Computer based recording systems need both hardware and software to make them run. Because I've been using versions of this software from the mid-'80s, I use Mark Of The Unicorn's Digital Performer for my digital audio and MIDI recording. There's no sense in learning a new program unless you must. Digital Performer is a Macintosh-only program that has done a great job of seamlessly blending together both the digital audio and the MIDI aspects of computer based recording. There are other programs that integrate MIDI and digital audio well. These include Emagic's Logic and Steinberg's CubaseVST (both Mac and PC). Digidesign's ProTools is the most widely accepted digital recording format, but, in my opinion, lacks the elegant integration of MIDI. ProTools' premier status may soon be challenged, as Apple Computer purchased Emagic a few months ago. Apple has taken a big bite of the video editing market away from Avid (the parent company of Digidesign) and seems to have set its sights on the audio market as well. As a note, Digital Performer 3.0 and above can open up recordings made in ProTools. I recently did this, and it works well.
Even though there are tools in all the above programs to create and edit loops, I use a Mac-only audio-editing program from Bias, Inc. called Peak 3.1 to do all my loop creation. It can import and export most audio formats and apply EQ and effects. But its greatest feature is called Loop Surfer. This feature lets you set a beginning and ending loop point based on numbers of beats and tempo, then actively drag this "loop grid" around to any point in the audio file while the file is playing, which makes it very easy to find a loop. This one feature has saved me a great deal of time, and is worth the price of the program alone. There are similar products available for PCs, so consult your local digital audio guru for more information.
To burn your finished files using a CD-R drive, you'll need CD burning software such as Toast from Adaptec. A "lite" version of Toast (Macintosh only) is generally bundled with the CD-R drive. Easy CD Creator is a popular PC CD burning software, and will most likely be bundled with the drive. Other versions of both these software packages have more advanced features that can be purchased later on, but the bundled versions will work well to get you started.
Although this software will allow you to create crushing professional loops, there are two really cool programs that can drastically modify existing loops, and create loops with drums, percussion, and synth sounds completely inside your computer! Because songwriters can only go to the loop well so many times, there's a program called Recycle from Propellerhead. Among many other things, this program allows you to change the tempo of a loop without changing the pitch, as well changing the pitch without changing the tempo. This couldn't be done without computer technology. The second program is a blast to use, and allows you to create in different ways. It is Reason, also from Propellerhead. I could spend multiple pages just scratching the surface of it. Seek out a demo of this software, it rocks! Both of these programs are available for Macs and PCs.
Hey, let's make some loops.
Since this article focuses on loops that sound acoustic, rather than loops based on electronic sounds or MIDI, I'll record an alternative-style groove at 88 beats per minute for the loop examples. Leaving the subject of microphones, preamps, and other outboard gear used to record acoustic drums for a later time, I'll be playing my V-Drums for this article.
Fig. 1. A level between 75—100 percent will minimize distortion while recording drums.
When recording drums, or any instrument for that matter, make sure there is a good, strong level on each track, without the sound distorting. This is true for analog (tape) recordings, as well as digital recordings. Analog distortion doesn't sound very good, but digital distortion is really nasty sounding. You'll know it when you hear it! The hotter the recorded level, the better the signal-to-noise ratio, and the wider the dynamic range. Digitally recorded files can always be "normalized," a process that raises a sound file's level to near maximum without distorting it. This is something you can do if you have to use sound files with low-recorded levels, but by no means is it the best course of action. A level of between 75-100 percent of maximum is best (see Fig. 1).
Because V-Drums have eight outputs, recording them is very much like recording acoustic drums, but without much of the hassle. For these loops the audio is split out into seven outputs – kick, snare, stereo cymbals, hi-hat, and stereo toms. The stereo cymbal and tom pairs contain panning information. For example the four toms only take up two tracks on a recorder, but their audio still moves gradually from one side to the other (depending on how they are panned). To accomplish this with acoustic drums you would have to use four microphones and four tracks on a recorder.
Fig. 2. Four main windows used for navigation and editing in Digital Performer.
Fig. 2 shows the four main windows used for navigation and editing in Digital Performer (later on referred to as DP). Window "A" contains the transport controls and information about the current file. This information includes some of the things we discussed earlier. Just to the right of this window you'll see the sample rate and bit depth at which this DP file is recorded – 44.1K sample rate and 16-bit depth. Looks like CD quality to me.