In modern mixes, drum machines and drum samples are almost more common than live drums are, especially in electronic genres. Modern pop music makes good use of classic drum machines as a production element, as does hip hop, R&B and even country music.
Drum machines are a great way to introduce rhythmic elements to a song that can either replace or supplement traditional drum kits, but they come with their own unique challenges. They might not require the same upkeep as live drums where you’ve got drumheads to replace and tune, but that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to work with in the studio.
Sample selection, programming, and mixing these instruments are all tasks that require an attention to detail that’s unparalleled by other instruments – physical or virtual.
Programming a Drum Machine
First and foremost, anyone working with a drum machine (even if they’re just mixing it) needs to understand how they work. Effectively, your drum machine or sampler is going to present you with a bank of sounds that you’re able to select from. Once you’ve identified the sounds you’d like to use, you can program them to a grid using the buttons on a hardware drum machine or the piano roll/virtual interface of a drum machine plugin.
The great part of working with many drum machines is how straightforward this process can be. With a few clicks, you’re able to get up and running with a drum pattern with little-to-no experience.
This is where my warning comes in for mixers and artists that plan on having someone mix the pattern they program: don’t overdo it.
While it can be fun to mess around and program something that’s completely unplayable by a real drummer, it’s hard to make those unrealistic loops fit naturally in a song and engage with your listeners. Fans like drum machines for their larger-than-life sound and their consistency. Don’t let the cool new toy in the studio take away from the realism and artistry of your song!
Individual Volume & Panning
Depending on the type of drum machine you’re working with, this can be the single biggest factor that needs to be addressed ahead of the mix session.
For hardware drum machines, you often don’t have the luxury of dedicated outputs by sample/channel. Instead, you’re usually going to be working with a single stereo output.
This makes the decisions you make all that more important as you program your drum loop. Each sample should be carefully panned and levelled to ensure the loop is pre-mixed. Once you’ve committed, there’s no going back without reprogramming the drum loop. Welcome to the classic world of analog recording, folks!
In-the-box drum machines and samplers have made programming much more convenient for those who prefer to spend their time focusing on sample selection rather than mixdown. Programming can be done, and levels/panning can be revisited at any time up until the instrument track is printed down to audio.
When that time comes for plugins, you’re still not as limited as hardware – you get to reap the benefits of in-the-box routing. A simple stereo print is still the norm, but should you choose to break out your samples to their own tracks, that can usually be done easily by routing each element’s output to a dedicated track in your DAW.
At that point, volume, panning, and any other processing can be done to individual elements of the virtual kit.
Compressing Drum Machines
As with a live drum kit, drum machines need to have their dynamics controlled to stop samples from jumping out in front of the mix. Compression can help smooth out poorly mixed hardware drum machines too – a great fix for situations where a clap or snare hit might have been louder than needed in the stereo recording.
I like compressing my drum machines in two stages – first, a compressor directly on the track of a stereo drum machine recording or on a summed bus of any drum machine samples that were previously broken out. Here, light compressor settings can help glue things together and make individual samples feel like part of something bigger.
The second stage of compression can bring together any live drums, other samples, or production sounds with the drum machine. This further solidifies the percussive elements of a mix as one group – working together and pushing/pulling against each other within the confines of the mix.
Neither stage requires extreme compression settings – just enough to make everything sit properly in the mix.
Using Samples & Sweeteners
Percussion is such a nuanced subject for many producers and mixers. We understand the need for them, but some of us never go further than the basic percussive elements we hear day in and day out. Where’s the sense of exploration?
The best mixers in the biz know it’s more than just following a formula – they actively seek out new sounds and look for ways to fit them in the mix. Many are sitting on sample libraries just waiting for the session where one of the sounds they’ve saved for a special occasion ends up fitting perfectly to enhance their vision for a session.
Both are invaluable as you develop your own production techniques and habits!