There can't be many sampler owners who haven't used a drum loop of some sort, but until now, only limited options have been available to manipulate the raw building blocks of the loop (or groove) to make it fit into a track. Those lucky enough to have access to programs like Sound Designer can edit their loops using conventional sound editing tools, but even Sound Designer has no specialised tools specifically for handling drum loops -- everything has to be done by hand. Variations in timing have only been possible using either changes in pitch or time-stretching and compression, neither of which are fool-proof. Most of the time, people end up building the track around their loops, rather than making their loops fit the track.
Enter Steinberg's ReCycle, a Mac-based software package (a Windows version will be available from April) that Steinberg describe as 'the missing link between your sampler and sequencer'. Essentially, this application allows you to import sampled grooves and drum loops from your sampler via SCSI, view them on-screen as a waveform, and then edit and modify them in a number of different ways. It's important to remember that ReCycle can only manipulate mono files, so if you feed it a stereo file, you either have to choose one channel for processing, or ask ReCycle to merge the two channels to create a mono file for you. Other than this restriction, the only limit to the number and length of samples that are imported seems to be the amount of available RAM in your Mac. However, Steinberg say that around five minutes of loops should be considered the maximum. In practice, loops are likely to be just a few bars long, so this limit shouldn't prove to be restrictive.
The review version (1.1) supports Akai S3000, Sound Designer I and II, AIFF and SampleCell file formats, as well as Opcode's OMS and the Akai S1000/S1100 file format (OMS is needed to support these). To run the programme, you'll need at least a 68020 Mac running system 7 or later (though a faster Mac is to be recommended), and a hard drive. Monitoring is done either through an optional 'Sound Manager 3.0'-compatible audio card at 44.1kHz, or the Mac's built-in speakers, which, although not the pinnacle of hi-fidelity sound reproduction, seem to do the job well enough. Of course, the final sound quality is unaffected by monitoring in this way -- the file exported back to the sampler is full resolution.
The most obvious place to begin is to trim the start and end points of any imported loop so that it loops without timing discontinuities or glitches. The waveform of the imported loop is visible in a screen window, and in the case of most drum parts, the individual beats can be easily identified. The first stage in the process is to identify and separate out the constituent beats of the loop. This is achieved using a sensitivity controller to the right of the screen, which is represented as a fader (0-99), to determine just how many 'slices' the loop should be chopped up into. The fader operates much like the threshold control on an ordinary gate, and because you make all adjustments with the loop running, you can hear exactly what's going on at all times. Obviously, loud bass drums and snares are the first to be recognised, but tweaking the fader to a slightly higher setting reveals most sixteenths, such as hi-hats. The fader can even be set to acknowledge the presence of thirty-second notes (demi-semi quavers).
All the 'slice points' can be fine-tuned, added to or deleted manually with the help of the familiar 'tool box', but you'll probably find Steinberg's accuracy more than adequate for most conventional loops. You may only need to intervene if the drum sounds aren't easily separated by the threshold control; if the sound is very ambient or very busy, you might miss a beat altogether, or slice one beat into two. A useful facility in such cases is the ability to 'lock' slices; changing the threshold won't affect any locked slices, which means that you can work on the file at several different threshold levels to separate the beats most effectively. Optimising the loop points is done with the help of left and right locators; once you've identified the start and end beats, the threshold system does the rest, and positions the loop markers at exactly the right place relative to those beats. There is a thumb-nail overview that runs along the top of the screen, constantly showing a smaller version of the complete waveform -- useful if the main display is zoomed in on a specific part of the loop.
When a loop is sliced into beats, each beat is allocated a different MIDI note; the first note is C1 and the rest ascend in semitone steps, which means a bit of remapping on the user's behalf before the MIDI file is usable, though templates can be created within the sampler itself for remapping. Often, ReCycle is used to transmit the edited loop as a single sample, but it may also be used to extract single drum beats from a loop, which can be sent back to the sampler as individual samples. ReCycle can also normalise data, which may be useful if the original groove was under-recorded.
The reason for separating your loop into slices becomes apparent when ReCycle begins to do what it really excels at, namely altering the tempo, pitch and even groove of your drum loop. Not only is it possible to play the loop at varying tempos without altering the pitch (automatically achieved by stretching the decay of samples in order to fill in the gaps), but it's also quite easy to alter the tunings of constituent parts of the loop or groove without affecting the tempo. If you speed the tempo up too much, the beats start to overlap, which can sound unnatural, but ReCycle is far more forgiving than conventional time-stretching systems, and usable results can still be achieved with tempo changes in excess of 50%. Nevertheless, Steinberg are keen to point out that the stretch facilities, although very effective in the context of drum loops, are not true 'time stretch' functions, and point us instead firmly in the direction of their TimeBandit software for more conventional time-stretch applications.
Once you've chopped up your sample into individual beats or slices, all sorts of clever tricks are available to you. Panning effects can be created by building two or more versions of the loop, each with different beats muted, then panning these samples to different L/R positions once the edited files are reloaded into the sampler. Re-grooving or changes in time signature are also relatively simple to perform. If, for instance, you know your track is 122 bpm but the loaded drum loop happens to be around the 96 bpm mark, all you have to do is tell ReCycle to make the appropriate conversion, and it will calculate not only the new tempo, but also correct any variations in pitch. As an added bonus, ReCycle also kindly spits out the grooves and tempos of the loops as a standard MIDI file (with successive beats in ascending note order). This opens up all kinds of creative avenues -- you can use the feel of the real drum part to trigger MIDI drum sounds, or you could even mute some of the beats in the 'real' drum file and replace them by triggered MIDI sounds later on. Of course, you have to bear in mind that when a loop has two or more sounds playing on the same beat, these cannot be separated -- the slice will simply be a mixed sample of all the sounds happening at the time. I can also see that it could be difficult to slice a file where dry drums were panned hard left and right, because the same slice points need to be applied to both channels, but fortunately most drum loops seem to be less widely spread with most of the stereo being in the ambience.
If you want to remove slices from a loop, you just click on the marker above the relevant 'slice area', but the effect of doing this isn't audible until you've either transferred the edited file to a new window (in which case you produce an edited copy of the file) or dumped it back to the sampler. A facility called 'Silence Selected' is used to split a loop into separate beats for external processing.
The ability to change the time signatures of a groove by choosing different start or end points is something that particularly impressed me. It actually encourages you to wander into previously-unknown 5/4 and 7/8 territory, making a potential Dave Brubeck out of absolutely anyone.
A few things did occur to me while I was using ReCycle that would be nice to see in future upgrades of the program. As just mentioned, if you want to monitor any changes to your loop that involve muting individual beats or changing the tempo/groove, you first have to either copy the edited loop to another Mac window or export the whole thing back to your sampler. This is necessary because you actually creating a new file, but some kind of quick and cheerful way of previewing the results in the original window would be handy. It would also be nice if future versions would include a neater way of dealing with the MIDI note mapping, instead of the current ascending chromatic scale which the user must then edit, either manually or by means of sampler templates.
What I'd really like to see is some facility in the ReCycle window where you can identify the different beats (snare, kick, hi-hat and so on) and then have the appropriate MIDI note assigned according to a user-definable map. It would also be neat to be able to load two drum loops at a time and then compile a third loop from selected beats of the originals. You can do this already using MIDI, but the facility to produce a single, composite loop sample would be useful.
Support for a wider range of samplers would also be appreciated -- the current list (see the 'V.1.1 Support' box elsewhere in this article) omits the old Akai S900 and S950 which are, after all, very popular mono samplers. Asked to comment, Steinberg said that the way the software for these old samplers works is incompatible with the way things are done now, so it seems that nothing can be done unless Akai update the operating system for these machines! Perhaps existing S900 and S950 owners should petition Akai?
ReCycle is presented very much as the perfect partner for any Mac-based Cubase system which includes one of the supported samplers, and to help clinch the deal, a demo version of Cubase and a CD single containing a selection of grooves from Polestar Magnetix are included in the package. However, ReCycle is by no means limited to Cubase users, as the MIDI data extracted from the drum loops is in the form of a standard MIDI file, which should be readable by any Mac MIDI sequencer.
ReCycle's ability to re-groove loops, and change the tempo without affecting the pitch (and vice versa) must be applauded, and despite being quite a complex program in terms of what it achieves, it's actually very straightforward to use. ReCycle must be considered as a serious (verging on the indispensable) tool for anyone involved in 'loop-and-groove-based' modern music production, and it should come as no surprise that many of the drum sample CDs out there were actually produced using this software. If anything, ReCycle is a victim of its own success, because now that people are starting to realise how useful it is, they're asking for all kinds of facilities that were never within the remit of the original program. I know, because I'm one of those people!
ReCycle version 1.1 supports SampleCell I and II, Akai S1000, S1100, S2800, CD 3000, S3000 and S3200.
ReCycle version 1.5, which will become available some time in the 2nd quarter of 1995, will add Roland S760, Kurzweil K2000 and K2500, Ensoniq EPS, EPS 16+ and ASR 10 support. Later on, there will be support for Emu's ESi32; apparently the current operating system software doesn't have the neccessary features for working with ReCycle but future upgrades will.
Unique loop editing facilities.
Creates MIDI files from audio drum loops.
Extensive regrooving and time manipulation tools.
Only certain samplers supported, though more are being added all the time.
A valuable, flexible and fun way to breathe new life into old drum loops! This is a genuinely useful program with no obvious equivalent, and any criticisms are minor compared to the benefits.
£ Recycle for Mac £199 inc VAT. The projected price for the Windows version is the same, but this has yet to be confirmed.
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