How to drive your tracks to the next level with customized virtual percussion

So many of our favorite recordings would collapse without their own flavor of boom boom pow—the powerful percussion elements that propel a song at the drop of a beat. Whether you’re creating hip-hop, rock, jazz or R&B, your music will almost always benefit by integrating some form of percussion. But what if you don’t have access to Neil Peart, Lars Ulrich, Carter Beauford or the drummer of your dreams—or even a studio to set up a kit?

Fortunately, a host of innovative technological advances has made it easier to incorporate expressive grooves and fills of every imaginable ilk into your sound. To help lay out the options, we spoke with experts Justin Lassen and Francis Preve. Lassen is a noted composer and remixer who has worked with artists including Nine Inch Nails, Apocalyptica and Linkin Park; he is also the creator of Synaesthesia, a musical project that plays off the work of computer graphics visual artists. Preve is an electronic music wiz and founder of Academik Records. He has produced remixes for artists like Gabriel and Dresden, Dragonette and Justice.

How do you go about getting realistic virtual drum sounds?

PREVE: The first thing is to get a great library of drum samples via download, CD or DVD. Choose a collection that fits the genre you’re working in. Then pick 20 or 30 of your favorite kick, snare and hi-hat sounds and save them to your computer so you don’t have to constantly find them. My two favorite purveyors are Vengeance Sound and Sample Magic. I work mostly in dance music, which I often describe as “fashion you can hear,” so it’s important to keep up with the latest sounds.

LASSEN: If you’re trying to get a live drum feel without hiring a studio drummer, your best bet is indeed drum libraries. The most performable one is DrumCore. They record famous drummers like Terry Bozzio, who played with Frank Zappa, and Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction, playing their own drum sets. They also record them playing electronic drum kits to get their playing recorded as MIDI data—so you can manipulate every aspect of their performances, but still have it played back through the sounds of their live drum sets. It’s a great concept. You can even mix and match between drummers—you can get, say, Stephen Perkins’ drum set but with Terry Bozzio playing.

What do you suggest for hip-hop?

PREVE: When it comes to percussion, hip-hop is in bed with dance music these days, so just about any dance music library will work. Just add a simple sine wave to the low end of any kick drum. That’s how you get that Jeep-rattling bass.

Do you ever use hardware synths or external drum machines?

LASSEN: I have a ton of drum machines—in storage. I don’t use them as much anymore, because software drum options are so good. The Yamaha Motif and the Roland Fantom keyboards are still great. The drums are killer, particularly the Yamaha, which has the drums recorded at 16-bit resolution with 24-bit oversampling. They sound awesome. If you mix and match sounds from external synths with sounds in software, you can create some really interesting feels and textures.

PREVE: I have a lot of analog synths in my studio, and I’m a make-my-own-drums kind of guy, so I’ll sample sounds from those instruments, especially coming from a single oscillator or noise generator. If I’m just working on my laptop, though, I often use the Operator software synthesizer that comes with Ableton Live Suite.

How do you use percussion on

a remix?

LASSEN: For my Nine Inch Nails remix [“The Big Come Down (EMT Remix)”], I had access to dry, unprocessed original tracks that I got to affect and cut up myself. I ran the drums through an iZotope distortion plug-in. With a band as extreme as Nine Inch Nails, you can totally mutilate the kick or snare and make it sound otherworldly. But just running everything through a distortion effect isn’t enough. A lot of industrial bands do that and it’s not unique. I ran each drum shot through a separate filter and processed each one differently. The whole drum part on that remix was about 50 tracks with individual effects on each individual hit. I love Nine Inch Nails and wanted to show my respect by giving their remix some sweet studio magic.

PREVE: On my Dragonette remix, “Pick Up the Phone,” that song had a really strong hand clap. A cool trick for hand claps is layering clap sounds from different sources. Puremagnetik had a free download software version of the Simmons Clap Trap, which is a piece of hardware from the 1980s that made clapping sounds. I used that extensively and combined that with clap sounds in the style of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The drum pattern beyond that was pretty simple, just kick, hi-hat and snare. I also super-compressed and limited the kick sound.

How do you make pre-recorded drum loops sound unique?

PREVE: Try applying filter effects in the recording software you’re using. If you have an autopanner effect that can be synced to the tempo of the loop and then summed to mono, like the one in Ableton Live, that can help you make a loop pulse in a new way, or chop it up. Modulation effects like flangers and phasers are great as well. Just don’t overdo it.

LASSEN: I work with a lot of different programs, and Apple Logic in particular comes with a ton of percussion samples and loops. I like to go through the library and find basic loops that sound cool for a particular song, but if I only keep it that way all I’m doing is creating a demo recording for Logic. A lot of those loops are recorded in MIDI data, so maybe I’ll take the hi-hat MIDI pattern from one loop, snare from another, and kick drum from another and mix and match them into a new loop. The same applies for audio loops. I cut out a kick or snare sound I like, add effects and discard the rest, so I’m basically using that loop as a one-hit. A lot of people don’t do that. They just drop a pre-made loop into a track and they’re done. It’s important to take the time to customize.

Why is that so important?

PREVE: When everybody has the same sounds, nobody has their own sound. Your identity as an artist is the sum of your strengths and weaknesses, and the only way to have your own fingerprint is to combine the two. There are a lot of artists out there who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, but the way they hear something and react to it defines their sound. If you’re not even modifying the presets you like, that’s like going to a French restaurant and ordering mac and cheese.

LASSEN: Don’t do what other people do, and don’t follow the rules. There’s no single right way to do any of this. A lot of times up-and-coming producers and artists think there’s some great technique that top producers use. I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio with Grammy-winning producers, and they’re just experimenting and having fun like everyone else. Follow your heart.

—Michael Gallant

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