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Getting started with drum
and percussion programming!

Like it or not, drum and percussion programming is here to stay so you might as well get acquainted with at least the basics of  what you can achieve with your trusty old computer.  You do not need a massive investment to get started, just a computer with a good sound card, a good amount of RAM and storage capacity, a MIDI keyboard and/or a MIDI drum pad.   The first question is MAC or PC?  Anyone who uses a MAC swears by it, as does the PC user.  A high  spec PC is better than an old spec MAC but, a top line MAC is unbeatable, although four times the price.  I actually use a PC and have had great results from it.  The thing that really swings it for MAC though is that they now own and develop Emagic's LOGIC software which is sadly not being updated for the PC.  Luckily for me, I am satisfied with my Logic Platinum 5.5.  More about the programmes later but let me just say, this page is about what I use and program with.  It is not a computer trouble shooting page and is intended to give you a quick reference guide of what you might need to get started programming.


Logic Platinum 5.5 main arrange page Click on the photograph to enlarge

There are a number of very good programmes available to record audio and programme in MIDI data.  I prefer to use LOGIC Platinum, version 5.5, the final version available for PC since Apple took over Logic.  Within logic you get a number of  standard 'Plug ins' (Small programmes that run inside Logic, Synthesisers, drum machines, samplers etc).  For the percussion and drum programmer, the most important of these is the EXS24 which is an internal sampler.  More in detail about this and other plug ins later but suffice to say, a lot of top programmers use only logic and the EXS24 to do their drum programming.  I actually prefer to use some additional 'non-Logic' plug in samplers and external audio editors such as Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge and the Stienberg sampler called Halion.

Let's start with the central program for the whole process, Logic.  You can get different versions of Logic which have less features than Platinum and all of them are pretty decent.  Make sure your bundle includes the EXS24 sampler. The great thing about Logic is the screen sets which you can set up yourself. You switch between the screen sets by associating them with the numbers at the top of the qwerty keyboard. More about this later.  First, above is how my main arrange page is set up. (You set the program up to suit yourself and save it as an auto load song.  Make sure your auto load song is protected by making it a 'read only' file.  This you do by right clicking the icon of the closed song, selecting properties and choosing 'read only'.  I tend to save my auto load song on the desktop as well as in the logic folder and boot that up each time instead of booting from the launch program icon.  This way you are double protected from overwriting your auto load song. I name it 'autoload' + the date)

I have had the whole program set up in a way which really suits the way I work.  Some of these things may not work for you but they are a good starting point.  At the top of the track list are the audio tracks, below that are the internal audio instrument tracks and below that are the external synth/sound module tracks.  For the purpose of this programming article we are only really concerned with the Audio and Audio instrument tracks.  The audio instrument tracks are where we find our plug ins, such as the EXS24 sampler etc.  We will come to that in a moment but first I want to talk through the other components of the page I have constructed.  To the far left is the individual fader and control for each track. As you highlight a track in the list, the relevant fader appears on the left, making it very easy to adjust without switching to a different window.  In the bottom right hand corner is the CPU monitor and Audio in/out meter.  When the system is glitching it is easy to check if the CPU is overloading. The long bar in the top right corner is the event list for whatever part is selected in the arrange window.  This is a really easy way to move parts very small amounts other than dragging and dropping.  To the left of this is the song position counter.  It reads where the song play line is at and is also a cool way to whiz round the song quickly, just click, hold and move the numbers up or down.  This is how I like my main screen to appear and have it as #1 on the qwerty key pad numbers.  It is also important to lock the screen set, so when you enlarge and re-configure the screen, you know that simply tapping '1' will take you back to your starting layout.  Once you have set up all your screen sets, you really want to keep them protected.

The next important thing is what tools you assign to the mouse clicks.  I have pointer on the left and magnifying glass on the right.  This makes it really easy to go through different levels of enlargement when editing, bearing in mind that clicking the magnifying tool anywhere on the background takes you back through the previous recent levels of magnification.  A truly great function.

Theoretically, you could do most of your work from this window, recording your audio and assigning plug-ins to audio instruments.   I use three main plug in samplers within Logic, EXS24, Stienberg's Halion and Native Instruments Battery sampler. (Used extensively by Linkin Park I believe). They all have different benefits or annoyances but, as a package the three of them are a great team.  Let's start with Battery, probably the most intuitive and 'drum machine' like of them all.  The GREAT thing about this sampler is that the whole shabang is on one page. Here is the view of the Battery layout.


Battery main page Click on the photograph to enlarge

This is a truly convenient piece of kit. Each cell of the grid like structure is a sample, with each cell having the possibility of having a number of different layers for dynamic triggering. I personally feel this dynamic trigger level editing is easier in the halion sampler.  That aside, the ease of function by having everything visible is amazing.  Look at the screen, you have volume, pan, the wave form, pitch, bit rate, literally everything in view.  Underneath each cell you then have information displayed, so, if you select 'pan' on the right, the pan settings for all the cells are displayed under the cells, select 'midi note' on the right, the midi note settings for all the cells are displayed underneath.  It is really easy for quick reference, instant tuning and a whole load of other things.  Just load in your samples into the cells or choose from and number of battery kits either available with the program or separately. It is quick to set up mute groups etc as well, necessary for kits with open and closed hi hats.  It is also great for instant tuning of vocal and and other samples you might want to use.  I sometimes find it easier to put a whole long audio sample into battery and tune it that way rather than using the audio editing facilities in Logic which are permanent to the file.  This leaves the original file untouched.  You can also get into the habit of saving all your kits and build up your own library.   However.....get a firewire drive and back everything up!!!

Halion is the next topic.  Another great machine but, the least used of all three by me to be honest. Here it is.


Halion main page Click on the photograph to enlarge

I don't need reminding that this does not look at all intuitive!  What this is really good for is quickly arranging different dynamic levels for multi layered notes. Each one of the tall thin pillars above is a note.  The bottom of the pillar represents zero velocity and the top 127. You just grab the top corner of one of the pillars and shrink it down so it is shorter and it  will not sound over a particular velocity.  Then drag another note above it and that will sound where the other one stops.  You can do cross fades as well by overlapping them, or if you drag them so they are wider then they sound over the number of notes represented by the keyboard at the bottom of the screen, obviously being de-tuned or tuned up over the notes it covers. (In the same way any sample would on if spread across different notes on the keyboard.)  Halion also has a number of pages for various sampler functions.  Quite some distance more complicated than Battery though.

Finally for the samplers, the EXS24 emagic sampler.  Here is what it looks like.


EXS24 main page Click on the photograph to enlarge

This looks even less intuitive, in fact, it is bordering on oblique.  This does however have one really instant feature which is very easy to use.  With the EXS24 it is very easy to build instruments from REX (Recycle) files and import them into arrangements very quickly.  Before we move on to that, lets take a quick look at ReCycle and REX files.  Years ago, with the first onslaught of the sampling age, enthusiastic sample heads would sit all day cutting drum parts up into the individual segments and spread them out across the MIDI keyboard, a slice per note of the keyboard. Then they would construct their own grooves using these slices.  It is the roots of hip hop and most electronic based percussion we hear today. Thankfully, this has all become a lot easier, if not staggeringly simple and quick.   It has a lot to do with the rising level of unemployment amongst drummers!  Anyway, say you have an audio file of a groove.  It can be anything, drum kit, bongos, tabla whatever.  Load it into ReCycle and top ant tail it by setting the left and right locators and selecting process, then crop loop.  Make sure you have a perfect loop.


ReCycle main page Click on the photograph to enlarge

We can now move on to slicing up our loop.  With files that have very clearly defined attacks, like staccato drums this is much easier than with a shaker part where the peaks merge into each other.  Lets look at the process in steps. 

After you have made your loop perfect you need to go through the following steps;

1, 2 & 3; Set the time signature and number of bars beats.  You only need to add the number of beats if you have an odd length bar. 11/4 for example would be two bars of 4/4 plus three beats.  Don't ask me why they do not have a more comprehensive time signature selection from the drop down menu.  MADDENING!
4; Clicking this button calculates the tempo of your loop, bearing in mind all the factors you have input.
5; Slide the sensitivity slider and you will see all the slices appear within the loop. Set this level too high and you will have a ridiculous number of cuts. Too low and there will be too few. You can see in the main ReCycle screen above that there are three slices.  Obviously, if it were an eighth note hi hat pattern over one bar, you would have eight slices.  You may need to go through each slice manually after trying the sensitivity slider to double check that all the slices are neat.  You flick through them with the yellow buttons next to the Bar counter (3).   You can then manually move the dividers for each slice to fine tune the edit. 
6; You can optionally add these three channels of EFX or mess with the individual slices, reverse them, change their level etc.  All you need to do then is save your file and import it into the EXS24 from within Logic. (Save the tempo in the name of the file as well).


ReCycle editing controls

First we have to open up the EXS24 in Logic. We do this from the channel mixer in the environment.  As mentioned earlier, I have this open always in the bottom left hand corner of the screen.  (Get a techie friend to help you set this up. I did!!) Here we can see the third arrow down is where we pull up our audio instruments.  All the boxes will be greyed out to begin with but, left click and a menu appears, select Logic instruments, Stereo then EXS24.  (Make sure you have highlighted the track you want to select this for in the arrange window)

  
Mixer  Click on the photograph to enlarge                                             Pull down menus for selecting EXS24

Then the main EXS24 window will appear.  Click 'edit' and then this second EXS24 edit window will appear.  The main EXS24 edit page.  Then select 'instrument' and then  'ReCycle convert' and then 'extract sequence and make new instrument'.   


Pull down menus for importing ReCycle/REX files into EXS24 Click on the photograph to enlarge

You then need to select your instrument in the rectangular window below.  When you make an instrument as we just have, it is automatically saved in the Sampler instruments folder in the program files, emagic, Logic folder on your 'C' drive.  You can then put these instruments in their own folders in categories so you don't get a never ending pull down menu from the face of the EXS24.


Select edit button and instrument select panel in EXS24 Click on the photograph to enlarge

When you close EXS24 and go back to you arrange window you will see that a midi file of the rex file has been imported at the point where the song position bar was.  Play it and you will see that the rex file will play and loop perfectly at whatever tempo the track is at.  A couple of points here.  If you slow the tempo too much from the original REX file tempo, you will get undesirable gaps because the individual samples will not be able to fill up the space. Playing them at a faster tempo usually presents no problem though.  This is why it is important to put the tempo in the file name when you first make the ReCycle file, so you can easily reference it.  

You can also open up an old instrument from the pull down list.  To retrieve the midi sequence for this, select 'options' next to the instrument select panel and choose 'extract sequence from recycle instrument'.  Then when you close EXS24 and go back to you arrange window you will see that a midi file of the rex file has been imported at the point where the song position bar was.  Besides having the sequence facility, if you tap the individual notes of the midi keyboard you will find that all the single slices of the loop are spread across the keyboard.  Great for making your own loops.  Altogether a very quick and painless process.  Another thing you can do with a drum groove sequence is to go into the event list, find all the bass drum notes and convert them to hi hat notes.  They you will have your groove with no bass drum.  Then on another channel open up another EXS24 and pull up the same instrument as the one with the bass drums removed from the part.  Then you can play in you own bass drum pattern to fit the piece of music you might be working on.  You of course then have the facility to process that bass drum separately, add more 'boom' or swamp it with reverb for effect.  You could do the same with the snare or anything.

When you make an instrument from a Re-Cycle file, EXS24 automatically makes a sampler instrument which it stores in the Sampler instruments folder in the Logic folder in Program files on your 'C' drive.  It also creates a Re-Cycle audio folder in the Logic folder in Program files on your 'C' drive.  The audio and Sampler instruments are always in their respective folders.  If you make an EXS24 instrument using WAV or AIF files then they also are stored in their own folder  in the Logic folder in Program files on your 'C' drive.  You can change this to another drive if it gets a bit full.  Logic scans the whole computer for the files when you select an instrument in EXS24.  Sometimes it can be very slow, esp if you have lots of drives connected.  Do not interrupt it because logic will probably crash.  It will either find the files or else tell you it can't.
 

Alternatives to EXS24

If you don't use Logic and can't use the EXS24 in this way there are alternatives.  The best way to import rex2 files is to use Stylus RMX.  With the use of the sage converter you can import your prepared rex files into stylus and then drag the midi file into the arrangement to achieve the same result, whether you are working in Nuendo, Cubase, Cakewalk, Sonar etc.  There is also a stripped down VST version of the EXS24 for these programs but you do not have the options available to import rex files, only already created EXS24 instruments.  You also cannot create a midi file from the rex file in this version.

Screen sets etc

I am going to wind up with a little peep at some screen sets I prefer to use.  Mastery of these really helps you to work fast and get around the program easily.  This first screen set has all the audio instrument faders and the audio instrument parts easily visible in one screen.  Great for easily re-naming and seeing what's going on at a glance.  The audio instruments arrange are zoomed right out for a total overview of the song.  This page would never be used for intricate editing of parts.


Audio instrument mixer and audio instruments in the arrange window screen set  Click on the photograph to enlarge

This page is simply the environment mixer, mainly for the returns and master faders.  The returns are vital to use if you want to cut down on CPU usage. Say for example you want a similar reverb on four tracks.  If you put that separately on each track in the arrange window, you will be using four reverbs which will be sucking efficiency from your system.  Put a reverb on a return, say return 1.  That will then come up on the sends for each track fader if you route the 'send' to bus 1. A little level meter then appears and you can select how much reverb, or whatever effect you put on the relevant return.  That way you can use one effect and have it serving many tracks. 

 
Environment mixer page and route to the return Click on the photograph to enlarge   

If you get into recording audio, merging the main audio page with the arrange page as a screen set is great for dragging and dropping straight into the song.


Audio page/Arrange screen set Click on the photograph to enlarge

Matrix edit, Event list and score all on one page.  Fantastic for various editing functions.


Hyper edit/Event list/Score screen set Click on the photograph to enlarge

Here is the standard score window for an individual part.


Individual part score page Click on the photograph to enlarge

Here we have the audio edit page, accessed by clicking on an audio file in the arrange window.  I prefer to edit externally on something like Sonic Foundry Sound Forge, esp. with the power of their Waves plug ins, most notably the L2 or L3 mastering software.


Audio edit page in Logic Click on the photograph to enlarge

The indispensable event list editor where you can really get into minute detail with each midi event.


Event list page Click on the photograph to enlarge

I always have an uncluttered total overview of the arrangement on one screen set. Great for whizzing around really quickly from top to tail.  Setting up your markers for the song is also another very important habit to get used to.


Arrange overview screen set Click on the photograph to enlarge


Sound Forge main page Click on the photograph to enlarge

If you are really lazy, you can use plug ins like Stylus.  They have thousands of tempo marked drum grooves spread across the keyboard for easy reference.  Not my cup of tea but it does have its uses.  It also takes up a lot of disk space, nine gig of it!


Stylus page Click on the photograph to enlarge

Don't forget, there are a number of ways you can make your transport bar look.  I like this slender option which does not obscure any of the arrange screen.

One final thought. It is also really easy to import audio loops and make them the right length.  Say you want to import a four bar loop into a new arrangement and make that the master tempo.  Import the audio file into the arrangement on bar one.  Set the locators to fill four bars, then select 'options' from the top bar, 'tempo' and then 'set tempo using object length and locators'  Then agree to 'global'.  Your arrangement will now be exactly the tempo of the loop.  Make a note of this tempo or lock the tempo.  If you accidentally change it some hours work later, you could have quite a nightmare.  Alternatively you might want to import an audio loop and make it want to fit four bars without changing the tempo.  Import the loop, then double click it to go into the audio editor.  Open the time and pitch machine and there you will see, amongst other things, two boxes with a 'before and after' summary of the bar length of the audio file.  Say hypothetically it is three bars and three beats long and you want it to be four bars.  Just change the 'after' box to four bars and process.  Create a back up file so you have a safety net.  It is as easy as that.  Obviously, you can't stretch a file that is too far away from the original tempo because it simply won't work.  It could sound interesting though!

The only other point is to consider storage and back up.  I use two 120 GIG hard drives internally and have a removable caddy for a third drive.  This is essential for quick and effective back up of your operating system.  I use Norton Ghost and clone my 'C'/'D' drives (120 gig drive 1 partitioned 30 gig for windows and the other 90 gig storage) to an identically sized drive slotted into the removable caddy. (Then store this in the cupboard!) All my important sampler instruments and operating system are on C/D so if it blows up, I just open up the machine and replace it with the bootable clone which should get no more than one month out of date. (Don't forget to switch it from Slave to master mode on the back of the drive)  Data from any current projects will be on E/F drives (120gig drive 2 partitions) or else on yet another drive in the removable caddy or else on a firewire drive.  There has never been a better reason for kicking yourself than losing all you data because you did not spend 80 on a drive and a removable caddy!

 

Special thanks to Alan Branch who helped me so much with everything electronic.

 

 

 



 

 

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