A walk through the process of composing and processing a drum track highlights how to use various Sonar features and useful shortcuts - some of which you may not have come across before.
This column usually focuses on a particular subject in depth. That's great for building up a toolbox of techniques, but this month I want to try something a little different: covering the process of working on a particular project. In this case, we'll take a look at how to create a beat in Sonar, then we'll use that as the foundation for a rhythm track designed for an electro/dance-style piece of music.
The foundation of this genre is a strong rhythm section, typically with analogue-sounding drums. For those types of sounds, you needn't look any further than Sonar's TTS1 soft synth, which has the excellent 'Analog Set' analogue/Roland TR-type drum sounds. So, after opening a new project, let's get started.
1. Go Insert / Soft Synths / TTS1.
2. Choose your desired soft synth options in the window that appears. I make sure that Synth Track Folder is ticked, so the MIDI and instrument tracks end up in a folder, and also I tick Synth Property Page, so the instrument's GUI opens up on insertion.
3. We'll put the drums on MIDI channel 10 (track 10 on TTS1), just to be in step with the General MIDI spec. At TTS1, click on the track name for channel 10, then go Preset / Drum Set / 026 Analog Set.
4. Now let's create a drum pattern. Turn your attention to the TTS1 instrument MIDI track and set the MIDI channel output to 10.
5. You can use any method of note entry you like for creating the part, but let's use the Step Sequencer for now. Click on the MIDI track so that it's selected, then go Views / Step Sequencer.
6. Set the number of beats and steps for the Step Sequencer; 8 and 4 are good starting points, respectively.
Now we're ready to create a drum pattern. If you click on the note names toward the Step Sequencer's left, you can audition the various drum sounds. Let's start with C3, the kick. Click on the Step Sequencer Play button, then on the steps (the squares) in the C3 row where you want a kick-drum sound. If you click in the wrong step, right-click on it to clear it.
You'll find suitable backbeat/snare-type sounds on D3, Eb3 (claps) and E3. You can always click all three of these on the same beat if you want a really big sound. There's a closed hi-hat on G#3 and an open hi-hat on Bb3. These are good for adding an off-beat effect. A 'low clave' type of sound suitable for accents can be found on Db3. Don't forget that you can add as many rows as you like to accommodate more sounds — just right-click to the right of any row and select Insert Row. You can drag a row into any position. For example, in the Step Sequencer screen shot (below left), I added another row and dragged it to the top to add the tambourine sound at F#4. This is also how you cut, copy and paste row steps, as well as shifting steps left or right if you want to try out some variations.
When creating the beat that kicks off the creative process for a tune, I try to produce one that's as complete as possible — in other words, the beat that will be used at the peak of the song. I find it more natural to simplify the beat for other sections, by stripping out parts, than to start with a simple beat and embellish it later on.
Create a beat using whatever sounds you like, then we'll move on to tweaking. But first, hit save, or go Options / Global / Auto-Save and Versioning, and set Sonar to auto-save every few minutes or after a particular number of changes. You can also tick the Enable Versioning box if you want to save multiple consecutive versions of the song, as opposed to just overwriting your existing version with each save.
Once you've created the beat, it's time for fine-tuning. In the step sequencer, you can fine-tune velocity values on a step in three ways: double-click on a step and enter a new velocity value in the numerical field that appears; click and edit using the mouse scroll-wheel; or click on a step while holding Shift, then drag up or down to increase or decrease velocity respectively. For individual rows, you can add a Velocity Offset (for example, add 27 so that the default values of 100 turn into 127) or Multiplier (for example, multiply all velocity values by 1.2) in the fields to the immediate left of the note grid. Finally, a little bit of swing can make a pattern more appealing, at least to my ears. In the group of Style controls toward the top of the Step Sequencer, set Swing to around 55.
Don't overlook the fact that you can edit the TTS1 drum sounds themselves. In TTS1, click on the small square at the top of channel 10 (or wherever you placed the drums). This opens up an edit window for that channel, where, towards the centre of the window, you can select the sound to be edited and adjust Level, Pan, Coarse and Fine Tune, Reverb Level and Chorus Level (see screenshot at the start of the article).
Select the sound to edit with the big right/left arrows, or if you click on the MIDI Edit button the sound will follow any incoming MIDI note. (Curiously, notes are indicated as an octave lower than on the step sequencer. For example, C3 in the Step Sequencer shows as C2 in the edit window.) Towards the bottom of the window you'll find Bass, Mid and Treble controls, along with a Filter that can add resonant effects. Remember to click the On/Off button to the right of the Tone controls to make these effects active. Finally, above the window's level fader (any level changes are reflected on TTS1's main mixer view), there's a master pan control, as well as master send controls for the Chorus and Reverb.
You might be wondering where you edit the Chorus and Reverb: go to the TTS1 main mixer view, in the upper right, and click on Effect. This brings up a window offering Chorus and Reverb options, including chorus and reverb types, reverb decay time and several chorus-related parameters (see screenshot on previous page).
For electro-type drum patterns, try selecting Small Room for the reverb type, and set the time parameter to around 45-60. Turn up the master send control, either in the instrument edit window or on the main mixer view, and the sound will blossom into a bigger, deeper one with more character.
While chorus may not seem all that useful for beats, you can get a very electronic, resonant-sounding effect by selecting Flanger as the chorus type, turning Rate and Depth to zero and setting Feedback above 100. This is where the individual send controls for the different drums really come in handy, as you probably wouldn't want to add this resonant effect to the entire drum part. I use it most often on the kick, and on 'natural' sounds (like tambourine) to make them sound more electronic. Note that it's also possible to send the chorus through the reverb via the Rev Send control, and this can add yet another twist to the sound.
So far, we've used the step sequencer to layer various sounds and create a two-bar pattern, tweaked the drum parameters for the best sound, and maybe even added some effects within TTS1. Now it's time to take that beat and expand on it.
Close the Step Sequencer, and focus on the track view. The Step Sequencer has created a MIDI Groove Clip (as identified by the four rounded corners), which means you can 'roll it out' by clicking on the right edge and dragging it to the right to create multiple iterations of the clip (see screenshot above). For example, suppose we want to work on the first 16 measures of the piece; the screenshot shows the original, two-bar clip (grey) rolled out to last 16 measures.
At this point, if you double-click on this clip it will simply re-open the step sequencer, and any change you make to the sequence will be reflected in each iteration of the clip. But what we want is to be able to work on this clip to build the song, by simplifying it towards the beginning and letting it build over time. To 'detach' it from the step sequencer so that we can do this, right-click on the clip and select Bounce to Clip from the context menu, or click on the clip to select it and go Edit / Bounce to Clip. The clip now turns into a standard MIDI clip, and if you double-click on it, the Piano Roll view will appear for editing the clip (assuming you haven't customised this particular shortcut).
As a side note, suppose that after creating this clip you decide that you'd really rather work with it as a 16-measure step sequence in the Step Sequencer. No problem: right-click on the clip, and select Convert MIDI Clip(s) to Step Sequencer. If you don't see this in the context menu, click on the row of arrows along the bottom to open up a 'side' menu with other options. You'll be asked what step resolution you want to use, which will probably be 16th notes if that was your original Step Sequencer resolution.
For now, we'll assume you want to treat it as a MIDI clip, so let's make it easy to edit. First off, it's useful to shorten the note durations a bit. Why? Suppose the Step Sequencer generates four consecutive 16th notes. They'll each be exactly one 16th note in length, so you won't really be able to see the note start and end if you're zoomed out. So select all the notes in the track, go Process / Length, tick only the 'Duration' tick-box, enter 70 in the Percent field, then click on OK. This adds a little space between consecutive notes, making it easier to see where they begin and end.
Now start carving. In this example, I got rid of the tambourine for most of the first eight measures, leaving in a short pick-up going into measure nine. I also deleted the low clave sound for these measures. Thus, for the first eight measures I had only kick, snare and open/closed hi-hat, with the second eight measures picking up in complexity. Then, for the last half of the 16th measure, I deleted everything except for a series of snare-drum hits designed to add a big variation before the next part of the song. The screenshot at the bottom of the previous page shows the result. Note that the part is sparser at the beginning, gets more complex, then ends with the snare roll (with increasing velocities).
Now we're getting somewhere, having taken our simple beat and built it into a much longer part, with some editing to add more interest. However, remember that in Sonar a virtual instrument feeds the equivalent of an audio track — so we can put effects in the audio track's effects bin and further alter the sound. What's more, thanks to automation, we can create variations in the effects.
As an example, one of my favorite effects is synchronised delay, which the Sonitus Delay (bundled with Sonar) does very well. The 3/4 factor setting works well for dance tracks; the screen above shows typical parameter settings to add a rhythmic delay. However, having this delay on constantly can get irritating, so let's automate the delay mix to bring it in and out at strategic times.
1. Right-click in the effects bin for the track where you want to add delay, and go Audio FX / Sonitus:fx / Delay.
2. Right-click in the audio track containing the Delay plug-in.
3. From the context menu, go Envelopes / Create Track Envelope / Delay.
4. A window appears with all available delay parameters for automation. Tick 'MixL' and 'MixR'. If you like, you can choose a colour for the automation curve.
5. Click on OK.
6. Lines will now appear in the track. Double-click on the line to create a node that can be dragged anywhere you want. Drag up to increase the level of delay in the mix and drag down to reduce.
At this point, we've gone from a simple two-measure drum pattern to the start of a drum track. We can copy what we have and use it elsewhere in the song or, better still, come up with variations on a theme. And then comes the bass... but that will have to wait for another time!