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Drum Sample Layering: Some Perspectives from New Nashville (Part 1)

A big part of the modern Country/Americana sound today is live drum tracks layered with samples. Samples are present to some degree in 90% of recordings coming out of Nashville these days, but the ratio of acoustic sounds to sample-based sounds shifts dramatically depending on where you want to nudge a track.


I have the “how should we approach the drums” conversation with every artist I work with on every project, and the answer can vary widely depending on the song. I’ve done some masters where I’ve programmed the entire rhythm section myself, and some where we opted for a very “natural” drum sound where the only sample present was a verb-ed out tambourine hit or maybe some claps.


Layering is an Art Form

Learning how to combine the work of a live drummer with programmed tracks is a challenge that is different for every song, and still one of my favorite parts of the recording process. I got my start as a producer years ago building tracks from the ground up on a laptop, but as I made the transition into doing more studio tracking with a full band my perspective dramatically shifted.


I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredible studio drummers and explore the magic of a well-crafted kit captured in some of the greatest sounding rooms in Nashville. However, no matter how perfect your drum tracks, I still believe that samples have a place. Making the right choices in that area is a moving target, and something that benefits from some serious thought.


Everyone Has An Opinion

I have also found through the years that EVERYONE has a different perspective on what’s important when layering samples with real drums, so purely for my own nerd enjoyment I am going to have a couple upcoming posts from other friends/colleagues in audio with their perspectives as well. It’s really fun to hang out and discuss these types of things with other producers/engineers/players (bonus points if there is also tequila involved). The best thing about living here is getting to bounce ideas off each other and all hopefully learn something new.


Here’s My Perspective

To start, here are the things I consider about the drum sound of a song and how to enhance it or nudge it in a certain creative direction. These are broken down by drum kit component, and then some more big-picture considerations at the end.


The Kick: I love the roominess and sharp transients that come from the in/out kick mics, but most of the time I feel like a “blockier” sample adds a lot and helps the kick cut. There is a little more low-end sustain here that can emphasize a cool kick pattern, which is helpful for any song that has more hip hop/pop influence.


If you’re working at a lower bpm (75-85) and have a kick pattern with a lot of interesting pushes, using something like this can make the whole track feel more compelling.





I also find that sometimes in songs with a lot of layers I want a much brighter transient on the kick to help it cut, especially on the chorus. There are a lot of great samples that serve this function in the Billy Decker Drum Shotz sample pack, and you can see this big gnarly transient just from looking a the audio here:






The Snare:

The thing I find is missing from even the most well-recorded drum sounds is smack and depth. In certain songs, I really want some component of the rhythm section to feel like it was in a large space, and when you’re tracking in the studio recording verby single hits might be something you don’t have time for on a tight budget. I usually end up layering a snare with a longer reverb tail (1 or 2 seconds) in many places, and usually some distant sounding tambourine/wood block hits as well.


Making sure the snare cuts is an important consideration, so I usually layer a sample with a lot of 4k smack mirroring the exact snare part (thank you “Double Or Replace Drum Track” feature). Having a separate and totally clean layer I can boost 10k on is crucial, because the snare mic often contains a significant amount of hi-hat bleed. I usually want more sizzle from the snare, but the only way to get it is to introduce some separate audio and boost it there.


The last thing I like to think about is time period/genre characteristics. Do I want this to have an 80’s feel? If so, I have a huge folder of noisy gated reverb snares I will layer. Do I want this to feel more hip-hop? If so, some 808 claps on the 2 and 4 are a good choice. Do I want this to feel more Indie? Superior Drummer has a kit called “Independent” that has some great snares/toms I might layer in during the verses to change the vibe before I “normalize” it for a big chorus.


The Cymbals:

I tend to take a minimalist approach here, because if I’m spending the money to track live drums, what I’m mainly looking for is some beautiful cymbal dynamics. I want to preserve those and completely stay out of the way of what the drummer did, so the only thing I might layer here is a big crash hit at the top of the chorus with a super long reverb tail or maybe some extra white noise/brightness.


The Toms:

Some songs this is not really factor in, because there are like 3 tom hits in the whole thing. However, if there is a big tom part in the bridge or verse, I like to add a little thunder. Superior Drummer is great for finding some cool natural sounding layers that are really hefty, but sometimes my favorite results are achieved by adding a character sample on the accented hits (something with more reverb, brighter, more marching band style, etc).


Percussion:

The biggest factor I always think of here is humanity vs. evenness. I love getting live percussion from a drummer that grooves with the song and has some natural dynamic fluctuations. However, Sometimes there is a case for adding a very even shaker loop to anchor the percussion parts and make sure the beat subdivisions can always be heard. Sometimes shakers with interesting accents in the part can be a cool choice especially when panned opposite of something doing a very basic rhythm.


Other Important Points:


  1. Make Sure The Kit Sounds Good At Low Volumes - A lot of people will be listening to a track turned way down on their phone speaker.

  2. Always Tune Your Samples (Especially the Snare) - This can make a huge difference with something cutting through the mix or getting lost

  3. Be Consistent with your Kick Sound - If a band wants to run your tracks in their live set, this will help the FOH engineer enormously.


This is my take as it stands today…please chime in with your own opinion if you feel inspired to. I will be posting more in this series soon!



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