Drum Layering 101

Drum Layering 101

In Ableton Production Tips, Productivity, Writing Music by andrewish

At its core, layering drums is about taking basic mixing principles and applying them to percussion.

Layering drum samples is a great technique when used efficiently and correctly.

Unfortunately, a lot of producers over-complicate drum layering when they first break into it.

That’s why we put together this article covering the basics, so you can speed up your drum layering workflow and leave behind all those distorted layer stacks you’ve been working on.

Here’s how to use this article:

1. Open a new project file and try out each of these techniques in your DAW as you read through them.
2. If you only only have 30 seconds – read the first two tips as they are the most important.
3. If you already know the basics, join our mailing list and we’ll send you our upcoming article on Drum Layering Pro Tips for more advanced techniques.

1. Use EQ to cut overlapping frequencies

how to eq a snare

If you have to do just one thing when you layer percussion samples, it’s EQ-ing your samples.

This right here, is the basic foundation of drum layering.

Without it, our drum layering would sound terrible.

You would only get muddy, distorted results no matter how many times you tried to mix your samples together.

It makes sense, right? We use EQ to remove overlapping frequencies from different elements of a track when we mix together a whole song.

So when we’re mixing together individual samples, the same rules apply.

For example, in a 3-sample kick layer, you may have an 808 with only bass frequencies, a punchy kick with only the mids (no bass or highs), and a rich kick to add character that you sampled from an old disco song with only the highs (no mids or bass).

This video by Dubspot does a great job of explaining the concept (ignore the annoying clickbait title):

2. Mix your samples together

mixing drums in ableton

The simple truth is that samples in your layer stack sound best relative to each other, not all at the same volume.

Just like you would mix the volume of all the elements in the track as a whole, you want to make sure you mix the samples in your layer stack.

They will not sound good together out of the gate at the same volume.

Now – there is one thing to note with this.

You don’t have to mix your samples right away.

It can be useful to EQ your samples first to make sure there is no frequency overlap.

If you’ve already EQ’d your samples, and you like how they sound, it’s likely that you only need a little bit more tweaking of the mix to get them to sound great.

3. Choose the right samples – relative to each other

drum sample library

One thing that sets good producers apart from great producers is knowing how to choose the right samples, synths, and sounds.

Similar to how you want to layer synths with different character, choose percussion samples that sound different.

In the same way that it doesn’t make sense to layer 3 super saws on top of each other, stacking 3 super snappy snares won’t change the overall sound much.

Look for samples that have complementary character.

A good way to approach this is to choose drum samples that sound great in different frequency ranges.

That way you can layer their best bits while cutting the rest.

Since we’re EQ-ing our samples to prevent frequency overlap anyway, we’ll simply take the unique parts of each sample to add to the layer stack.

A good combination, for example, is to layer a kick sample that is solid and rich but lacks punch with a super punchy kick that has high attack, but lacks sustain.

Pro Tip: The best producers have go-to samples they know sound great together. Spend a couple hours going through your sample library trying different percussion layering combinations until you find some that work really well. Then, save those combinations in a drum rack, or bounce a WAV of the stack to your library. That way you can easily reference your layered drums whenever you want, and you already know they sound great.

4. Keep it simple

busy ableton project

You don’t need to stack 10 samples.

Let’s be honest – you’re probably just procrastinating working through the rest of your track at that point.

Choose one great sample and then stack a couple more that are complementary, then stop.

Adding a 20th layer to your kick or snare probably won’t make it sound any better.

The best producers know how to work with just a few good sounds and know how note to overdo it.

5. Use transient shaping to change the dynamics of your samples

Transients in a waveform

With the power of transient shaping, we have the ability to manipulate our samples to fit the sounds we need in our layering.

If EQ-ing and mixing means working with the samples we’ve got, transient shaping is their creative, more destructive younger brother.

Transients are essentially the sound information in a waveform, over time.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand what that means – transients are a complicated concept.

What you need to know as a producer about transients is that similar to using an ADSR filter on a synth, transient shaping is a way to manipulate the dynamics of a sample.

Ask Audio has a great article breaking down transient shaping with some more specific examples (in Logic).

And if you want to get more advanced with using this technique, look into multiband transient shaping, similar to how we recommend using multiband split racks for processing 808s.

Izotope’s Alloy2 has great multiband transient functionality.

There are also plenty of great free transient shaper VSTs that work just as well:
1. Fluxhome BitterSweet
2. Sleepytime Transient Shaper
3. Stillwell Transient Monster

Finally….


Before thinking about stacking drum samples, ask yourself: do you really need to layer samples to get a great sound?

Check your effects chain. Is there anything you can do with your current drum rack to improve it? Maybe add EQ and compression?

Look at other go-to samples in your library. Would another sample give you the punch you need?

Ask yourself: are you just procrastinating working on other parts of the track? Make sure that when you’re layering samples, it’s a productive use of your studio time.

Layering drum samples is an art that most producers can easily master.

Do yourself a favor and learn how to do it right – it’ll save you tons of time fixing bad percussion in the long run.