Fig. 1. Screen A: In this drum loop, I want to copy the bass drum
hit on the “and” of 2 to beat 3. I select and separate the hit (screen B),
then drag-copy it to beat 3 (screen C), making sure that snap-to-grid
is on in my DAW.
Audio loops are great tools for music production, because they typically offer high-quality recordings of pro-caliber performances, and they’re commercially available for virtually any instrument, and in a wide range of styles. Beyond their obvious role in loop-based genres like electronica and hip-hop, loops are also handy for producers of rock, pop, country, and other musical styles when—for financial, gear, talent, or space reasons—a real instrumentalist can’t be brought in. Acoustic drum loops are particularly useful, because so many personal studios are not equipped for drum recording. Drum loops offer realistic-sounding performances that are not easy to achieve with MIDI drums.
For all of their pluses, audio loops do have some disadvantages: First, you’re limited to the performances available in the loop collection; you can’t get a custom performance like you could from a studio musician. Second, that loop library that you bought is also likely to be owned by hundreds or thousands of other musicians, so by using its loops, you run the risk of your music sounding generic.
You can mitigate these disadvantages somewhat by editing your loops. It’s not as easy as with MIDI loops, but audio loops can be changed and customized to some degree to fit your song, beyond simply adjusting the tempo and pitch.
Get Rhythm Often, I’ll find a drum loop that has the basic feel that I’m looking for, but I’ll want to modify it to fit my song better. For instance, the loop might have a kick or snare hit that I would like to move to another part of the measure. Moving individual drum hits within a loop is typically pretty easy. In Figure 1 on page 82, the kick hitting on the “and” of 2 is copied and pasted so that it also occurs on beat 3.
To move an individual hit, turn off your DAW’s snap-to-grid function, and cut the left-hand boundary of the hit at its initial transient. Next, cut at the end of the hit, thus separating it entirely from the material around it. Then put your snap-to-grid back on, and slide the hit—or drag-copy it if you want the original to stay in place—to the new location. Next, add short crossfades to the boundaries of the hit you’ve moved.
You can run into trouble when there are other elements in the loop playing at the same time, or ringing out noticeably over the section you’re trying to move. Luckily, there will almost always be other instruments playing along with the drums in your mix, so slight glitches from your edits will often be covered up.
If a glitch or drop-out is audible in the mix, find a short section of the loop where nothing is hitting or ringing out. Paste it to fit the dropout, adding crossfades at its boundaries. Hits that don’t ring out, such as kick drums (and frequently, snare drums), are usually easy to move around.
You can create fills in loops that are just grooves, by copying and pasting individual hits. For instance, you can often create a realistic-sounding flam by layering two snare or tom hits, with one hitting just slightly later than the other.
If you want to completely change the feel of your loop, and your DAW has an audio quantize feature, try adding swing to a straight-eighth-note loop, or vice versa; or experiment with the groove quantize to subtly alter the feel. Don’t forget to make a safety copy of the original loop before doing any destructive editing. Using your DAW’s automation or gain features, you can also alter the dynamics of individual hits or notes within a loop.
Many drum loop collections also include one-shot samples of the drums that were recorded. These can be quite useful when editing loops from that library. Use tom sounds to put together a fill, add crashes, or just get a snare sample that’s totally in the clear. It often works better to put these one-shots on a separate track so that you’re adding their sound to the drum part, as opposed to pasting them into the loop, where they will replace the sound of the area where they’re pasted.
Take Note Loops of pitched instruments can also be altered; single note parts are easier to work with than chords, but it depends on the loop. You can even separate a note in a loop and transpose it to alter the melody.
Transpositions of more than a few semitones usually sound unnatural, however. Whether moving or transposing notes, be careful that your changes don’t make the instrument in the loop do something that sounds inauthentic (unless that’s your intention).
Part of the Process One way to make loops sound less generic is to process them—try subtly pitch-shifting a drum loop (without changing its tempo) or compressing it with a “character” compressor on an extreme setting. Add a flanger to a bass loop, or telephone EQ to a vocal loop—the possibilities are endless.
Don’t feel boxed in by the way a loop sounds in its original form. Experiment with editing it—you may very well be able to change it to fit your song, and make it your own.
Mike Levine (mikelevine.com) is the former editor of Electronic Musician. He recently authored and produced Pro Tools 10 Course Clips Master, a video tutorial DVD published by Course Technology PTR.