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Drum Programming (Part 11)

A Series By Warren Cann.

Article from Sound On Sound, March 1993

So you've programmed the drums for your latest songs — now it's time to backup your data and prepare to lay tracks down on tape. Time for timecode...

When you've finished programming the drums for a song, and you're absolutely certain there are no further changes to be made to the data, save another copy of the data as a back-up. Now it's time to organise your work before you do your final 'official' Save operations. It's best to eliminate the clutter that inevitably collects during writing; erase all of the unwanted and unused patterns, leave only what is actually being used in your Song Chain (plus any sundry patterns that it may still be prudent to keep). Be ruthless and leave it tidy while it's all still fresh in your mind — it's so much less confusing later on should you decide to resume work or make any last-minute alterations in the studio.

Once you've made your final save and its back-up(s), any old versions of that data which you may have scattered around become redundant — locate all of them and erase them. You won't have to sift through them, looking for the right one. What you have left is the definitive version.

When it's time to record your epic, the first step is to lay down a code onto tape in order to let you sync up your drum machine/sequencer with any material you may subsequently record live on tape; vocals, guitars, etc. You may even, at this point, decide not to put your drum tracks and/or sequenced synth tracks onto tape at all — you don't have to, because as long as there's a sync code on tape all subsequent playback of those tracks can be started and stopped by the multitrack tape machine. Thanks to MIDI, not committing the drums or other sequenced tracks to tape until you're actually mixing down is quite common, and these tracks are referred to as 'virtual' tracks.

It makes a lot of sense. Think about it — if the first thing you do is record the drums, as you record subsequent tracks the recording of the drums will whizz past the tape heads x-thousand times before you actually get to the mixing stage, right? Depending on how long you mess with the song and how many times you run the tape for overdubbing, monitoring, and mixing, that tape is going to get a real workout.


The oxide coating on the surface of the tape isn't indestructible, so with every pass across the heads it deteriorates slightly and the cumulative effect is definitely audible. (We're talking about analogue tape here — digital recordings do not suffer in this way from repeated playback.) The high frequencies are the first to go. This is why some people use 'slave' reels to do the bulk of work they know will be time consuming (masses of backing vocals, for example) and necessitate much tape spooling back and forth; a very rough mix from the master reel is copied across onto three or four tracks of the slave. The remaining tracks on the slave are then used to perfect the new material, whereupon each new track deemed worthy is then bounced back across to the master, thus minimising wear and tear on the master reel and ensuring a higher quality signal is put to tape. Because MIDI will ensure an identical repetition of each track's performance, why commit anything to tape before you have to?

Use of virtual tracks also frees up tracks on your tape machine (if your mixer can handle it) so that your 8-track (or whatever) can be used entirely for non-MIDI items; if you have 10 MIDI tracks of drums, bass, and synths, then your eight tape tracks of guitars and vocals all combine at mixdown time onto your stereo 2-track (cassette, DAT, whatever) mix, giving you 'virtually' an 18-track recorder, hence the name.

Your manual will recommend an optimum level for recording the sync code; you do not want to record the code any hotter than advised or it may start to bleed into other audio tracks. Do not record the code to tape with any noise reduction, EQ, or signal processing. It's customary to record the sync code on an 'edge track', ie. track #8 on an 8-track, #16 on a 16-track or #24 on a 24-track, which isolates the code and protects it from crosstalk (the influence of other tracks). Avoid recording any subsequent, high-energy/high-frequency tracks next to the sync track — if you've recorded code on track #16, then decide you absolutely must have a wild timbale track, but there's nowhere to put it except track #15, then you're likely to have problems. No desk has absolute isolation between tracks (especially with hot signals), so the timbales will bleed through — confusing, and most likely corrupting your code data. If you can, leave the track adjacent to the code track free. This is sometimes referred to as a 'guard track'.

Throughout the recording process, treat your code track with care and respect, because it's the glue that will hold all of your MIDI devices together. If you're nearly finished recording, and are running short of tracks, you might start contemplating recording over the code track. I strongly advise you not to. You need that code, believe me. You might think that you're through with the drums so, "What the hell, let's wipe it!" Don't. It's your last link to the world of remixes and "I've got a great idea — but it means changing the drums..."


There are different types of tape sync code, one is known as FSK (Frequency Shift Keying). This is a series of alternating tones which tell your sequencer when to Start and Stop playing; the code tells the sequencer the tempo, keeps it locked in to any drift that may have occurred, and also instructs the sequencer to follow any tempos changes you may have programmed in. But that's all — if it's 'traditional FSK' it contains no positional information and you must always start the drum machine's sequence from the beginning of the code, otherwise it won't know where it is.

Another type of FSK does contain positional information (MIDI Song Position Pointers) in its signal, and this is known as 'smart FSK'. No matter where you are on tape, you can press play and the tape machine will inform your drum machine of its location in the song, and the drum machine will start to play at the correct place, in sync. This 'auto-locating' saves an incredible amount of time, once you've used it you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. FSK is basic, but it's cheap and easy to use.

Another type is known as SMPTE timecode, named after the Society of Motion Pictures & Television Engineers who developed it for use for within their industry. SMPTE differs from FSK in that it's a data stream containing information regarding the passage of time; the timecode continually describes the number of hours, minutes, seconds, frames and bits that have passed since the code was started (the frames and bits refer to the frames and portions of frames in film & video). Each point on the tape is therefore identified by a unique 'time stamp', and so you can locate any position on a tape 'striped' with SMPTE code from any given starting point. You're not committed to your tempo, as you can change it at any time (naturally, you'd then have to re-record your other tracks), and you can generally work around imperfections on the tape itself (ie. drop-outs).

It's more complicated to use than FSK, but it's far more flexible. Drum machines do not read SPMTE directly, so it must first be converted to MIDI information (MIDI Time Code or MIDI Song Position Pointers). Until fairly recently it was also very expensive, but progress marches on and it's now well within the price range of most musicians. If you're really serious, you'll use SMPTE.


If you're using SMPTE already, you probably don't need any help from me, so I'll direct my comments towards those of you who are using the more common FSK outputs at the rear of your machine, the ones that say Tape Sync In & Out, etc. Let's assume you're using a 16-track machine, your drum & synth tracks are all in order, and you've got a fresh reel of tape (if it's not fresh, make damn sure it's thoroughly erased). First, connect Tape Sync Out on your machine, selecting track 16 as it's destination. Make sure you've left about 15 seconds worth of tape in front of where you intend to start recording (for editing leader, and allowance for the sloppy, drifting auto-locate mechanisms of some tape recorders), and that you've pressed the button on your tape machine's locator readout to 'zero' it. If you are recording the drums as a stereo pair, select tracks 1 & 2, and route your left & right outputs to record onto tracks 1 & 2 — put them to tape with no signal processing whatever, just totally 'dry' & 'flat'. Do this even if you intend keeping the drums off-tape as virtual tracks; I'll explain why in a moment.

Put the machine into record/pause, press play on your drum machine to get some code, and initially set the level to that recommended by your drum machine's manual. When you're happy with the level, press stop on the drum machine, and make sure that you're at the beginning of your Song Chain sequence. Exit pause on your tape machine, let it record for about 10 seconds or so, then press play on your drum machine. When the drums stop, wait about 30 seconds (making sure you're past your drum machine's silent bars, and then some), then hit stop on your tape machine. Unplug the lead from your drum machine's Tape Sync Out. Now you can connect the send of track 16 to the Tape Sync In socket. Confirm that your drum machine's Clock Mode is set to Tape Sync, rewind the tape back to zero, and ensure that your desk is set up so you'll hear the drums coming from off-tape as well as the outputs from your drum machine.

If all has gone according to plan, when you press play the tape will roll, after 10 seconds your drum machine will start to play, and you will also hear your off-tape drum parts. But, why two sets of drum parts? And why bother to even put them to tape, especially if you've no intention of recording them until it's time to mix them down onto the stereo master? Think about it... how else can you check that your sync code has gone to tape correctly, and is being read off of tape correctly? You can't do it by listening to the code, it just sounds like high pitched, squawking gibberish.

If all went well, you should be listening to two sets of drums that are distinctly 'phasing' against each other. They're phasing because of the delay between the set of sounds that went to tape and the set of sounds being produced by the drum machine reading, then interpreting, the code on tape. If they keep that relationship from the beginning of your drums all through the song until the end, then you know that your code was entirely readable by your drum machine and there were no drop-outs on the code to throw the drums on/off tape out of sync with each other. Not only does it work, but you've checked that it works.

If it screwed up, if the two sounds drifted apart at any point, then do it again. Never try and 'fix' the code; do it all over again from scratch. Perhaps your drum machine likes the code a little hotter (OK, you could first try sending it from the desk at a slightly higher level), or perhaps you hit a wonky section of tape. If everything you try still ends in failure, if you've double-checked with your manuals and you're convinced you're doing everything correctly, then get your drum machine checked out. By process of elimination; if it's not the drum machine, then it's your tape machine. Laying down the code successfully isn't too technically demanding, but it isn't particularly forgiving either; persevere until you find the cause of the problem.

Series - "Drum Programming"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 (Viewing) | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

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Sound On Sound - Mar 1993


Drum Programming



Drum Programming

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 (Viewing) | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14

Feature by Warren Cann

Previous article in this issue:

> Raising The Standard

Next article in this issue:

> Jack In A Box

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