How to play hand drums
Synthesizer Fundamentals: Bass Drum
One of the most overlooked and powerful tools for creating percussion sounds in this modern age of soft samplers, emulators, and other sophisticated tools is the humble subtractive analog synthesizer. Learning how to generate exciting drum sounds also takes a lot of the mystery out of creating other percussive sounds, such as basses and plucked-string type sounds, as well as providing an exciting way to personalize your music.
First, let's make a basic kick drum type sound. Most any analog or virtual/soft analog synth with one or more of the following will suffice: An oscillator,preferably with a sine wave generator, a resonant filter, a white noise generator, and an envelope (that preferably can be routed to the filter as well as the amplifier). With these simple parameters a wide range of percussion can be achieved.
The bass drum sound can now be divided into at least two components: The harmonic content and the envelope. To begin, program an oscillator to generate a sine or triangle wave, so that when you play a key, a muted, boring sound comes out of the synth. A sine wave is best for bass drums, but a triangle can be used to great effect and alternate waveforms can also provide different takes on the more classic sounds made by vintage drum machines of yesteryear. If a sine wave is not available (as is true on many analog synths), try a triangle wave, but pull the filter cutoff frequency down a fair amount, to about half its range. This should pull out some of the overtones, providing a strong fundamental.
Really, the only other portion of this basic sound is the envelope, which should have the following parameters (which of course can and should be tweaked to your individual taste): Immediate attack (this is where some synths can show their true colors, as some older analogs like the Roland JX-3P or JX-10 have limited percussive functionality in a real-time sense because the ramp-up time for the envelope is a bit too long for sequencing- if this is the synth you are using, try a different one if available or edit the sound in a computer to correct the timing after recording), decay at one third to one half, zero sustain, and little or no release. Play with the decay time to taste especially. You should now be able to play a bass drum pattern from your keyboard and record or sequence it for later performance.
Now to augment the bass drum sound. Here are some suggestions:
Use a bit of white noise blended with the oscillator to give the sound a bit more excitement, and if the volume of the white noise can be controlled separately, apply a different envelope with a very short decay time to help keep things snappy.
If you can modulate oscillator pitch with an envelope, try a slight amount of downward decay. This models an acoustic drum's property of, when excited (by a hand, beater, or stick), initially tightening against the drum head and loosening, which translates to a slightly higher pitch at the initial transient, followed by a lower sweep to the fundamental frequency. Again, moderation is key for this type of sound.
Effects can be very useful for percussion, but as far as bass drums go, there seems to be a bit of consensus on most-handy sonic treatments. Distortion, compression, and slight equalization (EQ) can be quite beneficial for making a kick drum have more personality and sit more easily in a mix. Also adjust the pre-effect sound to see if an effect is actually necessary. Often by tweaking other parameters in the synth patch, effects become less necessary (and can be covering up for sloppy programming).
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