How To Tune Drum Samples To Your Song’s Key


Thales Matos


You're about to learn the best way to tune drum samples, so they match your song's key. 

Tuning your drum samples will make them much more harmonious with the rest of your instruments. So, your productions will sound more professional.

This is an unusual method to save your samples from becoming flabby and weak in the tuning process.

Keep reading or watch the video above.

How most beginners tune drum samples

Most beginners tune their samples in a way that deteriorates them too much. 

Whether it's a kick drum, a snare, toms, or percussion.

They use the warp feature or some tuning effect created to tune melodic instruments.

using warp to tune drum samples

When those tools change the pitch of a sample, they try to preserve the harmonic relationship. The ratio between fundamental frequencies and their overtones.

ableton live tuner for drums and percussion

Because of that, they affect the high frequencies much more than the lower ones. 

Even the sample duration changes. That's why they weaken the sound of percussive instruments.

The best tool to tune drum samples

A frequency shifter is the most adequate tool for the job. 

frequency shifter is the best tool to tune drum samples

It affects the entire frequency spectrum equally. So, the harmonic relationship of the partials doesn't matter. 

It simply displaces every frequency by the same amount

For instance, you could shift the fundamental frequency of a kick sample by 10 Hz to ensure it's in key. 

The high frequencies, like the ones above 8 kHz, only get displaced by 10 hertz. That's barely noticeable in that range.

If you're in Ableton Live, it comes with a Frequency Shifter — perfect for this task. 

Frequency Shifter Update in Live 11.1

After updating Ableton Live to version 11.1, the Frequency Shifter was replaced with the new Shifter device. You can still find it, though. Here:

Places > Packs > Core Library > Devices > Audio Effects > Legacy 

However, you can achieve the same effect with the Shifter device. Change it to "Freq" mode and tune your drum samples by adjusting the "Fine" knob.

Other DAWs have their own versions of this effect.

How much to tune your drum sample

How do I know if the sample is out of tune? And how much to change it exactly?

Here's the easiest way:

voxengo span high resolution mode

Get a free spectrum analyzer, like Voxengo Span

It shows you every harmonic of your sample when you play it.

Then turn on High-Resolution Mode. It gives you a very detailed view of the low end.

Play the drum sample you want to tune. 

Click the "Hold" button to freeze the spectrum, so you can look at what's happening.

Find the fundamental frequency or the highest peak. That's the frequency your ears interpret as the sample's key. 

tuning drum sample - fundamental frequency on a spectrum analyzer

It's the only one that matters for tuning. Even if thousands of partials are happening simultaneously.

Lastly, look at the frequency number displayed in the corner, at the musical note, and take note of that.

I usually tune my kicks, snares, toms, and percussions to the scale's tonic, third, fifth, or sixth note.

For example: if the song is in the key of C major, I'll tune them to a C, E, G, or A.

You could also tune it to any note present in most of your progression's chords

It could be any note. It's up to your ears.

In this case, the fundamental frequency is the "G#," at 209 Hertz. 

Once you've decided which note you want to tune it to, calculate the difference in frequency.

If I wanted to bring it down to "F" at 174 Hertz, the difference between 209 and 174 is 35 Hertz.

tuning drum sample with frequency shifter

So that's the number I'm going to insert in my Frequency Shifter effect: -35.

Now the fundamental frequency is tuned to the key of my song.

And the effect barely touched the high frequencies. The sample didn't become dull and didn't lose its buzz.

Tuning Hi-Hats

Hi-Hats are a particular case.

I don't tune hi-hats to match the song's key. After all, people can't usually recognize the pitch of a hi-hat sound.

Too many adjacent frequencies happen simultaneously on hi-hats. It sounds more like noise.

Although sometimes, it's still helpful to adjust the pitch when mixing hi-hats. 

The goal is to change where they happen in the frequency spectrum.

It keeps them from getting masked. And from masking another instrument or percussion that also exists in that range. 

I like the hi-hats to sit alone in a specific frequency range. 

So I find the ideal place for them and shift the frequencies to achieve that.

frequency shifter to tune hit hat samples

Notice that for hi-hats, it takes a much higher frequency change. It's in the hundreds or even thousands of Hertz.

tuning hi-hat samples with a frequency shifter

But if you simply used the Warp feature, here's what would happen:

tuning hi-hats with the warp feature

They'd lose some of the most critical frequencies. All those high frequencies would be gone.

what happens when you tune drum samples with complex pro warping

That's why the Frequency Shifter is the best device to pitch down hi-hats and other drum samples.

Now it's your turn

Now you know how to tune drum samples like a pro

If you have any questions, let me know in the comment section below.

Interested in pop music writing, production, and mixing? Visit my website.


Thales Matos

August 27, 2022


Enjoyed this article ?



Leave a Comment

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}