Audiophile Artist Tech Tips straight from some of your favorite artists covering ways to improve your groove and drums in your tracks.
Jay Tripwire (Special Guest)
So what I do to get a groove moving is I follow the ole “call and answer”. First thing is the kick, then a clap, all your hit hats. I then move on to some sub bass tones (pants shittin’ tones). After that I look for all the places that are empty to add shakers, little sounds like percussion, bleeps, voice cuts, and what not. I like to think that it sounds better to have things not competing for places in the mix, and for each little thing to stand out as opposed to fighting with another sound. Panning and use of the stereo field is also your friend to get these grooves to groove. Be creative, be weird, and have fun.
What I try to do with my drums is to make them as clean as possible. I am a firm believer that less is more. When you produce large soundscapes it’s important to leave room for all the other frequencies to shine thru the mix. Be aware of the empty space within the mix as this is where the magic happens.
A lot of times in my tracks what makes the groove work better together is using 2 different types of shakers. Usually I will record one with 1/8th notes and the other with 16th’s. Adjusting the velocity will help achieve a more live feel to the groove. For example, if you adjust the first, third, fifth and seventh note on a 1/8th pattern to be a tad louder then the rest it will create a more bouncy groove. Then of course use panning to place them on opposite sides to make more room in your track. With percussion I tend to move them milliseconds off the grid until I feel them create the human feel I am going for. I achieve this manually and then with Ableton’s track delay if needed. For Ableton users you can use Grooves or if you’re having a hard time creating a groove and need some fresh ideas you can take a loop you like and use the ‘Extract Groove’ feature to form a midi sequence of the loop.
A very common mistake that producers make is that they over process their instruments to make them sound good. Try to have your root sounds already sounding clean so you don’t have to fill the channel with tons of eq’s and compressors, etc. Also, there is normally no reason to use a compressor on a percussion sample because there is not any big dynamics to compress. Sometimes less is more.
A lot of time is put into our grooves, because without it you don’t have a dance floor ready track. A trick we use a lot is to create an FX group on invididual drums and put different effects like delay, reverb, chorus, and whatever else comes to mind in there. From there you can automate individual hits of each percussion differently so that it provides an interesting spatial backing to the track using what you have already in the mix. Less is more so use the parts you have!
One small trick to help add some groove and swing to your track is to bounce a hit of your kick to a separate track and reverse it. Have the reversed kick play immediately before the normal kick hits so it sucks you into the beat. This is much easier to work with if the kick is bounced to audio (versus working with MIDI) as it lets you line the kick up perfectly and trim it right as your main kick hits. I recommend doing this on a separate track so the reversed kick can have it’s low end (below ~100 Hz) EQd down a bit and the level is reduced slightly. This ensures the punch and thud from the main kick isn’t taken away from this additional low end element. As with most things – this should usually be done sparingly, but if you want it to happen all the time then go f***** nuts just don’t complain to me about it.
One way to add a little swing to a record is to delay an entire track. In Ableton, this can be done by clicking the “D” in the bottom right corner of the screen. This will then give you the option to move your tracks forward or backwards a certain number of milliseconds. Track delay become extremely helpful since you can easily arrange your sounds on the grid, and then offset them a tiny amount to give a more humanistic character.
Our personal recipe to achieve a good groove always starts on the kick. The kick defines the mood of the track! Taking the time to dig into the thousand kick samples in the library is definitely worth it. Percussion is my next choice; a simple layer of congas or toms on an 8 bar loop works pretty well. Adding some delay, side chain or even filters help to create different and unique textures. I enjoy using Battery from NI when it comes to percussion, it gives the project that “human touch”, which can also be achievable by tweaking the intensity of each note on the loop (if using samples). By making your closed hi hats in a 8 or 16 bar loop you can achieve really interesting patterns instead of just doing the bare minimum like. I suggest to move parts around and experiment with the groove, letting the drums breathe. Lastly for the snares and claps I like to use the snares more randomly on a 16 bar loop, nothing crazy but subtle in the background. In general I end up with 4 groups: kick, percussion, hi hats and snares/claps, essentially the bass. The rest of the sounds should come easily once the drums are on point. If something doesn’t sound good we try not to struggle with it. At the end don’t be afraid to take some sounds out; sometimes the best recipes have less ingredients, you just need to choose them carefully.
A good way to get instant groove for Ableton users is to use the cmd – shft – u shortcut to bring up quantize settings. From there I use the “1-16 + 1-16T” setting and generally apply 10-30% quantization. This is especially useful on hats and percussion elements as it adds a bit of swing to your track. You can apply this quantization to different midi notes by selecting individual notes before using the command. Another good application of quantizing is the use of various grooves which are in Ableton’s groove pool. You can choose presets or even make your own, but I find that using one good setting on multiple elements in a track will inject groove and give the overall track more coherence as the same settings are applied to multiple elements. With both of these tips the key is to experiment with various settings and see what works for you and the specific track.
Regarding my grooves, the kick is always the channel with the highest volume, nothing surpasses it db wise in my mixdowns. Make sure to use panning for more movement in your track, as everything in the center leaves things static and uneventful. Also, saturation is your friend, make sure you utilize this to fatten up your drums and the group.
A lot of house tracks are all in the groove, one of the most important parts of my house tracks are the swing of the percussion. I typically use MPC 16 Swing – 60, set the grid on the sampler to 1/16, and fill in certain bare areas of my percussion with either swung crashes or skippy snares. If you’re ever stuck on creating a good groove for your track, another great starting point is to pull in a drum loop and convert MIDI to drums and start getting ideas from that. I’ve achieved some of the greatest groove in my tracks by simply starting with a 4 bar loop and making it as busy as possible (and very swung) and then as you start laying out your track, you’re able to have some percussive elements to choose from to bring back in throughout the track.
I like to layer my drums so that they sound nice and thick, for example putting a midsy clap under a bright clap to give it more body, or even with hi hats. Don’t forget to EQ and compress them so that they gel. Also play with the individual track delays, sometimes a couple milliseconds on certain drum sounds can add a nice swing.
To me the groove of the track that stems from the drums is one of the most important, if not the most vital aspect to my tracks. Latin or African percussion elements are my favorite sounds to include when creating the groove of the track, so I am always looking to create something that immediately gives my track a Latin atmosphere (congas, timbales, bongos, etc). With the basic drums elements of the track (hi-hats & clap), an easy way to create a groove is reducing the velocity of every other hi-hat hit to create a more organic and real feel/bounce to the track. As far as the claps go, I tend to layer 3-4 claps that compliment each other and create a groove by adding hits not just on the two and four, but also on the turnaround of the eight bars, and also throughout the loop as I see fit top match the rest of the drum pattern.
Generally what I like to do to get a solid drum groove going is to first consider the ‘intensity’ of the track I am making. ‘Harder’ tracks will require bigger and punchier hits where as a more gentle track will use ‘softer’ hits. This is important because it makes your track sound consistent and less all-over-the-place. Whether you are going for a more clean or dirty mix, it is important to EQ each sound and rid unwanted frequencies that muddy up your groove. Grouping the individual drum tracks together will allow you to effeciently add ‘glueing’ elements to the drum buslike saturation, compression, and additional EQ. Muting certain drum tracks after listening to the group as a whole for a while can bring out other grooves that get buried in the mix.