Updated: Aug 5, 2022
There’s a secret weapon used by pro level producers and beat makers when processing drum hits, percussion and stabs. The short nature of these sounds often have a large dynamic range, going from complete silence to maximum level within a few wave cycles or milliseconds. This sudden variance in sound level can make it challenging to play nicely with other instruments in the mix and is a critical part of making a beat defined, powerful and clear. The dynamics of these short sounds can be shaped with compressors, ADSR Envelopes or Transient Shapers.
Shaping transients will allow you to better layer individual hits, say in the case of adding a clap noise to a snare sound and using a transient shaper to stagger the beginning of the clap so that it doesn’t interfere with the start of the snare sample.
Transient shapers are not only used to sculpt the initial attack of a sound but can also shape the body of the sound. After the initial transient has passed, the body of the sound will be heard and eventually tail off to silence. The body section can also be tweaked to give the sound more oomph, as in the case of a resonant kick drum.
Transient Shaping Kicks
Using the example of the kick drum, a long tail at the end of the sound will often fill the space between kicks and fill up the overall mix with unwanted (and often inaudible) low frequency noise. I’ll often shorten the kick sample or release on a synth kick drum to cut the sample down, creating the necessary space for ghost hits or other elements of the composition.
It’s become very popular to reach for a compressor to address any dynamic issues, however, this can cause flattening and create a dull sounding mix when over-used. An alternative is to use a dedicated Transient Shaper which will preserve the tone of the sound without ruining other dynamics, and can be used to effectively sit the sound into the mix by shaping the initial attack, body or tail. If a compressor is being used on the kick, add a transient shaper after the compressor to add a sharp attack, but be aware of over doing the transient shaper and spike the initial transient! The opposite effect can also be used by dealing back the initial transient to soften the start of the kick sound if needed.
Shaping Hi-Hats and Percussion
Another favourite use of the transient shaper is on Hi-Hats. I’ll regularly soften the attack of the hi-hat sound so that it sits with the groove and takes off some high end energy at the start of the sound. This is often used in Deep House and Melodic House, or any sub-genre that has less aggressive drum sounds. Additionally, by softening the attack on shakers, you’ll have a better time fitting them with snares and hi-hats… and by shortening the release you can cut the tails off to make space and compliment the groove of your track.
Experienced beat makers develop a keen understanding of how transients of each drum hit affects the groove of a track. A laid back feel can be accomplished by using longer transients on the attack, or a more rushed feel can be created by having shorter initial transients. Either adjustment to transients will affect the energy of the drums, thus enhancing the energy of your track, whichever way you choose.
UAD SPL Transient Designer
The SPL Transient Designer was first released as a hardware unit in 1998, which gave the user four channels of transient control which could be linked for stereo processing or run in mono. SPL trademarked the secret process that they called Differential Envelope Technology which works by using two envelope generators for the attack and two more for the release that accurately follow the original signal amplitude. The attack transient could be cut or boosted by 15dB and the sustain could be increased or decreased by up to 24dB. The SPL Transient Designer has since been released as a plugin and has become an industry standard for dance music producers such as Armin Van Buuren and Deadmau5. Even though the SPL Transient Designer is only capable of processing mono signals its usefulness outweighs its limitations and provides very clean processing for an analog emulation. I consider this one of my desert island plugins and the UAD version appears at least once on every one of my songs.
Max For Live’s Transient Machines
Transient Machines is a Max for Live extension pack created by Surreal Machines (the same people who make the excellent Dub Machines echo effects pack). Much in the same way that the SPL plugin gives us the ability to reshape the transients and to sculpt your sounds to suit your mix. Transient Machines provides two separate tools: Impact, a multi-band drum channel processing strip, and Crack which is more akin to a traditional transient shaper.
Impact, is a multi-band drum processing channel strip, featuring up to 3 independent bands of transient modification, allowing for fine adjustments to Low, Mid and High frequency bands. Impact also includes four styles of analog-modelled saturation which is fed into a clipper, limiter and a maximizer specifically designed to work on transients.
Crack is designed to adjust the transients of a single sound source and features a wet/dry control for parallel processing and also adds limiting for peak reduction, analog-modelled soft clipping, and a maximizer specifically designed to work on transients.
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