Drummers tune their drum kits, so it's just as important that you tune your drum samples. Tuning a drum kit can be an elaborate task, but tuning drum samples is a simple process. A couple tricks and tips are all you need to start tuning your drum samples with ease.
There’s no correct way to tune your drum samples because it’s entirely subjective. Knowing a little bit of music theory will help you out here, but at the end of the day, the goal is just to tune your drums so that they sound “good” within the context of your song. I’m first going to show you how to identify the pitch of a drum sample using 4 different methods, and then show you how to tune your samples in Ableton.
1. Identify the Notes Your Samples Are Playing
Identifying the note a sample is playing is important because it will let you know how many semi-tones up or down you need to transpose the sample so that it falls within the key of your song. There are many tools you can use to identify the note a drum sample is playing which include a spectrum analyzer, Mixed in Key, Melodyne, or just using your ears.
Tuning your samples to certain scale degrees will impart different effects on your song. For example, people usually tune their kick drum to the root note of the key their song is in. Since your kick drum plays along with multiple other elements in your song, having it tuned to the root note will prevent it from playing dissonant intervals with those other elements.
Tuning a kick to the root note of your song allows the listener to pick up on the key of the song quickly. When I’m trying to identify the key of a song, listening to the kick and baseline usually provide me with a fair bit of the information I need.
If you were playing in F minor, the root note would be F. If you figure out that the kick you’re using is playing a G, then you now know that you need to transpose it down two semi-tones (one whole step) so that it’s playing an F.
I’ll quite often tune my snare so that it’s 7 semi-tones above the root note of my song; this interval is called a perfect 5th. I like tuning my snares this way because a perfect 5th is a sonically pleasing interval that I find to be more interesting than unison.
Using a spectrum analyzer is a quick and effective way to identify the fundamental frequency of your drum samples. Typically, the fundamental frequency is the note that your sample is playing. To identify the fundamental frequency, look for the tallest peak in your spectrum analyzer’s graph; this is usually your fundamental frequency. I say "usually" because the signal may be affected in one way or another making this method unreliable.
For example, there could be a high-pass filter on one of your drum samples that diminishes the presence of the fundamental frequency. You’ll still be able to hear which note the drum sample is playing due to the architecture of its upper harmonics, but using a spectrum analyzer to identify the note may not work.
Your DAW should come with a spectrum analyzer that’s capable of managing this task, although if you’re looking for a high-end spectrum analyzer, the one that comes apart of the Pro-Q 2 by FabFilter is worth checking out. As an additional tip, transposing your sample up an octave (12 semi-tones) will sometimes make its fundamental frequency more visible on your spectrum analyzer; this is useful if you’re having trouble identifying the fundamental frequency.
Mixed in Key
Mixed in Key is the fastest way of identifying the pitch of all your drum samples. You can drag and drop multiple samples into Mixed in Key at once and have it append the key it’s detected to the end of the sample’s file name automatically.
If it were to identify the key of a one-shot drum sample as A minor or A major, the sample would be playing an A. Mixed in Key is intended for analyzing the key of entire songs, which is why it labels samples as major or minor. Analyzing drum samples using this method is relatively reliable, and works for all kinds of samples; not just drums.
The only time that Mixed in Key struggles to identify the key of a sample is if it’s atonal. It will typically label these types of files as “All,” as opposed to the name of a key. Claps prove to be significantly challenging to analyze because they are often made by shaping the amplitude of white noise over time. White noise plays at the same level across the entire frequency spectrum, so there’s not much information for Mixed in Key to work with.
Melodyne is a pitch and time correction software that has exceptional pitch analysis algorithms. It can even analyze the pitch of polyphonic audio signals; for drums, this feature isn’t necessary, but it goes to show that Melodyne is a potent tool. In general, Melodyne does a better job of analyzing the pitch of samples than Mixed in Key; it handles samples that don’t have a definitive tone quite well.
Compared to Mixed in Key, Melodyne performs excellent pitch analysis, but the process of analyzing your entire drum sample library will take much longer. Not a lot of people take the time to analyze the pitch of all their drum samples using this method because of the time commitment. However, if you choose not to tag all of your drum samples with the note they’re playing, you can analyze and tune your drums when you drop them into your song, or once you’re finished arranging your track and begin mixing.
Use Your Ears
The method that I use and that has never failed me is tuning drums by ear. If you’re new to music, this can prove to be quite challenging. It’s a skill that’s developed over time, and evolves along with your ability to identify when notes are in key. Learning music theory and practicing ear training can help to speed this process along by improving your relative pitch.
There’s not a whole lot that goes into tuning drums by ear. The way you transpose a sample either sounds good, or it doesn't. I’ll typically transpose my sample up and down a few semi-tones to see what sounds best, and if I’m not happy with how it’s sounding I’ll switch the sample out for another one. If you transpose your sample up or down too far, it can lose the qualities that initially made you like it. Don’t spend too long listening to the pitch of a sample because you can trick yourself into thinking it sounds “good” as you start to become familiar with it.
When I write a song, I’ll grab a handful of drum samples, arrange them how I want, and then finish writing my song. Once I’m done arranging my entire song, I’ll tune my drum samples. It’s easier for me to tune my drums when I can hear how they sound against the other elements of my track. I don’t always know what note my samples are tuned to, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it sounds good; you can apply this principle to many aspects of music production.
2. Transpose Your Samples
Tuning your drum samples is a simple process, and the exact steps required depend entirely upon your DAW. In Ableton, you can tune your samples by transposing them in the Audio Clip Editor, Simpler, or Sampler.
Audio Clip Editor
The first way to transpose a sample is by dropping it onto an audio track, and double-clicking the sample to open the Audio Clip Editor. The Transpose knob found in this section allows you to transpose the sample up or down. The Detune section found directly below the Transpose knob will enable you to modify the pitch of the sample in cents.
Simpler allows you to transpose samples in its Controls tab. Beneath the Amplitude and Pitch envelope section, there’s a section labeled “Transp” that allows you to transpose the sample up or down. Below the “Transp” control is a Detune control that allows you to modify the pitch of the sample in cents.
Sampler lets you tune samples by selecting a root note. If your sample is playing a C, setting the root note in Sampler to a C will ensure that when you playback the sample on your MIDI keyboard, it plays back the note that you’re pressing. If for example, you’ve set your root note 3 semi-tones too high, all the notes on your MIDI keyboard will playback the sample 3 semi-tones lower than they’re meant to. Sampler also has a Detune section to the right of the Root note section that allows you to modify the pitch of your sample in cents.
How to Tune 808s
Tuning 808s can be somewhat tricky. The reason for this is that their pitch can change drastically over time. A lot of 808s begin with a very high pitch that drops quickly to a lower pitch, and then sometimes continues to drop even further at a slower rate. When I tune 808s, I match the lower pitch (before it starts to decay) to the root note of my song.
I’ve given you all the tools you need to identify the pitch of your drum samples, and I’ve then shown you how to go about transposing them. Using this information, you can take advantage of different musical intervals to infuse your songs with emotion.
If you have any additional methods for tuning your drum samples, make sure to share them below. Follow Black Ghost Audio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date on the latest music production tips and tricks. There’s new content every week, and I don’t want you to miss out.