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BOOM Plug-in Window

Digidesign BOOM Plug-in running in an Avid ProToolsHD DAW


One of the most common uses of MIDI is to implement a rhythm track.  Drum sounds are ideal for MIDI triggering, and drum parts are programmed in using various methods.

The screenshot above shows the BOOM plug-in running in a ProTools HD DAW environment.  This design uses many of the classic features of the early drum machines that were so popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  The programming concept is identical.

The idea of the drum map (also called drum grid) is to lay out different drum sounds across a range of notes.  Often, these are the lower notes starting at C1 and heading up as far as necessary to include all sounds required in the drum set that you have loaded in the plug-in.

There are many types of sounds available in plug-ins that simulate drum machines, each batch of sounds grouped into a specific kit, and each kit laid out across a piano keyboard note range.  You will be able to mix and match elements of different kits at will in most plug-ins.

Below, I’ve posted an mp3 audio clip of BOOM playing the pattern shown above in the screenshot, with all the settings as shown.

BOOM audio example

A drum plug-in is normally only available as a stereo plug-in, and there will be controls in the plug-in enabling you to pan the elements of the kit to different positions within the stereo image delivered by the plug-in at the track’s output.  Obviously, there are also level controls to set the maximum level at which a sound will be heard at the output.  Often, there is a discrete mixer page available on a tab or menu, and this will typically provide more sophisticated options like auxiliary sends and returns to built-in effects like delay and reverb.

Usually, there’s also a way to adjust the swing feel of the parts, so that the plug-in can lean more or less towards swing triplet feel or a square downbeat feel, as desired.  In the BOOM screenshot, you can see all these aspects are available for easy on-screen adjustment.

BOOM is an example of a drum machine concept realized in a plug-in form.  There are software models of virtually every well-known drum machine of the past, and plenty of obscure ones besides.

Drum machyines are essentially libraries of recorded sounds of short duration (percussive sounds) that can be triggered reliably by MIDI signals delivered either via sequencing commands in a sequencer, or by playing live at a MIDI device, usually a MIDI keyboard.

These recorded sounds are samples, originally burned onto chips and by swapping a chip in the primitive days of sampling, you could change sound sets.  People paid to have their recordings put onto chips at first, which could take a while!  Talk about geeky!

Sampling exploded in the late 1980’s with the advent of the Akai S900 and then the S950.  Available memory to store samples in grew in size on a weekly basis, it seemed.

A Fairlight CMI “sampling workstation” cost $40,000 US Dollars at first, and it was simply an 8-bit sampler, albeit incredibly clever for it’s time.  The Police and Sting and Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush made extensive use of the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier, a competing sampling workstation of the time.

Popular drum machines now available in plug-in form include numerous homage plug-ins to the Roland TR-808 which ruled the world of 1980’s dance music, and the equally ubiquitous Roland TR-909 which became a staple part of 1990’s house and trance music, and appeared on countless classic dance recordings.

The forerunner of the TR-808 was the TR-707, oddly enough!  There was also a 707 stablemate called the TR-727 that history has largely overlooked (yes, I got one when they first came out and soon got rid of it).  That 727 had a Latin percussion sound set, timbales and the like.   I don’t miss it!

Until acid house came along, nobody wanted the Roland TB-303, a terribly artificial sounding enabler of primitive sequenced bass lines that barely sold any units at all in their first entry to the marketplace in the early 1980’s.  Fast forward to acid tracks in the dance underground scene towards the end of the 1980’s and used TB-303 were in bedroom studios everywhere, being used to generate some intense and machine-like bass parts of a rather terrifying and crazed nature.  Ah, music is a strange thing.

The Roland Compu-Rhythm CR-68 and CR-78 were everywhere in the 1980’s too, ticking away atmospherically on more than a few Phil Collins recordings such as “In The Air Tonight”.   A beautiful sounding unit with many preset patterns and great sounds.  At the top of the 1980’s, the

The Linn Drum from drum machine guru Roger Linn dominated production for a year or two around 1983 and the remarkable sounds and programming feel of his products dominate the drum sounds of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.

Drum machines became more complicated.  Drum kits sampled and mapped across a MIDI keyboard commonly appeared in MIDI keyboard workstations, such as the ever-popular Korg M1 and Yamaha DX7 and many others.   The Emu SP products were also very popular, inheritors of the sampling heritage of the classic Emulator so popular in the Eurhythmics golden era.

Not in keyboard form, there were great drum machine models from Alesis, whose DM range was very popular and had a good selection of sounds, although not the most powerful sounds.  These were in module form.

MIDI rack-mountable modules were not confined to drum sounds. They also came stuffed to the brim with effects or with synthesizers.

Another family of products springing to mind are the urban music production centres, the Akai MPC6011 being a classic example.  These things are all over records by Jam and Lewis (Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” and many others).

The artist probably known as Prince at the moment is a great exponent of drum samples and drum machine programming, and a great guided tour of his music will take in many of the vintage machines.  A visionary user of the technology in a beautifully musical way.

Recommended listening for drum programmers would include the classic albums “Sign Of The Times” and “Paisley Park”.  Also check out “Genie In A Bottle” by Christina Aguilera for those awesome rapid-fire 32nd kick drums.

In the 1990’s new ways to work came to pass, with new techniques and new sounds and new ways to mangle and distort them beyond all recognition if desired.

Someone had the bright idea to take an audio recording of a looped bar or two of music and chop it into individual slivers of sound, called “slices”.  The first product to do this I’m aware of was called ReCycle.   This was a major milestone in the history of drum maps, samples and slices, since it marks the introduction of the concept of slices to the commercial marketplace.

After slicing your loops into little bits, the individual slices were now available to be shuffled into different orders to create new rhythms – rhythms that were impossible to make with the original loops, pre-slicing.

You could mute every other slice, for example, a handy trick to create rapid-fire stuttering rhythmic patterns, or you might reverse certain slices to play backwards, but not others, or you might rearrange the slices to move the kick drum beats where you would prefer them in the bar, without impacting any more slices than necessary.  All extremely cool and liberating for dance music producers.

After a number of years, the Ableton Live product range stood like a colossus astride the world of triggering samples on-the-fly in creative, performance-based workflows.  You could finally improvise the triggering of samples during a live show instantly with ease.  Today, the product Live still reigns supreme at the samples-in-performance end of the marketplace.

The Drum Rack from Ableton Live 8 before loading drum sounds

The Drum Rack from Ableton Live 8 before loading drums

There are other ways of mapping drums to be played than just using a virtual piano roll laid out as a grid.   you can lay them out in a set of virtual pads, such as you might have played with your fingers if they were on a physical product like an Akai MPC or a pad-equiupped drum machine.

In the above screenshot from the Ableton Live 8 production suite, you can see the device used in the software to assign drums to notes, called the Drum Rack in that software.  It mimics the 16 large pads found in products like the Akai MPC Music Production Centres, and is popular in urban and hip-hop circles as a way of setting out a drum kit for easy triggering of it’s audio elements.

To select a sound to put in the Drum Rack for your production, you would simply drag and drop from the list of sounds to specific pads, thereby assigning specific sound sample sets to specific notes in the note range.  As always, there are many samples attached to any particular note value, because they must also sound correct if played very quietly or very loudly or anywhere in between.  This takes many samples per note, although not every velocity possible will actually cause a different sample to be triggered in practice.

Drum Samples listed in a menu in the Live 8 suite from Ableton

Drum Samples listed in a menu in the Live 8 suite from Ableton

In the modern world of 2013, we have fantastic products I personally use and recommend wholeheartedly all the time to anyone who asks.

I recommend products like Izotope Iris, Digidesign/Avid Structure, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and Stylus RMX.  Check system requirements before buying anything, of course.  Most products these days let you have a free trial install for a while to see if you like it.

The products I just mentioned are virtual, and each is hugely powerful (don’t be deceived because they’re in plug-in form, they are incredibly deep and full of sounds), or, in the case of Stylus RMX, that one is a “groove-generating workstation of drum parts and sounds”.  You can either trigger sounds directly using your own MIDI patterns or you can use the preset patterns and sounds and edit them at will.

Changes in parameters can typically be automated in your DAW.  Usually, the parameter will be available in your DAW menu of things to edit, but it’s possible you will need to train the DAW by using a Learn MIDI CC command.  See your DAW manual for details, but in practice, you normally just select Learn MIDI CC from a drop-down menu and then touch the physical control on your physical hardware which you want to automate via MIDI with your DAW.

All these products have vast libraries of amazing and incredibly useful sounds and rhythms.  You can roll your own samples or buy off-the-shelf sample libraries with these types of “giant plug-in” programs.

They are the current pinnacle of the ever evolving art-form of making “entire-production-capable” plug-ins that can be automated and edited and tweaked to the nth degree.  As such, they are each a serious investment of time and money to buy and use, usually quite a few hundred dollars per plug-in and sometimes even in four figures.

One particularly entertaining plug-in software for contemporary productions is Stutter Edit, a program which comes with huge numbers of presets of slice layouts that are arranged in specific rhythmic stuttering patterns, and naturally you can make your own patterns.  You can supply your own audio, and then process it through the stuttering slices of your choice.  A phenomenal tool, drawing heavily upon the work of dance music pioneer, the artist BT, otherwise known as Brian Transeau.

Well, we seem to have covered a fair bit of ground.

I hope you’ll join me again for the next blog, entitled “MIDI Programming- Synths and Sound Design”, after which we will be better prepared for a whirlwind few days touring synthesizers and the building blocks of sounds.


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