Drum Programming (Part 12)
A Series By Warren Cann.
This month, more on sync and FSK codes, and how to be prepared for the studio.
Last month I discussed using sync code to enable you to run your drum machine from your tape machine. We got as far as striping the tape with the sync code as we simultaneously recorded the drums, then we used the code off-tape to trigger the drum machine as we listened to both sets of drums; the drums recorded with the code, and the drums generated by the code. Listening this way enabled us to hear the delay between the two sets of drums and check the integrity of the code.
If it all worked fine first time, and you're not going to use virtual tracks, then don't be tempted into thinking, "Hmm... I'll save some time here. I'll keep the drums I've already got on tape." No: do another pass and re-record the drums onto some other tracks (that way you get to doublecheck that the code worked properly), then wipe the first set. Yes, you could just wipe those drums and then record the new set onto the same two tracks, but you lose your points of reference, and I'm not that trusting. I know it seems a lot of work and it's boring to have to listen to just drum tracks when you want to be getting on with recording, but it's a necessary evil.
So, why not use those 'original' drums on tape? The first set of drums went to tape with the code, every subsequent pass you make to put a part on tape — whether it's simply to replace a snare sound, add some percussion, or to drive a sequencer — means something will first have to read that code, digest it, and then it can generate its part, which means there's a delay. By the time the code is read by the tape-heads, gone through the desk into the drum machine, been crunched and processed by the sequencer which, in turn, formulates the necessary MIDI information, enough time has passed for you to hear the discrepancy. The process is fast, but not fast enough.
If you used those first, reference drums to lay down some live bass and guitars, everything is going to be in time with itself: naturally, you played them to the track. So far, so good. The hitch is if you then decide to replace the drum sounds, your new tracks will encounter that delay before they go to tape to join the party. It won't be what you played bass to. But if everything you record (including the drums, naturally) is via the code, then it's all delayed by the same amount, and the delay effectively ceases to exist. It's still there, but it's not getting in the way.
This might seem like a lot of hassle to go through every time you want to throw a song together at home. Perhaps it is; if you're a trusting sort, then just stripe the tape with code, wind back to the top, and start laying down the drums, skipping all of the checking procedures. If you're doing an important demo, however, I really do advise you to take the extra time and eliminate any sources of future problems.
There's one more tactic I'd like to mention. There are times when you might need to manipulate the code to achieve a tighter feel. Maybe your drum machine is triggering a sound which has too slow an attack and you have no way of changing its envelope, or perhaps you want to bring a particular drum part ahead slightly to tighten things up and 'push' the beat, but your older drum machine has no Offset facility. This situation doesn't present a problem to SMPTE users, but even if your code is the FSK-type you can always delay something. But how do you get ahead of the beat? Can you go 'backwards'? It's a laborious process, but it can be done...
Turn the tape over on the machine (so it's running backwards) and bounce a copy of the code to another track; the key to this is that the new copy of the code is first delayed by, for example, 40 milliseconds. Make sure that you have none of the original code in the delayed signal, you want only the delayed return.
Don't forget that, when you turn the tape over, track 16 is now being read by the heads as track 1, track 15 becomes track 2, and so on. When you've done this, you can turn the tape the right way round again, and you have an alternative code track that is 40 ms in front of your original code. If you now feed this second code track into a delay unit (again, you want the return only) set to 40 ms, you still have what you started with, but you can now shift anything being triggered by that code — you merely adjust the delay setting. If you want the snare drum to push ahead of the beat, try setting the delay unit at 36 ms. (40 ms ahead, minus 36 ms = 4 ms ahead). If you want it further ahead, set the delay unit to 34 ms, and so on.
If you know in advance of putting anything to tape that you'll encounter problems with sounds being late, first record your sync code track as normal, then just feed your recorded code track through a delay before you put anything else down. The 40 ms is a datum point, so use the delayed code to then put down all drums, sequences, and adjusted them to taste. Make sure you make a note of the delays used. This procedure might not always work because of the quirks in some combinations of equipment, but it leaves your original code intact and is certainly worth a try when you've run out of options.
On the subject of tape-turning, this is also a good way to give yourself a count-in or click track at the front of the song. Flip the tape over, give yourself a free track to record on, and locate the tape near the end of the recorded tracks (remember, when the tape is backwards this is the beginning of your song). Select a very clipped, short sound like a cowbell or clave (you'll find it sounds much the same backwards as it does forwards). Select a blank pattern on your drum machine, write the clave into it playing quarter-notes, and set the tempo to that of the song. Listen to the tape playing backwards several times to adjust yourself to its unfamiliarity, be sure that you can identify exactly where the music stops (this is where your tracks begin...). When you're ready, go into Record, and, at that 'last' downbeat, punch Play on your drum machine. If you got it right, when you turn everything the right way round again, the tempo of your new count in will seamlessly match the speed of the song.
If there's no drum machine handy, you can still do it. You'll just have to back the tape up further and play along (playing something like straight quarter-notes with a percussive sound), then try to continue playing along in time when music stops. It's not 100% accurate, obviously (and will drift the longer you continue to play), but if your time-keeping is good then you'll get a count in that you can at least work with, even if it isn't perfect.
When you're using a drum machine on an important demo to be recorded in a commercial studio, good preparation will save you a great deal of time and, therefore, money. Assuming that all of your programming is completed to your satisfaction, there's no excuse for discovering you've left things undone once you're actually in the studio. The engineer you work with will be grateful for a rough track-sheet prepared in advance, and it will make life easier for you as you'll know in advance whether there will be enough tracks spare for all of your ideas. Work out what the song requires in terms of instrumentation and vocals, then put it down on paper. A typical track sheet listing might look like Figure 1.
It's standard to record kick drums to an 'edge' track where the slight loss in quality is not so critical, so our bass drum goes down on track 1. The snare is allocated to 2, then the three toms to tracks 3, 4, and 5 respectively. A track for each tom gives maximum control but is rather a waste of tracks, so you might consider routing them so that they come up grouped to tracks 3 & 4 as a stereo pair. If you're still running short of tracks then group the toms to just one track — they'll be in mono, but it's a matter of priorities.
The hi-hat needs its own track. Next come the crash cymbals and percussion. Here the cymbals, claves, and shaker each have their own track, but you might choose to put all of the percussion into one stereo pair — it all depends on how many tracks you require overall for the instrumentation and vocals. If you've designed your percussion tracks around some heavily treated sounds, ie. extreme reverb or delay, then you're better off giving each element its own track. Track 10 is vacant; you might decide to add something later in the session, or require a spare track onto which to bounce other tracks. Tracks 11 & 12 are for two different bass lines, then there are two stereo pairs for synth and piano, and so on. The code is on track 24 with the adjacent track left as a guard track to prevent anything from possibly bleeding through and corrupting the code.
If, after drawing up a track sheet, you realize you need more tracks then it's time for a rethink. The toms can be put into a stereo pair. The cymbals, clave, and shaker are fairly straight (requiring only a touch of reverb) so they can also be grouped into a stereo pair. You decide that the piano part doesn't need to be in stereo, so it gets bumped to mono. You can record over track 23 also, just as long as it's not too peaky a high-frequency signal. By juggling things around you now have (see Figure 2) six spare tracks instead of two. Of course, if you use virtual tracks for the drums (running the drums off taped code, but never committing them to tape until the mix), then you'd instantly have seven more tracks.
By preparing this in advance you ensure that you'll actually have enough tracks to get everything you want down on tape. The studio's engineer will also appreciate it because he can see exactly what the session requires and can set up immediately.
Everyone has their own pet ways of working and, by seeing the track sheet, the engineer may also be able to make some suggestions that will eliminate potential problems. The session will run much more smoothly.
If your drum machine is of the sampling variety, make sure that you have all your sounds on neatly labelled disks, and bring them with you. Nothing is worse than finding you've left your box of disks/memory cards at home. If you're unsure of exactly how your sounds are going to come across under the scrutiny of the studio monitors, then have a few preselected alternatives ready.
Take your Song Map sheets to the studio with you, it's likely that at some point during the recording someone will change their part, which will require complimenting by the drums. If you need to program in a new or extra fill, you can just dive straight in and do it with a minimum of fuss. And be sure to take your drum machine's manual with you, if there are any problems it's your only source of help.
Feature by Warren Cann
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