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I've been learning Ableton Live with an interest in making electronic music, and this has been my first exposure to drums whatsoever. Of course, I'm not dealing with a real drum set, but rather an electronic one.

I just discovered that you can choose the pitch of the drum. I suppose this is obvious in retrospect but as a non-drummer I had never thought about it.

How do I know what pitches to choose? Do they need to be in the scale of the song? I assume not. My current understanding is that it's only important that the different drums have well-chosen intervals between their pitches, so that they don't sound too similar.

  • There are already some great answers, but I wanted to add the only time I pitch drums to a particular note is sometimes with a kick drum where I want it to follow the bassline. If you have a nice long kick sample (like an 808) you can usually tune it to the bass notes and it kind of does the kick drum and bassline in one. I don't do it on every track, but it's a cool effect. The other drums I will transpose them and see what sounds best in the song, but rarely do I tune them to a certain pitch. – Charles Nov 1 '14 at 22:58
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Drums have pitches, but by the time they are in the track, then unless it is for very specific purposes, to complement a melodic line etc, then those actual pitches should not be truly apparent to the end-listener.

Let the listener just get the 'vibe' of what you intend.
They shouldn't really be hearing a 'tune' from the drum pitches, only the apparent power & depth, to suit the track.

If the samples are originally from real instruments, then they will likely sound at their best at or near their original pitch [a tone or so either side, maybe] - unless you like the effect of pushing them outside that realm.

There really are no hard & fast rules, it really comes down to, 'if it sounds good, do it!' - which can sometimes extend so far as, 'it sounds good to me, everybody else can like it or hate it, i'm going to do it anyway!'

A caveat would be, that if you push a sample pitch too far, then not only the fundamental pitch of the drum will change, but the transient [the little click at the front of the sound that makes it 'feel' percussive] might get lengthened or shortened too much to allow it to show through & do its job...

There are transient-shaping plugins you can get which can change that 'hit' at the front of the sound, making it sound new & fresh again, so that might be something to look at if you really want to stretch pitches a long way from the original.

  • 1
    Going to leave this open for now in case other people answer and I get more information, but that's a great answer! Almost definitely going to be the accepted answer. – temporary_user_name Oct 31 '14 at 20:42
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    Thank you - it was my 'first thoughts, non-tech, what should it feel like' answer - which I often feel can be better than getting all mathematical about things ;-) – Tetsujin Oct 31 '14 at 20:45
7

If you are making music as an artist, you may pitch the drums however you feel compliments the rest of the sound. Don't be afraid to pitch them down or up even a whole octave to get some weird effects...

Here are a few tricks I use on drums to experiment with the pitch:

Pitch layering - Often times I will clone a drum or even a whole kit, then pitch adjust the two layers separately. This can create harmonics and dissonance similar to a chord. Sometimes if I feel a drum is lacking some low-end, I will clone it, pitch the clone down, then filter out some of the overlapping muddiness.

Pitch envelope - Example: make the initial hit pitched much higher, say +1200 cents, followed with a quick drop to +0 cents. I find this to work especially well on kick drums. (Essentially a kick is an instant drop from a high frequency to a shortly sustained low bass frequency, additional pitch envelope can increase the pitch drop range and add more punch.)

Pitch bending- Example: over the span of maybe 64 beats, raise the hat pitch +100 cents gradually.

Pitch shifting - Example: let a drum kit run at +200 cents for 64 measures, then +0 for the next 64. Sometimes I like to pitch my kicks according to pitch changes in my sub so they seem merged. Another idea I use is to have every other snare/clap alternate pitch, say +100 then +0 cent, sort of adds a swaying movement to the beat.

Time stretching - a whole subject in itself; but pitch is most definitely involved.

When combining these tricks, you can spend all day twisting a boring drum sample into a rinsed masterpiece. I experiment with these tricks on most of my samples (vocals, melodies etc). Take this advice from an artistic approach, I am a self taught music producer and I imagine there are 'sound engineers' that would rip these suggestions apart.

3

As other answers have said, drums used in a drum kit are essentially treated as unpitched. Certainly, they wouldn't usually be retuned for songs/pieces in different keys, as you would do with timpani (kettle drums), for instance.

However, a drummer colleague of mine told me some time ago that he tunes his kit differently depending upon what style if music he is playing, presumably as he feels it is more likely to "sit" well with the keys the other players are likely to use. He tunes his kits as follows:

Jazz: Snare - Bb; Tom 1 - C; Tom 2 - F; Kick - G

Fusion: Snare - Bb; Tom 1 - Eb; Tom 2 - Bb; Kick - Eb (or all semitone higher)

Rock: Snare - A; Tom 1 - D; Tom 2 - D(?); Kick - A

(Not sure he meant D for both Rock Toms: I'll check and repost if necessary.)

2

While the specific pitches of drums could certainly have a some impact on the music — small consonance changes with the other instruments, "feel" — tuning real drums is more about tension than pitch to my understanding. Since you're working digitally, you can adjust the pitch a bit without needing to over-loosen or over-tighten a real drum, which lends itself to experimentation. As Tetsujin said, aim for what "feels right" and don't move too far away from the original pitch. I'd be quite interested to see how much an effect tuning the drums to the key of the song would have compared to more dissonant drums!

2

In addition to the other answers regarding the creative implications of pitch-shifting drum sounds, you can also choose the pitch of a drum to stop phase issues in the track.

For example, if you layer different kicks on top of each other, you may find that it loses its punch. Changing the pitch of one of the samples can get the kicks complementing each other, rather than cancelling each other out.

If your drum has an obvious pitch, like the 808, it may help to tune it to a pitch that complements the bassline, so as not to clash, or again, cause phase issues.

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