After you've been producing for a few years, using the same drum kits and FX can begin feeling redundant.
One great way to stay inspired in your DAW is by using your own sounds captured via a portable field recorder. Have you ever tried transforming “non-musical” objects into unique and original drums, FX, foley, ambiance, or even instrument one shots?
If your mobile phone was manufactured within the last few years, then buying a field recorder isn't even necessary. The microphone in your phone is perfect for starting out 👍
Team Producergrind's Aye YB used these techniques to help him create his PIPED UP Drum Kit 🥁 and pretty soon you'll have all the gems:
Step #1: Recording Your Sound Sources
The first thing to do is collect some sound recordings. Use your imagination and get creative!
Grab some forks and knives from the kitchen, a pillow or mattress from the bedroom; really just about anything that you can hit and get some transient noise out of.
Or just head outside and start the recording. Ambient noise makes for some great source material!
There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but your best bet is to record as many different sounds as possible before importing them into your DAW. This way you will have a lot of sound material to work with 👌
You will drastically manipulate and process these sound recordings afterward.
Here's a tip: you don’t want to record sounds too loudly.
If the recording comes in too hot, the audio will clip (which means the audio signal is amplified past the maximum allowed limit), resulting in a distorted audio signal. Clipped audio can severely limit a recording's usability, so it's best to record quiet and apply distortion on your own terms 👊
Many field recorders allow you to set your input levels manually. Setting your levels to peak at -12db is a safe place to start. If you are recording on your phone then just be aware of the noise level and try to maintain a low volume.
The cleaner a recording, the more you can do with it 🎙
Step #2: Categorize and Label The Recordings
The next thing to do is to listen through all of the sounds and see which ones have the potential to be processed and manipulated.
Certain recordings are going to be easier to shape than others. Tone, timbre, pitch, rhythm, and room noise behind the primary sound will all factor into what you do with them.
For example, a recording of a pen dropping on a table is going to have much less low-end energy than a recording of your hand hitting a mattress or a pillow.
Given that, you'll have more success creating a kick drum from a pillow compared to a pen. And a pen will make for a better as a hihat compared to a mattress. Keep this in mind while categorizing and labeling your sound recordings 👍
If you’re in FL Studio, use the slice tool in the playlist to cut up your recordings into manageable and useful chunks 🔪
Step #3: Adjustments Before Processing
Before you begin applying plugins and sound designing, take some time to clean up the best parts of the recordings.
If you’re in FL Studio, open up the Channel Sampler to edit start time, length of sample, and pitch (under the time stretching options) ✅
Of course, there are other parameters in the Channel Sampler, but those are the three basic features to focus on for the time being.
Next, resample the audio inside of your DAW so that your sample is locked-in and ready for processing.
You can easily do this in FL Studio using Edison on the Master Channel, but every DAW will have a similar process 👌
Step #4: Utility Processing
Now that your sound recordings are neatly organized and labeled in your playlist or step sequencer, you need to get them into the mixer. If you’re in FL Studio, highlight all of your audio files in the step sequencer and press Control+L (PC) or Command+L (Mac).
Use an EQ to filter out any unwanted frequencies and boost frequencies that you want more prominent.
Use compression to tame dynamics (if desired) and to make the overall volume level more consistent.
There are five basic parameters on a compressor that you need to know:
Threshold: Sets the signal level required for the compressor to kick in. For example, a threshold of -10db means that the compressor will initiate once the audio signal reaches and surpasses -10db. If the threshold is left on 0db then the signal will remain unaffected.
Ratio: Determines how aggressively the signal is compressed relative to how far the threshold is surpassed. For example, a 4:1 ratio compresses the signal by 4db for every 1db the signal surpasses the threshold.
Attack: The time it takes the compressor to turn on once the signal surpasses the threshold. For example, an attack of 3 m/s means that the compressor will take 3 milliseconds to fully initiate after the audio signal reaches or surpasses the threshold.
A fast attack will potentially catch and squash transients (the initial hit of a sound, like the very start of a drum shot), while a slower attack will let the transient through unhindered but affect the rest of the signal. Given this, a drum track's compressor should typically have a slower attack so you don't lose all the impact of the drums!
Release: The time it takes the compressor to turn off once the signal dips below the threshold. For example, a release of 10 m/s means that the compressor will take 10 milliseconds to fully release after the audio signal dips below the threshold.
Makeup Gain: Compensates for the volume lost after compressing. For example, you might add 2-3db of makeup gain if the signal has significantly lost volume after consistent compression. The result is a less dynamic, but potentially louder signal.
iZotope's Neutron contains modules for EQ, compression, and six other effects all within a single clean interface. Neutron is primarily geared towards track mixing, but all the built-in tools make it an excellent choice for utility processing before you get into the fun of creative processing.
Once you’re happy with how your audio recordings sound, it’s time to move from utility processing to creative processing using effects like reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, and whatever else you pull out.
Step #5: Creative Processing and Shaping
The plugins and effects you reach for at this point completely depend on what type of sample you’re manipulating and the intent you have behind it 💯
You will want to get creative because the possibilities are endless.
Grab a delay to widen your sample using a fast delay time, and then mix in the dry signal. Or throw on a chorus and click-through some presets until your sample is thicker 🔥
If you're designing drums, the strongest tool in your arsenal will be a transient shaper. As discussed previously, the transient is the initial "hit" of an audio signal. It's the percussive nature of a sound.
Transient shapers are important because you may need to up the initial "hit" of your recording to make the designed drum really knock. Transient shapers will also let you alter the "tail" of a sound as well. It's well worth your time to learn this tool.
Not all recordings are meant to be drums though! Cableguys has a crazy plugin called ShaperBox that contains seven powerful effects for creative processing and shaping. It's a goldmine for sound design, especially for longer samples.
Processing is the most important part of sound design, so take your time, learn the creative effects at your disposal, and just mess around! You never know what might come out.
Step #6: Layer Samples
Sometimes you create a new sample, but you're not a fan of every aspect of it. In cases like this, layering multiple samples might be your solution.
You might have a kick drum with a great low-end, but a mediocre high-end transient. Try layering it with another kick that has a great high-end.
You can do this with any type of sound recording.
The easiest way to layer audio files is by lining up their transients or waveforms on the playlist to your liking.
Once the timing is right, mix them together with volume and EQ, and glue them together with slight compression. You might want to bring out the transient shaper again if you've compressed some drum shots together 🔊
Lastly, don't underestimate what reverb can do to bring life to an audio recording. Native Instrument's Raum is very fun to use on drums, FX, ambiance, and instrument shots alike. Remember to not overdo it!
Layering audio recordings together is an easy way to create unique sounding samples. The more you do it, the more confident you'll get!
Step #7: Rendering
Once you’re 100% satisfied with your sample, it’s time to export.
Just like you would when exporting a beat, make sure your levels aren't clipping (unless of course that's the effect you're going for).
If your sample has a reverb or delay tail, make sure you don't accidentally chop off the tail prematurely. Let that tail fade out naturally. If you export the sample with too much silence at the end, simply drag it back in and edit the length back to something more appropriate.
While the project is open, consider exporting a few different versions of your sample for other edits in the future.
If the sample contains reverb but is not overly dependent on it, export a dry version of the sample.
If your original audio recordings were recorded at a high sample rate (such as 96kHz), also export at 96kHz. You can create 48kHz and 44.1kHz versions as well!
It's recommended to export in 24-bit float. Go ahead and export at 32-bit float if you know what you're doing!
Lastly, it's a good idea to label the exported file name with any BPM or key information. This will make using your sample in various projects much easier.
Creating your own samples can be super exciting. There are no limits, and learning these skills can take you a long way in developing your own unique sound.
Admittedly, not everyone has the time or interest for sound design. Not only that, but it can be intimidating if you're new to producing. It makes sense why there are dedicated sound designers who've gone to the effort of mastering these techniques and best practices.
Aye YB's PIPED UP Drum Kit offers a fantastic selection of unique homemade drums. TB Digital's DIGITAL INSTRUMENT One Shots Vol 1 is packed full of original instrument one shots ready for you to compose your own melodies.