Thoughts about coherent drum kits

The solution is equal parts creative direction and technical skill. 

In other words, this is like most issues in the home studio[1] – you need to know what you want AND know how to get it. 

On order to create a coherent kit, you need to know what a coherent kit sounds like. As an engineer, this needs to be much more than simply “I’ll know it when I hear it”. You need to specifically define what you want. This actually goes beyond coherence – it’s about your vision for the drum kit including what it will contribute to the mix and support the song. 

As you’ve probably noticed, good sounds and right sounds are not always the same. Simply collecting a snare, kick, hats and crash that all sound “good” on their own doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll work well together and it doesn’t mean they’ll be the right choice to support the song. Don’t worry about finding good sounds and instead focus on getting the right sounds. 

But how do you know what the “right” sounds are? This is where creative direction comes in. This is where you imagine the sounds (often literally hearing them in your head) before they come out of your speakers. If you do this, you’ll find that coherence is not really a problem at all. 

In fact, coherence might be a red herring. When we talk about coherence we often take it to mean several sounds having similar characteristics. In the context of a drum kit, this might mean that all the drum kit elements are short and spiky, or thick and heavy, or dull and visceral, or large and fragile, etc. In fact, contrast in drum kits can also be very effective. A low long kick can be coupled with a short stark snare (eg. Massive Attack’s Teardrop). A 808 kick could be coupled with an acoustic snare (eg. Saul Williams’ DNA, or 2 Pie Island & Flue’s Little Things). An electronic kit and an acoustic kit could both be used in the same song in different sections (eg. Marilyn Mason’s This Is The New Shit). 

Initial choice of samples (or other sound sources) is just as important as appropriate processing. Choice of samples is particularly important and this is where your 10GB of drum samples may be mroe a hinderance than a help. Do you really want to audition a gigabyte of kick drums every time you start a song? Likewise for snares, hats, crash cymbals, etc. You’ll probably find that restricting yourself to ten or twenty good samples will actually help you improve your productivity. Don’t hoard samples just in case you need one that happens to be the “perfect sample”. There is no perfect sample. A sound is perfect because it’s the right sound for the mix, for the song. A sound can’t be perfect for the song before the song exists! Instead focus on choosing a sound that’s most suitable from a collection. Be sasitfied with the sound being about 50%-80% of the sound you have in your head. Bring it into your project and bring it the final 20%-50% using processing (which may also include pitch and length adjustment). Of course, this only works if you already have a sound in your head to begin with (this is creative direction!). If you don’t have this, then no amount of samples or processing will help you because you don’t know what you want

-Kim. 

[1] Traditionally, the producer and engineer are two different people. The producer provides the creative direction and the engineer implements it. For example the producer might say the drum kit needs to be more snappy and the engineer would do that using whatever tools are available. It would be just as out of place for the producer to start talking about comrpession ratios as it would be for the engineer to start coaching the band. In the home studio, the artist is composer, performer, producer and engineer (plus many other roles too!)

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  1. You know, I had a lot of problems like this in the past, when I had folders over folders of drum samples and I literally spent aeons checking through them, as they were not really WELL organized – I am sure you can relate to that.
    Then I had the bright idea of buying myself a Maschine unit. Wow, that was a change, especially since it provides you with pre-made drums kits you can use or just take as “reference”. What I do usually is select one kit I like (especially from kick/snare point of view), clear out the pre-made patterns and build 3-4 patterns I have in my head with those samples. Then I start switching out samples I don’t like with others from different kits, but it’s kinda fast ’cause they are all organize in genre/kind etc and you can just do it on the fly as the pattern plays.
    After I am done with this step I start adding individual effects to single pads if needed, mostly reverb/chorus or a limiter if I end up with something slightly too extreme.
    I am all about devices which allow you to streamline your work, there are other aspects to worry about and everything simplifying your workflow is more than welcome.

  2. @Gabriele Maidecchi (@maidoesimple)
    Sounds like you’ve found a good solution! If you focus on keeping things streamlined and avoiding getting bogged down you’ll be able to move from ideas to realisation much quicker.

    -Kim.

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