Write Powerful Percussion for Your Music
Do you want to write music with powerful percussion? Do you want your drum grooves and percussive parts to have a bold and full sound?
You will Learn about
- The Power of Range
- The Power of Stereo
- The Power of Depth
- The Power of Contrast
Plus my Power Tips on
- Layering & Stacking
- Amp up the Power
- Side-chain Compression
My name is Mike, founder of professionalcomposers.com, music composer and sound designer since 1998, old school nerd, and coffee addict. Let’s level up your skills, right now! =)
The Power of Range
The golden guideline for a full sound, is to increase its range in the stereo field. The more frequencies that are present in your complete percussion section, the bigger, bolder and more powerful it will feel.
The Drum Kit sets the Standard
Let’s take a look at the classic drum kit. It can differ slightly depending on the kit, but the most common parts are: Kick Drum, Toms, Snare Drum, Hi-Hat, Ride Cymbal, and Crash Cymbals.
The classic setup of a drum kit has been developed to have a full and complete sound. The kick drum takes care of the lowest accents, the toms are also in the lower to lower mids of the frequency range.
The snare drum is in the warmer mid-range zone. And of course the hi-hats and cymbals bring the higher frequencies into the percussion mix.
Create your Percussion Group for a Full Sound
It doesn’t matter what kind of drums and percussion instruments you use in your drum mix. You need the individual parts to be able to cover the full range of the frequency spectrum together.
Think of the classic drum kit when you create your percussion group in your DAW, and add the individual parts into the percussion section.
You need to cover the lows, the mids and the highs. And don’t be afraid of layering, and having several types of percussion per range.
Write for the Full Frequency Range
Next, it is a matter of writing percussive parts in your music that includes all the layers of percussion.
It is easy to focus on the low-end because it sounds most powerful on its own. But make sure the percussion parts you write includes percussive hits and sounds in all frequency ranges: lows, mids and highs.
The Power of Stereo
Nothing will sound truly full if it is completely in mono. That is why you should make sure to also cover a wide range of the stereo field to make your percussion mix more powerful.
Focus vs Wide
The general guideline I follow is: the lower the sound, the more focused I it should be in the middle. So panning, stereo widening effects like reverb etc. should be used more heavily in the higher pitched sounds.
The main low percussion accents, like the classic kick drum, or low taiko drums etc. should generally be completely in the middle of the stereo field. Toms can often be panned slightly from left to right.
Snares and claps are generally in the middle since they are often used as accents. However, other mid-range percussion can absolutely be panned to cover a wider stereo field. Like hand drums, ethnic percussion etc.
Cymbals, hi-hats, shakers, sticks, clicks and other high range percussion can be very wide, covering more of the left to right range of the stereo field.
The Full Percussion Mix in Stereo
Your mission is to design your drums and percussion mix with a full stereo field, but still have the accents and low-end more focused. This will give you the power of focus, with the full and complete sound of a wide stereo field.
The Power of Depth
Using reverb and room depth to your advantage can be a great way to increase the 3D depth and range of your percussion mix.
Close to Far
It all comes down to placing the instruments and sounds in your percussion group in a deeper field within the room and depth range, from close to mid to far.
If you want a sound to be super focused, crisp and tight, you use as little room tone as possible. And if you want a percussion part to sound distant and deep, you use lots of reverb on it.
How deep you make your 3D space of your percussion depends on genre and style. But regardless of style, you can still have variation in the depth field. For example, you might want to have your kick drum and low percussion accents closer, your toms further into the room, your cymbals way back in the room, and so on.
When you use the close to far range to your advantage, you will add a new dimension to your percussion mix that will make it more powerful by adding this range in depth.
EQ and Filters
By nature, high frequencies and the very lowest frequencies fades a lot faster than the mid-range the farther the source is from you.
You can use this to your advantage when placing your percussion parts in your mix. Simply use creative EQ’ing and filtering, for example reducing the low-end and the high frequencies of a sound, if you want to push it back in the depth field.
The Power of Contrast
When writing a powerful percussion performance, you should take advantage of contrast in the dynamics. Meaning more variation in the loudness range of the drum and percussion hits.
Nothing will sound really powerful if it is overused. For example: an explosion will not sound as powerful after a full series of explosions, compared to an explosion with silence before it.
Another analogy is when you write a piece of text, the words you mark in bold will be more powerful than the plain text. But if everything is bold, then it looses its meaning.
Make sure that you make your accents bold, so that anyone listening to your percussion mix can immediately hear which hits are the accents. Generally the main accents are the lowest percussion instrument, as well as things like cymbal crashes, stomps, claps etc.
You can do this by making your accents be played much louder than the other notes. But you can also use stacking and layering drums and percussion hits to make your main accents even more powerful.
Contrast in the Rhythms
You can have contrast and variation in the very rhythmic patterns as well. The range can go from a super simple beat, to a complex rhythm with lots of parts.
Make use of your entire percussion group to create contrast in your overall percussion mix. The range can go from one single drum playing, all the way to the entire percussion section.
Power Tip 1 – Compress the Dynamics
If you want to push the overall level of your percussion mix, you can add compression to it. How much you add depends on how much of the dynamics you want to keep, but generally you can get away with much more compression on percussive sounds than melodic parts and harmonies.
Best of Both Worlds (Parallel Compression)
One thing I recommend and use a lot personally, is parallel compression. Basically it is to mix a heavily compressed signal, with a dry non-compressed version of your percussion mix.
Many compressors have a parallel mode built into it. Often it is simply a knob that you can dial in the balance between compressed signal and the dry signal.
The main advantage with parallel compression is that you can get the best of both worlds. Meaning the loudness and power of the compressed signal, with the air, depth and dynamics of the dry signal.
As a general guidelines you can use much heavier compression on the compressed signal when using parallel compression, compared to classic compression.
Power Tip 2 – Amp up the Power
Saturation and distortion are classic ways to add more power and rich harmonics into any sound. Just like you do with an amp on an electric guitar to make it mean and dirty, and really powerful compared to the clean tone.
Saturation on the Full Mix
One way is to add harmonic saturation to the full percussion mix. But you should be careful with this, and I recommend starting with a very light type of harmonic distortion. Like for example tape saturation.
Another guideline I have for you regarding distortion and saturation, is that you can get away with more on the mid frequencies. That’s why I recommend you use filtering on the saturation plugin to avoid making the lows muddy, or destroying the clarity in the highs.
Saturation on Single Instruments
You can also try adding a distortion or saturation plugin on individual drum parts, like the kick drum or low percussion parts.
This will change the tone radically, and again, I recommend filtering the distortion plugin to make sure the sub bass and deepest frequencies are still clean and focused.
Power Tip 3 – Sidechain Compression
One of the essential ways to make the low percussion cut through in the mix even when the bass instruments are playing, is with sidechain compression.
How Sidechain Compression works
It is actually quite simple. A sidechain compressor is just like an ordinary compressor, with one exception. It listens to another input signal to activate compression on the channel it is placed on.
Most often you want the kick drum and low percussion to be heard on every single drum hit. But they will always fight with other low-end instruments.
Here is how you can solve this with sidechain compression. Add a compressor with sidechain capability as an insert effect on the bass group bus. You then assign the drums and percussion group as the sidechain input.
Next you use the sidechain filter option to tell the compressor to only listen to input in a certain frequency range, let’s say below 120Hz.
Finally you simply dial in the compressor settings to decide how much the bass group will be compressed. You can solo a section with the drums and bass groups playing, and watch how the gain reduction meter changes as you dial in the compressor settings.
The more you add, the more the compressor will start to “pump” the levels of the bass group, compressing it more the higher the signal is on its sidechain input.
Now take action and learn by doing. Go ahead and practice the tips, tricks and concepts you have learned. Make your next music production have a powerful percussion mix.
My name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist, video creator, coffee lover, and true nerd…
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