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All posts for the month April, 2013

This article details a process I used to create a feature-rich, free drum synthesizer which incorporates a physical input device (you get to bang on something) a VST software module to translate the physical input into MIDI information, and a VSTi sampler to translate MIDI data into realistic sounding drums.

This article draws heavily on information obtained from a number of Internet resources, some of which I remember the names of and have included in the References section of this post. I do not mean to steal this information from the originators, but hopefully refine it into something that can be used by the relative newcomer to digital recording. Much of the source material and the domain information for drum triggering gets VERY in-depth and can be seen as a (very fun) rabbit hole should you start to dig deeper. I hope to “nutshell” this information so that the user knows which portions of what they see are important for them to understand at this point in their musical journey.

Furthermore, this post is part one and I plan to get more in-depth on the “feature-rich” aspect of this setup. At the end of this instructable you should have a single working
drum trigger and be able to make it sound like a loud snare or bass drum when you strike it. Varying loudness (dynamics in audio terms velocity in MIDI terms) will be dealt with
in a followup.

Recipe for one “drum”:
Piezo-electric element (I got mine from Radioshack and eBay, remove any plastic casing around the element)
Two-wire Audio cable with bare wires on one end (I sacrificed an old guitar cable and stripped the wires back a bit)
Stack of notecards of any size. (Don’t open them, leave the plastic cellophane on)
Free VSTi instrument plugin shortcircuit – http://vemberaudio.se/shortcircuit.php
Free Audio signal to MIDI trigger VST plugin – KTDrumTrigger http://www.smartelectronix.com/~koen/KTDrumTrigger/
Modern Computer
Audio Interface that accepts input from audio cable mentioned above. (In my case the intact 1/4″ mono plug from my guitar cable)
Digital Audio workstation with MIDI support (including editor and record capabilities) and VST support.
Audio Sample for the “loudest note” on the particular piece of kit you are looking to emulate. (For instance a snare sample recording the hardest hit, whether recorded by you or gotten from somewhere

Please note that I am using Samplitude Silver (free download at http://dl03.magix.net/samplitude_silver_soundcloud_us.exe?cookietest=1) to demonstrate this method. You might have to make some adjustments to the process if you are using a different DAW, but the method itself is indeed portable.

Process:
1. Build and test your input device
a. Wire the piezo-electric element to your two-wire audio cable. Use whatever means you have/are comfortable with. (I initially just twisted the wires together and held them together with electrical tape, I recommend a more permanent solution. 🙂 ) Be sure that the piezo element disk itself is freely accessible and somewhat moveable. (I left a little of the raw wire some play past the shielding on the cut end of the guitar cable)
b. Load up your computer and DAW. Add a mono audio track and mark it as the track you will be recording to, selecting an input on your Interface.
c. Test the signal by plugging the non-piezo element end of your trigger into your audio interface’s appropriate input. Start a recording and LIGHTLY tap on the piezo element.
You should see (and possibly hear) some “clicks” or “pops” on the audio track. If you do not, try raising the input gain on your interface and repeat the experiment. If you have pulled the gain up quite a ways and still see no signal, double-check first that you have marked the correct input from your interface as the record source for the track, then your wiring job.
d. Once you are sure you are seeing or hearing the “thumps”, stop and cancel/undo the record of that audio.

3. Mount the input device
a. Take your unopened plastic-wrapped stack of note cards in hand. Cut a slit in the plastic (toward the middle of the stack) such that you could slip the piezo element in between the cards.
b. Do just that, slide the piezo element somewhere in the middle of the stack. You don’t have to get it into the dead center, don’t go too crazy. Also, as long as all of the piezo disk and maybe about 1/4″ of wire lead is “in” the notecard stack, you should be good.

2. Calibrate the input + audio interface combination
a. Enable and begin recording again in your DAW with the input device as the record source. Hopefully you will see that your piezo is still wired up correctly and that inserting it into the notepad stack has not caused it to stop working. You may notice that when you tap on the notecards it seems either louder or quieter than when you tapped on it before. This is why we are calibrating this guy.
b. With your notecard stack on a secure hard surface, tap on the notecard with your finger or some other implement (like a pencil). Move the tap around the notecard and watch/listen to what it does to the input signal. You may find that if you tap right over the spot where the piezo is, that the signal clips, or that if you hit it too hard the signal clips. This means the volume is up too high (or you are hitting it too hard/too close to the piezo). Adjust the gain on your audio interface until you feel like you are hitting the cards as hard as you would like in the spot you would like for the “loudest” drum hit when recording without clipping. Once you have found the sweet spot, write it down somewhere for future reference. (For me it was gain at about 11 o’clock, hitting right over the piezo for hardest notes using my finger). You will find that this primitive device you just built can actually handle a pretty wide range of dynamics and that you can get different results by moving your “striking object” around the notecards and hitting at different levels. Find a good general location on the notecards to strike and somehow mark it (I used a little circle sticker showing the rough center of the “target zone”).
c. Stop the recording in the DAW and cancel/undo to leave a blank track.

4. Record a simple “bass drum beat” with your newly constructed notecard drum. It’s going to record just the “clicks” or “tap sounds” made from striking it. Try recording some as quiter hits and some as louder ones. This should be natural if you just pretend you are really playing a drum beat on the cards some hits will be harder and others less emphasized.

5. Translate audio input into MIDI with KTDrumTrigger (one of the more complicated portions of this instructable).

6. “Print” the audio track to the MIDI track via recording and KTDrumTrigger.

7. Configure shortcircuit to play the MIDI back, triggering your sample at each MIDI event.

Extra Credit: Try to see if you can get realtime Audio -> MIDI recording going, without the need for the interim audio track. This is often a function of enabling particular settings for “Realtime Effects monitoring” in your DAW and routing the signal from KTDrumTrigger directly to a MIDI track.

References:
Source for most of the information on shortcircuit as a drum sampler – http://stash.reaper.fm/2313/Shortcircuit%20Drums%20for%20REAPER.pdf

Accompaniment for the beginning recording musician.

If you are looking to do some recording, but do not have the ability to play drums, keyboard, or bass or the means to record them, this post is for you.

Many guitarists find themselves in this position and take on the quest to become essentially a “one-man band” in a virtual sense: all of the musical content and it’s production are provided by you alone or by software.

There are a lot of “in-between” approaches that can be extremely high-yield when you’re first starting off. In particular if you are trying to record and produce cover music – either as a tribute or just to hone your production skills with a pre-determined “end-goal” or “vision”, then the world is your oyster. In this “in-between” space, the Internet (as usual) is your best friend.

Backing Tracks: There are a wide variety of backing tracks available via a simple search on Google, at the time of this writing http://www.guitarbt.com and similar sites offer collections of backing tracks, some with only drums and keyboard, some with drums keyboard and bass, others with everything but the lead guitar and vocals. The advantages of this approach are pretty obvious: you can start with a track that has a decent “sound” going with most of the band already recorded and mixed, leaving you free to shred as your heart desires. The disadvantages are perhaps not quite so obvious: everything is “pre-mixed” so changing the overall sound of the resulting mix is going to be severely limited, since the original tracks likely include effects and dynamic range controlling devices like compression. You lose out on the opportunity to learn how to make each of those “other” tracks work or “gel” together in a mix, but if you are just starting out, that might be alright by you. If you create a mix with pre-recorded and mixed backing tracks, it is hard to get your additional tracks to “sit well” among the other instruments since you can’t EQ them individually and carve out holes for your sound. This leads to a “jam-along” or “karaoke” type sound, and usually your “overlay” tracks will overshadow the original mix in unnatural ways. Furthermore, you may be limited in what you are legally allowed to do with your resulting track if the backing tracks come from someone else. Sometimes, folks just want you to add an attribution in your description of the track and not to charge folks for the resulting work, other folks are more restrictive.

Bass trick: If you do not have an electric bass (which I highly recommend to all guitar players, particularly those recording), you can often make due with recording the direct signal from a guitar and pitch-shifting it down an octave. Note that this works best with bass lines that only have one note playing at a time, and that the result is probably not going to sound like a real bass if you ask a bass player. I have had the best results with this method when I put my pickup selector in the 4th position (on my guitar this is the bridge humbucker combined with the middle single coil, some call it the bridge out-of-phase position). It sounds kind of odd when you play a guitar in that position (unless you are Ty Tabor or a country player) but for bass simulation the “quacky” quality really sounds nice. Further refinement can be achieved by running the pitch-shifted signal through an amp and/or cabinet simulator for bass and/or routing the result through a “mid-heavy distorted” auxiliary track/bus mixed in with the original (pitch-shifted) signal. Alternatively, you could render a MIDI track of the bass through one of the above mentioned online MIDI->audio services or run it through your local synth on your DAW/computer.

Loops and samples: Similarly, there are MANY examples of both audio and MIDI loops and samples that can be downloaded from the Internet. Individual loops/samples or collections of loops free and commercial are abundantly available. They also vary widely: some are drums-only, some are multi-instrument. In the case of audio loops, getting a realistic end-result is a lot easier, provided you are creative and careful with repetition. Maximum flexibility is provided by the MIDI loops, as you can tweak them and make them significantly different from the original (use them as kind of “starting points”) and render them to audio with any number of Synthesizers and/or Drum Samplers to get wide variety of results. Both loops and samples share a disadvantage with backing tracks in that such tidbits are often accompanied with a widely variant spectrum of “licenses” or “fair use” policies. Some folks give you free reign to do what you will, others want that attribution, others want money. This is less of a problem with the MIDI loops due to the fact that you can easily create original works that are significantly different than what you started with (the originator might never even notice that you started with their loop by the time you are done adding and removing notes and/or rendering them to audio). In this realm, my current best advice is to take a look at the Free (and paid) MIDI collections from Groove Monkee and the free audio samples available from freesound.org, just a Google search away. I should also note here that there are online services to render MIDI loops to audio using a wide variety (and rage of quality) of synthesizers/sampling packages. Some of these services are free, others are paid services.

Tabs: One of the most effective ways to use the internet to generate music (particularly in the case of cover songs) is the modern implementation of guitar tabs. A few formats, in particular Powertab and Guitar Pro format offer the ability to tab out all of the parts used in modern Rock or Pop music. Furthermore, there are a wide number of great “metasearch” sites for finding tabs for just about any song you can come up with. Many have the accompaniment parts also transcribed and each instrument is on its own track within the tab file. You can easily take these tab files and open them up in almost any tab player/editor (I am still a fan of Powertab and Tuxguitar) and export each of the tracks (or all/some of the tracks) into a MIDI file that can be readily imported into your DAW. You can then take the MIDI editor in your DAW coupled with a Synthesizer or Optional Drum Sampler to translate these MIDI events into audio you can use in your mix. Furthermore, most MIDI editors allow you to perform edits on the imported tracks to customize or “humanize” the performance as you see fit. This yields the maximum amount of flexibility and creativity of any option I have found for the “one-man-band” setup. I plan to further significantly expand on this subject in a future post or article. The disadvantages of this approach are: Depending on how much of the original tab you used, how much you tweaked it, and the preference of the original author of the tab, you might be required/feel obliged to acknowledge their initial efforts tabbing out the song, and your use of their tab. Depending on the accuracy of transcription and attention to dynamics control in the original tab file, you might have a very “computer sounding” starting point after importing the tablature, requiring more work to make a “human-sounding” end-product. You can miss out on the opportunity to learn how to mix elements of a drum kit in this approach as well, as most synths and drum samplers offer tempting out-of-the box sounds that work reasonably well with minimal tweaking of the “kit”.

Sequencing: This is a process where you open the MIDI editor in your DAW and either manually enter notes in with your mouse or record a MIDI performance from a MIDI device like a keyboard or electronic drum kit. If you have a keyboard/MIDI input device and the requisite skill, you can go a long way pretty fast with this method. If however, you are manually sequencing via a keyboard or mouse, I have found this to be a laborious and largely unrewarding way to create music, though YMMV. I should note that it is also possible to “step-sequence” where if you are not able to actually play a piece in it’s entirety up to tempo, you can record each note one at a time, specifying the dynamics (volume) pitch and duration of each note in stepwise fashion. Again, I do not have the patience for this type of thing, but it can yield amazing results. I would consider using this approach if I had an orchestral score and a MIDI was not readily available.

Collaborations: The Internet age has brought us many online services that allow us to connect with other musicians and “trade licks” or collaborate. This offers some very exciting opportunities to create and mix songs without actually having to record instruments you do not have, know how to play, or have the ability to record. Most modern musicians find this to be the very best that the Internet has to offer in the way of furthering and expanding music, and freeing it from traditional commercial constructs. A few very notable services as of this writing include SoundCloud, ReverbNation, and Bandcamp, though in this list only SoundCloud appears to officially recognize online collaboration as a valuable benefit to its service members.

Triggering: Another great way of generating musical input specific to drums and percussion is triggering. You can purchase very inexpensive electronic components like piezo-electric elements and create a DIY method for recording yourself “thumping on things” and/or purchase hardware devices to accomplish the same goal (trigger modules, drum pads, eDrums, etc). Using this method, you can record your physicial real-world “fake drumming”. Then you can translate this recording into a series of MIDI messages (automatically translated if using triggering modules, drum pages, eDrums, etc., translated by software if using piezo-electric elements {might I recommend KTDrumTrigger, subject for a more in-depth discussion at a later date}). This MIDI data can then be used to trigger samples, either in a synthesizer or a drum sampler (hardware module or software like Superior Drummer). Using this method you can get amazingly realistic results with relative ease. The advantages are: the recorded MIDI data is infinitely “customizable” after the recording, as mentioned above. The result of the MIDI recording – when conducted properly – will sound more “human” than importing a MIDI or tab->MIDI usually will out of the gate because both the timing and the “loudness” of each percussive strike are determined by your “fake drum” performance (or the tweaks to the MIDI after you recorded it). The difference is quite amazing versus a raw MIDI take. Spending about $2 for a piezo element at a local RadioShack hooked to a guitar cable I cut one of the connectors off of, and “drumming” on a stack of notecards with my finger, using the above-mentioned KTDrumTrigger software to translate the audio to MIDI, I have been able to obtain pretty impressive results when rendered through a decent drum sampler and/or synth module. Coupling this inexpensive “eDrum” with something like Superior Drummer yields infinitely tweakable possibilities with professional sounding results. Disadvantages are that tweaking with the audio to midi trigger (whether software or hardware) takes some time to tune in the “loudness” aspect. Also, the performance will never be as good as a real drummer (unless you can also play drums, then maybe you could pull it off). Also, you have to do a few passes to record things right this way, unless you have multiple trigger devices and are pretty coordinated. I usually throw down a simple beat track that I imagine in my mind to be the kick and the snare on one pass, then do high-hats on a second pass. Finally I would add in the cymbals manually using MIDI editing. This requires some patience and time, but the result sounds very human if done properly, and in the end you are generating all of the musical content, so no usage restrictions apply. Also, I cannot overstate how awesome it feels to play crazy double-bass and snare blast beats on a notecard and have “the real thing” coming out of the speakers! 🙂

The gear that I use to facilitate making music in my home studio is relatively humble (with the exception of my guitars themselves). Please note that I am not sponsored by any of the vendors mentioned in this post, and have no relationship with them or their products (other than I am a consumer of them). I can only speak to my experience and am describing the gear that I use, as well as some that I have tried out.

When the Home Recording Revolution first really kicked off (~2006/7; the digital one, not the PortaStudio one) I acquired from my nearest Guitar Center a relatively expensive (at that time) hardware interface called the Digidesign Mbox. This came in a packaged deal with two free condenser microphones from MXL, the MXL 990 and 991. In addition, this package deal included a hardware-specific version of ProTools LE. This simple setup is how I performed my initial recordings, using the 990 and 991 for different aspects of recording acoustic guitars and using the line out from my amplifier or the 990 placed in front of the speaker in some instances. Around the same time, I purchased a Line 6 AX2 212 amplifier which was one of the earliest modelling amplifiers available, based on the word of mouth review of one of the local musicians I have a lot of respect for. At that time (and at the time of this writing) I did not choose to invest in studio monitors, but rather opted for some relatively inexpensive studio headphones – Audio Technica ATH-640fs. This gave me a wide versatility of sounds at a relatively high cost (~$1200 for the amplifier and ~$500 for the interface, software and microphone bundle, ~$100 for headphones = ~$1800 total cost).

I have been able to work with this setup for quite some time, but the dramatic improvements in technology have made setups like this vastly more affordable, provided you have a decent computer to work with. Here I hope to outline what would be an acceptable entry-level setup for the average guitar player in 2013 looking to record.

Interface: Lots of options, something like the ART USB Dual Pre is a good option, providing minimal complexity and decent quality of recording (16-bit audio), you can pick one up for around $50 new if you watch for the deal (and I have done this). This is great if you want to get basically the same setup I had starting off with two inputs 1/4″ or XLR and phantom power (think mic’ed sources). The real bang for your buck when it comes to recording electric guitar or bass (or any other electrified stringed instrument) is something like the Line 6 Pod Studio GX. You can pick a refurbished one up for $75 or less on ebay (which is how I went) or find one at your local guitar center or best buy ranging from $75 – $150. This provides ONLY 1/4″ (Mono, I think) input and monitor/headphone out for low-latency monitoring at 24 bits. This is a great way to get the raw signal for “direct recordings” into your DAW for possible manipulation with software plugins. Additionally, this particular model (and others like it) give the purchaser access to POD Farm software plugin suite and the Line 6 Store for expanding the gear available in your farm. This gives roughly the same flexibility of sounds and variety of gear to manipulate it as my AX2 212 provides, at no additional cost!. Granted the sounds you get out of POD Farm require some tweaking to be useful in a mixing context, but for the price, you would have a hard time finding something as versatile and “all-encompassing” as POD Farm for free on a <$100 interface. Recording Software/DAW: Again, several options, stick with ProTools LE (or upgrade to ProTools for additional cost), use the recording software included with your interface (Audacity in the case of the ART USB Dual Pre, RiffWorks in the case of the Pod Studio GX), something else like Reaper, Cubase or Samplitude at additional cost, or any "special deal" software available from a wide variety of online services. I personally prefer Samplitude ($499-$2000), though Reaper is also acceptable and significantly more affordable at ~$100. However, when first starting off, you can probably get by with a feature-set limited "special offer" software package like "Samplitude Silver - SoundCloud Edition" which are usually freely available. I started on exactly this, which is very powerful for free software, though limited to only 8 tracks total and with limited bundled plugins. You can easily expand the capabilities of such a platform with freely available VST plugins, though you will likely soon outgrow the 8 track limitation (due to the use of bus routing). There are also several DAWs available with limited feature sets for mobile devices which can usually be picked up for $50 or less. These will be most limited by your device, but will also likely suffer from things like incompatibility with VST plugins. Amp Simulation plugins: You can go with micing an amp, and in the end this process usually yields more "authentic" tones, but will get a lot more mileage out of your recordings if you record the direct unprocessed signal (instead of or in addition to the signal coming from an amplifier). Also, micing an amp is an art that takes a lot of patience and time and can in and of itself make or break a recorded track. Amp simulation allows you to "virtually reamp" the track and continually revise the sound as you are creating your mix, and also as technology improves. Many DAW platforms include some Amp simulation plugins, and some hardware interfaces bundle similar plugins like POD Farm mentioned above or versions of Amplitube. There are also a number of other options available, including free amp simulation plugins, free cabinet simulation plugins, or other commercial amp/cabinet simulation systems like Guitar Rig, Amplitube, Overloud TH2 (my personal favorite), MAGIX Vandal and the list goes on. You can get very far and learn a lot by using the free simulation plugins that are available, and I still use them in my mixes. However, the simulation systems like POD Farm, Guitar Rig, Amplitube, Vandal, or TH2 are going to get you a lot more power and flexibility in one package, and usually consume less CPU than the free alternatives. I must insert a personal note here that Overloud TH2 (~$200 at the time of this writing) is AMAZING and I have yet to find any similar package that delivers so much on their promise of mix-friendly readily accessible authentic sounds that are easily customizable. Microphone: If all you are recording is electric instruments, you may not need a microphone. You can often get the same deal I got on the two MXL condenser mics at Guitar Center for ~$100 and this continues to be a winning combination of microphones. However, if you are looking for a single microphone that will give you the most utility of any microphone you can buy, get an Shure SM57 dynamic mic for <$100. This mic can capture so many different types of sounds and people are so used to hearing it in commercial recordings that it is a no-brainer. You won't get all the "sparkle" and "breath" that you would out of a condenser mic, but it really can't be beat. Also note that if you purchase a condenser microphone, then you also have to have a way to supply it with phantom power, either via your audio interface, using a USB to XLR cable or with a hardware mixer. One additional item that will make your life simpler and so much more enjoyable is software to turn your tablet device into a mixing console. Most modern full-featured DAWs allow you to integrate with hardware devices so that you don't have to actually do your mixing (and recording/playback transport control) with your keyboard and mouse. You can purchase full-fledged harware mixers that integrate with your DAW and communicate via MIDI if you prefer a "real-world tactical feel", but such systems often cost in excess of $1000. Since I had already purchased a tablet - specifically an iPad, I looked into software that lets me us it as a control surface and communicates using the same MIDI protocols as the hardware mixers. I found a GREAT app called AC-7 core, which I was able to pick up for $3 when it first came out, now it's something like $7.99. This gives you AMAZING integration with any DAW capable of speaking Mackie protocol. With this app, I no longer have to sit in front of my computer to record, I can control the recording and nearly every aspect of the tracks (level mixing, naming, automation) from my iPad (which is mounted to a stand). So in summary, minus the price of the tablet - I was able to spend about $3 to get comparable functionality as a hardware mixer costing more than $1000! Performing mixing on the iPad is infinitely more ergonomic than using my mouse and tons more "responsive" as well. I can say without question that this is the VERY BEST $3 I have ever spent, and it would have been the very best $8 if I had to buy it today. I am not sure if similar products exist for other tablets, but if I had to choose between a $1000 hardware mixer and buying an iPad and the $8 app for ~$1000, it would be a no-brainer. All in all, you can actually get up and running recording guitar-based music for about $100 if you purchase the right interface and familiarize yourself with the right software plugins, and select a DAW that is either bundled with your interface or freely available (and likely limited). Playback through your existing PC speakers and/or headphones can suffice when you are first starting off, and graduating through studio headphones ($100-$250) to a more "professional monitoring setup" ($500-$infinity) can be staged over time.