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If your music relies on strong beats, you probably discovered long ago that using prerecorded loops from professional sound developers is a great way to build a mix quickly.
But what if you want to go further? Customizing your beats can take your music to a whole new level of imagination and impact. Plus, if you've mangled the beat just a little, you're guaranteed never to suffer the embarrassment of hearing the identical groove on someone else's CD.
In this tutorial we'll explore the process of customizing beats in Propellerhead Reason, the popular software music studio. You can download a save-disabled demo from the Propellerhead site. We'll start with a REX file (see sidebar) straight out of Reason's Factory Soundbank, and we'll take it through a few twists and turns that only Reason power users know about. At each stage, you'll be able to download an MP3 file and hear what the process sounds like.
Reason's Dr.REX module, which has been part of the program from the beginning, is designed to load and play beats in Propellerhead's REX file format. (Second-generation REX files have the .rx2 filename extension.) While Dr.REX offers a few widgets for customizing the beat, it's possible to go a lot further by loading the REX file into Reason's NN-XT sampler module. The NN-XT has multiple outputs, and also gives you a lot more parameters with which to control individual samples (drum hits) within the beat.
The REX file format, invented by Propellerhead Software in 1994, lets you access individual rhythmic elements in an audio file. It works by slicing the file apart at the attack transients and then mapping a MIDI note number to each slice. By playing back the note triggers faster or slower, you can change the tempo of the original groove without changing its pitch.
But the beauty of the REX format is that you don't have to play back the note triggers with the original rhythm or even in the original order. You can also warp or even replace the individual slices to produce subtle or extreme variations.
Thousands of commercial REX files are available. You can also make your own with Propellerhead's ReCycle software. (See Figure A.) In this article, we discuss using REX files in Reason, but several other MIDI sequencers support them as well. --David Battino
Figure A. Propellerhead ReCycle can slice a groove into its component beats. (Click to enlarge.)
We'll start our groove surgery with a factory beat (Chm03_Blockrock_125_eLAB.rx2, which is in the Chemical Beats folder inside the Dr Rex Drum Loops folder in Factory Soundbank) and take it into the stratosphere. The specific changes we'll put it through may or may not be to your liking, but by following the steps of the tutorial you'll learn a number of techniques that you can apply to other Reason productions.
Ready? Fire up Reason and follow these steps:
In a new, empty song (well, not quite empty--you'll need a mixer in the rack), create a Dr.REX Loop Player.
Load Chm03_Blockrock_125_eLAB.rx2 into Dr.REX.
Click on the To Track button in Dr.REX. That will transfer the REX file's MIDI data to the Dr.REX track in the sequencer and set the song-loop markers to the beginning and end of the loop. On your screen, you should see something like Figure 1. (I zoomed in on the sequencer track.) If you like, you can listen to the beat by clicking on the sequencer's Play button.
Now comes the sneaky part.
Create an NN-XT Advanced Sampler.
Load the same REX file into the NN-XT.
Select the four chunks of data in the Dr.REX sequencer track by Shift-clicking on them one at a time.
Drag them down to the NN-XT track.
Click on the Play button. You should hear the beat, exactly as before.
At this point, you can delete the Dr.REX and its sequencer track, because we're not going to use them anymore. We used the Dr.REX strictly to copy the MIDI data in the REX file over to the sequencer.
Click on the tiny triangle at the left side of the NN-XT Remote Editor. The editing panel should open, and your screen should now resemble Figure 2.
The next part of the process is a bit of a chore, but it will make everything that follows a lot easier. We're going to identify and group all of the kick-drum samples in the loop, and also all of the snare samples. Because the names of the samples (slices) in the list at the left side of the NN-XT editor window are all the same, we'll have to find the kick and snare samples by Alt-clicking (Mac: Option-clicking) on them. Note how Alt-clicking turns the arrow cursor into a speaker icon and triggers the corresponding sample.
Once you've located a few kick samples, Shift-click on them one by one to select them, and then choose the Group Selected Zones command in the Edit menu. Reason will create a new group. Don't worry if you missed a few kicks. You can add more to the group by Shift-clicking on them and then Shift-clicking on the Group "tab" to the left of the kicks that you've already grouped. (This tab is the rectangular area under the letter G; see Figure 3.) Now use the Group Selected Zones command again to add the wayward kicks to the group. Repeat the process until all the kicks are in one group and all the snares in another. That will leave only the hi-hat taps in the default group. If you like, you can tidy up the screen by selecting each group and using the handy Sort Zones by Note command, which is also in the Edit menu.
The reason we've grouped related sounds is so we can now select and edit them as a group. To start the process, we're going to add a bit of reverb to the snare. Here's how:
After selecting the Mixer, create an RV7000 reverb. Because you've selected the Mixer, the RV7000 will be patched to its first aux send.
Load the AMB Studio.rv7 program into the reverb. You may want to try out different reverb programs, but since this snare part is rather busy, I chose a short room-ambience program.
In the NN-XT, select the snare group. Turn the Out knob (near the bottom right corner of the display) to 3-4. That will send the snare through outputs 3 and 4 instead of 1 and 2.
Hit the Tab key to look at the rear of the Reason rack. Patch NN-XT output 3 to the left side of a separate Mixer input. (The right side will be patched automatically; see Figure 4.)
Spin the Mixer around, and then turn the Aux Send 1 knob for the NN-XT 3-4 channel up to about 11 o'clock.
If you've followed these steps carefully, you should hear a bit of added room ambience on the snare hits. Here's what it should sound like:
Snare Ambience, Increasing (252K MP3)
This file contains eight measures of the loop (four repetitions). The first two bars are dry. In bars 3 through 6, the snare ambience is turned up subtly. In bars 7 and 8, I cranked it up so high that (if you'll forgive an obscure historical joke) even King George could hear it without his hearing aid.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, but it will give you an idea of what's possible. If you're a Reason owner, you can also load SnareAmbience.rns (one of the tutorial files accompanying this article) to see and hear the setup.
With the kick drum, let's get a little more creative by adding a swept parametric EQ and an envelope-controlled filter. Here's how:
While holding the Shift key so as not to make any rear-panel connections, create a PEQ-2 parametric equalizer and an ECF-42 envelope follower below the NN-XT.
Switch the kick drum group to outputs 5-6.
Patch the NN-XT's outputs 5 and 6 to the PEQ's inputs, the PEQ's outputs to the ECF's inputs, and the ECF's outputs to the Mixer.
Adjust the ECF's knobs to taste. I suggest a Frequency setting of about 70 and a Resonance amount of 77. The kick drum should now sound quite electronic.
Turn the PEQ's Filter A "Q" up to about 120 and the Filter A Gain up to at least 55.
While playing the loop, manipulate the PEQ Frequency A knob. You'll hear some interesting changes in the tone as the frequency peak shifts up and down.
Next, we're going to automate this with an LFO.
While holding Shift, create a Mälstrom Graintable Synthesizer. We're going to use the Mälstrom not for creating sound, but strictly as a low-frequency oscillator (LFO). Set its polyphony to 1, click on the SYNC button for Mod A, and set Mod A's rate to 8/4 (two measures).
On the rear panel, patch the Mod A output to the Frequency 1 input of the PEQ. Turn the PEQ's control voltage input knob (below the cable you just inserted) down to about 28, and hit Play.
If you've followed these instructions, you should be hearing something like this:
Kick Sweeps (248K MP3)
(OK, so I changed the snare ambience and kicked up the lows a bit with the PEQ's second band. I just can't stop tweaking!)
Next, we're going to take advantage of NN-XT's ability to edit the filter and panning individually for each sample. Assuming you've used the Sort Zones by Note command as mentioned earlier, the snare hits on the fourth beats of the two-bar pattern should be the fourth and eighth samples in the snare group.
Select the fourth snare sample, switch its filter mode to bandpass (BP 12), turn the resonance up to 42 percent, and lower the frequency knob to 2.2kHz.
Turn the pan knob for this sample to about 66 percent left.
Select the eighth snare sample, switch its filter mode to notch, and turn the frequency down to 707Hz (but don't touch the resonance knob, because adding resonance to a notch filter makes its effect less noticeable rather than more).
Turn the pan knob for this sample to about 66 percent right.
The snare hits on the fourth beats will now sound quite distinct from the other snares, and will be positioned far off-center in the stereo image, as you can hear here:
Snare Filtering (248K MP3)
(Here again, I couldn't resist tweaking. The Mod B output from our Mälstrom is now panning the NN-XT's default group, which is where the hi-hat samples are located.) To see the patch, load the tutorial file ElectroKickAndSnareVar.rns.
To take the beat to the next level, you'll need to create a Spider Audio Merger/Splitter and a DDL-1 delay line. Again, hold down the Shift key while doing so, so the DDL won't be patched to anything. Then follow these steps:
Repatch NN-XT outputs 3-4 (the snare group) to the first pair of Spider merger inputs.
Patch NN-XT outputs 7-8, which we're not using yet, to the DDL's inputs.
Patch the DDL's outputs to the next pair of merger inputs.
Patch the merger outputs to the Mixer input where outputs 3-4 used to be.
Switch the last snare in the group (sample number eight) to outputs 7-8.
Turn the DDL's dry/wet knob to 100 percent dry (7 o'clock). The beat should sound exactly the way it did before.
Gradually turn up the dry/wet knob until you hear dub echoes on the last snare hit. I like a setting of about 28. Check it out:
Dub Snare (276K MP3)
If you like, you can automate the dry/wet knob so that the echoes will show up only at certain points in the song. Another, more complex possibility is to filter the delayed echoes. Such a patch would require a Line Mixer 6:2, another PEQ, and considerable care. The line mixer is used for the feedback routing, and it's possible to create runaway feedback by turning the knob up even a little too high. If you're curious how to set up this type of patch, I recommend Kurt Kurasaki's book Power Tools for Reason, available from Backbeat Books.
NN-XT makes it easy to layer samples on top of one another. Let's begin by selecting the second, third, sixth, and seventh snare samples in this beat. They're the ones that play the syncopated offbeats. From the Edit menu, select Duplicate Zones. This command will add new zones to the snare group. The new zones will still have the same parameters as the original zones, including the sample itself. But we're about to change that.
Choose two of the new zones by Shift-clicking, and then click on the Load Sample button.
Navigate to the Reason Factory Soundbank/Redrum Drum Kits/xclusive drums-sorted directory.
Choose some interesting-sounding samples. For this beat, high-pitched samples seemed like a good idea, so I selected Clp_Basics from the Claps directory.
Select the other two new zones and find a different sample. I selected Cb_FatBoy from the Percussion-Hi directory. At this point my keymap window was as shown in Figure 5.
Tune each sample up or down to taste by selecting it and using the Root knob. (This knob operates in a seemingly counterintuitive way: turning it down raises the sample's pitch.)
If the sample is being tuned down, which will make it longer, you may also want to increase the Amp Envelope release time so it won't be cut off abruptly.
Change the output panning and level of each of your new samples as desired.
Here is the result:
Snare Layers (248K MP3)
As you'll hear, I also changed the pitch and envelope of the snare at the end of bar 1 to give more variety and contrast to the beat.
To finish up our experimentation, let's drop a really nasty kick onto the downbeat of each bar.
Select zones 1 and 3 in the kick group, and duplicate them.
Assign them to outputs 9-10.
While holding Shift, create a Scream 4 distortion effect.
Patch outputs 9-10 of the NN-XT to the Scream's inputs, and the Scream's outputs to the Mixer.
Choose a distortion algorithm for the Scream. For this beat, I like Fuzz.
Still in the Scream, switch on Cut and Body, and choose some settings. For a kick, I suggest boosting the lows with the Cut section and cutting the mids, but almost any settings of the Body section are good.
Tuning the duplicated kick samples down will give the Scream more signal to munch on.
You can hear what I came up with here:
Nasty Kick (276K MP3)
For the details, load up the WholeEnchilada.rns tutorial file. In that file I also fiddled a bit with the MIDI data for the beat: I added a hi-hat flourish at the ends of bars 4 and 8, and also duplicated the last of the nasty kick hits on the second half of beat 2 in the final bar. We don't have room in this tutorial to get into sequence editing, but it offers many more ways to customize your REX file beats.
In this tutorial, we used several sound-programming techniques: sending samples to alternate NN-XT outputs in order to process them separately, changing the sample parameters, duplicating sample zones, and loading new samples. We also used several of Reason's effects modules, and I threw in a bit of sequence editing to suggest still more possibilities. Even so, we've touched on only a few of the things you can do to get creative with your Reason beats. With so many tools at your fingertips, there's just no excuse for ho-hum grooves!
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