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Musicians today use audio effects for literally everything. Guitarists, keyboardists, vocalists, saxophonists, you name it. Effects play a huge role in defining your personal sound to achieve the exact, desired impact no matter what instrument or genre you play.
Yet, in my experience, drummers tend to be wariest of using effects processing in a live setting. Perhaps it’s because micing drums is such a pain, we’ve just gotten used to not fussing over that stuff. But now with such enormous advancements in performable electronic drums, we should be exploring these avenues for sonic experimentation and effects much, much more.
So, let me give just a basic overview of some of the standard effects that work especially well with an electronic drum pad, such as the Roland SPD-SX, in a live environment. And if you’re a drummer interested in adding depth to your skillset, we have a few courses you might enjoy, such as Writing Funk Grooves For Drum & Bass, Live Clicks and Backing Tracks, and the six-week intensive course Beat Making in Ableton Live.
Before we jump in the effects pool, I’ve recorded a dry drum groove with no effects on it. With this, we can gauge how much extra flavor we’re adding into the mix.
And now, here are five audio effects that I personally think sound great with acoustic drum, percussion, and even drum-machine samples. These are, again, pretty basic, but feel free to get super creative with it!
Reverb puts the drums in a specific resonating space; for example, a cathedral, stadium, or small club.
Delay causes the drums to echo at various specified rates, which can either be used rhythmically or to create ambiance — whatever fits your music best.
Bit Crusher produces a lo-fi sound by altering the resolution of the audio; for example, you can make your drums sound like they belong in an 8-bit Gameboy game.
Distortion, or Overdrive, alters the sound by increasing the gain to create clipping, which, in turn, adds harmonics to the waveform, which can sound gritty, like an electric guitar.
Envelope Filter is a wah-wah type effect that amplifies a specific frequency and cuts out other frequencies. What makes it work well with drums is that it’s responsive to the input volume, so louder the signal you create, the more of an effect you’ll hear.
By simply combining two or more effects, you can come up with some of your own creations. Here are a few that I came up with.
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There are three basic ways that you can use effects in a live setting:
- Using the onboard effects on your electronic pad
- Using physical effects pedals
- Running your electronic pad/drum set through your DAW with an audio interface
Using Onboard Drum Pad Effects
On the Roland SPD-SX pad, these are triggered by clicking the FX button on the front panel of the pad.
By using the knobs on the front panel, you can alter the parameters of the chosen effect, such as delay amount, feedback, and so on. One important thing to make sure of when using a pad’s onboard effects is whether the effect is correctly routed to the proper pad. Roland’s website has detailed instructions for setting up effects on the Roland-SPD-SX, as well as a handy list of the available effects on the pad.
Roland SPD-SX FX menu view
Roland SPD-SX FX output menu view
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Tone Timeline: Using Delay as a Secondary Instrument”
Using Guitar Effects Pedals
Another way to set up audio effects is with pedals. There’s a lot of choice and variety here with tons of brands creating their own signature variations on recognizable effects. And there’s also a lot to think about when putting together your pedalboard, stuff like voltage, signal chain order and direction, etc. I strongly recommend reading Brad Allen Williams’ great article, “Everything You Didn’t Know You Needed to Know About Pedalboards,” to brush up.
Using Your DAW to Run Effects
If you’re using Logic Pro X or any Waves GTR plugins, you will come across digital pedalboards that move the audio signal from left to right and allow you to change the order of the pedals at any point. Check out our new, free video series with Kaki King exploring how she reinvented herself using a digital pedalboard on the touring circuit.
If you’re working in Ableton Live, the effects will go across the button of the screen and will also move the audio signal from left to right. Experimenting with which position you place your effects in will yield some interesting results, such as placing a reverb before a delay and vice versa. Try a ton of things to hear the difference.
Using a DAW to route effects is great practice for situations like recording or mixing; it allows you to get some hands-on time messing around with the kinds of things you need to think about when sculpting the sound of your drums for a record. But it’s also good practice before you invest in more expensive hardware by giving you the ability to try before you buy.
By now, you should have some idea of how audio effects can help transform the sonic contours of your drum sound. I encourage you to experiment with it yourself, and if you’re looking for more inspiration, here are four percussionists that are doing some really creative things: vibraphonist Simon Moullier, percussionist Amy Knoles, drummer Zach Danziger, and drummer/synthesist Andrea Belfi.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, DIY home recording and production, composing, beat making, and so much more in Soundfly’s courses with artists like RJD2, Ryan Lott, Kiefer, and Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability.