My Guide to Drum Layering

Layering kick drum samples has become an increasingly popular technique used in modern day music as you are able to easily manipulate and process several kick drum samples to create your very own unique kick drum. With more and more royalty free sample CD’s coming onto the market selecting samples has never been easier as you have literally thousands of samples to choose from to find the right one. There are some very good sample CD’s out there such as the Vengeance Collection where the kick drums are already processed and could fit into your mix almost immediately, however due to the popularity of collections such as Vengeance many of the samples have been overused and therefore to bring any sort of uniqueness to your tracks you have to layer samples together to create a sound of your own.

The Importance of Sample Selection

When you are starting music production even selecting one sample to use as your kick drum can be difficult as you are unsure of what sound you actually want, the type of sound that will suit your genre and often you will have no idea if it works with the track or not. Don’t panic though these are all problems I and every other producer has had to face so to clear up we will need to break down a kick drum sample.

Generally there are three parts of a kick drum, the click or the attack region, the body and the tail.

Drum Layering

The attack is the initial hit of the kick drum and is at the start of the kick drum waveform, next follows the body which packs all the ‘punch’ of a kick drum and then the tail which contains the sub frequency content.

Different genres will require different kick drum sounds so before you decide on the samples you would like to use picture how you would like your track to sound. If you want to make a track where the kick drum takes up the majority of the bass you will need to select a sample with a nice ‘subby’ tail to team up with a sample with a softer attack, however if you want to make a track where the bass line will sit deeper in the mix you will need to construct a kick drum sound with more attack and punch to accompany the bass line. The best way to decide on what kick drum sound you need is to listen to professional tracks in the same genre and try to reproduce similar sounds of your own.

My Layering Method

My method for drum layering is fairly simple and I use it on the majority of my tracks. Basically I will choose two or three samples, one that has an attack I like, one that has the snap/midrange that I like and one perhaps for the low-end/sub. All of these samples must hit at the same pitch or they will not harmonize together. I use a frequency analyser such as Waves PAZ Analyser or use Fruity Loops very own Parametric EQ 2 to establish the main peak of the kick drums so I know what notes they lie on. At this stage, I have two or three samples that hit on the same pitch but still combining these samples together will sound terrible. To then make the samples sit better together as one sound I need to use EQ/filtering to isolate the desired frequencies found on each sample.

Using EQ to Isolate the Sounds I Want

I now need to EQ/filter each of the samples to isolate the frequency content I liked from them originally. If it was the attack I liked about a sample I will use EQ to subtract all the other unnecessary frequencies as they will only mask the content I liked on another sample when layering. So, if I have a sample, lets call it sample 1, where I liked the attack but I didn’t subtract the bottom-end frequencies, when I layer this sample with ‘sample 2’ the bottom-end content that I liked on sample 2 will clash with the bottom-end content on sample 1 making the bottom-end sound muddy. By simply subtracting unnecessary frequencies I will leave space for the important parts of the other samples to fit in.

Real Example:

For this drum layering example I have two kick drum samples, one where I like the attack and one where I like the punch. I have assigned each of the samples to their own mixer channel with the Fruity Loops parametric EQ 2 inserted on each, as you can see on the image below.

FL Studio Mixer

They have been assigned to separate channels as I am going to use EQ 1 to isolate the attack of sample 1 and EQ 2 to isolate the low-end punch of sample 2.

Sample 2

drum layering

On Sample 2 I liked everything about the low-end; it was punchy and contained minimal sub frequencies which meant it would work well with my deep bass line. By using a high shelf filter on band 7 I effectively removed the unnecessary high-end content over around 500-1 KHz to create space for the ‘clicky’ attack on Sample 1 when I layer them both. Notice I have only used a gradual band width slope around 60% this is so when I layer the two samples it sounds far more natural and transparent. When we are using EQ on kick drums we always have to think about the bass line, these are two of the most important aspects of a track so it is important that they work together. As my bass line is very deep on this track I have lightly attenuated the frequencies around 61 Hz by 1.5 db to allow the sub region of the bass line to come through cleanly.

Sample 1

FL Studio Parametric EQ

On Sample 1 I wanted to use EQ to isolate the high end of the sample as I liked the snappy attack it contained. By using a low shelf filter on band 1 I have carved out the frequency content below around 100-150 Hz to allow the bottom-end punch on Sample 2 to come through intact. There were also some nasty resonant peaks over 10Hz so to remove them out of the signal I used a high shelf filter on band 7.

I now have two tuned samples layered together nicely without any clashes in frequencies and both are now starting to sound like one whole kick drum. Listening back to the kick though, I want more of the punch to come through. To do this I have to simply increase the volume on the mixer channel until I can hear more of the low-end punch.

Tip: Experiment with the volume faders on each of your sample’s mixer channels as it can be an easy way of altering how your layered kick drum will sound.

Gluing the Samples Together Using Compression

Although my layered kick drum samples are now sounding like one unified sound, I can use compression to further glue the samples together and increase the power of the layered kick drum.

I have routed each sample mixer channel to a new channel called ‘kick bus’ with a compressor inserted.

Using the compressor I need to push down the level of the attack transients sufficiently, so that when I increase the overall level, the decay sounds louder. I will use a very fast attack setting so to clamp on the attack transients as soon as they hit the threshold and a fast release time so to allow the compressor to activate once again when the transient attack finishes. With a fairly low ratio of 2:1-3:1 I am aiming for around 2-5 db of gain reduction in order to effectively create better sustain on my layered kick drum and beef it up.

I now have my layered kick drum sound that fits perfectly within my mix!

This tutorial is my approach to layering kick drums, I am not saying it is the correct way but it works for me and you can use this as a guideline to create your own unique layered kick drums.


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