By Craig Anderton, Editor in Chief, Harmony Central
The cliché is that drum loops are boring and repetitive . . . but you don't have to succumb to dumb drums if you check out these ways to make drum loops anything but a yawner.
Add individual drum hits
Drum loop libraries often include individual drum hits. So, you can set up another track adjacent to the track containing the loop and drag in some additional hits. The occasional off-beat hit can liven up a part by adding an element of surprise or increasing emphasis as needed.
Use real cymbals
Find drum loops that don't have cymbals, then mic some real cymbals and overdub the cymbal parts. Not only will the cymbals' sound provide a richness that's difficult for a sample to provide, but using real cymbals adds variety to the loops.
Loop variations with chopping
Chopping a loop into pieces and rearranging them can work wonders. For example, cut a 16th note from the loop's beginning, then paste it in for the two 16th notes that precede the loop. While you're at it, draw in a level curve so they build up to the loop itself (Fig. 1). The end result is a seductive lead-in. You can also chop internally to the loop; for example, swap the 2nd and 3rd beats to add some variation. Or, "intensify" a part by chopping an 8th note hit in half, throwing away the second half, and repeating the first part twice (Fig. 2). This gives you two 16th note hits instead of a single 8th note hit.
Change the tempo
If you're using REX or Acid-compatible loops, they'll follow reasonable tempo changes if their stretching/transient markers are placed properly. Real musicians don't maintain a rock steady tempo—not necessarily because they can't, but because they manipulate the "groove" to add emotional impact. Pulling back the tempo a bit can help emphasize the vocals in a sensitive verse, while speeding up a little bit provides the rhythmic equivalent of modulating upward by a semitone.
The virtues of automation
Dynamically varying the drum loop levels and timbre via host automation can restore some of the dynamics that are taken away by repeating a loop over and over again. Even better, assign some of these parameters to a hardware control surface so you can manipulate the dynamics in real time, and do a "performance."
Yes, it takes some extra effort to make a loop really shine—but when you hear how much these techniques can add to a loop, you'll make that effort.