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I love drums, and I love working on them when I'm making beats. When I'm creating a drum pattern, however, I find it's too easy for me to get lazy and I end up with a boring drum loop - and then a boring beat.
There's plenty of things you can do to spice up your drums, such as using various plug-ins, but there's much better ways, like making them better right from the start. By tightening up your drums right away, you won't have to rely on a plug-in or any kind of software trickery.
1. Compress, But Not Too Much
One of the first things that Hip Hop producers do to their drums is compress them. The problem is that most of you compress the hell out of them, and they end up sounding like they're severely over processed. The best example is the Beatnuts' "Watch Out Now" track. The drums on that song are good for that beat, but you don't want to be using that all the time.
Compression is a great tool, but that's just what it is - a tool. Hammers and screw drivers are great tools too, but I don't use those to eat my food with. So with your drums, it's wise to add compression, but apply only what's needed.
You could use certain default settings each time, but I won't give you absolute numbers since your drum track will always vary. Instead, use a preset that comes with your compressor plug-in (if you're using software), and then tweak from there. If you're using a hardware compressor, tweak it as you see fit, but again, very little.
2. Make Your Kick Match Your Bass
A long time ago when I was making a beat, I had sampled a kick that I really liked because it was nice and thick. I then built up my drum track and added a bassline. When I played it back together, I realized that the kick and the bass fit so perfectly. That's because, even though it was unintentional, they were in the same frequency range.
Since then, that's one of the things that I always try to accomplish when making a beat. No matter what kick I have, I try my best to get it to match the same frequency and thickness as my bassline. I know it's hard to do, because it all depends on what kick sound you have, plus whatever bass tone you're using, but you have to try.
If you can nail that, your drums will sound so much nicer along with everything else, trust me.
3. Do Simple Patterns
It's very tempting to want to bang away at the pads or keys and come up with a wicked drum pattern, but why? If you take a look at someone like Araabmuzik, that guy is super fast on the MPC with his patterns. Take a look:
I know you're probably not making really fast patterns like that in the lab, but it can be tempting to do so. What I always recommend is that you start off with a simple pattern, such as:
KICK - SNARE - KICK - SNARE (Hat on every other note)
It's simple. And that's the best way because now you can build upon that. I've done patterns where I was going nuts with the drums, but I never liked the way it turned out. There's a time and place for crazy drums, and in the studio is not one of them because you want something that you can control.
As you continue on, add another kick or snare, then change up the hats, if needed. Before you know it, you will have a full drum pattern that sounds really dope.
4. Layer Your Drums
I always wondered how some producers were able to get certain snares. I always thought maybe they had a drum set so they could get a dry drum hit, then tweak it with all sorts of gear. Maybe some do that, but the majority just layer their drum sounds.
If you find a nice snare, for example, you could use it as is, but someone else might be using the same one (and they probably are). But if you were to take that snare and layer it with another, completely different snare, or maybe 2 or 3 others, then you would have something that no one else has.
The beauty of layering is that there's so many different combinations that the possibilities seem endless!
5. Use Drum Breaks
If you're struggling trying to build a pattern, or to spice up your drum loop, then why not use drum breaks? It's always fun using breaks because there's lots of classics out there, and even though lots of them have been used thousands of times, there's always a new way to flip them. Even if you use the break like everyone else has, it will still make your beat sound great.
If you were to use James Brown's "Funky Drummer" break, how can anyone say your beat sucks? That's a classic break, and even though it's decades old and has been sampled many times, no one can get tired of that break.
Use drum breaks and listen to your beats. Guaranteed you will be nodding your head.
Further Reading Related to Beat Making