When adding cymbals and percussion in tracks, the obvious starting places to create more interesting sounds is to pan, eq, and pitch shift. For example, you can have 1 high hat sound, and you can pitch it 4 times up, creating 4 different hat sounds, and pan them left to right. This will add some interesting dimension to the percussive elements, but I like to take it a step further.
Creating pseudo random variation
In addition to some of this basic panning, I like to add some subtle extra effects that change over time. One of my favorite things to do is to add a Haas, or widening effect, and modulate it over time with an LFO. A great tool to do this is Khz Multipass that comes with the Slate bundle. I like it because it has some built in LFOs, and multi band effects. So one of my starting points is to put a Haas effect on the high channel of hats or shakers and set the delay to modulate.
What I also like to do is make the LFO rate be something that won’t sync to the BPM of the track. The reason I want to do this is because I want every single bar to be slightly different. I can set the LFO to repeat at something synced to the bpm such as 1/4 notes or even 1 bar. What will happen is that the effect will start at the same time every bar, and what I want to happen is that it never lines up at the beginning of the bar. This will result in completely random variations across the track. After adding some width, I also play around with some other effects at random like chorus, phasers ect.
Using Stock Plugins
It’s not necessary to use Multipass to accomplish this. I mainly use Ableton, and can also do it with the built in LFO, map it to 1 side of a delay, and play around with the rest of the knobs to taste. It’s also possible to just open up an automation lane and draw some random lines.
This works on all sorts of percussion instruments. I often put subtle delay, chorus, flanger, distortion on any percussive instruments like bongos, claps, and shakers. The only percussion element I typically would not modify with one of these effects would be kick and snare, since they are the most important elements to drive the rhythm.
What does it sound like?
Here is an example with Jetfire Prime on a synthwave track where the stereo modulation on the hi-hats is really apparent. If you listen closely to the high hats they get super wide at some points and then narrow. It gives it just another layer of variation that doesn’t repeat exactly on beat, so every measure, the width will be slightly different, but never repeating the same.