Cutting up drum breaks in Ableton Live is a big part of music producer's workflow, but it takes time and often becomes very repetitive.
Not only have we put together a custom drum rack in Ableton that helps automate some of the busy work and make chopping beats feel more fun, we're going to show you how we made it and even go a few steps further.
We're going to walk through the very basics for the beginners, build a beat chopping machine, then embed instances of the autochopper device into a drum rack in Ableton that you can pay and trigger with any MIDI controller.
Advanced people can probably skip ahead.
But, if you're new here's a few terms you should be straight on before you jump in here:
Drum break - This is a term used interchangeably with drum samples that work as a loop.
You can of course program with MIDI notes or play an original drum part. The term comes from the practice of obtaining samples of drums from a vinyl record. You record isolated drums from the "break" in the song when the other instruments drop out.
Drum Rack - The drum device with an 8x8 grid you can assign drum samples and instruments(!) to in Ableton Live. You can even nest another drum rack inside a single drum rack in Ableton. (You need to do this to create 'round robin' sample playback which we explain in another article)
Instrument Racks - These are custom racks usually build from Sampler or Simpler instances, usually meant for playing pitched material.
Easy to get confused once we get moving. We will be putting multiple instances of a custom instrument rack inside pads of a drum rack in Ableton.
AUTOCHOPPER is an effects rack we've put together at Glitch Magic that lets you drag and drop audio in and it will automagically chop it up and apply effects. You can trigger it or let it run on its own, depending on how you set it up and the desired output.
We'll get to specifics a little further along in the article.
But the basic idea here is we're going to spread out duplicate instances of an entire auto-chop device across the pads of a drum rack in Ableton. If you've followed our other guides on drum racks and drum programming, this is a twist on some of these techniques.
You will then have a useful tool for mangling the same break in different ways, mashing together different breaks, or mixing them with individual samples like kicks.
Instead of having to manually manipulate samples one at a time, you can just run or trigger multiple parallel chains of auto-chop devices with drum rack pads and record the output.
It's more fun and playable than clicking around with the mouse and you can further juice it up but adding different audio effect racks after the chopper. This is the kind of production workflow Ableton Live was designed for.
Want to skip ahead to the advanced part of this guide?
Download AUTOCHOPPER from us and skip ahead to the part where we get it setup and programmed on a drum rack pad.
This has a bunch of steps that may be a little tedious, but it's not too bad for Live users if you're already used to creating drum kits or building synths. Besides, it never hurts to learn how to create your own Ableton devices.
Just be patient and try not to build the drum rack when you're in a rush. If something doesn't work, go back and redo the previous step. It can be a bit tedious to do and it's easy to miss a detail.
You may be good to go at this point or feel comfortable tweaking to get smooth playback.
If you're having trouble with that part watch this video which explains some of the finer points of getting this right.
If the timing of a single slice is off, it may not sound too bad on it's own, but if you're trying to mash together 4 breaks and the transients are all over the place, the samples are going to be fighting each other and will sound like a jumbled mess.
You'll have to manually fix all that which defeats the purpose of doing all this to give yourself an easy editing experience.
Also, this kind of defeats a lot of the point of using Ableton Live. It's built for fast audio manipulation so you might as well get this part right.
If you're using a loop with heavy swing, like a funky hi hat loop, you may need to straighten it out a bit with warp markers first to get it to play well with other loops.
Straight quantized drums aren't everyone's cup of tea, so if you need to match the swing of a particular drum loop, use the Ableton Groove Pool to extract the swing and apply it to the sounds that need to match. Not a guarantee, but
Try different slice markers. You can generate them by transient, by beat division, or make them one at a time manually. Usually doing it by quarter note or 1/8th note works, but sometimes generating by hand is the only way to really get it right.
Match the volume level of samples! As you experiment and swap out other samples in the drum racks, you'll make better choices if you balance the playback level. Samples can sound brighter or darker depending on the level. Our hearing response changes as things get louder or softer.
At this point you should able to generate lots of auto-chopped drum sounds with only stock plugins all from a single MIDI note!
The cool part is if you do this once with a break like the Amen, you can save the effects rack and use it over and over again whenever you want to chop up that drum break.
Put the Arpeggiator, Random, and Simpler plugins in a Group and hit save on the instrument rack.
We're going to drop audio effects after the auto-chopper later on, but for now we're going to focus on getting it working inside a drum rack.
You can experiment, but we think the most practical setup is to have a drum pad trigger a few chops, then stop when you aren't playing the pad anymore.
To get this to work, drag the entire rack you saved as a group (or browse to the AUTOCHOPPER preset you downloaded from us) and drop it on an available pad in the drum rack pad view.
You will then need to add an instance of the Pitch MIDI effect before the auto-chop group. Set the Pitch effect to -24 steps.
At this point you should have a single drum rack pad autochopping a drum break when you press it.
Pick 3-4 other loops that may work well with the original, or just use the same sample over again and add different effects
You can mix in individual samples too. Filtering some lows out of your breaks and layering an 808 or thick kick drum in on another drum pad usually mixes well.
You may want to try setting up choke groups on certain sounds as well. This depends if you want some of your chopped drum racks to play over each other or not.
Each choke group prevents more than one sound in the group from playing at one time. There's a time and a place for using up to all sixteen choke groups or using none.
Sometimes two full spectrum drum loops on top of each other can sound really cool, but more than that usually results in a pretty jumbled mess and generally requires a choke group to prevent them from stepping on each other, but you want want to send us examples to prove that wrong, please do!
You now should have a few options for making crazy mashed up beats with this beast of a drum rack.
Don't forget to use the hot swap buttons to swap out samples often or try a slightly different layout of the drum pads. You will get very different sonic results, especially if you have an entire drum rack with different break samples to experiment with.
You can also build in some macro controls to manipulate global effects, add effects into the drum rack's return chains, or experiment with triggering the rack with different MIDI clips and influencing the input signal with MIDI effect racks.
We hope that this article helps you elevate your sound design and production skills in Ableton Live. If you followed along, you not only be able to use the same device over and over again with vastly different results, you should have ideas for other racks of your own design!
Have you ever wondering how other producers always seem to have drum racks that "just work" but every time you try to make one it falls flat?
Maybe you use expansion packs or pre-made drum racks from us or other sample pack companies and want to know what the secret sauce is to making them?
Today we're going to spill the tea on how its done. Here is an audio example of our GRITMATTER sample pack and Ableton Drums Rack that you can build yourself with your own samples or ours.
This may seem a little like busy work to someone who just wants to get straight to making music, but there's a time and a place.
We recommend saving this kind of work for those days when you want to work on music, but aren't in the headspace to write songs, finish mixes, etc.
Maybe work was stressful, you didn't sleep well, or it just isn't coming together that day.
You can still choose to be productive by building tools for yourself.
This is literally the story of GRITMATTER.
We were having an off day, but had been playing around with an idea for a playable drum rack that sounds like an old drum break sampled from a vinyl record.
Before we we start programming the drum rack to behave how we would like, you'll need to make sure you have some proper drum sounds on hand.
The vibe or recording style of the samples doesn't matter a ton. Use what makes the most sense for your drums. You can download a kit from somewhere or record them yourself
But there is one very important quality your samples need for this whole tutorial to work.
You need 3-5 similar sounds for each drum pad that will be grouped together.
If you're recording these yourself, like we did with GRITMATTER, you would record yourself hitting the same drum around 10 times as consistently as you can, then pick the best 5.
This collection of 5 sounds is how we will make our multisample drum pad.
When a real drummer plays, the stick never hits exactly the same place with exactly the same force and alternates between two hands that are slightly different and two sticks that are slightly different weights and lengths.
They're very, very similar, but not exactly the same.
So each drum hit a drummer places produces slight variations in sound.
These slight variations are the secret sauce to making a sampled drum kit sound "human" or "real".
A computer playing back a single sample doesn't do that, even if we vary the velocity which just changes the volume and maybe modulates the filter a bit.
The single sampled rack sounds more mechanical because the computer is literally making the exact same sound over and over again, which is basically impossible for a human to truly do.
Now that you know some of the method behind the madness here, let's get to cooking up this rack!
One of the more clever features of Ableton Live Drum Racks is you can wrap them with...another drum rack!
And that is exactly what we're going to do here to achieve multisample playback.
First, make a blank drum rack.
Next, go into the browser again and drag another blank drum rack onto a pad of the drum rack you just created.
Now you have two drum racks, an inner rack that will do your multisample cycling, and an outer rack which is what you will directly trigger with MIDI.
Grab the samples you wish to use on this pad in the browser and drag them into the inner, embedded drum rack you made.
The next step is easy, but essential. Right now the rack will only play back the first sample of the collection you dropped in.
You need to be dragging in two stock plugins next: Pitch and Random.
Navigate to the MIDI plugins in Ableton and make sure you put them in front of the inner drum rack on each pad of the main rack you want to do this one.
The following settings should be changed from the default:
The Choices control on the Random plugin should be equal to the number of samples you used for that drum rack pad you're working on.
The Mode on the Random Plugin should be set to Alt
The Pitch plugin should be set to -24
The Chance control on the Random plugin must be at 100%
Now you have multi sampled drums!
As you engage the pad you will see that the sample being played back will advance in order from the top of the list of chains in the inner drum rack to the bottom, then repeat from the top.
You need to duplicate this process for every pad in the rack you wish to use multisamples.
If you have multiple pads that would be in the same frequency range, you can set choke groups to keep them from interfering with each other.
An example of this is if you have several hi hat pads or kicks.
Depending on how you make music, pad layout for your racks can make a big difference.
If you mostly program sequences with a mouse, it isn't a big deal, but for people who like to "play in" drum parts from a MIDI controller, you need a layout that feels good and makes sense to you.
We encourage you to change around how you do it to find what works.
We typically like to have kicks and snare next to each other on the bottom two rows of an 8x8 pad controller, then put hi hats, cymbals, and FX sounds in the upper two rows of pads.
This tutorial assumes you're working with a rack where the samples don't vary by velocity.
The volume or filter can be programmed to move with different velocities, but the computer is still cycling through the same handful of samples no matter what.
However, you can have one group of quieter samples for lower velocities, then a different set that only engages when you press the pad or key of your MIDI controller harder.
That out of the scope of this tutorial, but if you want to know how a lot of software instruments work under the hood, this a technique used in most of them to add more depth and realism.
Repeat this tutorial, except instead of using a handful of multisamples for each instrument in the rack, replace them with a bunch of really different sounds on each pad.
The rack will still cycle through them, so when you play the results will be a lot more unpredictable.
You can try using different sounding drums, synth samples, slices of drum breaks, even vocal samples. Get weird with it. There are a lot of creative possibilities that will surprise and inspire you.
We hope you were able to follow along and expand your concept of what's possible by building your own drum rack along with us.
If you did, congrats! Most people don't take that kind of initiative to build drum racks that don't suck.
This may seem tedious the first few times you try it, but once you've made an instrument rack or two like this and feel how smoothly it works, you'll want to do more.
And of course we'd be honored if you tried one of ours if you want to see someone else's working example and change it to suit your tastes or add to it.
Are you trying to learn music production and frustrated with YouTube tutorials from the producer bros who drop more 🔥🔥🔥 emojis than actual knowledge?
This article will walk you through the very basics of what an 808 is then show you the sound design process that will help you create absolutely wild 808 sounds that you need for trap music production or other bass driven genres that pairs well with our Ableton drum racks.
You won't need to know any music theory and the process translates to most common DAWs like FL Studio or Logic Pro.
But for making a killer 808, Ableton Live is one of the better tools available.
The Roland TR 808 Rhythm Composer was an early 80's drum machine that was a commercial failure. Many people didn't like the synthesized drum sounds and wanted a drum machine that used samples of real drums, so it was discontinued in 1983.
Not one wanted them, so it became very cheap to buy the drum machine used and in certain emerging underground music circles, especially hip hop, producers started experimenting to see what it could do.
In modern times, "808" is usually slang for the bass drum sound the original drum machine could make.
The bass sound it makes is powerful and mixes well with acoustic drum sounds so that alone opens up some interesting sound design opportunities.
The key point here is the original 808 bass is just a sine wave tuned very low.
You can tune it, control the decay time, and shape the glide between notes.
All those crazy 808s you hear in commercial music production start from a very, very simple sine wave source.
It doesn't matter if you use digital or analog synthesis.
Most of the sauce is all effects and processing of the basic 808 sound, as well as layering techniques where the 808 also triggers a kick sample in parallel.
Since an 808 starts as just a simple sine wave, we can put any of the stock synths in Ableton Live can get us started.
Open a new instance of Operator. One oscillator should be on by default, set to a sine wave.
Make it monophonic. Enable 1 voice.
Turn the Pitch envelope on. Set the Decay time of the envelope to 50-80ms to mimic the pitch drift of the original hardware.
Glide (optional) should be 50-80ms.
Have any synth in software or hardware that can output a sine wave, control volume with an envelope, and adjust pitch?
You can use that beast to make some cool 808 sounds with some small tweaks to things like attack and release times.
If you wanted a basic 808 sample for your projects, you might be able to stop here. Tons of hip hop uses this sound as is.
But at this point the 808 is all low end. It doesn't have the growl and punch that makes it exciting and powerful.
Next, we're going to juice it up.
(If you're producing trap music, this almost is essential)
You can use any distortion effect you want.
They all will add more overtones to the frequency spectrum which is the goal. Try the Ableton Pedal Plugin set to 36% gain with the Sub button On.
Then try each of the distortion modes, OD, Distort, and Fuzz. They all have different sounds, but we like the Fuzz mode.
Let's make the distorted 808 hit even harder by mixing in a kick sample from an acoustic drum kit or any sample pack you have available.
Put Operator and Pedal into a group and navigate to the chain section.
Create an instance of Sampler.
Set the Scale parameter to 0% since we don't want the pitch of our sample to change.
You may have to lower the volume of the Operator chain to hear the acoustic kick sound.
At this point you may also want to change the Attack time of Operator to around 5 seconds so the 808 fades in as the sample is fading out.
This tends to make mixing beats easier because the sampled drum and synthesized 808 aren't fighting for space in the low end.
There are a bunch of ways to do this.
We'll give you the simple one first, then the more complex processing method the mastering engineer will appreciate.
Add a slow chorus effect and mix in to taste with the Wet/Dry knob.
Create an effects rack with two chains.
One chain should be Multiband Compression with the highs and mids soloed, the other should be only lows below about 120Hz.
Then add a Chorus, a touch of short Reverb, and Saturator only on the High and Midrange chain you just created.
Want to go wider? Add a Delay on your high/mid chain. Set one side to 1ms, the other side to 10ms, feedback to zero, and Dry/Wet control to 100%.
This might seem like a lot but in many rap, trap, and bass music productions you need to be able to split low and mid frequencies.
This should be enough to get you started making gnarly 808s.
But you could easily write a short book on all the other possibilities.
Here are some ideas to explore:
-Adding more oscillators to Operator.
-Substitute 3rd party VSTs for the stock Ableton Live plugins.
-Swap out different kick samples.
-Try to recreate this with a different synth like Analog and listen to how it changes the output.
When we started producing music over a decade ago, we thought picking a DAW was overwhelming, we can only imagine what it's like for someone getting started now.
On the plus side, back then DAWs were way more buggy. You'd save up for 3 months to buy software that would crash and spaz out. That sucked! Things have come a long way and now the problem these days tends to be how many choices there are.
Every DAW on this list is very good. We kind of hate on one of them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use it if it makes sense.
You need to try them to get a feel for what fits your music and workflow, but we want to help you narrow it down.
If you want to produce electronic, loop-based music, Ableton, FL Studio, and Bitwig are built for it. Start with one of those.
For producing Rock, Pop, Hip hop, Sync cues, and want a DAW that's well rounded and comes with a good library, try Logic Pro.
If you're more interested in mixing/mastering AND want to work with larger, established studios, get Pro Tools. If you don't care about big studios, Reaper is great.
Broke but have a Mac? Garageband.
Want a little of everything, done well? We like Studio One and Cubase.
We have a variety of experience with each DAW listed here, some we use every day and others only for special occasions. And they are all definitely great products, depending on your needs.
One way to describe these are different versions of awesome. If a DAW is truly terrible or we don't have experience with it, we didn't review it here.
Our approach is to be as objective as possible to help you find the one that fits your needs and budget.
A lot of what you will find to be the best comes down to personal preference. They all can do basic things like audio recording, edit audio tracks, have good sound quality, and enable you to create music.
Many of the options listed have a free trial or a lightweight version to help you get a feel for what it's like to make music.
And as you move through your music production journey, don't forget that you'll probably end up using a bunch of the major DAWs at some point. We're lucky to have such a robust ecosystem of music production software.
Let's dive in.
Ableton is a force of nature at this point. It comes with very good stock plugins, software instruments, has a full blown programming environment under the hood where you can build your own plugins (Max/MSP) and a huge community.
Unlike other digital audio workstations, Ableton is really good about keeping the user interface relatively clean. Lots of other DAWs are kind of overwhelming to look at when you first open them. This makes Ableton Live more beginner friendly than other options.
Plenty of people use it strictly as a studio too, but the fast MIDI mapping, clean UI, and innovative Session view make it stand out among other DAWs. If you plan to take your laptop out to play shows, you'll probably end up wanting Ableton anyway so starting with it makes sense.
One place where we don't like Ableton? Sessions with very high track counts or video. Mixing or producing an orchestral score, film score, or computationally intense can sometimes have plugin latency issues. But if you're a beginner, thats probably not an issue.
Although the full version isn't cheap, they offer a free version limited to 8 tracks called Live Lite (you can still build full drum racks though!)
It ships with various MIDI controllers, but it isn't uncommon for Reddit users to just give away extra Live Lite licenses.
A track limit can actually benefit beginners too. Less tracks + less features = Less overwhelm. You can upgrade later when you're ready.
Best in class for audio manipulation or sound design and very good native plugins.
Designed for both live performance and studio use
Tutorials, lessons, and mouseover help menu are built directly into the software.
Visual elements are not delay compensated, but audio is. This can cause sync issues when writing music to video.
The session and arrangement view setup is confusing, even for pros. Plugin organization is more limited than other DAWs.
Live Lite - Free
Intro - $99
Standard - $449
Suite - $749
If you're already on Mac OS and played around in Garageband a bit, Logic Pro X is a much more powerful DAW to upgrade to, but the workflow and layout will feel familiar.
It's Apple's flagship DAW so unfortunately for PC users, you're forced to buy a Mac if you want to use this one. While it has some very sophisticated, powerful features, it's more of a "traditional" DAW compared to something like Ableton or even FL Studio.
Another area where Logic makes a lot of sense for beginners is the giant library of loops and sounds it ships with. They're very high quality and can help inspire you when you're still fighting the learning curve. Many other DAWs are basically just a toolbox. They don't ship with as much (or any) material.
If you end up getting Logic, you'll also get a little laugh every time you hear a stock Apple loop in some commercial. They're everywhere.
Very big, high quality sound library of Apple Loops and good virtual instruments (including powerful sampling and drum programming abilities) to get you started.
Very approachable price point (for Mac users).
Possible to use the Logic's virtual instruments for live performance with additional purchase of MainStage
Mac only. PC users are out of luck. Expensive if you need to buy an Apple machine, to then buy Logic.
Less of a feeling of community, despite being very popular.
Bitwig is the new cool kid DAW in some ways. It's a relatively young DAW compared to everything else on this list founded by a group of former Ableton employees.
This is both good and bad for beginners. The good part is you get to jump on a moving train! It's getting better, fast. Other recording software probably won't change much year to year. You'll get to see it grow and evolve very quickly.
However, the community is smaller and some of the things it excels at is more confined to electronic music production, not other genres.
That said, if you are into electronic music, Bitwig is totally crazy in the best possible way.
The built in virtual instruments sounds great and it's much more modular than Ableton Live.
While not the cheapest DAW here, it is less expensive than Ableton and if you don't need or want unlimited tracks, there's a 16 track version that's $99.
Great stock virtual instruments, powerful sound design capabilities.
Quickly evolving. Expect new features often.
Some similarities to Live, since Bitwig was founded by ex-Ableton employees.
If you're new to music in general or haven't worked with modular synths at all, this will be a steeper learning curve and maybe a bit overwhelming.
16 track version - $99
Full version - $499
While we try to avoid saying that a DAW is best suited for a particular genre of music, the FL Studio midi sequencer is legendary in a lot of hip hop circles. If you make modern hip hop, you shouldn't have a hard time finding community or getting help with learning FL. Definitely worth demoing this one if your main musical interest is to create beats.
One of the reasons we suspect it's so popular (especially with beginners) is how easy it is to make music with just a mouse. FL Studio has some very clever features that allow you to take a pretty basic, clunky chord progression and spread out the MIDI notes in interesting ways. Want to stagger that chord like a harp player? Highlight, click, done.
This is ideal for a beginner who had to save up just to afford the laptop and the DAW, but doesn't yet have the other bells and whistles like MIDI controllers or external hardware synths.
This is actually older, more mature software than people realize too. Back in the 90s it used to literally be called Fruity Loops and all you could do was make loops on Windows 95 with the mouse.
The company is very value forward too. FL Studio always works hard to accomodate electronic music producers of all levels. There are 4 pricing tiers, starting at $99, going up to $500, with a nice catch: most DAWs require an upgrade fee when the latest version is released, usually $150-200.
Not FL Studio. You get free upgrades for life once you buy in. Sometimes new synths or plugins will cost money, but the core daw software is always a free upgrade.
Intuitive user interface, with lots of friendly drag and drop functionality.
Lifetime free upgrades.
Lots of very useful MIDI quantization functionality
Not the best choice if you eventually want to use a lot of external hardware.
Not the best DAW for audio manipulation and doesn't offer audio quantization common in other DAWs.
Multiple Tiers from $99 - $499. Free Trial is Available
Studio One is a digital audio workstation that has been gaining popularity in recent years because it gets a lot of things right where it counts.
While it may not come with as many virtual instruments as other DAWs on the list, the ones it does come with are really well done. Same goes for its loop library. Not the biggest compared to others, but they're solid. Included plugins are very musical and not hard to figure out, like the Impact Xt Drum Sampler.
And it's priced reasonably with a few different tiers and payment options. We wouldn't be surprised if this starts to become a serious Logic Pro competitor down the road when the ecosystem is more developed.
And if you decide to stay with it, the advanced functionality is there too. When we tested how latency compensation is handled, in our opinion Pro Tools, Reaper, and Presonus Studio One do the best job handling it without too many headaches to the user.
Well balanced set of features at a reasonable price.
Designed to be easy to use quickly and offers helpful extras, like a Melodyne integration for vocal production and drag and drop user interface.
Included library is limited, but good. This is helpful to not overwhelm beginners.
Some users report installation process to be tedious.
You will need extra VSTs and samples for certain genres of music. You don't get quite enough in the box.
Professional - $399 or $14.95 per month subscription
Artist - $99
Prime - Free
The OG digital audio workstation. The "industry standard". We mostly decided to include Pro Tools here for the sake of completeness, but it isn't the most beginner friendly.
Why? It's expensive and not really suited for music production. It's always been a mixing and recording focused tool, not a creative laboratory like Ableton Live or Bitwig. Also, why lock yourself into a pricey subscription software product if you don't have to? Lots of studios have switched away from Pro Tools for this reason alone.
If you're just getting started, there are plenty of other options that are just as (if not more!) powerful and simpler to use, like Logic Pro or Ableton Live.
There's one big exception. If you have aspirations of working as a mixing or mastering engineer in large, institutional-size recording studios that use Pro Tools.
You'll be forced to learn it so you might as well start early.
You'll know the software large, institutional studios use.
High quality built in plugins.
Very precise timing and pitch editing capabilities.
Designed to interface with lots of external hardware.
Expensive, subscription based pricing model.
Clunky UI. Not as easy to use right away.
Advanced features may be confusing to a beginner.
Artist - $9.99 per month
Studio - $31.99 per month
Flex - $99.99 per month
For some reason Garageband (a.k.a. GarbageCan) gets left out of a lot of these best DAW lists.
We like Garageband. It may be small, but it is mighty.
While is isn't suitable for hardcore audio engineering, if you want to understand the basics of making dance music or the recording process, there's absolutely no shame in using the DAW already installed on your Mac.
Since its already there you might as well fire it up and get to making music if you're curious.
The same goes for people using an iPad or even a phone. Garageband is a good place to get your feet wet, even if it is kind of a basic DAW. It's an amazing tool for beginners that doesn't get enough credit.
That said, the plugins, sound library, editing features, and piano roll, are not nearly as comprehensive as those found in DAWs like Logic Pro or Ableton Live. So you will certainly outgrow Garageband and at some point and need to upgrade to something else on the list.
Logic Pro would be the closest to Garageband if you like the workflow or you could jump into something totally different like FL Studio or Bitwig Studio to give yourself a different perspective.
Already on your computer if you have a Mac.
Very simple to learn and use.
Features are limited so you will eventually outgrow it.
Free and already bundled with Mac OS.
Reaper is one of the most value packed DAWs for making music, period.
As far as performance, it's measurably one of the best DAWs. It uses the smallest amount of memory of anything on this list and will run on nearly any operating system (including Linux!) and is coded very efficiently, so it performs well even on older computers.
There is a very enthusiastic and helpful audio community around Reaper. And thank goodness for that because while it's worth the struggle, Reaper is not the easiest DAW to setup and doesn't behave as smoothly as others out of the box.
Some menus are downright terrifying.
Exhibit A. This looks like the work of Satan.
But the hassle is worth it. Reaper is one of the most powerful and customizable DAWs out there.
You can even download skins to make it looks like other DAWs and code custom scripts to automate parts of your production process. Don't like setting up a session over and over? If you're comfortable coding you can write a script to make Reaper do the boring work for you.
Its light on software instruments, but comes with a decent amount of built in plugins that have very bland user interfaces. This is not an insult. These bland UIs are good for beginners.
They force you to use your ears and develop a real skill. Ableton Live also does a decent job at this with their native plugins.
Whats the problem with cool looking plugins like what Logic Pro or FL Studio use? They trick you into listening with your eyes and you don't always make the best musical choices.
And Reaper is a rare gem in terms of pricing. There's a free trial. When that's over, it doesn't disable anything, it just nicely asks you to pay. And a basic license is $60 for everything. Unlimited MIDI tracks, unlimited audio tracks, full piano roll functionality, the works.
It's so affordable for the amount of value in this DAW, we're kind of concerned they aren't making enough money. The people at Reaper are doing the Lord's work as far as we're concerned.
Affordable, easy to understand pricing
Clever editing and quality of life features like a render queue and drawable CC parameters on MIDI tracks.
Light on software instruments. Might not be the best choice for electronic producers.
Beginners may find audio routing confusing.
Personal Use - $60
Commercial use - $225
Free trial is very generous.
Out of all the DAWs here, Steinberg Cubase has some of the most interesting roots and is a bit of a cult classic. It's more accessible to the beginner than it used to be, especially since the latest version doesn't require a dongle for authentication anymore, just a Sterinberg account.
The average FL Studio or Ableton Live user might consider it obscure, but it's been around a long time (the company got started in the 1980's with MIDI sequencing products) and they have a rich history of technical innovation. A lot of electronic producers don't realize the VST format was created by Steinberg, despite VSTs being everywhere.
Also, the people who use Cubase tend to really really love Cubase and think its the best DAW ever so there's a good community around it if you have questions or want to learn from tutorials online.
If you have plans to do a ton of MIDI editing, Cubase is offers an excellent experience, especially if you aspire to write music with a ton of instrument tracks like in an orchestral score. On the audio side, they also are known for creating very clever features first that the rest of the industry eventually catches up.
It's not the cheapest of the DAWs (don't worry it's not as bad as Pro Tools) but they offer a few tiers, including a beginner friendly version under $100.
Extremely responsive audio engine. Want to edit a clip while you're recording through your audio interfaces? No problem.
Very comprehensive MIDI editor.
Rich history of being ahead of the curve. They tend to invent cool features that the rest of the industry copies a few years later.
Installation may be tedious and messy for a beginner.
A lot going on in the user interface. Can be overwhelming. Some people feel it is too crowded and dated.
Elements - $99
Artist - $329
Pro - $579
Everyone knows that people can crack software, including the people who make DAW software.
We're not going to tell you not to do it, because its pretty typical for people to learn on a pirated copy somewhere in the musical journey, especially if you're just starting out. Many of us were broke college students at one point who couldn't afford to throw down $500 for music software that takes months to learn.
You might as well be informed though so you understand the risks.
The main reason not to use cracked software instruments, DAWs, plugins or anything else is the risk of malware.
Your machine could get hacked. Or it might just get really buggy and slow because a hacker is running some process on your machine in the background.
The other big reason not to use cracked software is sometimes you actually need help from support.
You'll find some weird bug thats screwing up a big session or the DAW will start crashing for no obvious reason. In these situations, sometimes customer support will save your ass.
You're much better off using a free daw or saving up for one you can afford.
We saved this option for last because its the wildcard option. The "DAWless" trend is to use hardware other than a laptop to record music, even if you plan on sending it off to someone else for mixing or mastering.
A good example of this is the Akai MPC ecosystem which is legendary in hip hop. The MPC has only gotten more powerful over the years and is basically a music focused computer, even though it might not feel like it. Modern MPCs can connect to WiFi, download samples from Splice, and have full blown synth plugins now.
And unlike a laptop, it will probably get better over time as updates are released that extend it's functionality, versus a computer which usually tends to just get slower as new software outpaces what it can do.
Another approach used here is to build a system of hardware synths and samplers, then instead of using an audio interface and computer to record, a basic stereo recorder or hardware multitrack recorder is used.
We felt the need to include the no DAW option mostly because so much amazing music has been made in this way and many electronic music producers still work like this.
We're lucky to have so many great options for producing music so we hope you now have a better idea of what best options are out there and what each DAW's advantages and disadvantages are.
Now, the rest is up to you! Get started on that free trial to get your feet wet with the DAW that resonates with your vision.
We've all been there. You're new at this and every attempt you make to build a cool drum rack from scratch that "just works" seems to end in flames (not the cool, badass kind). Maybe you usually use the same sounds & presets over and over and need new ideas. Or you just want to make more of your own sounds instead of replying on sample pack companies.
Whatever reason brings you here, we hope that you can find some insight in this article to help you juice up your drum building adventures. There's a lot here, so rather than trying to digest the whole thing, save or bookmark this article, try a few suggestions, then come back when you're ready for more.
So let's dive in! Here are some of our favorite ways to make cool drum racks you'll actually want to use and share with friends.
Rather than going on some mystical vision quest in search of the perfect kick sample (or whatever it is you need) find 2-3 sounds that almost work and see if you can layer them together.
Another approach you can use here is to break the sound you need into components. An interesting and functional kick can usually be made by layering an 808-like synthesized kick drum with a more colorful, vinyl sampled kick drum in another chain on the same drum rack pad.
In Ableton, the way to accomplish this is you drag a Simpler instance onto a drum rack pad. Then, click on the Simpler instance you just made and put it into a group. You can now make multiple chains in that group where more instances of Simpler live and all the samples will play back together when you trigger that pad.
It's always nice to find that sound that "just works" but Ableton Live is excellent for sound design when you need to take a more DIY approach.
Don't forget that each of the drum rack pads in Ableton Live is a full on effect rack!
Time effects are things like reverbs, delays, and chorus. Some kind of process happens over time to the sound. As opposed to amplitude effects like compression or EQ.
Give the MIDI effects some love too! A fun example is to set your hi hat sound on a few different drum pads with arpeggiators set to different rates, like 1/8th notes, triplets (1/12), and 1/16th notes. Then you just hold down the pad on your controller and it auto triggers.
A lot of people aren't super excited by the stock drum racks that ship with Ableton Live, but you can learn quite a bit, but picking apart the techniques used to construct them.
This isn't so much a specific technique, but a way of going about studying another sound designer's work and making it your own.
For example, you could start by opening 10 drum racks and analyze each of the individual drum rack's return chains—you can radically shape sounds with just these—and try using similar techniques in your own racks.
Macro controls in Ableton Live are really well done and you should use them. Automate them. Map an LFO to twist them for you. Map them to a controller and twist.
The beauty here is you can can easily create some very complex mappings that are much more time consuming to make in other DAWs.
Just because its called a drum rack doesn't mean you are obligated to use only drum sounds.
A better, but more awkward name for a drum rack is a signal flow rack. Each pad can have a really complicated chain of effects and MIDI effects before the sample.
Or you can not use a sample at all. Get this:
This is one of those mind-blowing features of Live the first time you see it.
You can have several pads trigger melodic sequences, chords, whatever you want. When you trigger your midi controller, you're just sending a note to a chain that you can process like any other MIDI note.
(When you load an empty drum rack, each pad is labeled with the MIDI note it sends)
Most producers use send and returns on tracks in the Arrangement view of Ableton for things like reverb and delay effects, but remember you can have returns that are contained within an individual drum rack.
Delay and reverb are the usual place to start for blending in effects, but experiment with more drastic effects like the native Corpus effect or any of the new Live 11 Spectral effects like the Spectral Resonator or Spectral Time plugins.
If you have a lot of 3rd party plugins that are good for sound design (we like what Unfiltered Audio is doing, fantastic plugins) this is another place to get busy.
You can have up to 6 return chains in a drum rack. So it's possible to turn that into a lot of action with just a single midi clip playing a quarter note over and over in a single track by throwing it through your returns.
A choke group is usually used as a practical way of making sure similar sounds don't trigger as the same time. You might not want two different snares to trigger at the same time, or more typically, you want a closed hat sound to cut off an open hat sound, like a real life drummer.
The way you do this is put the elements in the same choke group. You can have a bunch of them too. Snares might be in choke group 1, hi hat in choke group 2, and so on. You can have up to sixteen choke groups within a drum rack.
This is especially useful if you're playing in notes from a midi controller or converting and audio track into a MIDI track. In both cases, the MIDI data will likely be kind of messy.
The next two items go hand in hand because they have to do with the sense of space in your drum rack. Let's start with the simpler of the two: don't leave those pan sliders untouched!
While it's ideal if your drum rack works completely in mono, panning some elements around helps give it a more open feeling. Here are a few panning strategies to try:
Pan cymbals or tonal sounds slightly left and right, just to get them off each other
Do an LCR style pan. Everything in the drum rack gets panned center, hard right, or hard left.
Use the Autopanner plugin to create some motion around the kit. Things like snares and kicks should probably stay centered, but hi hats, cymbals, percussion and generally higher sounding elements lend themselves well to this.
Panning is certainly a part of this, but its always good to take a step back and think of ways to spice up the overall stereo image of the drum rack.
What does this actually mean? Through sample selection or use of plugins to manipulate samples, you want to have a variety of events in the stereo field. Have some samples that are totally mono, like perhaps a snare.
Then complement that with really wide stereo sounds. Then something between the two. Then a sound that autopans from right to left. Or use stock plugins to build a device chain that only widens the midrange.
The sky is the limit here, especially if you combine creative stereo activity with other audio effect racks that use other stereo effects.
If you really want to go nuts, you can use multiple parallel chains of effects and set the on/off switches to different ranges on Macro controls to scroll through them quickly.
It's always interesting to build drum racks with some element of randomness incorporated into the design.
A common example of this is a simple round robin playback. This is when you tell a drum pad to not play back the same sample two times in a row.
You can use round robin sampling with a set of 4-5 slightly different samples to achieve a more realistic playing experience, like a real drum. Or you can try loading in a few really different samples so you don't really know what sound the drum pad will throw at you next.
The standard way to do this in Ableton Live is to use nested drum racks. You open a drum rack, then put another drum rack on that pad. Then you add instances of Simpler on the nested drum rack and place the Random MIDI effect before it.
Chance should be 100%, Choices should be the same as the number of samples you want to round robin, the Mode needs to be set to Alt, Sign should be Add, Scale must be 1. You will also need a Pitch plugin set to -24 before the Random plugin.
Go back and re-read that as many times as you need to figure it out. You can make extremely realistic multi-sampled drum kits like this that you will be able to use over and over again.
If you got it right, you'll see a bunch of separate chains in the list and you'll see playback jump all over the chain list when triggered with MIDI notes.
This is exactly how our GRITMATTER pack is constructed which is a blend of realism and glitchy, unpredictable stuff.
Sometimes when you're building instrument racks or audio effect racks, its easy to lose momentum just because your workflow is too clunky and slow. Or you aren't organized and lose things a lot after you build them.
Making a system for yourself and utilizing the existing workflow tools will only help you get to making music faster.
Quickly swap out a drum sound or anything else. Generally when you're working with computers, the less time you spend fishing around with the mouse, the better.
In music production there's always some amount of that, but the hot swap button is designed to save you time on tedious drag and drops from the brower menu. Instead, you can just use the keyboard to scroll through sounds and quickly try them out while you play or while a MIDI note loops.
It's so important it's worth repeating: try to avoid fishing around with the mouse when you can. Using a mouse is tedious, but a keyboard is not. If you find yourself reaching for the mouse a lot to do something in a menu for a particular task, look up the keyboard shortcut or make a new one in the operating system if it doesn't exist.
This one tip alone will save you hours of time over the course of a few months or years making music.
Its totally fine and encouraged to give your drum racks ridiculous names like BOOTY-DROP-HIP-HOP-GRAMMY-WINNER or whatever you want, but having a consistent system will only help you.
Including genre or tempo information is helpful, but if you do nothing else, you should put your name at the end of everything you make. This makes it really easy to find stuff you made, even if you aren't the most organized person.
Can't find that kit you made last month? Just search your name to narrow it down.
Sometimes it's good to do some sound design and come up with some ideas before you even open the drum rack. Just make weird sounds with no real goal and worry about organizing it later.
This is a particularly good tactic if you have limited time to work on music, but aren't feeling super creative or motivated. First, it lowers the bar of success. You're not trying to make a full drum rack, the goal is just make some sounds. Can be anything.
Just getting moving on something can sometimes inspire you to take it further and get you into a state of flow where the ideas just come. And if not, you have a bunch of sounds you can export and just file away for later.
This is a super boring old-school engineer thing to say, but take a look at volume levels! Sometimes the actual sounds are fine but if your levels are out of whack you drums racks won't feel good to play or listen to.
This might be as simple as just muting everything, then one by one enabling the drum pads and dialing in the volume as you go. Sometimes having everything on is too crazy to deal with all at once.
If the levels are still all over the place, you can always try putting a compressor & limiter at the end of the chain to even things out.
A lot of green producers think of distortion like a guitar distortion pedal. Like a switch that either clicks all in or all out.
However a good mix engineer will be the first one to tell you there are many, many flavors of saturation or distortion that help add depth and bite to your rack. In mixing, we can often get away clipping the living daylights out of drums and it sounds great.
However in the production phase we're often working to create something novel or interesting.
A great way to do that is create a complex saturation situation across the whole kit. Have some elements that are totally blasted to bits leveled with very clean elements. Any maybe some parallel chains that mix in distortion with a totally clean sound.
This one mostly applies to people playing parts in from an MPC controller or keyboard.
Arranging the drum sounds in a different pattern will make you play them differently. The performance interface is a big deal. Sometimes just finding a physical layout that works for you makes all the difference.
If you really want to get wild with an instrument rack, map all 88 keys of a piano or synth randomly all over the keyboard. It will be weird and you won't be able to rely on your usual chops. It will force you to explore and this can be a good thing when you're bored and feel stuck in the same old patterns.
If you're really, truly stuck you can always open up some stock drum rack patches and modify them to better fit your needs.
You'll still learn by picking apart what the original sound designer did and discover your own preferences along the way.
There are a lot of things to try here. Don't try to do everything here in a day! You could easily experiment for a week or two (or much longer!) just with one of the many tactics listed in this article.
We noticed certain brainworx plugins doing unexpected things in the DAW, and accidentally found this channel strip trick to widen any track or beat you throw in.
It's basically a result of the phase change that happens inherent to an EQ or filter band, stacked on top of brainworx's TMT technology which emulates an actual analog channel strip or full mixer.
In a real channel strip, two channels will always have some differences. They never sound *exactly* the same. two channels with the filter set to 16Hz will actually be slightly different frequencies with slightly different slopes, due to the electrical components differing slightly from track to track.
So we can cycle through different pairs of tracks until we hear the desired width, stack multiple instance of the channel strip to exaggerate the differences, or use a digital EQ like the Fab Filter Pro Q3 to mimic what's happening and achieve an analog-like result.
Even placing slightly different filters well below the range where anything is happening introduces changes higher up in the spectrum. Try if for yourself and see what happens!
There's really two big secrets to making VST or MIDI strings sound realistic.
First, you need libraries that are up to date and well sampled. There's a lot of them out there, but the two favorites here are by Spitfire and Project SAM. SAM has some orchestral libraries are available through Ableton for and not super expensive.
Spitfire products definitely cost a bit more, but they're worth it. It's not really possible to polish something that sounds like crap to begin with, so it makes sense to just start with the best material you can get your hands on.
Second, once you have some solid string libraries to worth with and some basic melodic or chordal content happening in the piano roll, you're going to need to automate a lot of parameters to mimic what happens in a real ensemble.
Think about it. A violin player moves the bow back and fourth, which will never sound the same at the tip or at the frog of the bow.
(Yes, the 'handle' of the bow where it is held by the player is called the frog)
Except you have dozens of people all playing different instruments all on slightly different parts of the bow at all times. And each of those individual players is moving around as they play.
It's a very complex system and even if you have the entire orchestra just play a middle C together, there's a lot of movement baked into the cake by default.
So we need to replicate that as much as possible in the computer. Some of that human messiness is what makes things sound good and ultimately, realistic.
Except computers need to be told *exactly* what to do and as producers we need to get creative with how we add motion and movement. For example, on synthesizers, we often use LFOs to modulate static waveforms or filters to get interesting motion to happen.
Here are the parameters you should start with:
One trick to darken and thicken strings is to duplicate your lower strings (like bass and cello, possibly viola) and make one track a normal patch and another on con sordino (muted). Or alternatively if you want to brighten up a section, make your duplicated track play ponticello (by the bridge).
In real life you have a fixed number of players and all you can do is divide them up in different ways. In the computer, if you want to copy and paste another 10 cello players into the 'group' you do that with a couple of clicks.
There are other ways to go further beyond this, but usually only apply in specific situations, but these are the bread and butter techniques you can use all over the place. Even beyond orchestral VSTs. Looking for subtle ways to add motion to a synth patch or drum kit will add a sense of depth and 'organic-ness' to your sounds.
This is a very clever technique to build a set of EQs that mirror each other to drive a saturation plugin (this can be any saturation plugin you like) and emphasize different parts of the frequency spectrum, without causing crazy spikes in gain around the frequency you choose to juice up.
Does this sound confusing? Would this make more sense to just see someone build it? We would say yes.
Check out the video below to see how its done.
This is a sound design tutorial on how to make the Brass Stab sound that gets used in a lot of modern trap and hiphop. Made 100% from scratch, step by step, using only stock Ableton 11 plugins.
The basic principles in play are to take a complex waveform, like a typical saw wave, then modulate it with an envelope so it gets brighter on the initial attack along with some detuning and pitch modulation.
Then beyond that, there are a bunch of effects plugins to really bring the sound into a less "synthy" territory and more into something that feels more realistic. Namely a lot of EQ, Distortion, and Multiband compression.
(The video uses Ableton 11 but you should be able to replicate this in Ableton 10 just fine)
If you want some new samples and the synth rack built in the video, it's included in the tutorial pack linked below.
Free Trap Brass and Drums Tutorial Pack Pack: https://glitchmagic.com/collections/free-products/products/trap-brass-tutorial-pack
Free Comb Filter Preset: https://glitchmagic.com/collections/free-products/products/ableton-eq8-comb-filter
Access Analog is a great solution for producers on a budget who want to process their sounds with classic analog hardware.
There are a few big benefits:
The only major drawbacks we found are:
Overall, this service is really cool and while its not perfect, its definitely valuable. Here's the full demo and review of the service: