Level: Beginner to Intermediate // Read Time: 5 – 10min
In this guide, we’ll take a look at a few simple steps you can take to make your own unique drum sounds.
I love drum synthesis. In fact, I don’t think I’ve used a single drum sample in one of my productions for about a year now. By using drum synthesis I find I’m able to get unique sounds that don’t sound like that same boring kick drum sample everyone else is using! 😐
‘But drum synthesis is so complicated!’, I hear you say. To that I say, ‘Nay! Listen up!’
There is only one simple thing you need to learn to be able to create your own unique drum sounds... set your Sustain to -INF
The thing that makes a drum (or percussion) sound percussive is that it has no sustain. Any percussive sound is created by hitting something once and then letting it decay. Sure some things might have longer decays, like a crash cymbal, but the fact is that you hit it once and it decays to silence. No sustain.
Let's Make A Drum
Knowing this, its really easy to make a drum sound out of absolutely anything, let’s try it now. Load up your favourite sampler in whatever DAW you’re working in (for me that’s the Simpler device in Ableton Live but you can do this with anything that will load a sample) and drop a sample in it.
It can be any sample, it doesn’t have to be a drum sample. It could be a synth, a voice or even an entire song.
Now, find the Volume Envelope section of your sampler…
Here you’ll usually find what’s known as an ADSR (Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release) envelope. First, set your Sustain to -inf because, as we discussed above, drum sounds have no sustain.
You’ll probably want to set your Attack quite low as well, somewhere around 5ms, or as low as your sampler will go. Depending on the sample you’ve used you may also want to adjust the starting point of the sample.
Now play some notes; you should hear your sound trigger and immediately fade out. Depending on how your sampler works, your Decay and Release controls will adjust how long it takes the sound to Decay. You’ll probably want to set these to about the same setting, but you can get some interesting results if they are different.
In certain samplers you might be able to set the ADSR mode to Trigger, which is good for drum sounds as it ignores the Release control and you can just use your Decay for adjusting the decay of your sound. Ableton Live’s Simpler doesn’t have a Trigger mode, but the Sampler does. If you have Ableton Live Suite you can convert your Simpler to a Sampler by right-clicking in the title bar and choosing ‘Simpler -> Sampler’. Then head into the Filter / Global section and set your Loop to Trigger.
We Have A Drum!
So there you have it, a drum sound! There is obviously a lot more that you can do with your sample to get different kinds of drum sounds, for example try adjusting your pitch or applying a hipass filter with some resonance, but in its simplest form, drum synthesis is all about setting your sound up with no Sustain and then controlling its Decay.
Try swapping out the sample in your sampler and hearing the different sounds you can get by altering the source material. In Ableton Live you can even drop different samples into Simpler or Sampler and they will retain all the other settings you’ve already set which is really great for trying lots of different kinds of source samples.
Go Forth And Make Some Drums! 🥁
So that’s it, you now know how to make your own unique drum sounds. If you want to explore drum synthesis a little more you should check out my free Ableton Live Pack, DRUMR or, if you really want to immerse yourself in drum synthesis you could give EARTH a go. You can get 33% off EARTH using the code ‘makedrumsnotwar’ at checkout.