Tone, Transients, and Tuning

Jun 10, 2020

Before going any further in this chapter, it's essential to understand three essential qualities that define any drum or percussive hit. These terms recur throughout the course: 

1: Tone (or timbre): The inherent character of a sound - the unique cycle of waves that together give a drum its unique sonic fingerprint, be that the trademark snap of an 808 snare or the solid thump of a live kick drum. A drum's tone can be altered using any number of processing tools, from EQ to distortion - although if you need to change it radically, you're usually better off picking a different sound. 

2: Transients: Drums are short, highly dynamic sounds, moving from silence to full volume in the space of a few wave cycles. A vast amount of sound energy arrives in the first few milliseconds of a drum hit in the initial transients of its waveform. Because drums form the DNA of dance music, these transients are critically important. Changing them can radically alter the character of an individual drum sound and the more comprehensive beat. Transients can be shaped using compression, ADSR envelopes, and transient shapers. 

3: Tuning: Almost all drums and tuned instruments. Pitching a kick or snare up or down a few notches can transform its contribution to the mix. Tuning is changed using a synth or sampler's pitch controls.  

 

Tone

Sometimes picking the right sound for a drum is easy; you can't go far wrong using a 909 kick in a trance track. Here the genre influences the drum. At other times, the drum changes the song - a beater-heavy live kick drum may steer a record into indie dance territory. Sometimes the choice is harder; you may have a song idea with melodic parts sketched out in search of the right drum to pin down the rhythm section. In each case, the tone/timbre of the raw hit is what makes the drum 'fit.' 

Do you still need direction for your drums? Study the drum tones, and timbres producers use in tracks you like. Listen to drum-only sections and use your ears and visualization tools such as a DAW's spectrum analyzer to identify the characteristics of the sounds you find most appealing. Some questions you can ask yourself are:

  • Which frequencies are prominent? 
  • How are the transients spread? 
  • How are the different drums paired?

 

Transients

After the tone, transients rule. In some melodic mix elements, like gentle vocals and pads, transients don't matter much. But in drums, they are critical. To hear how important they are, try a quick test. Load an 808 snare drum into a sampler. Play it straight and listen to the quick snap at the front end of the sound. Now lengthen its attack envelope and listen to the apparent change in impact. Gone is the snap, replaced by a gentler ramped attack more suited to a slower tempo. 

Understanding the impact of transients is a springboard to better beats. Not only can transient control give more definition, clarity, and power to sounds, it can also help craft you intelligently layered composite hits where not all transients hit at the same time. 

It's not just the opening transients that matter. Each drum sound is made up of the initial transients before the body of the sound arrives, and then its tail fades the sound to silence. Tweaking the contribution of a drum sound's body plays a vital role in beat sound design, giving a weak clap, for example, more bulk in a busy mix. The shape of the tail matters too - cutting tails short is one way of keeping beats tight.

Transient control can solve a variety of beat production issues. For instance, if your hi-hat sounds lost in the mix, a simple fix would be to increase its attack transient. Or if your bass is overpowering your kick, a simple fix would be to give the kick more front-end bite and shift the bassline's core energy back to its body. For better beats, listen for and zoom in on the transients of drum hits. Knowing their contributions will allow you to shape them for cleverer, clearer beats. 

While transients can be shaped in several ways, including using envelopes and compression, the best tool is often a dedicated transient shaper. Transient shapers have the benefit over compressors when it comes to altering the attack or sustain of a sound without also changing the tone and its broader transient make-up.

 

Pitch and Drum Tuning 

Real-world drums are tuned instruments. Sometimes, in the case of hand drums like congas, their tuning is apparent. Popular conga tuning is E-G-C to give the drums harmonic coherence. With other drums like the snare or a clap, tuning is less obvious. Some drummers go to extreme lengths to harmonize every tom and cymbal in their kit, tuning each instrument to the song they are playing. Most take a more relaxed approach. Ensuring drum heads are tight and that the kit generally sounds unified and punchy. 

Dance producers tend to take one of three approaches to drum tuning:

The Full-Tune: In electronic music, the bar was set to a large extent by Prince, who would routinely tune each hit of his Linn Drum LM-1 to the key of the song. If you choose this approach, the kick is tuned to the root note of the key of the track - D if the track is in D major - while other sounds are either tuned to the root or notes that harmonize with it - typically thirds and fifths. 

If a sample has to be pitched up or down more than a few semitones and starts to sound unnatural, the most natural solution is usually to find a replacement sound. 

The Part Tune: The Part Tune is when a kick is tuned to the track, either its root or a related interval, and sometimes the snare. Other hits are left untouched.

Some drum sounds are more obviously tuned than others. The 808 kick drum has a definite pitch, to the extent that it can provide the bassline to a track. Other kicks, like the 909, which is synthesized using an ultra-fast pitch descent, have a less than obvious pitch and require trial and error tuning. 

The Blind Tune: There are also plenty of producers who tune 'blind' - which is to say they don't look to create harmonic relationships when they tune; they find a drum sound they like, import it into a track then try pitching it up or down a few semitones before fine-tuning it. When it sounds right in the context of the beat and the broader mix, the tuning is left there.

The last word on tuning is that beats succeed due to thousands of interactions. Tuning is just one of then. Rigidly tuned kits often don't deliver the most robust overall sound - you'd be hard-pressed to find drummers who obsess to the extent Prince did. Usually, optimizing the main hits until they gel with the track and each other is enough.