Picking up from part 1 of the tutorial, we now put the discussed basic setup to use on my favorite application: making fat a breakbeat!
I figured that maybe it’s best that I make my Ableton project file available for download: If you need it, get it here. Building things from scratch is nonetheless highly recommended! You’ll learn stuff better and all that.
Tools Of The Trade
Besides the basic setup, I’m using Ableton’s own plugins Compressor, EQ Eight, Gate and Overdrive, and third-party freeware VSTs Engineers Filter by RS-MET, Classic Chorus from Kjaerhus Classic Series, Span by Voxengo and Rough Rider by Audio Damage. You’ll need them installed to use my project file.
Where effect plugins and their settings are concerned I’ll go through the most essential parameters, values and why these are used. Good part about editing beats is giving thought to your application and not nit-picking about each and single parameter. Usually “about there” values suffice well for any parameter less essential to the application at hand. If you’re using other plugins, breakbeat or even alternate project tempo you definitely should be adjusting parameters to match, and not blindly follow what I’m doing here.
After all, everything below is based entirely on what I considered good for the breakbeat (‘Drumloop B02’ from 9×9 Sample Pack), ticking away at 85bpm. Here’s a four bar loop of it:Drumloop B02, original
We Got Beef?
Beefing up breakbeats is mostly about gaining levels. This can be either compression / limiting (= making louder) or saturation (= making louder & introducing artifacts), with the latter ranging from very mild coloration to heavy distortion. Whatever the gain is, we generally want to apply them in a way which doesn’t mush up the breakbeat too much and keep unwanted signals (introduced by all the gain) in check. Besides the A/B comparison we already have, this calls for a additional safeguard. Enter: Span (aka graphic metering), inserted on Master channel.
Why I prefer Span over Ableton’s Spectrum is that it:
- has a phase correlation meter,
- makes switching graph modes faster,
- is freeware and VST (= works on other DAWs too),
- has a bigger, zoomable graph window (OOH!)
..Not that the zoom is much in use, I just wanted to have a more than two points on the list ;). More on the phase meter and graph modes later.
If you’re using Span for monitoring purposes within Live, you’ll probably want to disable “Auto-hide plug-in windows” under Preferences (if not disabled). Then float/move Span’s window somewhere where it doesn’t get in the way, but is not blocked too much by other plugin windows. Dual-screen ftw!
One thing we want to adjust throughout the process of tweaking our break, is to roughly match its perceived loudness to the original loop. That is, if we apply gain eg. using a compressor, we’ll match the output level either by channel slider or compressor output gain. Human auditory system excels in thinking “louder = better”, and we’d rather want to objectively assess the changes we are making than let this neurological disorder lead us down the wrong path.
Band 1, We Can Have Lots Of Fun
Let’s start with Band 1, which covers range of 20 – 125Hz. This is mostly bass drum domain, although some lower freqs of snare drum occupy the band on our break too. We want low end punch and thus “whatever kick” can be prioritized over less essential offerings of snare drum. What I’m using to accomplish this are Compressor and Gate.
My Compressor settings of choice here are: Ratio 4:1, Attack ~9ms, Threshold -22dB and Mode at Opto.
The not-so-instant attack time allows a bit of transient to pass through whereas smoother response of Opto mode creates a more round & sustained low-end *OOMPH* instead of Peak mode’s more snappier response. Say if eg. the tempo was faster or the loop would contain more kick drum hits, Peak mode would probably be better as a shorter (~ non-existent) sustain wouldn’t smear up the rhythm as much.
The gain provided by Compressor brings up a decaying hum on kicks located at first and third beats of our breakbeat.. Perhaps a weird low-end reverb tail on original recording? Whatever it is, it makes the kick less defined, and Gate is the thing to control it. With it I set Attack to 0.6 ms, Threshold to -5dB, the combined amount of Hold & Release to around 100ms and Floor Level to “-inf“. The most important of these is the combined Hold & Release time. This felt best kept somewhat around 100ms, it also somewhat matches Compressor’s release time.
Balancing Hold & Release is really about how you prefer the tail of your kick: Longer Hold value will add sustain to bass drum but make the tail (Release) cut off more abruptly, whereas going the opposite will make the tail longer / smoother. Attack & Threshold are balanced together so that the Gate doesn’t pass snare drum: Going for faster Attack means Threshold needs to be slightly higher and vice versa. The more slower the Attack, the more you end up fading away the transient.
With Gate in place the Band 1 essentially becomes the bass drum! This enables further processing options, should you wish to use some (eg. generating clean MIDI trigger from kick drum). And, If we were to add a bass instrument to the mix, we’d definitely want to clear out some “low-end space” for the instrument..
As a sidenote: If no gating plugin was available, we could also use the release time of Compressor as a poor-man’s gate by setting it somewhere over 1.5s. This of course doesn’t remove the hum entirely and thus is less effective if extreme gaining is applied afterwards.Processed Band 1 solo'ed
Band 2, There Is Less We Can Do
Band 2 is set to cover range of 125 – 800Hz. Here we mostly have the upper range of bass drum, the body of snare drum and some lower freqs of hi-hat. Upper bass drum range translates to some higher frequency content of the decaying hum which got gated out on Band 1. It’s not welcome here either, but it can’t be gated out completely as the effect becomes too obvious (unnaturally choppy). Instead, I chose to tone it down by inserting EQ and centering a sharp bell cut (gain -15dB / Q 10) around 130Hz.
For beefing up the snare body, I used Overdrive. Saturator would’ve provide more interesting saturation/distortion artifacts, but as these mostly get masked away in the overall mix, why bother? Sometimes it’s good to limit your options.. ;)
Overdrive is otherwise good for the application using its default settings, only the Center frequency and width need to be adjusted. For directions with this, I first checked the solo’ed Band 2 with Span. The loudest (fundamental) frequency peak is somewhere around 260Hz and it doesn’t take much boosting until it soon starts to cut through the mix too much. Instead, I chose to aim Center near the second harmonic (~ 620Hz) and add a second, lighter EQ bell cut (gain -6dB) to tame the fundamental a bit.
Other settings are not that important. You could use the Dry/Wet control for a more subtle effect, but this is pretty much the same as using the channel volume slider. Fiddling with the snare body is already a very narrow use anyway, depends only on whether your original sound has this or not.Processed Band 2 solo'ed
Band 3, It’s Just Breaks For Me
Band 3 covers 800-6000Hz and, given the large range, contains the “snap” element of all instruments. Snare hits on second and fourth beats also have a medium reverb tail, and so we instantly know to expect that it will become ‘too up front in the mix’ once levels are gained.
To get started with processing the band, I copied Compressor and Gate from Band 1. Sure enough, the reverb tail jumps out the same instant! Using Gate felt too abrupt once again, so to tame the reverb I chose to use the Compressor release trick (which I mentioned under Band 1 processing).
Most other settings are good as-is, I just switched to Peak mode and set Release to ~500ms. Peak mode is better here because of its faster response. Using it results in a slightly more fluctuating volume levels, as in perceived “transients” within the whole mix. And like said, using lengthier Release time tones down the reverb tail on second and fourth beat snare hits.
Adding to the above, I also decided to copy Overdrive and EQ from Band 2. Overdrive got its Center Freq adjusted to 1.1kHz, Width to ~1, Tone & Dynamics to 90% and Dry/Wet Mix to 10%. With EQ I added a small bell dip (gain ~ -4dB / Q ~3) to around 2kHz.
Overdrive is there to very mildly color the 1kHz region, the mix as a whole just felt as if needing a slight boost of mids. Besides adding presence to the snare drum, the relatively high Tone & Dynamics values create some extra frequencies above 8kHz, making the overall Band sound a bit less dull. The small dip with EQ is there to clear up the 2kHz region a bit, as this felt a bit annoying to the ear (slightly over-saturated perhaps?).Processed Band 3 solo'ed
Band 4, I Can Give You More
Last, we have Band 4 covering everything from 6000Hz and up. It’s mostly hihat and snare treble domain, but small amounts of kick drum exist here too. Saturation / distortion effects (like on previous Bands) aren’t any good as they mess up the clarity of our break. Spatial effects however are, and for that there’s Classic Chorus. Along with it, the phase correlation meter of Span comes to play.
What this meter indicates, is the phase difference between left and right channels. If the two are entirely in opposite phase, they will cancel (mute) each one out when mixed down to mono.
As an example of very bad phase issues I could mention the chorus of Roland Jupiter-4 (labeled “Ensemble” on the synth); I absolutely love how thick sound it has, but it’s also very capable at wrecking the phase compatibility of a mix, and thus is bordering useless as-is. Sad story *sob*.. But it’s one awesome synth nonetheless!
So yeah.. Since we’re about to mess around with chorus to fake stereo, adjustments should be made while keeping the phase in check. With Span, the meter bar should stay as much to the right as possible (+1) and not fall under mid position (0). It’s here where our band split setup works its magic: since we’re only treating the top end of the breakbeat (and not the full mix) we are able to apply much more chorus than we would if working over the full beat. Try it if you like: just copy the chorus to the A/B comparison channel (“Original” / Ch6) and listen how undefined the breakbeat becomes.
For the actual chorus settings, well, they don’t really matter that much.. Just check that Spread is enabled, try avoiding the combination of high Spread Rate and Depth (produces crap sounding zipping noise) and use Dry/Wet Mix to dial in whatever amount of stereo sounds good to you AND phase compatibility allows for. I often find myself using Classic Chorus’ preset “Stereo to Cymbal” as a starting point and tweak that to match the application at hand, 1:1 Mix ratio works in most cases.
Processed Band 4 solo'ed
One additional processing thing: If you wish to apply extreme amounts of chorus on Band 4, the fake stereo becomes smoother within the overall mix if you duplicate the chorus to Band 3 and adjust its Dry/Wet Mix somewhere lower (eg. 1.6 : 0.4). This way the “jump” between Band 4’s extreme “stereo” and Band 3’s mono isn’t as coarse. Sort of blends in the effect.
Don’t You Know That The Time Has Arrived!
Once all channel plugins are in place, the overall balance should be adjusted using channel volume sliders. Since any gain compression wasn’t used on Band 4, its level should be compensated for using channel volume. What the suitable amount is, is more a preference thing than actual value. Just keep your fingers on the A/B keyboard shortcuts and dial in the desired amount of treble :)
Overall, my choice was to go slightly towards a smiley mix, as this leaves a nice mid-range dip for other instruments. And there we have it, our beefed up Drumloop B02:All Beefed Up
Can Haz Nucular Kthxbye?
During basic setup, the bands were grouped for A-B’ing purposes etc.. But we’ll of course put this to use by adding further processing and SLAM THE FUCK.
First, Rough Rider (further “RR”) and Engineers Filter (further “EF”) are added on Band group channel. It’s really a matter of taste would you want to have EF located on Band 1 or the group. For the purpose we’re about to perform, I consider it good practice to have it on group just so if any other tracks outputting low frequencies get added to group, the single filter instance will catch them all (yeah it’s like Pokemon). We’ll leave RR to its on-load default setting (Drum Bus Squisher) for a while, and focus on bottom-end cleanup with EF.
As multitudes of gain are about to get introduced, this tends to surface all kinds of inaudible crud that might’ve be “hidden away” in the original recording. Besides the sharp to ear frequencies we already dealt with the EQ dips, one common (but often less audible) problem is bottom-end rumble. For going ballistic we really want to control it.
To verify what bottom-end problems inserting RR brought up, we once again bring up Span, but this time set its metering mode to ‘Master’. This changes the frequency graph integration time to “something longer” and thus allows us to see what’s going on in average over the full frequency band. To boot with, the situation is this:
There’s just too much averaged volume in the lowest range (20-30Hz) compared to how the graph is otherwise, and this not good. We’d rather want the slope to fall off sharply & neatly, and thus set Engineers Filter to high-pass. I didn’t bother fine tuning the filter settings much, just set it to a gentle 4dB/oct slope starting from 45Hz. Good enough fix for the purpose.
If you now switch Span back to default metering mode, you will notice that we still have ample amounts short-term bass in the lowest range. Finally we can proceed to fine-tuning what ever settings we might prefer for our slamming compressor. I actually found “Drum Buss Squisher” pretty good as-is for this application, and didn’t bother tweaking much. From this point on, really going over-the-top would be about as simple as turning up the gain makeup knob.
Just to compare, here’s the same loop processed without band splits. I’ve excluded Overdrive from the chain, as the loop already sounds enough bad without it :)
Ballistic B02 without band splits
Another but less destructive processing change would be to replace RR with Variety of Sound’s Density MkIII. In case you don’t have it, this freeware VST, like the other VoS plugins are highly recommended additions to your toolbox. Here’s our breakbeat processed with a tweaked Density MkIII preset “Schnitzel NY style”:
First and foremost, if you had no previous clue about frequency band splitting I hope this tutorial was an eye & ear opener about the possibilities it has to offer. The applications certainly don’t stop here. At it’s most basic, you could do a two-band split for adding the fake stereo magic of Band 4 to whatever instrument.
Where aiming for fat breakbeats is concerned, this is by far just a method to go about it. To reach similar results, you could be eg. layering or chopping loops and adding effects to match. I hope you still agree with me that this is a powerful way to go about it: Instead of using fixed-path “magic” plugins, we have the ability to completely customize our setup with respect to our sound source and retain fine control over it even using very basic (and mostly zero-cost) set of plugins. You could easily go zero-cost all the way by replacing Ableton plugins with eg. those of Reaper!
It’s also good to mention that I didn’t land all the of the settings directly by advancing through Bands in solo. For example, the final EQ dip center freq & gain that made it to the tutorial, were something that only adding RR allowed to target. Doing tweaking like this is always about how things sound as a whole, and you should steer clear of nit-picking with every detail in solo mode. Instead un-solo and check where your processed break is going, preferably by A/B-ing it against the original (or other reference material).
And that’s it! Thanks for reading through, I hope you found this tutorial useful and inspiring!
If you have any good comments, please leave them below. I’ll be keeping an eye out on any feedback, possibly to inspire a future tutorial ;)