FDT: Tune Them Drums with Ableton!

I very rarely claim that one thing will automatically make all of your music better, but tuning your drums is one of those things. A lot of times, you’ve got a lot of bits that sound cool, but you can’t get them to gel. Some of this can be solved by a little tuning of the kick drums.

In this post, I specifically talk about tuning your kick drums to match your bassline, but the techniques that I discuss here can be applied to all kinds of drums.

Key to making this process easier is to make sure that your kick drum (or drums if you’ve been smart and layered those muthas) are on their own track. This is mostly a workflow thing, but it comes in very handy, since kicks should have their own signal chain. This will prevent you from trying to slather your kicks with delay or something gross.

Once you’ve gotten the kicks on their own track, solo them one by one against the bassline. At first, it will be difficult to tell if they’re in tune or not, since the kick drum is so low. Here is where my “tip” comes in.

Pitch the kick drum way the eff up. Like, over 12 half-steps. This will make it easier to hear whether or not the drums are in tune. Don’t sweat that the drums sound unnaturally high. Once you’ve found a good tuning, lower the transposition by a multiple of 12. That will drop the drum by an octave, keeping the tuning intact.

Repeat with the rest of your drums, if you’ve layered them, and wait for the adulation of groupies to roll in. Or probably get back to work.

Do you have any other tips to finish off your drum clips? Share em in the comments!

6 Responses to “FDT: Tune Them Drums with Ableton!”

  1. Mick March 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    I always sample my kicks as they are already mastered an will hit 0db on the master

  2. Kirk March 26, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    I saw you tuned by ear – you can tune more precisely (and confidently) using the spectrum. Drop one on your kick, set the volume monitoring to Range instead of Auto, and zoom vertically up to the peak of the kick. If you hover over the peak with your mouse, it will tell you where you are horizontally in the spectrum by Hz and also by note. I like to tune my kicks right onto the root note of my key or its perfect fifth. Cheers!

    • Du-ality March 29, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      Second that, Kirk. Although I do like Anthony’s method, since those low frequencies have wide peaks and can sometimes be a bit ambiguous on the spectrum. I imagine tuning them up would also narrow the peak, making it easier to tell both by ear and on the spectrum what the tone is exactly.

      Heads up, some kick samples pitch downward over the course of the drum sample, so tuning those might be a hopeless task.

      Other drums potentially worth tuning: snares (the body, if it has one, is usually tonal), toms, low congas/bongos/etc…, and sub hits. Sub hits especially. Tune those bad boys with the kick and it’ll tighten up those flabby frequency-beating back beats better than stair steppers and a stack of Jane Fonda tapes.

  3. Anthony April 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    I’d still tune, them, tho. Because likely the track you sampled the kick from is in a different key than yours!

  4. Anthony April 2, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    The fifth is a great move. I swear I’ve heard some people tune their kicks up a fourth to build suspense in a buildup, too.

  5. Anthony April 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    I tune everything by ear. I guess I’m old fashioned, but I figure a person, not a spectrum analyzer, will be listening to it.

    I actually like to leave my bongos, etc. slightly out of tune sometimes. Reason? I find that if I tune them too tightly, I begin to hear them as a melodic element and not as a percussive element, which may or may not be in keeping with my goals. KnowhatImean?

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