When it comes to percussion, producers have TONS of options to choose from. You can go au natural with some live drums in a great sounding room, tight to the grid with programmed samples, or use loops and virtual instruments for a creative and interesting new twist.
Your productions have the ability to transition between each option, seamlessly weaving between a classic, vintage sound and booming 808s instantaneously. They can be stacked, reversed, phased, drowned in reverb… you get the picture: endless possibilities.
But when it comes to the mix, what get the priority? Should you make your drummer the featured role in percussion or trust the loop to hold down the rhythm section? How do you get your drummer and samples to play nice with each other when they often take up the same frequencies?
Today, I want to explore the case that can be made for each.
Highlighting the Loop
If you’re using a loop in your track, I hope it’s because there’s something about that loop that excites and inspires you. Too often I see engineers and producers going with a loop because it’s quick and easy. They might plan on replacing it with live drums later, but instead decide that it’s “good enough”. “Good enough” isn’t going to help your production find success any time soon.
Loops can be great creative inspiration, and many tracks have been written from the loop up. Modern country tracks are a great example of this, where loops have recently found a new audience. Starting from a simple snap or hi hat pattern, songwriters are able to build up a full production (including live drums) from even the simplest loop. At its core, the loop deserves to be featured because it’s the core of the song.
You don’t have to go far to hear a Top 40 country song using samples and loops. Many of Billy Decker’s mixes feature the perfect balance of programmed and live instruments, often using a loop with some basic acoustic or clean electric guitar on top of it.
The Case For Live Drums
If you’re working with an amazing drummer, why hide their performance behind a loop?
This is the mentality that drives many producers to give priority to their live drums over their samples and loops. It makes a lot of sense – the samples are intended to give you a “best result” without a live drummer; acting as a stand-in or replacement.
Many drum samples packs are performed by session drummers and mixed/mastered by professionals. Similarly, a great loop is nothing more than a pre-recorded performance, regardless of if the percussion in the loop is played live or programmed.
But if you’ve got the talent to take your song to the next level, showcase it!
Going back to Billy’s mixes for a minute – you can actually hear when the loop transitions into the live drums almost every time. This is the result of some great glue holding everything together, but it’s also a distinct focus shift curated by the mixer.
Live drums can live side-by-side with loops in a way that completely enhances the mix, and when it’s done right you will barely notice it – everything just sounds fuller. A great way to do this is to let the loop lead you into the song from the intro through the first verse. Then, just as the chorus hits, unleash your drummer on the track.
That first chorus can be loud and aggressive, creating contrast with the mellowed intro. As it comes to an end, a great drummer should be able to pull back their dynamics and transition into the second verse, making the loop the highlight again. When these two percussive elements align well, your listener won’t have a clue that there are two parts playing.
Moving between loops, samples & live drums can be a daunting task, but it’s not impossible. The best way to know if you’re doing it right is to ask someone who’s got multiple charting singles in the style you’re working with.
Join JST VIP using this link and you’ll be able to do just that. JST VIP members can submit their mixes to Billy Decker or myself for review & critique. Let us help take your mixes to the next level and get access to all kinds of courses, tone boot camps & more!