Design and manipulate your own kick drums from scratch using Ultrabeat and Alchemy in Logic Pro X.
If you find yourself spending ages auditioning drum samples in a quest for the right sound then learning more about drum synthesis could give you a viable alternative. In this month’s Logic Notes we’ll begin by looking at using basic drum synthesis to craft your own kick drum sounds so you can take control of their length, shape and timbre. Dedicated drum synths like those in Native Instruments’ Maschine or FXpansion’s Tremor are often mentioned for the quality of their results, but equally good results can be coaxed out of Logic’s stock instrument Ultrabeat, with a little effort and know how. We will then look at how to combine our synthesized kick drum with a multi-sampled kick drum. To round off our journey into drum manipulation we’ll use Alchemy as a processor for real-time manipulation of existing ESX24 libraries, turning them into something more varied and interesting.
Let’s start by creating a basic 808 kick-drum sound, chromatically laid out across the keyboard so you can play the kick drum as a bass line. In a new project call up Ultrabeat and from its Preset drop down choose Tutorial Settings / Tutorial Kit preset. We are going to focus our efforts on Ultrabeat’s highest slot — slot 25 — as this can be played chromatically from C3 upward on your MIDI keyboard. Regardless of how an original 808 kick drum sound generator worked, a reasonable approximation of an 808 kick drum can quickly be achieved using a single oscillator, an amp envelope and a pitch envelope. Start by going to the osc 1 pitch slider and set it to C0. This effectively sets the lowest useful pitch our 808 can achieve when playing C3 on the keyboard. Now go to the envelope section and click on envelope 4. This is our amplifier envelope; set the attack to its minimum time to ensure the envelope is as snappy as possible then adjust the decay to 720ms; this should make our 808 long enough to have a satisfying amount of bottom end but short enough so that each kick doesn’t just blur into the next.
To give the kick that characteristic click at the start, we will use an envelope to modulate the pitch. Conveniently, envelope1 is already routed to osc 1’s pitch. First increase the pitch modulation amount to F5 (this is the blue transparent control in the same curved section of osc 1 as the pitch control). Then go to envelope 1 and adjust its Decay to 7.6ms. You may need to use the zoom function to achieve this. To change the character of the click tweak the curve of the envelope using the decay curve handles (see Screen 1, above). A curve that decays quickly will tend to give a click that has more high frequency content, whereas a slower decay tends to add more mid-range weight to the initial thump. It is also worth spending time experimenting with the decay curve of the amplifier envelope, as this will significantly change the decay characteristics of the drum sound. (Listen to Audio Example 1 — the first two bars are Ultrabeat and for comparison the last two bars are Maschine’s Sub kick drum generator). Once you’re happy with the shape of your kick drum, Ultrabeat has lots of options to alter the timbre of it. The Asym slider will add more harmonics at multiples of the fundamental whereas the Saturation slider and Slope knob add only odd harmonics. I tend to use these controls to add just a small amount of extra harmonic content to help my kick drums cut through on small speakers.
Another common approach to synthesizing an 808 drum sound is to use an oscillator to provide the fundamental sound of the drum and a sample to provide the initial click you hear at the start. You can seen this technique at work in Sonic Academy’s excellent Kick 2 plug-in, and that may well be what Native Instruments are doing in their Kick Drum Sub module to provide the different click types. Thankfully as a Logic user, combining synthesized and sampled drums in Ultrabeat is a breeze. Reset the pitch modulation of oscillator 1 back to zero so that you have just the strong fundamental without the click. Next move down to oscillator 2 and set the oscillator type to Sample. This oscillator can now be used for sample playback. Before we can load any click samples we need to prepare them, though. Go and find a few kick drums that have transients that you like and then drag them into an audio track in Logic. Trim the audio regions down to just the initial transient and then export them using the File / Export / Regions As Audio Files command to put all your clicks into one folder.
Next lets combine these samples with our sub oscillator. In Ultrabeat go to the osc 2 sample area, click the drop-down arrow and choose Load Sample. From the pop-up window you can choose a sample to load into Ultrabeat and you can also preview it beforehand. By default, the Preview Sample In Ultrabeat Voice option is unchecked, allowing you to play your MIDI keyboard within the key range of slot 25 to preview your sample. Now check the option to preview your sample with all of the associated processing and envelope settings. This is really handy for experimenting with different samples before committing to one. Navigate to your folder of clicks and use the Preview Sample option to select the one that works the best with oscillator 1 (listen to Audio Example 2 — the first two bars are Ultrabeat and for comparison the last two bars are Maschine’s Sub kick-drum generator).
Let’s now move away from the world of 808s. Layering an acoustic sample with a synthesised sub oscillator is also a useful way to create traditional kick-drum sounds that have more weight to them. Copy slot 25 to slot 1 by Ctrl-clicking on slot 25 and from the drop-down menu choose Copy (Voice and Sequence), then Ctrl-click on slot 1 and choose Paste Voice. Keeping osc 1 as our sub oscillator, let’s replace our click sample with a multi sampled acoustic kick drum.
Go to oscillator 2 and call up the Load Sample pop-up. Now navigate to your Ultrabeat samples directory (mine is located in HD / Library / Application Support / Logic / Ultrabeat Samples). You can try out different kick drums from the library with the sub oscillator by checking Preview Sample In Ultrabeat Voice. Not only can you load single kick drums but you can also load multi-layer collections of samples courtesy of Logic’s UBS format. Browse to the Ultrabeat Samples / Kick Drums Acoustic folder and notice all the samples are in UBS format; select the one named KickDrum Hollow Slamming and hit Open (see Screen 2). Now when you play a C1 on your keyboard you hear the combination of the sub oscillator and the acoustic samples (in Audio Example 3, the first two bars are with the sub oscillator and the second two bars are without). Notice that as you play louder or softer the sample changes; use oscillator 2’s volume knob to balance the level of the acoustic sample against the sub.
We have followed quite a traditional path so far so let’s finish off with some more experimental drum manipulation. Create a new software instrument track with Alchemy on it. Open its browser and filter by Drum / Electronic, then choose the Nano Kit preset. Record in a simple drum pattern, then go to the Transform Pad in the Perform section of the Alchemy GUI and move the position rectangle around (see Screen 3). As you move along the top row, you may be taken aback by the incredible range of results Alchemy can produce from just one control (listen to Audio Example 4).
Alchemy can also import ESX24 sample maps, and this is where it gets interesting — we can use the Nano preset as a template for mangling any EXS24 drum kit we have in that format. To accomplish this, switch across to the Advanced editing panel. From within oscillator A click on the Nano.exs field and from the drop-down choose Import Audio. Then, from the pop-up window, navigate to your Sampler Instruments directory from the Places section and select the EXS24 kit you want, and finally, click Import. You can now move around the Transform Pad to manipulate the drum kit.
There are so many incredible options for creating and manipulating drum sounds in Logic that it’s impossible to cover them all here. Hopefully some of the things we have covered will help you to overcome Ultrabeat’s slightly confusing GUI and make you realise what a gem of a drum synth it really is.