Production Master Class: Hi-hats and top-loops

By Francis Preve

In our previous roundtables on intros/outros and kick and bass, we laid the foundations for building a groove like the pros.

This week, we’re going in the opposite direction – hi-hats and top loops – and taking a closer look at the trebly stuff.

Shakers, hi-hats, tambourines and related high-frequency percussion parts add the jiggle and shimmy to a track.

Some producers focus on swing or shuffle, some zero in on the sounds themselves, others talk about ditching quantization entirely.

The bottom line is that all of them have a slew of successes to back up their advice.

Let the advising begin…

Ben Brown

I always use some swing in tracks, playing with the built-in swing setting in Ableton until it fits the percussion.

I like detailed perc work in general, where it’s more than just a simple hi-hat on the offbeat.

Also, doing some fine-tuning of percussion elements, moving them to hit just a little bit ‘off’ a given beat, can add more groove to a song.

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Richard Dinsdale

Well, once I have the bass and kick established I tend to move onto the hats.

I try to make the hats swing nicely around the bass putting in 8ths or 16ths and removing a few hits until you have that swing you are looking for.

I’m using tighter hats these days so that I get a more electronic feel.

I suppose it depends on what kind of track you are doing – if it’s a kind of live feel, I would use more acoustic hats.

Also, I’ll sometimes use actual samples and synth blips for the hats.

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Wolfgang Gartner

This varies a lot on each track for me. 

When it comes to drums, I always start with individual drum hits – after the kick comes the clap or the hi hats. 

My snares usually consist of at least three distinct samples (snares or claps) on top of each other, but often times it’s as many as 7 or 8 (yes, really) all individually EQ’ed and tweaked, then laid on top of each other to get exactly the sound I’m looking for (you’ll want to export your new snare sound after all of that!!). 

Hats are a similar approach but I tend to do less layering there as I often am able to achieve the sound I want with only two or three sounds layered on top of each other. 

If I use loops, they are the last step in the process, and serve to fill up space in the drums that I feel is lacking and needs to be filled. 

They are very rarely at the foreground. 

Quantization varies a lot as well, from no swing to mild or moderate swing, it just depends on the feeling I’m going for with the track. 

Lastly, don’t be a slave to your quantization grid – get in there and move sounds around to get exactly the energy you’re going for. 

Not everything needs to be quantized, believe it or not!

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Usually I have a few hat patterns going in a project. 

A good track is to get a closed hat pattern hitting on every click (1/16 beat) with a 30% mix of 3/4 beat delay (a.k.a. dotted eighth notes) and a sidechain/ducking effect after that. 

This makes a “washed out” kind of effect between the beats in the high end, which can really fill out the sound space quite nicely.

I’m a sucker for the big open hat on the offbeat as well, as this kind of pattern really steps everything up a notch energy-wise.

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Mike Monday

Again, it really depends on what you are producing, but my rule of thumb is always less is more. Always.

Often the sheer volume in a club will make a tame high end in the studio sound like the apocalypse on the dancefloor and cause your ears to bleed.

Not ideal for a good night out on the tiles.

MySpace link:

Patch Park

[Pictured above, at right, with Dirty Disorder]


Adding swing really makes the track come alive.

Years ago I actually never used swing, I guess I never bothered to try really, until a friend was coming over and sort of introduced me to it by adding some swing to a track I was just starting.

It really became more “alive”, so to speak.

Nowadays I vary the amount of swing.

For example, I’ll add 15% or 20% swing to the hi hats to make it sound more speedy.

You can really see what swing exactly does if you just draw one part of just one bar with closed hi hats on a grid quantized to plain 16ths.

Copy that bar and add 20% swing to it.

Loop the two parts and press play.

The one with swing sounds less stiff or robotic.

Now if you add some more percussion like some woodblocks, set the swing to 40%, for example.

As you’ll hear, with just a little percussion going on you have just built yourself a nice groove.

Another trick I rely on is using multiple hi hats.

When you have simple closed hi hat going on (four hi hats in one bar positioned between the kicks), simply copy the hi hat so you get two identical ones, but each having their own output – now change the length of the one you just copied, then make sure the first and the third note on your grid trigger that new hihat you just copied.

From there, you can also change the pitch a little.

Using these tricks help all these little top elements become more alive.

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Tim Sheridan

Sometimes less is more.

On Daft Punk’s best work the hats are rock solid and the bottom moves around.

In creating the top end, I always find that you end up with quite a lot of parts, as many as a mambo band sometimes!

If that’s the case, it’s time to strip it down, as frequently some events are all paying at once and therefore cluttering the mix.

This clutter can happen in single note events, as well as in frequency ranges.

Several parts all within the same frequency range can be replaced with a single instrument that has all those frequencies (and more).

I try to hone down the clatter to just a couple of well chosen sounds.

These days I tend towards more wooden, organic sounds for the upper end.

They sit better – and when you do bring in something high it really ‘arrives’.

I hate 12 kHz: That hissing sibilant frequency.

The very top end I like to be relatively gentle and chiming rather than harsh.

I think it’s good to hold the beat on a well-chosen warm snare and let the hats and bass wander.

Again, I always play in the hats. I never program.

I have a sign a mate made for me because I used to say it so often. “Fuck Quantize!”

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