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Sonar: Punchy Percussion with PX64

Sonar Notes & Techniques
Published October 2009
By Craig Anderton

Get to grips with Sonar's brand‑new PX64 percussion strip, which offers all the processors you need for treating drums.

Sonar: Punchy Percussion with PX64

The PX64 percussion strip, introduced in the latest version of Sonar, which should be available very soon after you read this, is a suite of processors designed for processing drums and percussion. Although you can create similar functionality on an 'à la carte' basis, by adding plug‑ins and creating a track preset that includes them, the PX64 adds a few twists of its own and offers the convenience of multiple functions rolled into a single plug‑in.

So let's imagine you've got an acoustic drum part or drum loop and you want to make it larger than life...

Saturation

There are Saturation options (the brown fader controls and associated bypass switches to the extreme left and right of the user interface) for the input and output. If you want to use Saturation, it's best to add it early on in the editing process, as EQ and dynamics will probably need to be changed if you alter the signal's distortion level.

Using Saturation brings up an essential point about PX64: don't hesitate to divide up a drum part into different sends or outputs and have a PX64 for each one — or even use a PX64 on each drum output. For example, the Saturation can sound great with toms or kick, but not hi‑hat, so you might want a PX64 instance on kick, another on the tom submix, one only for hats and cymbals, and so on. PX64 is efficient enough that you should be able to do this. Think of it as you would a vocal strip: just as each voice goes through its own strip, so can each drum 'voice'.The highlighted areas are the input and output saturation. The graphic of a triode tube above the input Saturation switch is lit, which indicates that the saturation algorithm is affecting the signal.The highlighted areas are the input and output saturation. The graphic of a triode tube above the input Saturation switch is lit, which indicates that the saturation algorithm is affecting the signal.

EQ

I've always had the best luck with processing when I've tweaked the tone to perfection first. After that, everything falls into place much more easily.

One common trick for drums is to add a bit of high‑end boost for 'air'. Used in moderation, this can bring out transients that make a part seem more close and present. The EQ's High band is ideal for this, but set its mode switch to Shelf (lower position), and not Low‑pass (upper position). Set the frequency to around 10kHz and the Level control to about 3‑4dB.

Another common EQ tweak is to add a bit of upper mid‑range boost to bring out the attack sound of the stick (or beater) hitting the drum. Here, the High‑Mid band comes into play. Boosting by a couple of dB at around 3.5‑5kHz will give the drums a more percussive feel.

One limitation of PX64 is that you don't have a band‑pass option for anything below 200Hz, so if you want to boost or cut the kick, your only option is a shelving response. I'll typically add a dB or so for a bit more body.

To even further accentuate these kinds of changes at the high and low ends, you can cut a bit around 250‑300kHz. This keeps the kick and high end intact, while taking out a bit of the mid‑range build‑up that can happen in a room when recording acoustic drums. The Vintage/Classic switch for the two mid‑range controls adds a different sort of character. I find Vintage a little more aggressive and Classic a bit more neutral, but it's a subtle difference.The EQ set as described in the text. The graph on the right shows the equaliser's frequency response.The EQ set as described in the text. The graph on the right shows the equaliser's frequency response.

Shape Transients

Once EQ is sorted, you can check out the transient Shaper module, which can produce effects anywhere between gimmicky and magical. I find it most useful for making poorly recorded drums sound better, but it can also add definition to well‑recorded drums, and special effects to whatever you want to throw at it. But do bear in mind that just because you have it, you don't have to use it!

The key is to start by adjusting the Attack, as this determines whether the drums are going to sound sharp (fast) or mushy (slow). While it may seem counter‑intuitive to want mushy drums, this can actually work well with room‑mic tracks, which will almost certainly have reduced transients anyway, compared to close mics. And while ultra‑fast attacks can sound annoying with a full drum kit, they can help bassier percussion instruments (talking drum, for example) punch through a mix better, even at low levels.

Two additional controls, Weight and Decay, alter the original transient shape in more radical ways. When you want a big, fat sound, increasing Weight is the equivalent of increasing the Hold time on a synthesizer envelope: the initial attack and subsequent decay stay louder for longer. Decay brings up the tail of the drum transient, but how this affects the drum sound depends mostly on how it was recorded. If there's a lot of room sound, bringing up the tail is like turning up the room mics by 6dB. On the other hand, with dry drums it just emphasises the decay a little more.

The Weight and Decay parameters both have Color controls, which provide tonal contours for the initial attack and the decay. This is different compared to EQ, which changes tonality over the sound as a whole.The Attack has been made a bit faster, but the Color controls are also very much involved in this sound. The Weight Color control is thickening the sound of the transient (indicated by the red line being above the transient), while the Decay Color setting is thinning out the transient's decay.The Attack has been made a bit faster, but the Color controls are also very much involved in this sound. The Weight Color control is thickening the sound of the transient (indicated by the red line being above the transient), while the Decay Color setting is thinning out the transient's decay.

Dynamics

PX64 has both a Compressor and an Expander. The Compressor is mercifully simple: there are controls for Threshold, Ratio and Bypass, and that's it. This is a good time to remember my comments about using multiple PX64s for different submixes, as any compression you might want on the kick would probably be different from the compression needed on, say, the toms

Don't overlook the fact that you can turn the Compressor into a limiter by setting the Ratio control to 'Inf to 1'. In this case, I strongly suggest keeping the threshold high, so that the limiter catches only the highest peaks. Percussiveness lost at this stage will almost certainly not be regained. Besides, during mastering it's very probable that compression will be used, and that will keep peaks under control anyway.

The Expander is a good option for reducing room sound and leakage between drums, as well as giving a more percussive quality to instruments recorded in fairly reverberant spaces. There's the same complement of controls as for the Compressor, but instead of compressing above a threshold, it expands below a threshold. You could almost call the Ratio control a 'naturalness' control, because higher ratios give a more gated effect (in fact, one way to create gated tom effects is simply to set a high ratio).

Delay

The Delay effect is just that — an effect. It's not something you'd use to add subtle timing differences, like moving the snare ahead or behind the beat just a tad, nor a way to add early reflection‑type effects. However, it does have a slightly unusual feature: a filter, with a variable cutoff frequency and a response that can morph smoothly from low‑pass to band‑pass to high‑pass, alters the sound of the delay. You can even approximate some 20th‑century tape-delay sounds by emphasising the mid‑range with the band‑pass response.

All In Order

The lower part of the curve display shows the routing for the five modules, and you simply drag and drop to change it. My 'standard' order is Shaper, Compressor, EQ, Expander, Delay. However, here are some other useful combinations.

Delay‑Shaper: If you're using a lot of feedback, this lets the Shaper alter the transients of individual echoes. Although having Shaper before Delay gives a similar effect, because you're delaying the shaped sound, if the delayed signal itself incorporates filtering, that can negate some of the Shaper's effect. If the Shaper comes after the Delay, it processes the transients regardless of how they've been filtered.

EQ‑Compressor: If you're using equalisation to cut in order to solve a problem (for example, resonance, poor recording technique, overbearing cymbals), putting a compressor after it will bring up the level of the section you cut, reducing the effectiveness of the cut. On the other hand, if you've used EQ to boost a range of frequencies, compressing after EQ may be needed to prevent overloads on resonant peaks. Experiment! That's the advantage of an interface that lets you move sections around.

Re‑tweak!

Before signing off, save — and then revisit your previous settings. You may want to touch up the EQ a bit to compensate for some unforeseen results of combining, say, compression with decay, or beef up the overall sound just a tad using the Shaper's Weight control. Job done!.    

Published October 2009