Everyone has their own process and their own way of going about making music. Mine is to start with the drums and then work on the bass. If you normally work using a melody first, that is great. In fact, I encourage mixing up the process. Sometimes you can start with a vocal or a sampled instrument. There is no right or wrong in my opinion, but this is my preferred method.
When putting together the drum kit, there are some standards that I encourage everyone to consider. There is plenty of creative freedom here, but some general guidelines will come in handy.
For me, the kick is usually where it all begins. I have always been a percussionist at heart, so it feels natural to get my kick in order before moving forward.
A kick is made of two main parts: Attack and Decay.
The Attack is the initial hit, sometimes called the snap or punch. This is the impact that generally cuts right through the mix since it usually contains a click of some sort. You want to make sure this fits what you have planned for the song. In some cases, you will be coming back to the kick to make adjustments to the attack based on other elements you add later.
The Decay is the vital lower end that bends into the sub. It all happens so fast, but the part that you feel is the low end from the decay. This also dictates the length of the kick. A long decay or tail on your kick can make it difficult to work with at higher tempos and with various bass elements. On the flip side, a quick decay can make the kick sound weak or too short. It is a balance act dependent on the song you are trying to make.
There are a ton of varieties of kicks you can use, but I typically use higher quality samples. Another interesting concept is kick layering. This is when you combine two kicks together. Be mindful of phase cancellation which will end with a weaker result. Sometimes I take the attack from one kick and piece it together with the decay of another. It can be tricky, but it is also very rewarding if done right.
Your DAW should have some kits available for you if you’re just starting out. Based on the song type you selected, the kick will likely need to fit a very specific role.
Finding a high quality sample is vital at this early stage. If you get a kick that sounds just ok, then you might want to keep looking. Also, based on the key of your song, you want to tune your kick and make sure it sounds great.
Another important part at this point is to volume set your kick. For me, this sets the stage for the rest of the song. I highly recommend getting a reference track, something similar to the style of song you want to make and it should be of professional quality. This gives you a benchmark to compare to. Get your kick sample to match and you are good to go.
I will cover mixing later, but it is important to note early on, that you want to be mindful of the sub frequencies in your kick. Listen for the mids and highs, feel for the lows. View it in your EQ too in case you are not sure.
Play around with it. If it sounds great solo and it’s not slamming into the limiter, than you should be ready to continue.
The snare or clap is arguably the second most important part of the drum kit. In some styles, like drum and bass and dubstep, it tends to be the most crucial piece.
Your audience will hear the snare or clap almost as often as the kick throughout the song. It needs to be a perfect companion to the kick. This is why I tend to work with my snare or clap so early.
Before we continue, I will make a quick distinction based on my observations. Typically the snare is used for low end and mid frequency impact on the attack with a decay tail of highs, whereas the clap covers the mid and mostly high end. This is a generalization, but important to consider.
Do you want your track to have a snare or a clap?
Should you layer both together for even more range?
You will need to settle on what works for you. Also keep in mind that some styles of music (House, Trance) may have their snare/clap hit with the kick. If you are doing this, how well does it sound layered over the kick?
Similar to the kick, you will want to get the volume to match early on and setup some basic mixing as needed so everything sounds great. You will be coming back to this from time to time, but get it sounding really good now before moving on.
Most drum kits need some hi-hats in there. We are starting to venture into the area of personal taste and what type of song you are making. Some basic steps I take will be to determine if I want to use Closed and/or Open hats.
Closed hi-hats are quick hits that can be great for rapid patterns. They can sound really nice for rolls, fills, and buildups. Play around with some samples and find one that works. I also listen to hear if there are any frequencies that are unpleasant. Carefully listen to it a few times and settle on one or two that you like.
Open hi-hats are known for having extended vibrations. They are commonly used in conjunction with closed hats for rhythmic patterns. In some music forms, the open hat dominates the space between the kick and snare to fill out the beat. A good idea is to pick open hats that come from the same family as the closed hats. It keeps them sounding uniform, but experiment here as well.
A quick tip that works well in FL Studio is using the Cut By feature to make the closed hat cut the open hat. This allows for a realistic relationship between the two. When you do this, play the open hat and almost immediately the closed hat, taking notice how the open hat gets cutoff when the closed hat plays. This helps when creating beats to make unique rhythms.
Lastly, get the volumes and basic mixing in order and move on.
The Ride and Crash are the most common cymbals.
The Ride Cymbal has a long vibration and softer impact than the crash. This makes it a great competitor to the open hi-hat. It can be used to add depth to the pattern and brighten the high end of the mix.
The Crash Cymbal is a faster vibration with a wider range of high end excitement. It is very common for transitions and when a pattern is ending, before repeating again. Due to their in your face manner, they are best used sparingly for maximum impact.
I like to have at least one cymbal in each of my tracks. They serve many purposes when managing energy and tension in your song. They are also great elements for transitions and buildups. Later, we’ll talk more about using cymbals to create amazing effects to spice up your song.
Last but definitely not least, the rhythm masters of any beat are the additional percussion elements. These come in various shapes, sizes and forms. Some of the most common are Shakers, Toms, Rimshots, and other various clicks and noises, even pitched snares and claps can be used here.
One pretty common attribute is that the percussion element is shifting, slightly changing throughout. They are also best played with slight imperfection and fast patterns. This not only humanizes the song, but also gives it character.
Three common ways to achieve this is with velocity, pitch and timing. Slight variations and alterations can make or break the rhythmic goodness of your percussion elements.
In my early days, I used to forget this all the time. Many beats sounded weak or lacked depth. Once I began adding in these elements more consistently, I noticed a drastic improvement in the positive reception of my songs.
Keep this in mind and find one or two percussion elements that you know will add to the mix.
Create some loops
You now have a complete kit. It is time to establish some beat loops to use as starting points for later.
Start with the main beat. This is what your main drop or verse will play to. Make 2 or 3 versions for now and see which one you prefer. It is also a good time to consider what the beat will sound like for any chorus parts you will want to add later.
The funny part is, after making the drum kit, I don’t spend a ton of time on the beat creation. I tend to hold off until after we establish the bass and sub, but feel free to experiment and put some ideas together.
Next we visit the almighty bass.
Also, this is a great time to SAVE YOUR WORK.
I will add these little reminders throughout this guide in case you are following along and making a song at the same time. Nothing crushes creativity more than losing hours of hard work.