How Tuning Drums Leads to Cleaner Mixes

By Donald Dinsmore

Why Producers Tune Drums

Most producers don't include instruments in their songs that are playing out of key.  The reason being instruments playing out of key sound dissonant (or bad depending on your point of view) and can be unsettling to the listener.  However when it comes to drums, many skilled producers load up a sample, put it in their song and process it with EQ, distortion and compression without giving a second thought to pitch.  This could be that many people assume drum sounds don't have a distinct pitch.  These people are wrong.

Many drum sounds have very clear and defined pitch.  A classic example of tuned drums are toms.  For decades drummer have tuned their toms to specific notes, A, C, E being quite common.  But toms aren't the only drums with defined pitch.  In electronic kits, kicks and snares have clearly defined pitch.  

Today producers tune drums for a few key reasons:

  1. To play a melody or counter-melody that follows are chord progression.

    A modern example is tuning 808 kicks to play bass lines in Trap music. 
     

  2. To make mixdowns easy.  

    Drums that are tune sound better because they harmonize with the chord structure of the song.
     
  3. To alter the sound of the drum.

    Are you familiar with the 'Koan Sound' snare sound?  It's made by layering a pitch up tom drum with

How to Tune Drums

How you go about tuning your drum sounds depends very much on how you use samples in Ableton.  Some people use Drum Racks and other simply drop audio clips of individual drum hits into arrangement view.  

Tuning Drum Sounds in Drum Racks

The first thing I do is determine the pitch of the drum hit.  This can be pretty easy if you're using synthesized drums but complex layered samples can be a little more tricky.  The workflow is as follows, load up a Spectrum Audio Effect in chain after the Drum Rack.  Next Solo the drum sound you want to tune.  As you play the drum sound you will see Spectrum responding, the loudest peak at the lowest frequency is called the fundamental frequency and determines the pitch of the sound.  The fundamental frequency is what you want to tune to the key of your song.  Hover your mouse above the fundamental frequency and Spectrum will give you a read out of the note and frequency the fundamental is hitting at in the bottom left corner of the meter.  Using the Transpose section of Simpler, tune the drum sound to a note from the scale.  You can fine tune the drum to just the right pitch using the Detune in Simpler.  

Hove your cursor over the top of the lowest frequency peak to determine the pitch of the drum.

Hove your cursor over the top of the lowest frequency peak to determine the pitch of the drum.

You may find that after following the procedure above that your drums don't quite sound perfect in terms of pitch.  If that's the case try grouping the Simpler of the drum you are trying to tune with an operator playing a sine wave.  Now whenever the MIDI triggers the Drum Rack pad both the drum sound and the Operator sine wave will be played.  Match the pitch of the Drum sound to that of the Operator using Transpose.  This video explains the process:

Another strategy that people often employ to tune kick drums or other deep sounds is to transpose them up an octave before attempting to tune them.  Many people find it difficult to 'hear' pitch in the bass range and pitching it up can make it a little easier to distinguish the pitch. 

Tuning Drum Sounds in Audio Clips

Strategies for tuning drum sounds in audio clips are much the same as in Drum Racks.  If you open clip view you will see a Transpose knob in the Sample box.  You can use this to repitch the Drum sounds to your liking.  Try the same techniques as described above to find the right tuning. 

Words of Warning

Repitching warped audio can introduce warping artifacts and distortion.  Warping artifacts can sound cool if used thoughtfully and with consideration but they can cause more harm than good to your drum sounds (especially the bassy ones).  Save the CPU and avoid the distortion introduced by warping and tune your drums without it.  

Many drums, particularly kicks and toms have pitch drops at the beginning of the sounds.  The pitch will drop quickly once the sample is triggered and will begin to stabilize and ring out at a set pitch.  The pitch the drum sounds stabilizes at is the pitch you should consider the pitch of the drum.  

Ways To Use Tuned Drums

Tune Drums to Match the Key of the Song

Drums that are in the same key as the song sound better and make your mix cleaner.  A typical way to approach drum tuning is to set the drums to specific notes in the key of the song.  For this technique if our song is in C minor you could tune your kick to the fifth of the scale (G) to separate it from the bass.  Perhaps the snare found a couple octaves above the bass and kick could be tuned to the third (E flat) or the forth (F) of the scale.  If you tune your drums to the tonic, the third, the forth or the fifth they will probably harmonize reasonably well with any chord you have in your song. 

Tune Drums to Follow a Chord Progression

An alternate method of tuning drums is the have the pitch of the drums change along with the chord.  For example, if you have Am and G chords in your song.  The kick and snare will start playing any of the notes A, C or E while the chord of the song is Am.  When the chord changes to G so will the pitch of the drums to match the notes of the chord (G, B or D).  If you choose this approach it you may find it easier to load your drum sounds into Simpler on to their own MIDI tracks so you can alter the pitch of the samples without warping or performing cumbersome automation.

Above the pitch of the kick drum follows the chord changes.

Above the pitch of the kick drum follows the chord changes.

Tune Drums to Open Up Your Mix

Imagine in your song you have a really ripping lead line playing high in the register.  While you're working on your mix you realize that the lead and hi hats are fighting for space.  Your initial reaction might be to reach for the EQ but maybe next time something like this happens try increasing the pitch of the hi hats by a few semitones to make more room for the lead line.

Tune your Drums to Alter their Sounds

If you've ever listened to bass music you've probably heard of a producer called Koan Sound.  A huge part of the sound that made him famous was his unique snare drum.  Without going into the details of how to make it (there are lots of tutorials on YouTube) I will tell you that the core of the sound is a pitched up tom layered with the high end of a 'normal' snare sample.  The pitched up tom sample gave Koan Sound's snares their distinctive snap and timbre which helped make his sound identifiable.  Another trick you can try is to layer your snare with a pitched up kick drum sample to add weight in the 150 - 300 Hz region.