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.
- 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.
- Usually when I program my percussion, I will trim down the sound to a very short duration.
- As the percussion loop takes shape, I’ll play with the duration to find the sweet spot for each element.
- 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.
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!