Friday, January 23, 2009
There's certainly no shortage of great drum sample libraries on the market today. Even a quick search of The Google will turn up tons of free ones. But there really is nothing like making your own. For one thing, it's uniquely yours and there's something cool about knowing there aren't 10,000 other musicians using the same sound. But even better, it lets you custom tailor and tune the sound to fit specifically into the song you're working on. Kick drums are probably the easiest type of sound to make, so that's what we'll look at today. I'm going to be using Sonic Charge's excellent MicroTonic, but you can do this on any synth that offers a sine wave and the ability to modulate pitch with an envelope (which these days should be most of them...), the process will just be a little different.
1. Fire up MicroTonic and go ahead and program a note trigger in the sequencer every fourth note. Hit 'play' on the sequencer. I find it's helpful to have a little sequence playing a sound while I'm programming it. What you'll hear right now is a sort of noisey beep. (If you're on a different synth, just make sure you have only one oscillator sounding, and that it's playing a sine wave).
2. We won't need the noise portion for our kick drum, so go ahead and slide the MIX slider all the way to the left towards OSC. This ensures we're just hearing the oscillator and none of the noise we don't need.
3. Now you should hear a sort of boring beep sound. The first thing we need to do is to get the sine wave in the right frequency range. One of the nice things about MicroTonic is that you can set this by Hz. This can be useful when building an arrangement because you can make sure your kick lives in a frequency range that won't interfere with your bass sound. For purposes of this excercise, let's set the OSC FREQ slider to about 60Hz for some nice sub frequencies. (If you're using another synth, simply set the octave tuning of the oscillator to a low octave).
4. We still have a boring beep sound, it's just lower now. That's where modulation comes in. Essentially, we're going to sweep the pitch of the sine wave to simulate the effect of a kick drum being struck. This is what will take us from boring beep, to percussive and deep. Right below the OSC FREQ slider, you'll see two knobs. One labelled AMOUNT and one labelled RATE. Let's play with amount first, since you won't hear any effect without it. Slowly rotate the AMOUNT knob to the right (towards the plus sign). As you do so, you'll notice a bit of a percussive 'snap' being added to the sound. Taken all the way to the right and you'll enter the territory of Kraftwerkian laser zaps. For now, though, let's set it just under half of the way to the right. (If you're using another synth, assign an envelope to modulate the pitch of your sine wave oscillator. The attack, sustain, and releases values should be set to zero, and the decay should be set long enough that you have the snap I'm talking about. Make sure your amplitude envelope is set similarly, although you might want to set the decay slightly longer on it. If your synth allows you to select a modulation level, that is precisely what the AMOUNT knob does in MicroTonic).
5. So if AMOUNT sets the frequency range between the start and stop of the pitch sweep, RATE simply determines how long it takes to sweep between those two values. For right now, we're going to leave this right in the middle. But play around with it and see what effects you can get from changing it. Higher values give more artificial, 'synth kiss' type sounds, and towards the lower end, you can emulate the famous 808 kick sound or big jungle sub drops.
6. As it is now, our kick drum lacks a little power, so we're going to let it boom a bit more. We do this by upping the DECAY level of the oscillator envelope. Let's set it to about 800 ms. If you've done everything right, you should have something not unlike the famous Roland TR-909 kick drum. If not, keep playing with the RATE and AMOUNT until you do. (On another synth, you can increase the length of the kick sound by adjusting the decay level of the amplitude envelope).
That's just one example. Playing with just this handful of parameters can yield everything from chirpy psytrance kicks to thippy Kraftwerk pings to thunderous sub drops. And that's just the start of your drum sound. Mess around with EQ settings, distort it, compress it... the sky's the limit. Go nuts and layer sound, and try using waveforms besides just the sine for weirder, synthier sounds. It quickly becomes very addictive. In the meantime, here are a couple of other good articles/tutorials on synthesizing your own kick drums you might enjoy:
Synth Secrets: Synthesizing the Bass Drum
The Mother of All Kick Drum Threads on the Israeli Trance Forum
Synthesizing a Deep Kick in Ableton Live