How to Process Drums for Pop Music
The only 3 techniques you need to get the perfect drums for any pop song in as little time as possible.
SEPTEMBER 25TH, 2022
What adjectives would you associate with pop drums? Loud, huge, tight, powerful, etc.? Whichever words you chose, chances are others will choose similar ones. There are certain commonalities between songs that simply feel like contemporary pop music, and those are what we’re going to focus on getting out of your drums here!
Quick note: The 3 core production principales we discuss in this article are directly incorporated into Virtual Drummer HOT. UJAM’s punchy entry into the world of pop drums! If you want to get the pop sound you’re looking for instantly, check out HOT and you’ll have the sound you need in no time!
Imagine a kick or snare with no impact — just a gentle whoosh from the body and tail of each hit. That would completely defeat the point of drums! When the impact has just the right level of presence and tightness, that’s when you know you’ve hit the sweet spot. A simple way to fine tune the snap of your drums is with a transient controller — Transient Shaper from Kilohearts and Trans-X from Waves both do an excellent job of this. However, if you’re new to transient shaping, it’s easy to overdo it and overemphasize the snap, causing the drums to stick out unnaturally (and potentially hurt your ears).
Rather than reaching for these tools automatically, listen to your mix, focusing in on the drums, and compare them to a pop reference mix you love. Before moving forward, adjust your levels so that your drums have the same relative volume to the rest of the mix as your example. Do your drums have enough snap? Do they have too much snap? For now, only listen to the transients, and use a shaping tool to either bring up or de-emphasize the attack of the drums as needed.
Not everyone uses dedicated transient control plugins, though — it’s also possible to achieve the effect you want using compressors. Different plugins have their own unique character and there are tons of different flavors you can achieve this way, but your DAW of choice will likely provide a perfectly suitable compressor. To get a solid grasp on compression, check out our article The Ultimate Guide to Compression. To get the right snap, all of the standard controls play a key role, but especially pay attention to the attack setting — too short and the snap will be very tight but have a weak impact. Longer attacks up to around 30 milliseconds allow you to bring out what you need and tap down the body immediately after to create just the right snap!
Compression isn’t just valuable for transient control ... it has a massive effect on the shape of the drums as a whole. The lower the threshold and the higher the ratio, the more of a dip you’ll get as the body comes in. “Riding” the body hard will add more of a shape to your drums, though it will also reduce the overall dynamic range, which is part of the reason the term “overcompressing” is thrown around frequently.
When manipulating the attitude of your drums, the release of a compressor is your best friend. The shorter it is, the faster the original volume level will recover and the more the tail of each drum hit you’ll get (the shortest releases will get you an explosive sound!). Longer release times can quickly get messy, and generally you’ll want the sound to fully recover before the next hit — but within that range, the longer the release, the choppier and more separated a sound you’ll hear.
Another big contributor to attitude is saturation or, if you want to push it even harder, distortion. As we often mention, the type of saturation you choose is key — for example, the types you’ll find in Finisher RETRO are very different from those you’ll get with NEO. This may take some experimentation, and you’ll know you’ve found the right type when the drums suddenly lock in with the rest of the mix. It’s easy to overdo it with saturation, so find your level and then back off a little on the amount. You can always increase it later if you feel that’s what the mix needs. If you’re in Virtual Drummer HOT, pull up the Live Mix Preset, increase the amount and simply dial in the amount of attitude you want!
Once you’ve got the snap and attitude of your pop drums just right, you may find that something is still missing. This is where the idea of size comes into play — put simply, how “big” your drums sound. One of the quickest ways to increase their size is to boost the low end or low mids with an EQ; for kicks this will often be somewhere in the 40 Hz to 120 Hz range (focus only on the lowest frequencies of the kick drum, not this whole range, otherwise it will likely conflict with the bass), while the snare’s base frequency to increase is typically somewhere around 200 Hz. Listen to the samples first before boosting, as many will have already been processed this way and it’s easy to add too much weight to the drums.
Whenever possible, EQ each drum separately so you don’t inadvertently bring up information you don’t want in all the instruments simultaneously. All the samples in Virtual Drummer HOT are EQ’d to fit neatly together, so you won’t need to worry about it there!
The other major way to convey size is by controlling the physical space around the drums, i.e. reverb. Listen to nearly any pop album from the 80s and you’ll hear just how extreme this can be! Of course, you’ll probably want to be less overt, meaning a shorter decay time along with less compression, gating and overall reverb volume. You can absolutely use a long decay time, but be careful not to emphasize it too heavily and consider limiting the “large” reverb to the snare drum. Kicks quickly become muddy when placed in reverb, and verby toms are a dead giveaway for the classic 80s sound (though if you’re writing synthwave, feel free to do this intentionally!).
The standards for high-quality pop drums are constantly being raised, and there are plenty of processing techniques you’ll want to employ in order to keep up. Follow the process laid out here and you’ll be well on your way! Of course, the less you leave to chance and the faster you can iterate, the better — to consistently have pro-level pop drums in your arsenal whenever the need arises, Virtual Drummer HOT has everything you need and then some. If you want consistently great results, put it to use in your next pop song and listen to how quickly everything comes together!
About the Author
Harry Lodes is a copywriter, marketing consultant and content writer for audio and ecommerce brands. He lives in the Philadelphia area, releasing Eastern/Western hybrid EDM under the artist name KAIRI hearkening back to his roots in Berklee College of Music.
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