A Guide to Percussion

If you’re into energetic music production, you know that percussion is one of the most central parts of your work; having solid percussion will be what will makes or breaks your song. For a veteran producer, there are some very obvious things to avoid or to do when it comes to percussion, but while going through tracks submitted through my coaching group, I noticed some people needed some percussion advice.

One thing I often see in new producers is how there’s a lack of “planning” in handling percussion.

Also please note, you don’t need to do all of these. This is a compilation of everything I personally look into when I handle percussion and sometimes, it might be an overkill.


One of the reason a robot voice sounds inhuman is partly because there is no articulation or accents. Take any language – you’ll hear a certain musicality in words with multiple syllables. Sometimes the emphasis will be on the second part of a word and it might even involve a certain pitch variation. For example, take the word “tremolo.” When you pronounce it, there’s emphasis on the the treMOLo. There are plenty of other examples, but this is to show you that a robot voice would simple say the word without any different emphasis on any of the syllables.

In music, it’s pretty much the same. If your musical phase has no articulation or accents, it will sound dull to the ear and be difficult for the listener to really feel engaged.

In a phrase you can have have accents which are points in your phrase that are slightly louder or emphasized. A good example is in house music where there’s often an accent on the beat 2 and 4 of a 4 bar loop. On those beats, there’s often a snare, clap or other percussive element. The melody often will also respect that emphasis by following it, or sometimes responding to it.

Is it essential to have a clear accent? No, not at all but it does help having something that people will describe as “groovy.” In techno, this isn’t always emphasized, and sometimes there’s no accent which makes the music feel more linear (but that’s another approach). An accent can add a very interesting color. For instance, if your first kick is slightly louder it will give your loop a more “assertive” mood.

How do you plan out percussion accents? Try experimenting beforehand to decide where the accent for a percussive element will fall, and if the melody/bass has its own or similar accent(s); this will help you to decide on the groove.

Tip: Not sure where to start? I often just throw Soundtoys’ Tremolator over a loop and try different presets as a starting point and then tweak my groove in. This plugin is pure magic. You can also use a groove from Ableton’s groove pool, I don’t get as impressive results with it compared to with the Tremolator.

Tip 2: Apply the Tremolator to a loop of hi-hats and do a freeze/flatten in Ableton. You can drag the new clip to the groove pool and you’ll have your own groove for the future.

Call and Response

In percussion–just like in melodies–the call and response technique is very useful and helpful for the listener. Once you have your accent(s) figured out, see if you can have something “answering” the sound that is being accented. In this way, a snare can reply to a clap, which can then talk to a bongo, and so on. I’ve always felt that this concept works very well once you have your melody mostly finished. The percussion can also answer the melody’s call.

Planning out a call and response: I like to have a call and response that is transformative in the track. What do I mean by that? Start out with a strong emphasis on it and then perhaps save a surprise for later on.

Tip: Use colors on your clips to know which clip is talking to which


Often I hear percussion that’s all “on the grid“, which automatically gives the song a mechanical swing. I think that out of all rookie mistakes, this might be the one that makes me cringe the most. Although this is very common with people who use modular drum machines, it’s also very common that people do a fast pass by not adding a groove to their loop. If you think of live musicians, they never play the same sound at the very same timing – they don’t play “on the grid”. Little imperfections make a loop feel a little more human, unexpected, fun, alive.

How can you make your rhythms feel less robotic? When you program your MIDI notes, try shifting some notes a tiny bit before or after the actual grid indicator. I usually do this on claps or hats using a rule such as “let’s do a timing variation ever 5th hat.” Picking an odd number makes things feel a bit more human. When I do this in my MIDI programming, I’ll duplicate the loop on and on, adding slight variations, to the initial variation so it isn’t always the same.

Tip: Ableton’s groove pool also has a timing option and a randomize that can help with that. I’m never fully happy with what comes but it can be a quick fix to a dull idea. If you want something more intricate, try James Holden’s max patch here.


Another great tip to polish your loop(s) with is the addition of variations. Variations can be applied to different properties of a sound such as: pitch, tone, volume, and panning. Adding a little bit of change to one of these parameters throughout the track makes it feel more alive. You can easily do this by using an unsequenced LFO mapped to Live’s utility that give you access to volume, panning, Stereo/MS and even the mono option. Try automating them randomly to see how it feels!

How can you plan out variations and modulations? If you don’t like the idea of giving an LFO this responsibility, then you may draw automation on the elements to give them changes, and then duplicate the envelope until the end of the track.

Tip: Use muti-effect plugins and test a preset to find a starting idea and after adjusting it to your tastes, resample the result. As this is a “wet” version of your loop, you can blend it in and out with the original loop until the end of your track.


If you make a one bar loop and copy it until the end of your song, you’re really missing out on the opportunity to give your song an edge. Repetition in time is common in electronic music, but how about adding a simple little variation at the end of every 4 bars? Or 8? Or maybe 4th and 6th? You get the point. You can add variations here and there as they really help focus the listener’s attention. In general, humans pick up on a percussive pattern and then once they can follow it, will move their attention to another sound. If you include slight variations, you mess up the listener’s expectations, in a good way. But if a sound or pattern changes too often, you might simply lose them. Repetition with balance can be extremely useful.

I’ve noticed that a 2-bar loop in percussion is very efficient in supporting a melody. I know this sounds formulaic, but a 2-bar loop for each piece of percussion gives you a lot of options. Once you set the foundation of the core of the percussion in 4-times-4 bars, you have a repeatable pattern that will not feel redundant.

How can you use repetition effectively? I find that every percussive sound can have 1 main bar and then another with a variation. That’s really the least you can do.

Tip: Beat Repeat is a fun, useful tool for repetition.

Blurring the lines

This is one of my obsessions. What I mean by “blurring the lines” is, there’s nothing that’s more of a turn-off for me then to listen to a track and to be able to clearly hear where the block/clips in Ableton have been placed, with no editing whatsoever. Is this technique wrong in itself? No, not at all. You can get away with it, but it just feels… novice. Enter the idea of blurring the lines; more precisely, those clips’ lines.

How can you blur the transition lines of these sections? With time and patience.

  • Start by cutting out blocks’ edges with Ableton’s fades.
  • Duplicate a channel and then move clips a tiny bit “off”.
  • Chop off the beginning/ending of a block.
  • If a block has been repeated multiple time, try muting one or adding a variation.
  • Try moving a block off-beat to see what happens.


Every now and then I get asked if I tune my drums, specifically my kicks. I don’t, but I do rely on my ear to tell me if it works in a mix. I know artists like Prince would always tune everything and of course his music is legendary. Tuning won’t do any harm, but it’s not always what will turn a bad loop into a good one either. I find that if you do tune your percussion, I would say kick, claps and hats would make a big difference. There’s no good or bad way to pick your samples, but there are some advantages to picking some that will use the whole frequency spectrum of your song. I first pick the ones in the mids and then move up.

Non-harmonic percussive elements, such as some noise-based sounds, will always work no matter what. If there’s a tone/note in the sound, it’s important to consider how it interacts with the main idea. Is it melodic or not?

One thing that can be fun is to articulate the pitch to make your percussion sing. This can be done with a sampler or with a pitch shifter. Some really great tracks have simple percussion “singing” as the main idea and really pull it off.

Tip: Try using a tuner to see if your percussion has a root note and then you can tune it the root of your main melody.

Tip 2: Consider tuning your kick at the very, very end of your song production. I usually play with the pitch of the kick then, as all elements are in place and it’s really impressive to see how adjusting the pitch can dramatically change the mood of a song


How to handle the decay of your percussion is a bit of an art, but when you know beforehand how to use it, then some really good things can come out of it.

  1. I always pick/create sounds with a longer decay by default. To have longer sounds allows me to have different options when deciding on the length.
  2. Usually when I program my percussion, I will trim down the sound to a very short duration.
  3. As the percussion loop takes shape, I’ll play with the duration to find the sweet spot for each element.
  4. I like to have variation on the length of certain sounds as the song progresses. Extending the length of a sound in a break is a great way to create excitement and tension.

Tip: If you have a short sample you love and wish it were longer, throw a reverb on it and play with the decay to add a tail. That’s one of the main uses of reverb plugins!

Panning and space

Positioning in space seems to cause a lot of confusion for people. Let’s keep it short and simple:

  • You main percussion sound (ex. snare, clap playing the whole track) should have strong presence in the mono field, which is straight in front of you. Why? It will have a better impact.
  • Any decorative, supporting percussion sounds that are playing from times to times, can be positioned on the sides.
  • If you use auto panning, make sure it’s only on 1 or 2 sounds max to avoid phasing issues.

Now when it comes to position and depth, I’d suggest to make some sounds that are in front of you, some in the middle, and some in the back (back as in, if they were playing behind your monitors). This can be done by high passing your sounds and lowering the volume. Keep 3 or so in front and then position the rest around.

Sound levels/dynamics

Dynamics create realistic and interesting patterns. While I could write a whole blog post on this, I’ll keep it simple again:

  • Your main “in front” percussion sounds should be at 100% of their gain level.
  • All the secondary sounds should be about 50-75% of their original volume, which will give power to the louder ones.
  • All the minor elements should be a low volume. I like to have what they call “ghost hits”, which are percussion at very low volume to fill spaces.
  • Use LFOs to change the levels as the song evolves.

If you have questions, let me know, as always!

SEE ALSO : Making a hit

Making a hit

The title of this article might be misleading: if you came here in hopes of learning how to make a hit step-by-step, you’re going to be disappointed. The good news though is, I can shed some light on how – based my experience – a track becomes a hit.

I frequently hear people – including promoters, agents, DJs, and fans – talking about hits. What is a hit, anyway?

There are many ways a song becomes a hit, including:

  • Influential DJs playing the song in their set.
  • People having the song in their streaming playlists and listening to it frequently.
  • The song is featured in charts and becomes a top seller.

A song can have different levels of success, but in the industry many people think that if a song picks up traction and/or a reaction when played and this happens regularly, that this particular song is a song maybe worth trying to sell. DJs who catch on to early hits get popular, producers who make hits become more in demand, and everyone else around the song will ride its success…while it lasts.

“Why not just try to make hits then?”, someone once asked me.

Thinking this way implies that myself or other producers are only putting in a sort of half-effort into their work. Asking that question implies that a musician might go into the studio and say “today I’m going to make something just OK, and something that totally won’t sell!” A musician doesn’t decide if what they’re making is a hit or not. Hits are a lottery, and most of the time, they’re accidental.

If you analyze a song that was a big success, sometimes you’ll notice that the track itself is not something spectacular, but that the song’s success was really a matter of timing. It was made by the right person, the right way, at the right time. That person also probably had a good network with all the right elements in it to help make the song succeed.

You can take the biggest hit you can think of, give it a better feel and sound, and nothing would guarantee that it would work again. This is why you see so many mediocre copies of great songs; when people start to understand how a successful song was made, they try to replicate its success.

I’ve said this many times, but the illusion of control usually leads a musician to thinking they can make a hit. This is wishful thinking or day dreaming. Of course, we all think that “it would be great to find success with this song”, but this thought process is actually a distraction from making music.

That said, not all hopes one might have making a hit are bad. Let’s focus on one thing a musician actually can control, which is the quality of their music. There are some rules a musician can start using to make sure their music has originality and can reach a proper audience. Here are a few of them:

  1. Innovate. Stay away from gimmicks but spend time developing one technical skill to a very high level of quality. Try to see who else uses the same tools and see what you can bring to the table that could be new.
  2. Be the same but different. When picking references for a song, examine what characteristics they all have in common that you like, and see if you can bring a little touch of this common thread into your own work to make it similar sounding, but more refreshing. It’s common for many tracks to share some of the same sounds, timbres, notes, and effects, but for listeners interested in something fresh, they’ll look for novelty.
  3. Hook. A hook is what makes a song memorable, and a good one makes it popular and memorable. A hook can be just a few notes, usually something fun and easy to understand, and a hook is a good way to reach to larger audiences.
  4. Have an evolving song structure. Listen to your song and whenever you feel something could be changed because it feels too repetitive, consider adding a new element. Personally, I divide my songs into 3 sections and usually have 1-2 elements per section; this keeps the listener on the edge of their seat.
  5. Keep it simple. Focus on one idea with 2 supporting ideas. Focus on one emotion, one groove, one atmosphere (my music is the opposite of this, but that’s because I’m not interested in making hits).
  6. Keep it short. Hits are often, in the electronic dance scene, under 6 minutes.
  7. Include a surprise. An Easter egg in a song is a good way to make someone think “I want to hear it again just for that one part!” If someone says this, you know you’ve succeeded.

All this advice aside, I personally gave up on “making hits.” I tried many times with my label, my own music, and some of my artists to really push certain songs because I was sure they’d be a hit. I’d say that every single time, I failed. Always. I once invested 1,000 euros into the promo of a song and it was huge flop. For me, that experience was the hardest lesson I learned from trying to promote a hit. On the flip side, I had a few songs of my own that got some attention and with each of them, I never expected that they’d get much love in the first place.

Hits happen or they don’t. You can’t control them. Otherwise everyone would be constantly “making hits” and there would be a shit load of hits out there which wouldn’t make any sense. Hits do happen sometimes, but it’s always really hard to understand why a song became a hit and another similar song didn’t.

The most important thing you can do as a musician is make songs you love and finish them as soon as possible, then move on. The fate of a song becoming a hit is not in your hands, and the process of letting that go is a huge challenge.

SEE ALSO : Balancing a Mix

Self-Sabotaging Your Music Career

I was working on a track and it was going so well; people were leaving me a lot of great comments. I continued working on it for a while but started hating it. I deleted it and blew myself up…I often do.

In many past posts I’ve mentioned that many people work so much on a piece of music that they start to hate it. This was one of the reasons why I previously suggested using the non-linear production technique to prevent song fatigue, and to make sure you don’t destroy your best ideas via self-sabotaging.

So, what is a self-sabotage? Is it the same thing as getting sick of your own work?

When you start hating your music, it’s a sign that you’ve been ignoring your personal limits regarding what you can handle in terms of creative energy. Self-sabotage is similar; it’s doing things that are destructive instead of productive. In self-sabotage, you’re not really conscious of the fact that you’re disrupting your efforts to achieve long-term goals.

Here are a few examples of self-sabotage I’ve seen among clients, peers, and friends:

vinyl records, store, shopping

Goal 1: An artist wants to get signed to a label.

Case 1. An artist sends music to a label or contact too soon. This is something that happens way too often. Someone has a good starting point for a song and thinks its a great idea to upload the loop online, then send it as a demo. OK, so in the event that the label might bite, it replies with enthusiasm but says “hey, the track isn’t done yet.” All of a sudden, pressure comes in. Working on the track becomes a chore and it’s not fun anymore. Once sent again after finishing the track under pressure, the label probably won’t like it anymore. This can even result in burning bridges with the contact.

Case 2. An artist sends music to a label he/she loved years ago without knowing what the label is doing now. “I’m sure they’ll love it as they used to release music like this”, he/she might think, but they might be completely wrong. Do your homework, listen to the latest releases and perhaps get in touch with them if your music feels like a good fit.

So, how should an artist go about getting signed?

If an artist’s goal is to be signed by a specific label, the number one thing they should know beforehand is that most labels nowadays will only sign people they know. I’m don’t really mean artists with followings, but people they’ve been in contact with before. Rushing a demo is by far the best way to make a bad first impression. The most beneficial thing an artist can do is either get to know other artists who are a part of the label or meet the label person face-to-face (I’m serious). It may seem difficult, but it’s by far the most down-to-earth way to become a part of a network and community.

Goal 2: An artist wants more people to listen to his/her music and to build traction and recognition.

Case 1. The artist takes self-promotion seriously but does it by flooding social media with pictures and constant “hear my new track!” status updates, alongside images of artwork related to his/her music. This behavior has the exact opposite effect as intended; nothing is special anymore and people get to a point of simply ignoring the posts and music, even if it’s good, because it feels like spam.

Case 2. The artist sends out private streaming links or Ableton projects and asks people on Soundcloud to leave feedback. This behaviour also has the opposite effect as intended. How can people who are receiving the music know anything about it or care about it if the artist doesn’t talk about it and they have no connection to the artist? I find that sending your music to anyone without connecting with them first is a huge no-no.

So how can an artist get more people listening to his/her work?

When I started diving into the music world and meeting other musicians at events, we would talk about music of course, but there were also some unwritten conversational rules that I thought really paid off. Firstly, avoid orienting all discussion towards music, especially anything related to your own success (eg. releases, gigs, tours), nowadays I might already know about them via social media, and in the end, what does this really give back to other people? Secondly, with non-musicians, talk about your music only if the person/fan asks about it. And finally, the Bill Murray rule as I call it (in relation to the amazing documentary on Netflix). Make sure that you “give” something to your contact by talking with them; it can be a tip, a good laugh, a hug, a confidence…something that will make the talk memorable for both of you. Humans love connection and if you want traction and people to pay attention to you, make sure you pay attention to them first.

Goal 3: An artist wants to tour and play more live shows.

Case 1. Say the artist has a really live great set or DJ skills, practices a lot and when he/she DJs, things go well. So why aren’t the bookings coming? What’s with the lack of returns from other promoters? Well, in many cases, people being really great at what they do is not enough. Artists need a network, and these networks need to be “fed”. This is the part of being an artist that many people dread, and sometimes will sabotage their career via social procrastination. Another thing I see a lot is artists directing all their energy towards a specific person, promoter, scene, or club, snubbing others. This lack of social openness can sabotage an artist when their network gets tired of them, because then the artist won’t have a plan B.

Case 2. Some artists have really great sets but put themselves into a difficult situation by always trying to play a different set, or by doing the exact opposite and only playing the same set repeatedly. In the first case, if an artist always starts a fresh set, he/she will never know how to perfect their live work or how to unleash the real power of their music in a live setting. Conversely, if an artist always plays the same thing, people will get bored.

So how can an artist get more gigs?

The name of the game is networking, and he/she will succeed if they have something of high quality to share. There’s nothing more disappointing than connecting with another artist but not connecting to his or her music, as this will create a very uncomfortable situation. Similarly, if an artist’s work is amazing but they aren’t fun to be around, why would people book them? Artists can avoid this type of sabotage by building networks around people they’re comfortable with and remaining open to anything.

Goal 4: An artist who wants a pro studio to become a professional in the music industry/audio field.

Case 1. The classic case of someone pursuing this goal is the person who notes all the gear his/her favorite artists uses and goes out and buys it all. “If I have it all, I should succeed” is a very common thought process I see people following, and sadly many people end up selling all the gear they bought later on because their skills never develop enough to use their tools effectively.

Case 2. Emulating a favorite artist’s career step-by-step should work, no? I have bad news for you, it doesn’t work this way. A huge part of success and becoming a professional is partly through luck and opportunities. Everyone’s quite different, so one artist’s path to success might not work for another artist.

Then how can an artist become an industry professional?

The advice I would give to an artist who wishes to become an industry professional is: understand what you love to do versus what you do best. Start by understanding your natural talent; invest everything to get those skills to a very solid level and learn to love them, then develop your skills even further. The problem with doing what you love instead of doing what you do best is–though this may sound harsh–you might not be good at what you love. If you have a skill for something and you do it well, that skill set could provide you with the opportunity to grow professionally.

starting a label

Goal 5: An artist wants to finish an EP or album.

Case 1. The artist works too much on the tracks. This will lead the artist to disliking their own work and disrupting the creative flow of music-making. It makes the creative process feel like Photoshopping a model to perfection.

Case 2. The artist rushes the project using shortcuts.

Case 3. The artist starts new songs over and over, scrapping existing material.

How can an artist get things done to finish a body of work?

An artist can get things done by:

  • setting a deadline. This always helps!
  • selecting a few tracks and only working on those, allowing themselves to use material from the other unused songs.
  • taking many breaks. Imposed periods of rest helps productivity!
  • using a reference track.
  • asking for help with mixing! (shameless self promotion 😉 )

SEE ALSO : Social Media for Musicians

More tips about working with samples in Ableton

Recently I was doing some mixing and I came across multiple projects in a row that had some major issues with regards to working with samples in Ableton. One of them is a personal issue: taking a loop from a sample bank and using it as is, but there’s no real rule about doing this; if you bought the samples you are entitled to use them in any way you want.

While I do use samples in my work sometimes, I do it with the perspective that they are a starting point, or to be able to quickly pinpoint the mood of the track that I’m aiming for. There’s nothing more vibe-killing than starting to work on a new song but losing 30 minutes trying to find a fitting sound, like hi-hats for instance. One of my personal rules is to spend less than 30 minutes tweaking my first round of song production. This means that the initial phase is really about focusing in on the main idea of the song. The rest is accessory and could be anything. If you mute any parts except the main idea(s), the song will still be what it is.

So why is it important to shape the samples?

Well basically, the real answer is about tying it all together to give personality to the project you’re working on. You want it to work as a whole, which means you might want to start by tuning the sample to the idea.

Before I go on, let me give you a couple of suggestions regarding how to edit the samples in ways to make them unique.

I always find that pitch and length are the quickest ways to alter something and easily trick the brain into thinking the sounds are completely new. Even pitching down by 1 or 2 steps or shortening a sample to half its original size will already give you something different. Another trick is to change where the sample starts. For instance, with kicks, I sometimes like to start playing the sample later in the sound to have access to a different attack or custom make my own using the sampler.

TIP: I love to have the sounds change length as the song progresses, either by using an LFO or by manually tweaking the sounds. ex. Snares that gets longer create tensions in a breakdown.

In a past post, I covered the use of samples more in-depth, and I thought I could provide a bit more in detail about how you can spice things up with samples, but this time, using effects or Ableton’s internal tools.

Reverb: Reverb is a classic, where simply dropping it on a sound will alter it, but the down side is that it muffles the transients which can make things muddy. Solution: Use a Send/AUX channel where you’ll use a transient designer to (drastically) remove the attack of the incoming signal and then add a reverb. In doing this, you’ll be only adding reverb to the decay of the sound while the transient stays untouched.

Freeze-verb: One option you’ll find in the reverb from Ableton is the freeze function. Passing a sound through it and freezing it is like having a snapshot of the sound that is on hold. Resample that. I like to pitch it up or down and layering it with the original sound which allows you to add richness and harmonics to the original.

Gate: So few people use Ableton’s Gate! It’s one of my favorite. The best way to use it is by side-chaining it with a signal. Think of this as the opposite of a compressor in side-chaining; the gate will let the gated sound play only when the other is also playing, and you also have an envelope on it that lets you shape the sound. This is practical for many uses such as layering percussive loops, where the one that is side-chained will play only when it detects sound, which makes a mix way clearer. In sound design, this is pretty fun for creating multiple layers to a dull sound, by using various different incoming signals.

Granular Synthesis: This is by far my favorite tool to rearrange and morph sounds. It will stretch sounds, which gives them this grainy texture and something slightly scattered sounding too. Melda Production has a great granular synth that is multi-band, which provides lots of room to treat the layers of a sound in many ways. If you find it fun, Melda also has two other plugins that are great for messing up sound with mTransformer and mMorph.

Grain Delay, looped: A classic and sometimes overused effect, this one is great as you can automate pitch over delay. But it is still a great tool to use along with the Looper. They do really nice things when combined. I like to make really shorts loops of sounds going through the Grain Delay. This is also fun if you take the sound and double its length, as it will be stretched up, granular style, creating interesting texture along the way.

Resampling: This is the base of all sound design in Ableton, but to resample yourself tweaking a sound is by far the most organic way to treat sound. If you have PUSH, it’s even more fun as you can create a macro, assign certain parameters to the knobs and then record yourself just playing with the knobs. You can then chop the session to the parts you prefer.

I hope this was useful!

SEE ALSO : Learning how to make melodies