Technology has always played a large part in the creative process but even more so since the advent of the personal computer. What tools are currently at the disposal of drummers in the digital age and how will music-making materials change in the near future? Strap in as we take a look at where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we might be going.
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
Just a few years ago, software was nowhere, and hardware ruled the stage. A technology-savvy performer might have an acoustic kit complemented by a multipad such as a Roland Pad-8 or a drumKAT. The more adventurous might also include a few single pads routed into a trigger-to-MIDI interface. MIDI signals would then be sent to a hardware drum machine, an electronic-kit brain, a sampler, or perhaps even a synth. Each sound-producing machine was a separate box costing hundreds or thousands of dollars that had to have its own MIDI input, audio outputs, and cables. And if you wanted sounds from more than one device, you’d have to add a mixer. A complicated and expensive setup!
WHERE WE ARE
We’re now smack-dab in the middle of a software revolution. Software can do things and produce sounds that are totally impossible on hardware-based machines. Though there have been big changes in sequencing and digital audio programs (e.g., Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Digital Performer, Cubase, and Sonor) as well as in professional music-notation programs (e.g., Finale, Sibelius, and Notion), the major advances have occurred in soft sound modules and creative performance software. Let’s go through a few of the programs that are breaking new ground.
Softsynths are a general classification of programs that put all the power of a hardware synthesizer right inside your computer. These programs can often be played in a stand-alone version (essentially turning your desktop or laptop into a musical instrument) or act as a plug-in within a host program such as a sequencer or DAW.
One major trend in softsynths has been in the area of emulators. These programs strive to bring the vintage hardware experience to your computer. While you may not be able to get your hands on a classic vintage instrument – especially one that will stay in tune for more than a minute or two – you can have soft versions at your disposal for a fraction of the price. There are several of these software packages on the market, but we’ll examine two to get a feel for what they do and how they sound.
CS-80V.This is Arturia’s soft version of Yamaha’s CS-80 synth. The original beast cost nearly $7,000 and weighed close to 200 pounds. The user interface, though, isn’t faithful to the original because of several new enhancements that the original machine couldn’t offer. Sure, you’ve got two analog oscillators per voice and the ribbon controller right where it belongs above the keyboard, but the Arturia version also has a sophisticated modulation matrix, an arpeggiator, and a stereo delay.
I’ve had a great deal of fun with the multi-mode feature on this synth. In addition to using multi mode to layer sounds or program keyboard splits, you can program a sound to move between the eight different parts in sequential order. By this, I mean that the first MIDI note will sound the first part, the second event will sound the second part, and so on. By working with the selection of note transposition, detuning, volume, and stereo position on each part, you can create some very hip melodic/rhythmic patterns with just one or two electronic triggers firing one or two notes. The result is a great vintage analog sound coupled with a today’s MIDI control features. Like many softsynths, the knobs, sliders, and switches on the CS-80V can be programmed to respond to MIDI’s continuous controller messages for real-time performance tweaking.
FIG 1. TimewARP 2600
This patch on the TimewARP 2600 is typical of the analog synth bleep and boink sounds from the ’70s
TimewARP 2600. If you’re more adventurous, you can dive into Way Out Ware’s TimewARP 2600, an emulation of the well-known ARP 2600. The 2600 is one of the most popular analog synths of the ’70s, and the TimewARP can be considered a virtual clone both in sonic detail and in the user interface. In fact, it’s so good that Alan R. Pearlman, the man who founded ARP instruments and led the development of the 2600, has given his seal of approval. The front panel looks and acts just like the original, and when you start playing it, you’ll feel the connection (FIG 1). It simply sounds magnificent!
Speaking of connections, the ARP 2600 is a semimodular synth, which means that it has a hard-wired signal path that can be overruled. The output from one module can be used as the input to another module. If you want to create complex signal routings with virtual patch cords, the 2600 will let you. If you want to take the easy way out, you can up a patch from the hundreds included with the software and then tweak it to your specific needs. Once you start experimenting, you’ll be custom building your own patches in no time at all.
The creators of the TimewARP were nice enough to make this version polyphonic – up to eight voices – so that it much more versatile than the original monophonic instrument. Another updated aspect is TimewARP’s ability to allow a single incoming MIDI message to change any or all of the knobs, sliders, and controls on the front panel at the same time. This is a great tool for percussionists controlling the TimewARP 2600 in live performance.
Softsynths can do so much more than duplicate the hardware instruments of the past. Nearly all softsynths have the normal components of oscillators, amplifiers, filters, and effects. However, some new programs are taking traditional synthesizer elements and combining them in entirely unique ways, thus moving sound design to a new level.
FIG 2. Cameleon 5000
The morphing feature on the Cameleon 5000 produces totally unique combinations of sounds
Cameleon 5000. This synth from Camel Audio comes with over 1,000 sounds right out of the box. As an additive synth, you can combine traditional waveforms as well as import sampled sounds in either WAV or IAFF formats. Believe it or not, the Cameleon will also let you import a bit-mapped image as a sound source. That’s right, an image! Once you’ve got your raw materials loaded into the program, you can edit them in a number of different ways, including working with the individual harmonics of the sound.
One totally unique aspect of this program is the “morphing square” that can be used to warp between four different sounds in real time (FIG 2). Using this feature, you can create an audio landscape that has depth, movement, and evolving textures over time. This goes way beyond simple layering!
Dimension Pro. This program started out as a softsynth inside of Cakewalk’s Project 5 package. As a sample-playback engine, the program and its associated libraries come on two DVDs and comprise a whopping 7.5 gigs of raw material. Similar to Cameleon, Dimension Pro’s sounds come from a combination of up to four elements. For each one of the different elements, you can set the low and high key limits, the low and high velocity limits, the bend depth both up and down, the ability to respond to sustain and sostenuto pedals, the transposition and fine tuning, and other parameters.
For live performance, there’s a sophisticated set of controls inside a MIDI matrix. Here you can use various MIDI messages to control nearly every aspect of an element’s sound (or all of the elements together if you wish). For example, you could have your playing velocity control filter resonance, pan position, EQ, sample offset, and a number of other sonic parameters.
FIG 3. Stylus Chaos
The Stylus RMX Chaos Designer adds a touch of randomness to your loops for a more natural sound
Stylus RMX. Stylus RMX is a “real time groove module” with a core library of 7.4 gigs of sonic materials. The concept is pretty simple – build a soft instrument that can play a number of different grooves or loops at the same time. Similar to REX files (in fact, Stylus RMX can import standard REX files), these grooves have been broken up into different slices so that they stay synchronized at various tempos. But while the concept might be simple, the implementation is a dream. Stylus RMX provides unparalleled control over how the loops sound and interact with each other in real time. The folks at Spectrasonics have also created a new tool called the Chaos Designer (FIG 3). It’s a way to make the loops less predictable and sound more natural. With the chaos designer, you can introduce variations in dynamics, timing, pattern, and pitch. You can also determine if you want these changes to be subtle or more in-your-face. This is truly a new method of making loops come alive.
For live performance, Stylus can start and stop loops and patterns by MIDI note numbers, and you can play loops and grooves one slice at a time. By combining loops and their variations along with single attacks from individual slices, you’ll have a slammin’ groove coming out of your electronic kit in no time.
GigaStudio 3. Tascam’s GS3 is an example of a soft sampler able to stream sounds from hard drives rather than the limiting technique of loading sounds into expensive on-board RAM. Since samples are streamed, there’s no longer any need to truncate sound libraries or worry about running out of memory. It’s common to see cymbal crashes that last a full 30 seconds or more, giving an absolutely smooth and natural decay. It’s also common to work with sound libraries that offer 16 or more dynamic levels that have been cross-faded to perfection.
You’ll be glad to know that the days of firing the exact same static sample over and over are pretty much gone. GS3 now comes in three flavors. The big boy is called Orchestra and has an unlimited number of voices and reads up to 128 unique MIDI channels. With so many inputs and so many voices, you could easily use this one piece of software to provide sounds for an entire band’s live performances or score a full-length feature film. In order to control all those voices, the program’s mixer supports up to 128 channels with 32 fader groups and 4-band parametric EQ with 8 auxiliary sends for each channel. Version 3 now supports VST plug-ins, and it’s ReWire compatible for even more sonic flexibility.
There can be an unlimited number of layers under any single MIDI channel, and a full set of controls helps to set up how the layers will interact with each other. GS3 now supports up to 256 different “dimensions.” Dimensions provide real-time MIDI control over which samples are played at any particular time. They can be used for cross switching or crossfading of samples in real time. For example, sending a single MIDI note number, pushing a pedal, or playing above or below a certain velocity could instantly change entire drum kits or change articulations from sticks to brushes. A “round robin” feature switches the samples in a predetermined order each time you play a note. You can also fire sounds in a more random order if you prefer. The GS3 also has an extensive set of intelligent MIDI performance tools. These features help make live performance a much more responsive and natural experience.
One of the best features of the new Giga 3 is GigaPulse real-time convolution. With GigaPulse, you can run your sounds through an amazing collection of acoustical spaces, microphone models, and instrument resonances. This can help create a totally unique sonic fingerprint.
Is it really possible to have an entire music production studio inside a single program? The answer is a resounding YES! A number of programs use the “virtual rack” paradigm to offer everything in a single package. Need a sampler? Call one up and place it into the rack. Need a dozen additive or FM synths? No problem. Typically, all-in-one instruments also contain a sequencer that can record MIDI data and respond to a full complement of MIDI messages to make live performance slick and easy.
Reason 3.0. Reason has been around for a while, and its influence on the software market has been extensive. Reason can respond to four discrete MIDI streams and supports as many audio outputs as your sound card allows. In the virtual world, Reason offers up two different mixers, two samplers, a subtractive synth, a graintable synth, a REX file player, and a drum machine. It also contains all the outboard processing you might ever need with plenty of reverbs, EQs, distortion units, flangers, phasers, vocorder, and more. The Combinator is a new instrument that is essentially an entire Reason rack that can be played, saved, and called up as a single entity within a larger rack.
If Reason only let you combine virtual instruments into a rack, then it would be pretty cool. But if you’ve got the nerve and the chops, Reason will let you wade into very deep waters. Each one of the virtual instruments is modular and has a very sophisticated set of controls and commands that allow for unique signal routing and the ability for one instrument’s output to control another instrument’s input. Just about every knob, slider, button, or control is also controllable by MIDI’s continuous controller messages, making it an ideal program for live performance.
Live 5. Live is a unique program. Think of it as a Swiss Army knife of audio manipulation tools that allow for live performance controls, MIDI sequencing, hard disk recording, and remixing – all in real time. In fact, it’s difficult to think about a musical job that couldn’t be handled inside Live. Live has the ability to warp digital audio clips in a number of ways that assure tempo matching is flawless. You can also use Live’s warping features to create some truly twisted sounds and bizarre rhythmic structures. Live incorporates an easy-to-understand graphic interface that makes dealing with complex song structures intuitive.
For percussionists, the hippest thing about Live is its ability to fire an unlimited number of clips with MIDI messages. The clips can consist of audio loops, complete songs, MIDI sequences, one-shot samples, and more. Each clip has its own play button, and you can arrange clips so that a single command will fire several at once. If you don’t want to use MIDI messages to control clips, you can interface with Live directly from your computer’s keyboard. A complete set of plug-ins and a variety of soft instruments are built into the program to provide everything you need for live performance or studio recording.
WHERE WE’RE GOING
Hardware-based samplers are pretty much dinosaurs already, so it’s not hard to predict that hardware, in the near future, will be dead. I know that’s a bold statement, but as computers continue to be faster, more powerful, more stable, smaller, and cheaper on a regular basis, hardware synths and samplers just don’t make sense anymore.
Software developers will continue pushing the envelope to create new sounds and new ways to control those sounds both in live performance and in the studio setting. The hardware-emulator branch of the tree will soon be exhausted when all the good analog synths have been cloned. But we’ll see more programs that offer classic sounds with unique user interfaces that allow musicians the flexibility to create sounds that have an analog or acoustic basis with more power and flexibility than could ever be imagined on a hardware-based machine. Clever programmers have not yet exhausted the world of softsynths and soft studios. Expect to see more oscillators, more real-time MIDI control over editing parameters, and perhaps a deeper blending between soft samplers and softsynths.
The next major software developments will be in the area of controllers. Now that sounds have migrated to the computer, it won’t be long before the physical interface to these sound modules have integrated into the computer as well.
If you’re interested in learning more about a particular piece of software, a company’s website may offer a download of a trial or demo version of the software that you can bang around on for a while at no cost. If you decide to purchase one or more of these programs, I highly encourage you to join any user groups and forums that you may find on the Web. There are scores of them! These sites and groups often provide free tutorials, updates, additional presets and sounds, and the ability to make contact with other musicians who are plugged in.