The curiously named Love over Entropy first dropped onto our radar back in 2013, with his Off The Grid EP—a well-crafted, deep three-tracker on fellow Dutchman Nuno Dos Santos' Something Happening, Somewhere. The whole package was intriguing: a remix from seasoned producer Versalife (a.k.a. Conforce), along with a duo of original tunes that smacked of someone with a burgeoning back-catalog.
In fact, Love over Entropy had been biding his time, working away behind the controls for roughly two decades, honing his art. Subsequently, he's been picked up by Lossless.CC, as well as dropping two more records on Dos Santos' imprint, including his latest release, the Sea EP from earlier this year; perhaps his best work to date.
With each record building on the last, he envelopes hints of IDM and acid among ever-deep house and techno structures, always with a touch of class. It's with this background that we are pleased to welcome the Dutch musician to our pages, to discuss percussion in electronic music and how to get the most out of your drums.
Build your own library
I remember once working with another producer and being faced with the daunting task of replacing the kick drum of an almost finished track. I asked him to look for some kicks, and he swiftly browsed to the folder 'Good Kicks' on his computer. It contained almost 500 (supposedly good) kick drum samples. After browsing through about 200 of them, it became clear that the contents of the folder didn't quite live up to the expectations set by the folder name.
What I took from this, is that it's important to build your own library for sounds you need often. If you haven't already, start building your own folders of kicks, claps, snares, hi-hats, toms, and other sounds you regularly look for. Don't trust others to do it for you. Only a small number of the samples in commercial libraries will work for you. Even the 50 gigabyte library you got from a fellow producer will contain only a few usable samples (if you can find them).
If you come across a good sample, copy it to your own folder and build your custom library little by little. You might be surprised by how few sounds you really need for a good library. To give you an idea: I have about 50 kick drum samples, all ready to use and organized by pitch. Of those, I use about seven regularly. By only having to browse a limited amount of samples before hitting the one that works, you stay in the flow when inspiration strikes.
But, you might ask, what is a good sample? Ask 10 producers to show you their favorite kick, and you will get 10 different kicks. You will need to train your ears to recognize good samples. Every sound performs a function in a track and you want your drums to sound as effortless as possible. One of the things that sets experienced producers apart is the ability to quickly hear what kind of sound they need. While looking for sounds, they listen for different aspects like punchiness, coherence, weight and length before making their move. As a result, they only need a fraction of the processing to make it sound huge.
This is not something you learn overnight. It takes a lot of listening to your own tracks on many different systems to get it right. As a shortcut, you can try to sample drum sounds from other records, especially from intro and outros. These sounds are not guaranteed to work in your tracks, but it gets you in the ballpark much quicker and will help develop your feeling for which sounds work and which sounds don't.
Process your drums
You can take the drums in your library further by applying processing, like EQ, compression and saturation. Space doesn't permit me to talk about all three, but it might be good to have a closer look at compression. To understand what compression can do for separate drum sounds, it's good to think of sounds as having an attack (typically the first few milliseconds) and a release (the rest of the sound). A compressor allows you to change the balance between the two.
To get a feel for it, take the standard compressor that comes with your DAW and apply it to a clap sound. Four knobs are important: Threshold, ratio, attack and release. Threshold determines when the compressor starts to turn the volume down, while the ratio controls how much the compressor will turn the volume down. Turning volume down based on the input is what a compressor does, so keep an eye on the gain reduction (GR) meter—it tells you how hard the compressor is working.
"If synthesis was good enough to create the sounds of the Roland TR-808 and part of the sounds of the TR-909, it should be good enough for you."
Now, set threshold and ratio such that you get quite a bit of gain reduction, and set both attack and threshold to their minimum value. Your sound should become much softer. If not, there's probably some auto make-up gain active. Turn that off. You want to add the lost gain by ear, by applying make-up gain yourself. Look for a gain or output knob. Turn the compressor on and off and adjust the make-up gain until the sound seems just as loud. Now you can hear what the compressor does. Don't worry if the sound is distorted. Lengthen the attack on the compressor and listen to how the clap gets more punch. This is because the fist part of the sound is let through uncompressed. Now lengthen the release; you will hear the release of the sound get softer, because the compressor turns down the volume longer. Play around with different setting of ratio, attack and release and you'll be amazed by how many different sounds you'll be able to coax out of the same sample.
When processing drums, I also make frequent use of modulation effects like phasers and flangers. Waves Enigma is one of my favorites for this purpose. The nice thing of these effects is that with high feedback you can create all kinds of glassy or woody percussion, which easily stands out in a mix. If you like what a particular effect does, run some of your samples through it, tweak the effect, record everything and add the best hits to your library.
Get your synths out
If synthesis was good enough to create the sounds of the Roland TR-808 and part of the sounds of the TR-909, it should be good enough for you. There are some plugins specifically geared towards synthesizing drum sounds, but it can also be great fun to take any reasonably capable hardware or software synth and create drum sounds with that. Synthesized sounds generally have a different texture than samples, so the combination gives a nice contrast.
What you need to look for on your weapon of choice is the possibility to route a separate envelope to the pitch. While not necessary, you'll be very limited without a pitch envelope. Start with an empty patch, select a sine or triangle for the oscillator, and tune it quite low. On the envelope that controls the volume of the amplifier, go for a fast attack, medium decay and sustain all the way down. Now make sure the pitch envelope controls the pitch of the oscillator, and copy the settings of the amplifier volume envelope. You should now have a basic pitch drop. Tune the oscillator up or down, make the pitch envelope decay longer and shorter, add oscillators, mix in some noise. You'll come across many different sounds that are usable as drum and percussion sounds.
"The next time you're thinking about buying a beer, don't—save your money for an egg shaker instead. I like to combine drum samples and synthesized drums with recordings of live percussion, especially shakers."
At the moment, I extensively use my Moog Sub 37 to create all kinds of drum and percussion sounds. Not only does the sound have that typical Moog quality, the Sub 37 allows for some special modulations and sound shaping, which can take it into unexpected territory. Especially modulating the filter with an LFO cranked up to audio rate allows for all kinds of metallic sounds.
Another favorite of mine for drum and percussion sounds is Ableton Live's Operator FM synth. I wouldn't say that FM is difficult, but it seems you always have to think one step further than with traditional subtractive synthesis. What I like about FM synthesis is the uncanny ability to sound very organic and very digital at the same time. It will add yet another flavor to your drums.
Move some air
The next time you're thinking about buying a beer, don't—save your money for an egg shaker instead. I like to combine drum samples and synthesized drums with recordings of live percussion, especially shakers. Of course there are many sample libraries that feature all kinds of shaker loops, but recording your own shaker loops allows you to get much deeper into the groove. If you have no previous experience playing instruments it might be a bit hard to get a steady rhythm, but with just a few weeks of practice you should be able to capture at least one or two usable bars when you're recording. There are many videos on the internet demonstrating some basic and more advanced rhythms you can play with shakers.
Of course you need a decent mic, but any low-cost large diaphragm condenser mic should be good enough to start with. Pick the spot where you record wisely. Make sure it is reasonably quiet and get rid of the most obvious reflections by using absorbing materials. Even a blanket or old mattress might do the trick. If you capture too much of the room, you might have a hard time getting your recording to gel with the other drum sounds. You don't have to limit yourself to just recording shakers. With a microphone, anything capable of producing sound is fair game. The kitchen is a particularly rewarding source for percussion sounds. In the past I've also recorded falling boxes and pieces of wood, which gives nice rhythmical structures right away. Once you have a microphone, the world becomes a different place.
After recording something you can of course use your DAW to correct sloppy timing, but you can also use your DAW to creatively transform your recordings. Pitch them up or down dramatically, reverse, cut and paste beats in a different order or any combination of the above. I once made a percussion kit of sounds that were sped up many times. Everything turned into small high-pitched percussive blips that worked great to give the high-end a precise feel. Editing recordings just a little bit gives them a processed quality that adds an interesting edge to the organic sound of the recording itself.
Make it all work together
So far, I've talked about possible sources you can use for drums and percussion. In my opinion, combining different sources gives depth to drums, because of the contrast between the different textures. Analog drums tend to sound fuzzy, FM is very precise, samples can be crunchy and live recordings sound rich. Of course it's not as clear-cut as that, but every type of sound will be different just because you create them in a different way.
"Whatever you do, leave some room. Rhythms need to breathe if they are to make people move."
The way in which you put the sounds together is important as well. The challenge for a drummer is to make all the separate instruments he plays sound as one. As I see it, the same applies to electronic drums. After you have picked your sounds, the most basic thing you can do is to tune your drums to the track. I've had a few times where the kick just didn't seem to work, until I found out it wasn't tuned right. Tuning might be obvious for kicks and toms, but also snares and even claps and hi-hats can have a pitch. If you can't clearly hear the pitch, apply some temporary distortion to reveal the pitch. While tuning all your drums to the fundamental might seem the way to go, you can choose any note of the scale. Fifths are your safest bet followed by thirds and fourths. But when your track is not that melodic, you can also pick less obvious notes and create some interesting tension. Listen to Setup 707 by Edge of Motion for example, with the kick tuned roughly a semitone above the fundamental.
When programming drums, I hardly ever use preset swing or grooves. I might move some individual notes off the grid, but I feel that volume differences are at least as important as timing to create groove. Here again, it helps to think like a drummer. Make the important parts of a drum pattern loud and clear, but don't forget all the soft little notes in between. I particularly like multi-sampled drums with different velocity layers. This means using a lower velocity doesn't just play the same sample but softer, it plays a different sample altogether. This can add a great deal of expression to your drums. For this, I can't recommend Sennheiser's free Drumic'a library enough, which I used quite a bit on my tracks "Fortyfour" and "Sea."
To make drums more alive, I like to use techniques that subtly change every hit. Small random velocity differences work well with multi-sampled drums or synthesized drums with velocity sensitive parameters. I also like to use a phaser that picks a different frequency for every hit and then set the dry/wet control really low. Soundtoys' PhaseMistress has a step mode that is great for this. Those with analog drum machines get all this variation for free. Every hit on an analog drum machine is slightly different, and it is especially noticeable on claps, snares, and hi-hats.
When using sampled analog drums, I will always look for libraries that make use of round-robin sampling. This means that each hit has been recorded several times and when you play it, you'll hear one of the recordings. If you're curious how that sounds, I recently made a collection of claps from the analog Vermona DRM1 MKIII that uses round-robin sampling; it can be found on YouTube, together with a video demonstrating the difference with normal sampling.
Finally, realize that a typical drummer has only four limbs: instead of programming a busy pattern for every sound, just one or two hits per bar might be enough for a sound. Put sounds where there aren't any sounds yet and use the time-honored technique of call and answer to give your rhythm coherence. Whatever you do, leave some room. Rhythms need to breathe if they are to make people move.