klystrack tutorial - drums: bassdrums

I have been thinking of writing instrument tutorials for a bit now. It was also suggested by my good buddy and mega rockstar pixel pusher god-tier artist ilkke to write some drum sound tutorials. I wasn't too sure of how to approach this at first. For a while I considered just creating half a shit ton of instruments and releasing them as a pack for people to use, but then I thought it would kind of defeat the purpose of what I'm trying to do here, which is to teach people how to do things themselves.

After trying a few times to write something intelligible, I quickly realized that blogging is very much a one-way monologue type thing and I have no idea where you guys are starting from. Have you programmed instruments before? Have you ever used a synth? Do you have knowledge of basic synthesis? Do you look in the tissue after you blow your nose? Where the fuck do I start? 

So eventually I decided on this format you're about to read. I will discuss what makes up a particular type of sound, then give a few variations on each sound and explain how I am programming it. These should serve as example for you to base your own instruments from and hopefully they help you understand how a particular sound is achieved. Most of the options I use will not be explained as they've all been discussed in the first instrument tutorial. 

I am going to try to be as clear and basic as I can be but if there are words that are unclear to you, or concepts that escape you, you are responsible for educating yourselves on the matter. Google that shit, bro. Deal? Good. Then we can start.

a few quick tips
1) Never edit instruments using headphones. There are three reasons for this. Since headphones are very close to your ears and give you complete stereo separation, you are more than likely to undermix three things when working with them: bass, chorus, echo. It is a good idea to revisit a song's mix in headphones once it's been mixed properly for speakers, but it's not a good place to start to edit instruments.

2) Name your instruments properly. It's a step a lot of people don't bother with when they are just doodling quick sketches for songs, but when that sketch hits the three minutes mark and you have 25 instruments in the bank, you don't want to have them named stupid shit like "burger ninja condom". It only takes you a few second to give it a proper name like "Short PWM Lead + Chorus" and it will save you lots of time later on.

3) Less is more. You should always try to avoid giving an instrument a volume above 80. These instruments will pile up in a mix and can quickly result in distortion. Furthermore, if an instrument is already set to max (FF) volume and you need to make it even louder...there's no more place for it. So whenever possible, consider bringing the rest of the instruments down instead of boosting one too high.

4) Since drum tracks are made up of multiple sounds, it's useful to have them in the first few instrument slots so you can quickly switch between each with the numpad when editing patterns. It's less important with bass/lead instruments because you usually just select them once, then edit your pattern without switching instrument again. I personally always use the same format where my instrument slots, starting from 00 are: bassdrum, snare, closed hat, open hat, tom, etc etc. 

5) Always create instruments from scratch. Yeah ok... that one is a bit subjective but still. Since chiptunes don't have such a huge array of sound textures available to begin with, they already all sound quite similar to one another. Avoid re-using the same old bassdrum in every song or you will make this problem even worse. Plus, this forces you to get to know your synth engine better, be able to get more juice out of a few simple oscillators and eventually develop your own sound. 

the bassdrum
Definitely one of the most important element of a good rhythm track is the bassdrum, or kick as some people like to call them. While there are many different flavours of bassdrums, they're all based around a few key concepts. The first and most of obvious, given the name, is that they play in the low register. There is a sweet spot you are trying to get to where the kick sits comfortably on the low end of your track, not too high, not too low. Go too high and it doesn't accentuate the beats, go too low and it muddies up the mix and gets lost in the rumble.

The second element is that they almost invariably always start with a short, high pitched snap. On a real drum kit, this is the moment where the beater hits the skin. This snap is also a valuable tool to make your bassdrum pierce clearly through the mix while not eating too much outside of its register. There are many ways to achieve this. It can be a pitch effect, or a short burst of white noise for example. There are no rules to how you achieve that snap, but it should be short. If it's too long you'll lose the punch effect you're looking for.

The third and final element almost all bassdrums share is that once the snap is over, they settle into a descending (in pitch) tone that is more often than not outside of the usable note range. Unless you're going for a very specific type of bassdrum that ends in a sustained, pitchable note, you will want it to be atonal so as not to create weird melodic dissonance in your song. 

Now let's take a look at a few types of kicks.

the C64 kick
I call this one the C64 kick because...well because. It's a very simple kick that sounds like a lot like what you'd find in an old C64 game soundtrack. I am using a full square wave (7FF) because it has a lot of punch, and stays very bright all the way through. Like all my kicks, I lock the pitch so what every note triggers the exact same kick to make sure that entering notes of a different pitch in the patterns won't result in the kick getting pitched as well. The Drum setting is used because that gives it a short burst of white noise at the start. I use and envelope with an ATK of 00 to make sure it doesn't fade in even by the slightest bit, and a Decay of 05 to keep short and sweet. The only other thing involved here is in the Program where I use a portamento down effect (02FF) followed by a GoTo (FF00) command that loops the program back to the first row, making it pitch down by FF on every tick. Quick, dirty and simple. 

the fake 909
Okay so this doesn't nearly have the character and punch of a real 909, but it's still a fairly acceptable clone. For this one, I am again locking the pitch to C4 but this time I turn off the Drum setting because I don't want the white noise snap. I use a triangle wave instead of the pulse since it has a much more subdued sound. The envelope still has an ATK of 00 to make sure it snaps instead of fading in, and this time I use a slightly longer Decay of 07. The Program is very similar to the previous kick but since I wanted it to pitch down faster that a single 02FF command would, I used to 02AF commands and linked them together (press space) to play at the same time.

the fake 808
The 808 is another classic kick and this one requires that we look outside the oscillators for a sound source. Go into the wave editor, select wave 00 and then press the Generate A button at the bottom. Now we have a basic sine wave to work with. Back in the instrument editor, simply turn on Wave 00 and turn off every other oscillator. You will want to leave the envelope's ATK to 00 to get that nice little snap at the start, and Decay is really up to you. The 808 was capable of making short kicks, but it is mostly well known for it's long deep kicks, so in this example I am using a Decay of 0B. Lock the pitch of the instrument to something around G4. Now in the program editor, set the P.PRD setting to 01 because we want to have the program play as fast as possible. Here I am using four consecutive 02FF commands linked together, which means the pitch will go down by FF four times in a single tick. Then I used a 0210 portamento command on row 04 and then use a GoTo command to loop back to that row. What this will do is play the first four rows in a single tick for a quick pitch down effect, then loop row 04 for a slower pitch effect. 

end transmission
So there you have it, basic bassdrum sounds. There are tons of ways you can improve/expand upon these concepts of course, but it's up to you to fuck around with the options and come up with your own sounds. In the next few tutorials I'll be discussing other sounds like snares and hihats, more advanced envelopes done manually in the Program, and give you a few techniques on making convincing drum tracks. Stay tuned.