Distortion, saturation and overdrive can make drums sound bigger, better and more energetic in the mix. Learn how to get the most from these powerful effects on your drum parts.
By Mike Levine
Adding distortion to drum tracks is an excellent way to energize their sound. You can apply it for fattening up a snare and kick, energizing dull-sounding loops, revitalizing a drum machine track and many other drum-mixing applications. In this article, we’ll offer 5 tips on how to get the maximum benefit from distortion when mixing drums.
Please note that in the interests of brevity, we’ll be using the term “distortion” in a generic sense, which, unless specified, covers distortion, saturation and overdrive.
1. Dial in Subtle Fatness
Lightly applying distortion to a drum track, whether it’s a multitrack drum mix or a drum track or loop, can liven it up and give it more warmth. For this application, you’re not going for a noticeable distortion effect. Instead, you just want it to fatten up the drums and soften the transients a little.
I would recommend applying it from a parallel configuration. Like any parallel processing, you can do this by inserting a distortion plugin on a copied version of the track, on an aux, or on drum track itself with its mix control turned down below 100%. For this application, you’ll probably turn it quite a bit below that. Experiment to see which of those methods works best for you.
Abbey Road Saturator, with its emulations of tube and solid-state analog saturation, works well as a drum fattener. You can also get excellent results with Berzerk Distortion for this application. Feather in the distorted signal alongside the dry drum track, adding just enough to provide a little more character and a slight softening of the transients.
There’s no distortion on the first four measures of this example, and then the second four have Berzerk Distortion, set to Clipped, applied from an aux bus.
2. Selectively Distort Multitrack Drums
When you’re working on a multitrack drum mix, there’s no reason that you have to use the same amount of distortion on each drum channel. You can apply different amounts to different drum tracks and be selective about which ones you’re processing.
Often, just by using the effect on the kick, snare and tom tracks—and not the ones with a lot of cymbals, such as overhead and room mics—you can create a bigger drum sound. Generally speaking, drums handle distortion (especially when it’s heavy) better than cymbals do. The latter can get overly bright and sound unnatural with too much distortion applied.
Only four drum tracks—kick, snare and two overheads—were used in this example. They sound bland and one dimensional. The first four bars have no distortion added. After a very short pause, the same recording repeats, but this time with Abbey Road Saturator on the kick and snare only, applied via an aux bus.
Example 2 – Abbey Road Saturator
Of course, if you’re going for a lo-fi effect, then try putting the distortion on the whole kit, including overheads and room mics. Having the cymbals distorted along with the drums can make the overall drum part seem more frenetic and chaotic (assuming it’s a medium to fast tempo).
Or try splitting the difference and distorting just the overheads. This will allow you to use the close-miked drums to reinforce the transients.
This starts with a rock beat with a relatively plain sounding kit. When it repeats, it has MDMX Overdrive on it, giving it a brighter and more energetic sound.
3. Tweak Your Distortion with Processing
Many distortion processors feature EQ controls. Abbey Road Saturator has two built-in EQ stages, one before and one after its Compander section (compressor plus expander) in the signal chain. Each section has a low- and high-pass filter and a parametric bell filter. The Compander’s ratio control and selectable filters also help with frequency emphasis.
Particularly when working with a mixed drum track, rather than individual drum tracks, EQing the distortion can help you focus in on a particular frequency range, thus emphasizing one kit element more than another. For example, if you were heavily distorting a loop but found the low-end to be overshadowing the rest of the kit, you could use a high-pass filter to reduce the amount of low end coming out of the distortion channel. Or you could emphasize more low mids or high mids on the distorted snare, which can alter the vibe of the drum part.
I like to go beyond the EQ included on the distortion plugin and insert a channel strip, such as Scheps Omni Channel after it because it allows me to fine-tune the distorted signal in several ways. In addition to EQ, a channel strip will typically offer compression and gating. A gate can be useful for controlling the sustain created by heavy distortion. You get the benefit of the extreme distortion on the transients, without the messy wash of noise after each hit.
For the first two measures of this example, MDMX Fuzz is on an aux with an extremely heavy setting that creates too much sustain in the distortion. At bar 3, the gate in Scheps Omni Channel, inserted in the next slot after MDMX Fuzz, turns on and reduces the excess sustain. By adjusting the gate’s threshold control, you can control how much sustain you’ll get.
Another effect to try adding after the distortion is a pitch shifter, such as SoundShifter. It can alter the pitch of the distorted signal, creating fatness and other effects.
For an EDM-style riser effect, try automating the pitch and the amount of distortion to increase steadily over a measure or two. Like with EQ, you’ll want to use pitch shifting in a parallel configuration, rather than as a direct insert.
The first four measures of this electronic drum pattern have no added distortion, and then Abbey Road Saturator kicks in—on an aux channel—with Scheps Omni Channel providing EQ and compression and SoundShifter providing a downward pitch shift. On measure 9, the pattern switches to a snare roll and the pitch is automated up gradually for four measures. The Gain on Abbey Road Saturator is similarly increased during that same time, helping bring the sound to an even more intense crescendo.
Example 5 – EDM Riser (Saturator, Scheps, SoundShifter)
4. Change Your Drum Tracks’ Character
You can use distortion to accentuate the feel or mood of the song you’re mixing. Light distortion and an EQ boost at the bottom and top can add a little grandeur to the part, making it feel more prominent and significant.
Example 6a: First, you hear four bars of a funk pattern without any saturation.
Example 6b: Here’s the same pattern with a moderate amount of saturation from Abbey Road Saturator, making it sound a little bigger. The plugin’s post-EQ is boosting the highs and the FET compressor in Scheps Omni Channel (inserted after Abbey Road Saturator in the aux channel) is compressing the distorted signal to smooth it a little. Light-to-medium distortion with some of the highs rolled off can create smoothness.
Example 6c: This time, MDMX Overdrive, which has a pretty smooth-sounding distortion, is added, with roll offs in both the high and low end. The Optical compressor in Scheps Omni Channel, inserted next in the chain, helps emphasize the smoothness. Heavier, fuzzier distortion and accentuated high end adds a more aggressive feel.
Example 6d: The drums are processed here by MDMX Fuzz, providing heavy distortion and a high-end boost.
5. Liven Up Drum Loops with an Amp Modeler
One technique used by some producers to add life or sonic interest to a drum loop is to run it through a distorted guitar amp and mic it. You can get a similar effect by using an amp modeler plugin like one of the modules in PRS SuperModels as a parallel distortion device. You can get a pretty distorted and trashy drum sound if you want or dial it back for more subtle sweetening.
You’ll need to crank the distortion up pretty high in the modeler. The PRS SuperModels all have a gate built-in, which can be handy for reigning in excess sustain caused by heavy distortion. You could also use an amp modeler as your distortion source on multitrack drums.
First, you’ll hear four bars of a drum loop. When it repeats, it has the V9 amp from the Supermodels collection with its boost section on. Not only does it add crunch and brightness, but it also accentuates the reverb decay on the snare.
Example 7 – PRS SuperModels
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