Layering Drum Sounds with Drum Racks in Ableton Live

Ableton Live's Drum racks are simple to set up and an easy way to quickly assemble drum sounds. Gary Hiebner shows how to go one step further and build drum racks with layered samples.  

Drum Racks work great in Ableton Live. They are simple and easy to set up to build a quick set of drum sounds. But what if you want to start layering similar samples together. I'll show you how you can build up a Drum Rack with layered samples, but the Drum Rack will still retain its simplicity. I'll be using Ableton Drum Racks and the Chain feature. Let's dive in and see how this is done.

Step 1 – Building The Drum Rack

Ableton's Drum Racks work well when building up a simple drum kit, but you can reach its limitations when you start adding multiple layers such as 3 kicks, and 4 snares, and so on. This is where the Chain feature comes in handy. First decide on the drum samples you want to use. Choose a different variety of samples relating to a specific drum sound, so for the kick make a selection of 3-4 kick sounds that will compliment each other. Go through and pick your other samples that you want to use.

Now create a Drum Rack (Instruments > Drum Rack). Drag the Drum Rack item onto one of your MIDI tracks. Now drag one of each of your drum selections on each of the drum pads. I will be using the following types of drum sounds: Kick, Snare, HH, OH. I'm keeping it simple. 

Drum Rack

The pads will be named by the name of the sample when you drag it onto a drum pad. Rename these pads. To do this select the drum pad, and use Command-R to rename them. I have my Kicks on C1, the Snares on D1, Closed Hats on F#1 and my Open Hats on G#1. 

Use Command-R to rename your Drum Pads.

Use Command-R to rename your Drum Pads.

With the Drum Racks, you can build up a rack with 16 pads in each Pads overview section, which gives you a total of 128 pad choices. But I want to avoid this clutter, which is the reason for building up a layered Drum Rack. 

The trick is to use samples that compliment each other. On the Kick, I have a 'subby' low kick, a kick with a nice 'clicky' beater sound to add some more high end, and then another kick that fills out the mid range between the two. The goal with layering samples is to build up a more coherent sound from the initial samples. Keep this in mind when choosing your samples.

Next onto the chains.

Step 2 – Creating The Chains

Let's create a chain for the Kick section first. Right-click on the header of the click sample and select Group. This will create an Instrument Rack. 

Group Samples.

Rename this Instrument rack to Kick. Click on the Show/Hide Chain button to show the chain. You will see the Kick sample these. Now drag in your other kick samples. You've built up your first multi-sampled kick in Ableton. 

Kick Group.

Now create Groups for the SNARE, HH, and OH drums. Make sure to rename the Instrument Racks accordingly so that it doesn't get confusing to you later.

Step 3 – Adding Effect Processing

The beauty of this is that you can adjust the volume of each sample on each chain to your liking, and individual processing can be applied to each chain. Or you can apply processing to the overall Instrument Rack. 

For example, I have slightly compressed each kick sample and have added an EQ Eight to each one. You can use the EQs to get the samples to gel together better. Boost frequency ranges on some samples, while attenuating frequency areas on the other samples so they sit together better. 

Kick Compression.

On the SNARE Group, I have done the same thing. I have added a compressor to each chain and have then applied an EQ. You can also pan the samples to different areas on the stereo field to add some width and differentiation.

On the HH and OH hats chains, I have added an EQ Eight and have cut out any low end up to about 500hz on the chains.

To the Drums Instrument Rack I have added the Glue Compressor to add an overall compression to the samples. This will further 'glue' the elements together. I have used the 'full parallel compression' preset. This adds some parallel drum processing to the Drum Instrument Rack. I can use the Dry/Wet parameter to dial in more compression if I want a heavier processed effect on the drums.

Drums Compression.

Step 4 – Setup The Chokes

Another thing to do is to set up the Choke so that when the Open Hats are played, it chokes the Closed Hats, and visa versa. Go back to the Drum Rack and Show the Chains on the Rack. There should be KICK, SNARE, HH, and OH. Click on the Input/Output button to show the Choke parameter. Set the HH and OH choke both to 1. So either the HH or OH will play, they won't play at the same time.

Hats Choke.

Step 4 – The Macros

Now onto the Macros, these are a great way to adjust each drum chain. Click on the Macro button to show the Macros on the Drum Rack. Now click on the Map button to enable Map Mode. Click on the Volume of the Kick Chain in the Drum Rack and Map this to Macro one by clicking Map under it. Now the Volume of the KICK Chain is set to Macro One. I can rename this macro to KICK so that I know what it's assigned to. Assign the SNARE, HH, and OH to the macros as well. Now you can easy make volume adjusts to these elements, and you could even map the macros to a MIDI controller so that you can control the volumes externally. You can hide everything on the Drum Rack except for the Macros to simplify the look of the Drum Rack.

Map a Macro.

You can also go in and map others parameters if you wish. I have also mapped the pans of the SNARE, HH and OH to macros. I didn't map the KICK pan as this will sit in the center.  You can view all your macros in the Macro Mappings.

All Macros.

I have color-coded the volumes from the pans so that I know the difference between the two. Just right-click a macro to bring up the color palette. I have made the drum volumes green, and the pans red.

Color Macros.


That's how to set up a layered drum kit in Ableton by making use of the Drum Racks and the Chain feature. This is less cluttered than adding all the samples to the Drum Rack pads. Just make sure that you rename everything correctly as it can get quite confusing with all the groups and chains. This keeps your productions neat and tidy even though you can have a multi-layered drum rack with tons of different samples.

Take a look at the following tutorials to get further tips and techniques with Ableton:

Live 8 204 - Exploring Drum Racks

Live 8 207 - Hooked On Racks!

Live 8 303 - Ableton Live 8 TNT Tips and Tricks 1

Gary Hiebner is an enthusiastic South African Sound Designer and Apple Tech Head! Gary has been involved in the South African music industry for the decade, and in this time has also been involved in the sound design and music production for many advertising agencies and media houses. Gary is a devoted Logic and Ableton user, but he al... Read More


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