the mix. By the tim your finished you should have your core elements in the centre and the more decorative sound spanned nicely across the stereo field.
Splitting a percussion loop into two ad delaying one side in Logic.
A dry percussion loop.
The percussion loop with delay based stereo enhancement.
Individual hits can also be enhanced to add an interesting edge to the entire drum section. Snares for example react very well to stereo treatment and as long as its not overcooked this sort of processing can work really well.
Again for a low down on all things stereo you can check one of my tutorials here: How to Boost Your Audio's Stereo Image.
Step 5: Transient Design
For years now transient designers have been the engineers secret weapon when it comes to the science of huge drums. The ultimate version is SPL's original hardware but there are a few plug-ins out there that do an excellent job of reproducing its sound. In fact SPL have actually started to produce a software version that is well worth checking out.
The hardware transient designer.
The transient designer's role is simple it either enhances or attenuates the intensity of both the attack and release phase of every transient in your sound. Simply put this means you can make things snappier or softer and by altering the release phase you can make things tighter or appear larger.
The new SPL plug-in version.
This description is of course misses out a lot of the theory and as with many of the other steps you can you search for my tutorial on the subject. There are quite a few transient designers about now. Logic and Cubase both include them as standard and there are a few good free VST offerings out there.
Check out my tutorial on how to use transient designers here: How to Use Transient Designers in Your Mixes.
The loop is treated in Logic with its 'Enveloper' and some light limiting.
The loop treated with Logic's transient designer.
Step 6: Layering Up
One of the most simple and effective methods for enhancing your drum track is layering or replacing sounds. Simply adding a layer to an existing drum parts with carefully selected samples can breathe new life into a part. If you plan to do this its wise to use a sound that brings a new aspect to the sound and marries well with your existing drums. Taking your time here is key if you want to create an organic marriage.
If you want to see drum layering technique in detail check out this tutorial: How to Effectively Layer Drum Sounds.
Replacing sounds can be as easy as adding a new audio track or an extra layer to your sampler, mixing may take a little longer. Using filters, envelopes and eq to carve a gap in each sound, you should find that with some careful analyses you should have them sitting together pretty quickly.