A lot of the time, drum synthesis gets overshadowed by the more glamorous forms of instrument synthesis. However, there are just as many ways of synthesizing a drum sound as there are of synthesizing a piano. a guitar or an earth-shaking analog monosynth bass patch and the effect it has on your overall sound is just as important.
Not only we'll explain the various methods used to synthesize percussive sounds, we'll also try to cram in a few crucial lessons about the history of drum machine technology and give you some pointers 0n how to start creating drum sounds from scratch using just about any subtractive synth. You might just be surprised at how easy It Is to make your own drum sounds and it's a great way to add a unique touch to your productions.
A Quick History Lesson
It's a fair bet that most of us got our first experience of drum machines in the form of a beginner's keyboard or organ with built-in percussion, and this is really the root of modem drum synthesis.
Early rhythm machines were primarily developed as accompaniment for organ players and the majority of commercial machines in the late 1950s and early 1960s were built into organ or sold as accessories for organ players.
One notable market leader in this early era of rhythm and drum synthesis was Japan's Ace Electronic Industries (aka Ace Tone), whose drum machines were built Into Hammond Organs and also sold as standalone units. Ace Tone's founder. Ikutaro Kakehashi, would go on to found the Roland Corporation in 1972.
Whereas the drum machines of the 1960s and early 1970s were based entirely around pre-programmed rhythms which the user could choose from, the 1970s saw the development of units which also allowed users to program their own unique rhythms. The introduction of machines such as the PAiA programmable Drum Set, released in 1975, and the Roland CR78 (1978) allowed musicians to break out of the preset rhythms, which they had been confined to for so long. For most Electronic musicians, however, drum machines started to get seriously interesting in the early 1980s with the introduction of Roland's TR series. The combination of great analogue sounds with fully programmable patterns ensured that the TR-808 and 909 in particular would become classics.
These machines and others tn the TR range still command huge prices on the second-hand market. A large part of the attraction of classic analogue drum machines comes from the fact that the sounds they produce are a long way from being 'realistic' recreations or acoustic drum sounds. It"s unlikely that you'd mistake an 808 kick drum or 909 snare for an acoustic instrument, but this is part of the appeal of analog equipment, With each drum machine offering its own unique sound and character. The 808 and 909 themselves remain so popular that new emulations, clones and sample packs still appear on a regular basis.
Just as in the case of any other instrument, there are many approaches when it comes to synthesizing a drum sound, but the vast majority of the classic analog-era drum machines used subtractive synthesis, following the same principles as class1c analogue synths. Check out FM213 for our full explanation of subtractive synthesis, then consider the approach that you'd need to take if you wanted to use the same techniques to create drum sounds rather than melodic instruments. Although many drums have a pitch tuning and a fundamental frequency, the fundamental frequency of a drum hit is often less important than the non-pitched percussive element of the sound.
A large part of this percussive element can be built from noise, a randomly generated waveform which contains all frequencies. The amplitude envelope of our synthesized sound is also vitally important when creating a drum sound- we need our envelope generators to create lightning fast ADSR envelopes in order to recreate the fast transients and aggressive dynamics of drums and cymbals. Voltage-controlled filters can be used to shape the harmonic content of the sound and a variety of distortion, modulation and filtering effects can be used to create just about any drum sound you can dream of. As such, the process itself is very similar to synthesizing a bass or lead patch, but with a few key differences which dramatically affect the outcome.
The majority of analog drum machines hide the synthesis process under the hood, only allowing you to control a set number of parameters (the tuning of the kick drum or the decay of the snare for example), but there's no reason why any synth shouldn't be used for percussive sounds so long as it can generate noise waveforms and fast amplitude envelopes.
Hardware-based analogue subtractive synths can be used to create some of the most impressive drum sounds, but software synths such as Sonic Charge's outstanding uTonic subtractive drum plug-in probably offer the easiest way of getting into more serious drum synthesis. If you don't want to shell out for dedicated software, most subtractive synth plug-ins are perfectly capable of doing the job with a bit of hard work.
With the analogue drum machine market thriving, the early 1980s saw the arrival of a radically different approach to electronic drums. Roger Linn, creator of the legendary Linn LM-1 Drum Computer and the later LinnDrum, led the race to develop drum machine technology based on digital sampling rather than analog synthesis.
The LM-1, released in 1980, was phenomenally expensive at $4,995 but its 8-bit sampling technology made it stand out from its analogue competition. Although the sounds of the LM-1 and Linn Drum are a long way from what we now think of as realistic drum samples, they offered incredibly different sounds to the synthesized drums of their rivals. Linn's drum machines provided the distinctive rhythm sounds of hundreds of 1980s hits.
Perhaps most notably, forward-thinking funkster Prince spotted the LM-1 's potential immediately and used it extensively from 1982's 1999 album onwards. The development of sample-based drum machine technology also directly led to the development of sampling workstations still in use today. Units such as E-mu's Drumulator, SP-12 and SP-1200 combined th·e drum machine concept with the ability to sample and play back external sounds. This concept reached its logical conclusion when Roger Linn designed the MPC 60 for Akai. Released in 1988, the MPC series combined sampling, looping and sequencing to great effect and became the mainstay of just about every 1990s Hip Hop producer.
Sample-based machines played a major role in reducing the cost of drum machines, bringing the technology to a much wider market than ever before. Roland themselves, masters of the analogue approach, soon released sample-based machines such as the TR-505 and 707, which offered 909-esque sounds and an LCD interface for programming. The Roland R8 of 1989 took the idea even further by cramming dozens of samples into a compact unit with 32-voice polyphony and allowing the user to adjust a handful of crucial parameters such as attack and decay. The R8 even made it possible for the user to add ROM cards packed with extra sounds, including samples of the 808 and 909 hits.
However, there were some serious disadvantages to the flood of sample-based drum machines that hit the market in the late '80s. Most notably, a variety of machines were introduced which did little more than play back samples, offering none of the adjustability and sonic variety of their analogue predecessors.
The drum machine market of the 1990s in particular was dominated by sample-based units such as the Alesis SR16, which offered very limited adjustment. As a result, development of drum synthesis technology stuttered somewhat. However, sample-based drum machines also led to the development of a variety of drum synthesis techniques based on sampled waveforms.
The Software Approach
Just as with other instruments, software provides a variety of options for creating, programming and sequencing drum sounds. Just about every hardware method has been recreated in software form, from simple subtractive synths to FM synthesis to ROM piers. Although there are a huge number of sample-based 'drum machine' packages available, ROMplers probably aren't the way to go if you're interested in versatility and adjustability.
The quick fix of samples won't keep you satisfied for tong if you're looking to create your own drum sounds, especially when VST instruments provide a variety of cheap and easy ways of getting into drum synthesis.