Do you want to Synthesize Tom Drums? Keep reading to find out how to make unique tom drum samples — tuned to match your songs — no matter what Synth.
If you're making a sample pack, this is your lucky day.
I used Ableton Live's Wavetable for this tutorial. But you can achieve similar results with any synth, like Serum or your DAW's stock synth.
I'll also show you the audio effects used to process the samples and explain why.
The effects are all optional. But they help fine-tune the tom sample to match your taste.
Alright, let the synthesis begin!
Synthesizing a Tom Drum
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Oscillator 1
First, load an oscillator with a sine wave, a triangle wave, or something in between, like I did here:
It's a blend of sine and triangle waves.
A tom drum's primary frequency usually ranges between 80 and 120 Hz.
This fundamental wave is the foundation of the tom sound.
Let's start shaping that.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Amplitude Envelope
Drum sounds are mostly transients, so it's time to design the Amplitude Envelope.
For a nice synthesized tom drum, you want a steep slope.
No sustain and no attack, so we have a strong transient.
And the decay depends on how long you want the tom to last when you hold the MIDI key.
I suggest something between 500 milliseconds and 1.5 seconds.
In this tutorial, I went with a bit more than a second.
Keep the release as low as you can without causing audible clicks.
Now let's work on the high frequencies.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Oscillator 2
If your synthesizer has a White Noise Oscillator, turn that on.
If you're also in Wavetable, here's the secret:
- Turn on Oscillator two;
- Select noise > HP noise;
- Change this parameter to FM;
- Tune 100%, amount 100%;
- Adjust the position freely.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Sub-Oscillator
Then turn on the Sub-Oscillator, so your synthesized tom has that ground-shaking impact. Keep it an octave below the first Oscillator.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Filters
Now it's time to filter some frequencies out. You won't need them all.
I turned on the low-pass filter at 191 Hertz, with a considerable amount of resonance: 45%.
Allow the high frequencies to pass for a quick moment when the tom first hits.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Envelope 2
Let's use Envelope 2 to create the transient and make it bright.
In this case, it's got to be something snappy. A brief decay time, with no attack, sustain or release. About 89ms is acceptable.
Then we have to assign Envelope 2 to modulate the Filter Frequency.
Every time the tom hits, the filter starts open, then drops to the selected frequency in 89ms.
Make sure to try different Envelope amounts. It will change the character of the transient.
Next, assign the same Envelope to modulate the Gain in the Noise Oscillator. The goal is to make it fade out quickly.
That step makes the transient more defined.
It's not necessary. If you skip this step, it will still sound like a tom.
However, for my taste, a synthesized tom drum sounds better this way.
At this point, your tom must sound like a bass patch.
Let's modulate the pitch so the sound starts at a higher one and drops to the initial.
It's time to adjust the third Envelope.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Envelope 3
Once again, no attack, no sustain, and no release. About 200 to 250ms decay.
Then link this Envelope to the overall pitch and make it start at 7 semitones higher than the MIDI key.
Now it sounds like a tom drum.
From this point, it's a matter of fine-tuning to make it less unnatural and robotic.
And these are the tweaks I like to do whenever I synthesize tom drums and snares:
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Velocity
Ensure the Noise Oscillator reacts to the Velocity more than Oscillator 1.
This helps emphasize the transient on stronger hits.
It doesn't just get louder when a real drummer smacks the toms harder. We also hear more high frequencies.
So Velocity will affect the Gain in Oscillator 1 by 70% while affecting the Gain in Oscillator 2 by 100%.
It will also affect the overall Gain by 50%. That includes the Sub-Oscillator.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: Key-Track
It's good practice to modulate the Noise Oscillator's pitch based on which MIDI note gets pressed.
The higher the note played, the higher the Noise Oscillator's frequencies.
This trick helps differentiate the sounds when you play different notes, like floor toms and rack toms.
Otherwise, the transients will all sound very similar, which is tedious.
So assign the Note parameter to modulate the pitch in Oscillator 2 by a small factor.
Something less than 5 sounds good to me. Too much, and I start hearing weird stuff.
You can use the Note parameter to modulate Filter Frequency for the same purpose.
Consequently, the filter's resonance will follow the notes being played.
That supports the separation of distinct tom types. Try different values. I settled at 30 in this case.
The final touch before we move on to the effects chain is the LFO that modulates the pitch.
Synthesizing a Tom Drum: LFO
This is super subtle but helps sound more natural, like real drums ringing.
It creates a vibrato. Take LFO 1 at about 4 or 5 kHz, and modulate Oscillator One's pitch.
Set it at very low amounts, or else it defeats the purpose.
Alright, you're done synthesizing the tom. But that was just the beginning.
Now it's time to add effects to shape the sound however you want.
Making a Tom Drum: Effects Chain
Play with an equalizer, distortion, and a transient shaper if available.
Here's what I did in this example:
A considerable mid-range boost with an equalizer.
The mid-range boost will help your synthetic tom sound closer to a real tom.
Even though these mid-range frequencies are ugly, they are present in actual toms. But not so much in the synthetic version.
Usually, people scoop them from tom recordings to get rid of nasty resonances.
And sometimes to make room in the mix for the snare and other instruments.
The busier the mix, the more you want to make room in this frequency range.
It's a matter of taste and the type of music you produce.
Synthesized toms lack those frequencies, hence the mid-range boost.
Following the mid-range boost, I similarly boosted the highs, but not as much. This ensures your tom cuts through the mix.
If you don't like the sound after boosting those frequencies, here's a much better solution for the mid-range:
Multiband Transient Shaper
Use a Multiband Transient Shaper, like the one in Izotope Neutron.
With this tool, you can boost the attack portion in the mid-range to get that satisfying knock.
While at the same time cutting the sustain in the mid-range. This technique gets rid of those ugly resonances.
And the other effect I always use to synthesize toms is some kind of distortion.
Distortion adds harmonics that were not present before, resulting in a pleasant texture.
The Saturator that comes with Ableton Live is outstanding for that task. But any distortion plugin will do.
I took the "Soft Shaper" preset and tweaked it until it sounded neat.
You can design hundreds of unique tom sounds by tweaking these effects, matching any song.
The distortion by itself can totally reshape a tom sample.
The last thing I did was automate different MIDI notes to various panning positions in the stereo field.
That way, it sounds like several toms are being played.
Then I added some Reverb, along with the snare.
Suppose you wanted to take this one step further. In that case, you could:
- Export or resample those different MIDI notes;
- Put them in separate tracks;
- Tweak the effects differently on each track;
Different saturation, equalization, and distortion. Now it's time to get really imaginative.
That would create even more separation between each tom, resulting in a bit more realism.
Now it's your turn to synthesize tom drums
Hey, you already know how to synthesize tom drums.
The next logical step is to improve your layering techniques and learn other tricks to create massive snares. Make sure you read that one too!
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.
For sound design guides and plenty more resources, visit my website.