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How to Create the Elements of a Drum ‘n’ Bass Track

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Read Time: 18 min

Drum 'n' Bass is a genre of electronic dance music which features very fast tempo drum breaks, usually between 160-180 bpm, dirty synthetic basslines and heavily processed vocal samples. In this tutorial I'm going to explore a few techniques for experimenting with this style. I'll show how to design a reese bass sound from scratch, how to make a custom drum kit and program a classic D'n'B drum pattern, then we will move on to edit some vocals and produce a cool timestretched effect. I'll be working in Cubase 5, but the techniques would be transferable to other DAWs, the emphasis really is more about the plugin synths and effects that I use, which are all freeware! The tempo of this project is 175 bpm.

Step 1

First we will set about designing the reese bass sound. The reese sound is basically produced by having two or more sawtooth oscillators on a synth and slightly detuning one, this produces an out of phase wobbly sound, this can be accentuated with the addition of distortion and and maybe chorus or phaser in the effects chain. We are going to use Voyager which is a fantastic freeware synth by Aodix.

At the top of the interface there are four oscillators, make sure that sawtooth is selected as the waveform in each, adjust the filter gain on each oscillator to get a balance between each. Adjust the fine tune knob for three of the oscillators, leave one as it is, then try nudging the others a few cents up or down, just experiment until you get a nice wobbly sound. See the adjustments on the bottom right of the illustration also, I've adjusted the play mode to mono and the glide time to 0.16 so we get a nice smooth glide from one note to the other, otherwise known as portamento.

Step 2

Here I have sequenced a simple part for the bassline.

Let's have a look at the notes in the key editor view.

Step 3

Click the lower edit button on the Voyager channel so we can adjust some settings and add some effects.

I've used the EQ to take out any sub bass in this part of the sound as I will be using another synth for that part of the sound.

You can see in the inserts on the left that I've added three effects to the Voyager channel, Whamdrive: which is a freeware distortion and octaver effect, one of Cubase' chorus plugins, and Analogic delay: a superb freeware dub delay effect. The octaver, distortion and chorus all add to the reese style sound and the delay just adds a touch of atmosphere.

Step 4

Now we need to add some sub bass to the reese sound, to do this we need a basic sine wave sound. Here I've added another lovely freeware synth: Alpha CM. I've selected sine wave in the four oscillators, I've set the voices mode to mono, and set the glide rate at 33 to get a portamento effect.

On the channel settings for Alpha CM I've used the EQ to take out all the high end as those parts of the spectrum are occupied by the Voyager synth part.

Step 5

Now simply copy the Voyager MIDI part to the Alpha CM track below it, I had to transpose the part up an octave for the Alpha track.

I copied and pasted the parts across a few times to make a longer loop, here it is now with all the effects and the sub bass added, it is sounding pretty good!

Step 6

Now we will move on to some experiment with some drum ideas. I'm using my favourite freeware VST drum kit which is really well featured for a freebie: DR-Fusion 2. It has multiple audio outputs so you can assign drums to certain outputs and apply effects to them without it effecting the whole drum kit.

One thing you could do with this is to use the kick drum to trigger a sidechained compression on another synth part. This would sound great on a reese bassline and would give a nice pumping effect. I won't use it in this instance as it sounds best when the kick falls on every downbeat and mine isn't going to.

I chose a kit called "Between Dance", then by clicking the + and - signs on the kick drum channel I chose some different sounds for the kick. You can see in the illustration that there are two kick sounds layered up and you can control the volume, pan and levels for each one, as well as choosing whether to use any in built effects.

The next thing to do is go back to the instrument loading panel and select multiple outputs rather than the default stereo pair.

Step 7

Here we have the six audio outputs for DR-Fusion. If I'd expanded the panel to the right slighly you would see the edit button for each output (a small 'e' in a circle as you can see underneath the red colored record button on the main DR-Fusion track). By clicking the edit button it opens up the channel strip where we can add insert and send effects and adjust the EQ settings, we will come back to this later.

Step 8

Before we assign effects to the audio outputs of DR-Fusion, I want to use a new MIDI effect to help me program the drums. Clicking the other edit button for DR-Fusion on the top right of the panel will give us access to the MIDI effects.

You can see all these MIDI effects in the drop down list, I'm going to use a new tool in Cubase 5 called Beat Designer. It is basically a way of programming drums in step mode as you would on a drum machine. You can then either paste the notes into a MIDI part on the drum track, or you can make some variations and fills on beat designer and trigger them from different MIDI notes on the fly.

Step 9

Here is a basic D'n'B pattern that I've programmed. You can see from top to bottom, the kick track, snare, closed hat, and open hat. The notes are programmed in by clicking on the square buttons, then you can adjust the note velocity by dragging up or down on the buttons. The bright orange buttons are the default velocity value, the darker shaded buttons are where I have dragged the velocity level down.

The bass drum at the top is programmed to fall on the 1st, 11th, 17th and 27th beats. The main part of the snare pattern falls on the 5th, 13th, 21st and 29th beats. The magic ingredient here is the addition of two "ghost" notes on the 24th and 26th beats. These have a much lower velocity, and it is the addition of these notes that really starts to bring out the D'n'B feel. Finally I've put a closed hat on every beat, but I've alternated the velocities, making every other note a low velocity to create some texture. I deleted the final note on the closed hats and replaced it with an open hat in the track below it.

Step 10

Now we've made the basic pattern, and I'll come back to that later. Next I'll add some effects to the different outputs of DR-Fusion.

I'm going to set up a reverb as a send effect on the snare. Reverbs and delays are best set up as send effects. This means that just a portion of the signal is sent to the effect, and by adjusting the mix level you achieve a balance between the uneffected (dry) sound and the effected (wet) sound. You can use them as insert effects as well and use the mix control on the actual effect to get the balance between wet and dry.

One advantage of making an FX channel is that you could just set up one and route the send output of several tracks to it which would cut down on CPU load. With insert effects you want all of the signal to be effected. You would use things like compression, distortion and chorus as insert effects. To add the reverb as a send effect, we need to make a stereo FX channel.

In the box that appears we then select the reverb plug-in of choice and set it to be a stereo effect.

I've chosen the RoomWorks reverb which comes with Cubase 5, and I've gone for the Hall St Pauls patch.

Let's have listen to that reverb effect applied to just the snare drum. In the next step I'll show how we routed it and applied other effects.

Step 11

If we go back to DR-Fusion, there is a row of buttons at the bottom with the names of each type of sound above them. By default the buttons are all set to OUT1. I've left the kick and all the other sounds on OUT1, but I've changed the snare to be on OUT2 and the hats on OUT3.

Now that the snare is set to audio output 2 I'm going to add a couple of effects to this output so that they will only effect the snare. Click the channel edit button for output 2 so we gain access to the send and insert effects panels.

The RoomWorks reverb FX track that we created earlier is routed to the send bus on the right. It is turned on and the level adjusted. This just adds some ambiance to the snare sound and really enriches the sound. The type of reverb and the level is a matter of personal choice, but be careful that you don't swamp the sound. We are also going to add the amazing freeware multi plug-in called dblue Glitch as an insert effect on just the snare. We'll take a look at that in the next step.

Step 12

Glitch is really a multi FX unit which cuts up audio in realtime, and can be applied to the audio output of soft synth as well. It applies a variety of effects which can be sequenced in a way that selects the effects randomly, chosen manually, or both.

The best way to understand how Glich works is just to download it, drop it in your VST plg-ins folder and start using it. Just experiment and twist some knobs and enjoy using some of the randomising features. There are some awesome video tutorials about Glitch on YouTube, check this one out for starters. It is brilliant for drum and percussion tracks, but try using it to chop up vocals too!

If you insert Glitch in it's default state on a drum loop it produces a sound which is instantly recognizable to anyone else who has ever used it. The trick is to be creative and use it more subtly. For instance, you don't have to have a random effect occuring on every beat. You could solo one of the effects and automate it to be turned on at certain points in a track. You could also automate some of the parameters of the effect with some very cool results.

In the illustration below, look at the blocks above the row of effects. This is where you sequence the effects to be triggered on certain beats. In the illustration, I've selected to trigger a random effect on every fourth beat. The blacked out blocks are where I've selected to have no effect.

There are only really three effects that I want to be triggered randomly: Retrigger, Delay, and Crusher. The latter produces a lo-fi bit crushed sound and I've configured the Retrigger and Delay to make flam type sounds when triggered. Underneath the title of each effect there are three black buttons. The one on the left is a space where you can enter a numerical value between 1-100 to control the liklihood that the particular effect will be triggered when random is selected. I've turned the value down to 0 on any effects that I dont want to be triggered. Remember that this is just affecting the snare track, so every other snare hit will have a random effect out of the effects we selected thrown at it.

Step 13

It is time now to bounce the notes that I programmed in Beat Designer into a MIDI part for DR-Fusion so I can start arranging things. The pattern will be placed wherever my cursor happens to be.

I placed it at the 5th bar, after this I copied and pasted the drum part across to fill the loop area.

Step 14

Now let's make a synth lead sound using CM Dominator, another freebie available on the DVD library of synths and effects that comes with Computer Music Magazine . I've chosen a patch called Trance Saws and I've adjusted the glide setting in the Osc control to get a portamento effect similar to the one we got with the reese bass.

I've programmed a simple pattern which harmonizes nicely with the reese bassline.

By clicking the edit button for the Dominator track I've gone into the channel settings and added a ring modulator and delay as insert effects, I've edited the mix levels of both of these effects so there is just a touch of them. On the right you can also see that I've routed the send to our RoomWorks reverb FX channel and adjusted the send level. I've removed the lower end from the sound using the EQ, and given a slight boost to the mid area. Now we have a nice lead sound which goes really well with this style of music.

I pasted the MIDI part across to fill the loop area.

Step 15

Underneath the MIDI parts I've now added a 175 bpm vocal part which I prepared earlier. I made the vocal from scratch by singing the line four semitones lower than the required key, then pitch shifted it up four semitones whilst preserving the timing using the pitch shift tool in the Cubase audio tools.

I did this to produce the effect as if it is a sampled vocal mapped out on the keyboard and played at a higher pitch—something that is quite common in dance music genres and particularly D'n'B. I'm not a brilliant singer, but fortunately it doesn't matter for this kind of heavily processed stuff. I used the new vari-audio feature in Cubase 5 to flatten out the tuning variations of my singing and produce an almost Auto-Tune type of sound.

In the following audio example you will hear the new vocal before I have added further effects. In this example I had copied and pasted the vocal part across so it occurs at bar 13 as well as bar 5.

Step 16

The first we can do with the vocals is to cut it and paste certain phrases to make them repeat. I'm going to cut the audio at the start of the phrase "let you down" from the end of the line "I'm so sorry, that I, let you down".

Fortunately the start of the word fell right on the beat, so it was easy to paste it across and keep it in time. We now have "let you down" repeating twice at the end and it fits nicely into the timing of the track.

Step 17

Here comes the science bit! I've now added a brilliant freeware plug-in by the makers of Glitch called dblue_stretch. It is the same stretch effect that is part of the Glitch plug-in but with more parameters to tweak.

Time stretched vocals are used heavily in Dub, Jungle and D'n'B music. Stretch is fully automatable, all we have to do in Cubase 5 is click the W button on the top left of the Stretch interface to enable write automation, then just start the song playing (no need to press record) and twiddle any of the effects sliders in real time. Make sure the R button is selected to enable read automation on playback and have a listen.

By clicking "show all used automation" for the vocal track you can see the results of your twiddling and edit with the pencil or line tool if neccesary. In the example, I had automated the trigger slider , this is just an on off switch for the effect. I played it back and looked at the automation track then edited the points where the trigger comes on and off to get the best timestretched effect, it took a few attempts to get the duration of the stretch just right.

I then automated the grain size and ratio levels. It is difficult to explain what these do. I suggest you just download dblue_Stretch and try it for yourself. The best way to use alter these parameters is to change them over time rather than sticking to a static setting. The effect of moving these sliders in real time is similar to altering the feedback and delay time on a delay unit at the same time.

There are other parameters to twiddle with here—just experiment. But the three that I've mentioned seem to be the main ones. The trick of using the effect is to get the trigger point just right and alter the automation of the three parameters so that the duration of the stretch is just right for the song.

Step 18

To enhance the sound further, I inserted a chorus on the vocal track before the Stretch effect, and Analogic delay after it. I'm going to have a touch of delay on the whole vocal track, but at the end of the repeated/timestretched phrase "let you down" I want to automate the feedback and mix levels of the delay to be increased so we get a crescendo effect which is perfect for this style. Analogic delay is brilliant for this sort of effect because with each echo the sound is filtered more and more and has a lovely lo-fi tape echo quality to it.

I've arranged the track so that the delay crescendo builds up as the rest of the music drops out, then the feedback and mix levels suddenly drop right back to the original level.

Step 19

On the second part of the drop out I decided to sequence a drum part which is just a kick drum and ride cymbal building to a crescendo, this will bring us back into the pattern and just serves to show how the effects on the vocals could work in the context of a track.

Here's the kick/ride pattern:

Step 20

As a final touch, I've copied and pasted all the other parts across in front of the drop out to illustrate how it sounds to come back into the track, I decided that the Analogic delay sounds better if it doesn't finish abruptly, but fades out over the following four bars, so I altered the automation with the line tool. I also cut the synth lead parts from the first part of the track and now have them coming in just after the dropout to make this a more instrumental part and have less going on over the vocals.

So here is the finished track:


You've seen some of my experiments in the genre of D'n'B. If any of the ideas are new to you then I hope you will feel inspired to experiment yourself. Why not try the following ideas:

  • Insert dblue Glitch on a drum track. Play around with the controls. Use some of the randomizing functions and bounce the results to an audio track. Do this as many times as you like, altering the settings of Glitch each time to make some crazy sounds or something more subtle. Bounce the sound to audio each time. There will enivitably be a lot of parts of the resulting audio that you don't like or are over the top, but it's a great way of generating fills and variations of a loop. Cut the audio up, use the parts you want, paste the parts together to make fills and variations. Ccombine them with your original uneffected audio.
  • Another freeware effect to try out is Livecut VST. Take a look at my Livecut tutorial for some other ideas on using this realtime beatslicer. You could insert Livecut over a whole drum track or just on a snare to generate some fills. A great way of using it is to have it as an insert effect on the drums, then just automate it to come on when you want a random fill or variation. It's great for making amen breaks. Bounce the results to audio so you can cut it up and just keep/re-arrange the parts you want.
  • Before you start a D'n'B project, gather together some vocals to use in your sampler. You can do things like recording yourself speaking through a megaphone, or recording someone speaking on your cellphone for a nice distorted sound. Just say some phrases then record them and use dblue_Stretch to generate some timestretched effects. Experiment with tweaking and automating the parameters to get some really weird variations. Export the results to audio until you have a folder full of audio snippets to use in your sampler.
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