5 Ways To Breathe Life Into Sampled Hi-Hats

Sampled Hi-Hats

Sampled hi-hats can sound dry, programmed, and robotic if not massaged into a track. Percussion is a very important part of rhythm and music and deserves some extra attention when composing. Some genres of music sound better with clearly programmed drums. But if you want to give your sampled hi-hats more life and human feel, then this is the article for you!

Here are 5 ways to breathe life into sampled hi-hats:

  1. Nudge samples off the grid
  2. Adjust gain or velocity
  3. Sidechain compress to other percussive elements
  4. Automate a transient shaper
  5. Time stretch/compress individual samples

Nudging Samples Off The Grid

This is perhaps the quickest way to give some extra groove and human element to your sampled hi-hats. Placing the hi-hats behind the beat (slightly after the grid) will help establish a laid-back groove in the drums. And placing the hi-hats before the beat (slightly before the grid) will give the sense of rushed drums.

Try only nudging the offbeat sampled hi-hats, or maybe just the 1st beat, or just the 2nd and 4th beats. Experiment with which beats you choose to change and see how moving one percussive element can alter the groove and give the rhythm more life.

The idea behind this is that human drummers are rarely ever as perfect as a machine. There will likely be slight variations in timing with even the best drummers (or the drummer will purposefully play “off” to create a certain groove). Try to recreate that by randomly nudging sampled hi-hats ever so slightly (both early and late). This may seem time-consuming for such a little difference, but these little differences really add up!

Adjust Gain Or Velocity

Let's take the same idea of humanizing as we did in the previous tip and apply it to gain. Little differences in gain can go a long way in humanizing your sampled hi-hats and other cymbals. Remember that even if a drummer is trying to hit the cymbal exactly the same every time, there will be little differences in the sound and volume.

We can help humanize and breathe life into our sampled hi-hats by altering the gain (or velocity if we're using a MIDI Sampler). Try adjusting each by up to +/- 1 dB for a tiny difference, and experiment with various +/- for more variety. Also, try bringing the gain up or down significantly on the offbeats to add a bit more groove!

As a further point to the first two tips. If you're using a MIDI Sampler within Logic Pro X, there's even a “humanize” function within the Piano Roll. This can randomize the timing and velocity of your samples!

Logic is featured in My New Microphone's Top 7 Best Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) On The Market.

Sidechain Compress To Other Percussive Elements

Another way of adjusting the gain of sampled hi-hats is to use sidechain compression. Slap a compressor on your hi-hats track or bus and try using a kick or snare to trigger that compressor. Adjust the parameters to your liking to make the hi-hats breathe. This helps to add an extra rhythmic pulse to the cymbals and overall percussion of your track.

Another trick I like to use to give my hats more life is to send all my cymbals to a reverb aux bus (100% wet reverb) and sidechain that signal to either the kick or snare. I use this tip more often than on the dry signal.

I tend to adjust the gain manually to my liking instead of relying on sidechain compression, but it's a great tool to have at my disposal!

To learn more about sidechain compression, check out my article The Complete Guide To Sidechain Compression In Audio.

Automate A Transient Shaper

A transient shaper does exactly what it says it does: it shapes transients. Automating the amount and length of attack on sampled hi-hats yields some nice results. It gives the illusion of human feel by synthetically “altering the way the cymbal is hit.”

Try having the transient shaper add a lot of attack on the first beat, then drop to less attack and slowly automate the attack back up to the first beat of the next bar. Experiment with different “accents” with your automation!

Check out transient shaper plugins at Plugin Boutique.

Time Stretch/Compress Individual Samples

This tip can be used to great effect, but it can get messy quickly. Less is more with time stretching! It's the tip I've most recently started using to add interest to my percussion, and particularly to my sampled hi-hats.

Stretching the digital audio files changes the waveform of the “sampled” hi-hats. If you compress the sample (shorten it), the computer will try to fit the general shape of the waveform in a shorter amount of time, removing digital samples (this is the sample rate of the audio file, not the audio file itself). If you stretch the sample (lengthen it), the computer will try to fit the same waveform in a longer amount of time, therefore adding artificial samples, while trying to maintain the shape of the original waveform.

These subtracted or added digital samples cause artifacts in the sound and can get ugly quickly. So it's best advised when time stretching and compressing, that the producer only alters the audio file slightly.

Of course, there are no rules, and stretching audio can give cool experimental results, but for the sake of adding a slight variation to percussion, less is more!


I hope these 5 tips help to breathe some life into your sampled hi-hats and other percussion elements. Variety is the spice of life, and these seemingly tiny details all add up to a more interesting sound.

Of course, there are certain aesthetics that call for static samples. And yet other instances that call for real drums rather than sampled ones. But if you're looking to add interest to your repeated samples, these tips are great tools to change things up.

So try these out and let me know what you think. Is there a tip you use more often, or perhaps one I haven't listed here? Add a comment, I'd love to open up a dialogue on this subject!

As always, thanks for reading and for your support.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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