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Programming natural sounding Tabla

This tutorial looks at programming reasonably natural sounding Tabla parts using single hit samples triggered by your sequencer.  The sets of samples can be on an out board sampler or within on a software sampler.  I am using the Native Instruments 'Battery' sampler for this tutorial. All the grooves in the demo below, including the glissando on the bass Tabla are created with with single shot samples. No loops are used at all. I recorded the hits in a top London studio, including bass tones at various pitches so we can create the glissando effect by programming.  All the screen shots are clickable so you can enlarge them to see what's going on.

Listen to where this tutorial can take you!  MP3  

Brief overview of Tabla

Of all the drums in the world, the Tabla has to be one of the most complex, involving intricate and finely articulated stroke combinations and intensely developed rhythmic systems. People are often amazed at how many distinctly different sounds come from such a tiny set of drums. It can certainly be said that programming something that sounds anything like a proper Tabla part can be no small challenge. Of course, if you have thirty years to spare you could always learn the instrument but I doubt the record company will wait that long for the master mix. Lets look a little bit at the drums and then work our way towards a programming concept for the instrument.

The Tabla originates from North India and consists of a set of two drums, treble and bass. They are distinct from most other drums in the world, in that each drum is played with a different hand. Very seldom do you see both hands playing on one drum. The drums have a regal history dating back centuries to the where all Palaces had their own set of full time musicians.

The performer sits on the floor with the drums in front of him, which are nestled in two supporting rings called ‘Adharas’. The high pitched drum is cylindrical in shape and stands about 10 inches high. It is made from wood, usually shisham or nim, and is hollowed out from the top like a big cup, remaining sealed at the bottom. The drum has only one skin, generally about 5 inches in diameter. The shell is wider at the bottom that the top by about 1 1/2 inches. The bass Tabla is basically a small single headed kettle drum made from nickel alloy. (It is sometimes possible to find them made from clay.) Both drum heads (Puri) are made form goat skin and have a complicated hoop (Pagri) which is woven around the edge of the skin. The skins are fixed to the drum with a long leather strap call ‘Chot’. This strap is threaded through the hoop and underneath the drum through a small leather ring.

Both inside and outside the skin there is a thin rim about 1 inch wide running around the edge. this is called the kinar’ or ‘Kani’ and is also made of goat skin. The long leather strap is pulled tight, bringing the drum skin to tension. The treble drum is pulled a lot tighter and needs small wooden blocks (Gattha) inserted between the shell and the straps to get it up to the pitch required. Sometimes you see smaller wooden blocks used for the bass Tabla. (In Benares a completely different method is used for the bass Tabla. They use rope and metal rings to get the tension.)

The skins then have past patches applied to give the skins the resonance required. These patches (Shyahi) are made from a paste of iron fillings, flour and ground hill stone. In India a chemical is also sometimes added to stop ants eating the patches. The treble drum is tuned by knocking the wooden blocks with a small hammer. Finer tuning is then carried out by hitting the leather hoop. The drum is tuned to the tonic or dominant note in the scale of the piece of music to be played. The bass Tabla is generally not tuned to a particular pitch, largely because of the glissando pitch bending technique that is used on that drum.

BOLS (Literally ‘word’)
As opposed to a system of written notation, Indian percussionists use a vocabulary, or syllables to represent the patterns they play. These words are intended to mimic the sounds that come from the drums. Each stroke and combination of strokes has its own word or set of words. It is possible to look at these words as an alphabet of phrases, out of which longer and longer patterns are composed. The words have no semantic meaning apart from the patterns they represent. Generally these words are the first thing a student learns when learning Tabla.


GE; Bass drum, resonant stroke, played with the finger tips. The wrist bends the pitch of the drum.

KE; Bass drum closed stroke, played with the whole hand flat

TE; Treble drum closed sound with flat fingers. Staccatto

NA; Treble drum, edge rim sound with index finger; second finger raised, third and fourth fingers damping. Characteristic ringing tone of Tabla. (there is also the closed na stroke played by leaving the finger on the skin after striking, creating a sharp ‘chick’ sound.)

TIN; Treble drum, inner rim sound with index finger; second finger raised, third and fourth fingers damping. Similar to na but with slightly more bass qualities.

THUN; Open resonant sound on treble drum

TI; Second finger on treble drum, third and fourth fingers down, index finger raised. Soft version of TE.

NE; Ring finger on edge of treble drum. Soft sound almost like a grace note.

DHA (= GE + NA)  DHIN (= GE + TIN)  DHE (= GE + TE)

There are many other stroke combinations and sounds on Tabla but these are the basic set to get started with.

Programming Tabla utilities

Download the MIDI files (8kb)    Download the Battery sampler instruments (3kb) 

Download the Hi Tabla kit samples (775kb)    Download the Lo Tabla kit samples (1008kb)   

A note on the Battery sets

When I record Tabla in the studio I prefer a stereo pair, left for the bass Tabla and right for the hi pitched Tabla. This gives you some concept of control over the bass and treble drums later in the mix. (For a live situation a single mic is often preferred). With this in mind, I will be making the overall sound of Tabla from two software sample instruments, one for the bass tones and the other for the treble tones. The instruments are already panned +11 L and – 11R so you do not need to get involved in any panning of them in the mix, unless you want to create a different effect. The pan, set up as it is, is for me the ideal balance of the two drums as they would sound to the player. Have fun!!

Screen shots 1-9 Treble Tabla concepts

Screen shot 1; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Having already normalized and trimmed our individual hits we import them into battery. We want to put the samples in a configuration across the keyboard which makes it easy to play patterns in by hand without crossing over awkwardly.

Screen shot 2;
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To do this we first import them towards the bottom of the page in battery, in this instance from row C, column one. This is an option in the original import window. Then you can drag and drop them onto the chosen note number at the top of the screen.  If you import them one by one from the 'load samples' menu you can have trouble recalling which ones have and have not already been imported.  Also, some software samplers do not audition from the load window so that could be of concern.

Screen shot 3;
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Then we turn on the drag and drop option in battery and select 'all but midi'. This means that when you drag from say C2 to C1 then the note will sound when you strike C1.

Screen shot 4; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
We have dragged the sample from row C, column 1 onto row A, column 1. The original sample is duplicated on both notes at this point. Once you are happy with the new position of the note at the top of the grid, select the original note and choose 'delete' and then 'delete cell' from the pull down menu that appears. This deletes the original sample from the program (Not from the system or hard drive!) and leaves you with the new note on the key you choose. We slowly go through this process note by note putting each individual sample in a place on the keyboard, which suits your fingerings. Of course, you could import each note individually but I find this more time consuming and also more difficult to keep track of which ones I have and have not imported.

Screen shot 4b Hi Tabla set; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Screen shot 5;
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Here we have our first simple part involving two sounds on the treble Tabla. The pattern is 'NA TIN TIN TIN'. We are using two slightly different samples of 'TIN' to make the sound a little more inconsistent and therefore more natural. We usually put a few of each sound in the sample kits we build to achieve this end. Velocity is another method we could use.

Screen shot 6; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
This second part is similar to pattern one with just a little more space. We are going to look at a few treble drum patterns before moving on to the bass parts. Notice how we have not put any open bass sounds in this battery kit. We will be building a bass Tabla kit a little later.

Screen shot 7; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
These type of treble Tabla parts are commonly found in a more folk style of playing. It is this style that you more commonly hear applied to a contemporary western environment. Looking at the matrix editor of this example we can see how short the notes are. The sounds also are fairly short but this is academic as they are one shot samples and sound until another member of the mute group is sounded.

Screen shot 8; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Here we introduce the closed 'na' sound. This is a very effective sound when introduced into grooves. It is articulated by the finger remaining on the skin after striking.  It is sometimes called the 'chick' stroke.

Screen shot 9; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Now we have the characteristic open 'thun' sound. This sound really cuts through and pops out of any mix. Like all the sounds in the hi Tabla kit, it is on the same mute group. Think of the hi Tabla in the same way you would a hi hat. Only one sound can sound at once. When a hi hat is opened, it would sound a little odd to be simultaneously sound the closed hi hat, presupposing you are trying to replicate something natural sounding.

Screen shots 10-18 Bass Tabla concepts and fast groove patterns

Screen shot 10;
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Here we have our bass Tabla kit. Load this up on a separate audio instrument channel. This is really four little mini bass Tabla kits in one. From C1 thru D#1 we have four bass tabla tones. These are 1; open 2; hi medium 3; low medium 4; fast bend up. It is really these four tones you need to create some simple versions of the nuances of the bass Tabla. This then has the closed bass Tabla stroke 'KE' on the next note. Then from C2 we have a similar set with slightly different nuances and again upwards from C3 and C4. I like to put them across octaves like this to make it easy to switch between different groups during recording. If they are upwards in one group from C1 then it can be difficult to orient yourself with the different sounds but simply moving up an octave for the next set makes it easy to switch between sets in performance.

Screen shot 11; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Guess what, a big surprise. It is a simple bass Tabla part. Because the instrument is complex does no mean that you have to over program stuff and make it too busy.

Screen shot 12; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Here we see how this bass part sits with the corresponding treble Tabla part. Notice the panning of the hi and low Tabla instruments. The bass Tabla is 11L and the treble Tabla 11R. I don't like to split them any further than this, ESP when some of the interlocked linear patterns start to come out and you want it to sound as one instrument.

Screen shot 13; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Here we have the bass and treble parts for the second midi groove. Notice the melody and resolution of the shape of the bass Tabla part. As an experiment, try putting all the bass Tabla hits on one sample and see how it kills the part.

Screen shot 14; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Another bass melody here. This one employs a little hi pitched flick at the end. This is a version of the 'KE' stroke used for embellishment. Notice how it pops out if a gap present in the hi Tabla part. If this stroke was employed over another staccato stroke on the hi Tabla it would not be nearly so effective.

Screen shot 15; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Tabla styles are famous for hi speed pick ups and techniques of doubling the groove. This is the basis of our first hi speed groove for the treble Tabla. It only uses the 'NA' and 'TE' tones. We have used two versions of the 'NA' stroke to give it more of a natural feel.

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Here is the first bar of the bass part for this fast pattern. The bass stays fairly on the beat and also fills any gaps in the treble part, either with the bass tone or with the closed staccato bass tone.

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The whole bass part is actually four bars long. This is a characteristic of Tabla where you can have one very short repetitive part on one hand whilst the other hand defines the pattern over a longer period.

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This pattern sounds much more complicated than it actually is. The bass part repeats over two bars whilst the treble part is one bar long. The treble part is based on the part of the previous example, just that beats two and three of the bar turn the pattern around so it starts half way through. (IE; if you were playing ABCD ABCD for the first two beats of the bar, then for the third and fourth beats of the bar you would play CDAB CDAB.)

Screen shots 19-27 Fast rolls

Screen shot 19; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
The fast rolling often heard by Tabla players is probably the most involved to conceptualize and program. The patterns are created by very fast linear stroke combinations employing the staccato sounds on the drums. For the purpose of actually playing this in on the midi keyboard we needed to put a sample of the staccato closed bass tone in our hi Tabla kit. We also left it panned in the centre so that when it was employed with the staccato tones of the hi drum, it was not split off to one side making the roll less effective. This is the one possible disadvantage of recording Tablas in stereo.

Screen shot 20; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
Notice how this roll is only using four strokes. Here we see is repeated to fill one bar. Thinking of this in a division of quarter notes, this would be divided 2+2+2+2 to make up the bar of 4 4

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Now we are going to cut our part up into different length units to create something slightly more interesting rhythmically. We changed the snap to 8th's and cut some different length combinations.

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We got this pattern from joining a section two eighth notes long to a section one eight note long. (It is 3 eighth notes long)

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We repeated this in the arrange window three times to make a combination of parts nine eighth notes long, divided 3+3+3.

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We then cut the ninth eight note from the end and deleted it, making our combination of parts 3+3+2=8.

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Then we merged objects from the functions menu, making one part of one bar in length divided 3+3+2.

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We then reinforced the accents on the resonant hi 'NA' tone from the hi tabla with the bass tone of bass Tabla set.


Screen shot 27; Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge
One funky groove later, we stuck elements of all this together and came up with this.






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