In 1980, the Roland Corporation introduced the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer — what we know as the 808. It was among one of the first programmable drum machines. And despite being decades old, it’s as prominent as ever in modern music. Though, producers today may not be using the actual drum pad, they’re using the samples: booming bass drops, digital snares, tinny hi-hats, artificial claps, etc. In rap music today, the 808 drum kit can be found everywhere from Grammy-winning artists and producers like Kanye West and Jay-Z.
But with such prominence also comes a lot of repetition. When listening to a handful of hip-hop’s most popular trap tunes at any given moment, can you really tell who the producer is without the producer tag? Certainly Metro Boomin is going to produce differently than Mike WiLL Made-It, but in many scenarios, their use of 808 drum kits ends up sounding very similar. This isn’t a bad thing — most acoustic drum kits sound similar, whether it’s Led Zeppelin or The Who. But in this modern era of production, taking the time to make your 808 drum kits unique will go a long way in helping you to stand out among the rest. Here are a few ways how:
1. Pitch shift your samples — a lot
Changing the pitch of drum samples is a common practice among producers to give them a new sound. For example, you might really enjoy the sound of a snare sample, but taking it down a whole step might give it a darker tone that better fits your overall track. You can do the same thing with electronic drum samples like in the 808 kit. But instead of just doing some mild pitching like taking a snare a whole step down, really try pushing the boundaries. Pitch your snare a whole octave down, or automate the snare so when it hits, it rises in pitch from an octave down back to its original pitch. You can do the same thing with hi-hats or other elements to give them a unique sound. The more you pitch, the more you’ll need to EQ them to sound good, but don’t be afraid to experiment here.
Clams Casino — who’s produced for The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, and Lana Del Rey — is a pioneer of pitch-shifting drums (and really anything that makes its way into his DAW). On his song, “Blast,” many of the drum samples are taken way down in pitch, giving them a more dreamy and unique character.
2. Use unconventional effects
When it comes to the 808 drum kit, it’s pretty common to leave most of it dry, meaning no reverb, delay, or various creative effects. Putting some light reverb on snare drums and hi-hats isn’t abnormal, by any means, but 808 drum kits can often be very powerful without many effects. But this doesn’t mean you can’t get creative with putting unconventional effects — or unconventional use of effects — on these 808 drum samples. For example, take a beat with an 808 sub, kick, clap, and open hi-hat. This is a pretty common setup for most trap beats. But to make them stand out, throw on a light flanger on the 808, large amounts of delay on the open hi-hat, an ocean of reverb on the snare, and a light chorus on the kick drum. This will surely give your beat a new sense of life, but it will also present new mixing challenges to tame all of these effects from getting out of hand. So, always make sure when using effects unconventionally, that you’re constantly checking your mix and making sure it’s clear.
3. Get creative with panning
When we produce and mix our drums, we typically follow a common order: kicks and snares / claps in the center; hi-hats and miscellaneous percussion in the left or right ear. However, there is no rulebook for where you should pan your samples. It is true that lower frequencies you get in 808 subs and bass-heavy kicks really shouldn’t steer away from the center of the mix — they often work best in mono because of the weight of those low frequencies. But the top parts of those drums can be moved all over. Think of it like a painting and you’re just staring at a blank canvas — the stereo field — deciding where to put all of your colors. Try panning your lead snare to the left ear instead of the center. Rather than keeping your hi-hat panned slightly to the right, put an automatic panning filter on it to go back and forth between left and right at various speeds. Keep the sub part of your kick in mono, but make the top of the kick (EQ range from 300Hz upward) completely stereo, so it’s not hitting in the center at all.
4. Adjust the length and attack of your samples
Every clap or snare doesn’t need to ring out for the entirety of its given duration. You can shorten the sample so its hit is just for a quick second. This will give the impression of an 808 drum, but the effect will feel different. You can also play heavily with the attack on your samples. By adjusting the attack on a sample such as a hi-hat, you can practically turn it into a shaker. You can do this with 808 sub bass hits as well — this helps to give them a softer feel, and can change the way we’re used to having them delivered to us.
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Sam Friedman is an electronic producer and singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn, creating music as Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web.