How To Make A Kick Drum Using Free Plugins

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This exclusive SonicTransfer.com tutorial explains how to program a kick drum sound from scratch using a synthesizer. To follow this lesson, you will need:

    1. A VST Host (e.g. Ableton Live, Cubase, Pro Tools, etc.)
    2. Synth1 – A fantastic free VST synthesizer. Click here to get Synth1.
    3. A computer :)

Part 1: Starting Fresh

First, open up your VST Host and load Synth1. If you unfamiliar with loading plugins using your music composition software, then consult your manual or post a comment on SonicTransfer.com.

Now that you are looking at Synth1, you need to clear the settings to the their defaults. To do this, first click on the name of the default preset, “Synth1 Brastring”. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 1

You will be presented with a large selection of available presets. Since you want to start from scratch, none of the items in the menu will work. Click the “1″ on the left of the menu to select preset bank 1. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 2

Once you selected preset bank 1, you will see a lot of presets labeled “initial sound”. This is the preset that you will use to start building the kick drum. Select any of the presets labeled “initial sound”. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 3

Great! You’re almost ready to start building the kick drum.

You need to turn off three synthesizer features that you won’t need for this tutorial. The first feature is the low frequency oscillator, or LFO. The LFO is used for all kinds of purposes in a synthesizer, and so a detailed explanation is outside the scope of this tutorial. For now, just click the lit-up 1 and the lit-up 2 at the bottom-left of the interface. Also, you won’t need to use the delay effect or the chorus effect either. So, click the lit-up “ON” buttons for those effects on the right-hand side of the interface. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 4

That it! Now you’re ready to start building the kick drum.

Part 2: Getting the Tone

Throughout the rest of the tutorial you should play notes into Synth1 using your MIDI keyboard. This is so that you can learn how each parameter changes the sound as you tweak it. When you play a note right now, you hear a blend of a square wave and a sawtooth wave. You could totally play the theme from Beverly Hills Cop using this patch.

First this section, we will be working entirely in the section of the synthesizer labeled “Oscillators“. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 5

Oscillators are the tone-generators within the synthesizer. Literally, they produce waveforms which are then modified in various ways using other parts of the synth. So, whenever you want to build a new sound in a synthesizer, always start with the oscillators.

Synth 1 has two oscillators and each oscillator has different features. You only need one oscillator for the kick drum. Right now you are hearing a blend of oscillator 1 and oscillator 2. This is because knob labeled “mix” is currently pointing north. Turn the “mix” knob all the way to the right. You might see a popup appear with the text “0 : 100″ inside. This is telling you that oscillator 2 is now producing 100% of the waveform. In other words, you aren’t hearing oscillator 1 at all anymore.

When you play a note on your MIDI keyboard now, the sound is much harsher. This is because oscillator 1 is set to a square wave, whereas oscillator 2 is set to a saw wave. Saw waves sound harsher than square waves. But, don’t just take my word for it. Try changing oscillator 2 to a different waveform using the screenshot below for reference.
Kick Drum Programming - Step 6

Notice that only oscillator 1 has the ability to produce a sine wave and only oscillator 2 can output noise. To create a kick drum, you will need to set oscillator 2 to output a triangle waveform. In the oscillators section, click the triangle waveform button beside the number 2.

Great! The next step is to turn off pitch tracking. Pitch tracking is a fancy term that just means that the synth note will play in the same key, at the same octave, no matter what key you press on your MIDI keyboard. This is useful because a kick drum doesn’t need to sound “higher” when played above middle C or “lower” when played below middle C. A kick drum is not tonal like a piano or guitar. Click the button labeled “track” so that the green light beside it goes off.

Wonderful. Now the patch sounds a little more like a drum. Now you need to pitch the drum down a bit. You can use the knob labeled “pitch” beside the “track” button to do this. Turn the “pitch” knob down to -35.

Now the drum sounds more like a bass guitar. To fix that, you need to turn on the modulation envelope. The modulation envelope allows you to adjust the pitch of the waveform over time. A kick drum needs to go from a high pitch to a lower pitch in a short amount of time. With that in mind, you can use the controls beside the “pitch” knob to adjust the modulation envelope. Click the button labeled “m. env” to turn on the modulation envelope. The modulation envelope decay controls how fast the pitch sweep down will occur. Turn the knob labeled “D” (for decay) to 60. The modulation envelope amount controls how high the drum pitch will be. Turn the knob labeled “amt” (for amount) to +49.

That’s it for the oscillators! Your patch should sound a lot more like a drum now. If you are stuck, try referencing the screenshot below.

Kick Drum Programming - Step 7

Part 3: Amp It Up

Your kick drum patch has come a long way. However, there are still some possible improvements. The kick sustains forever if you hold down a key on your MIDI keyboard. Also, it is too quiet. These issues are solved using the amplifier.

This part is going to take place in the Synth1 section labeled “Amplifier“. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 8

The Amplifier section offers ADSR envelope control over the volume of the patch. If you are unfamiliar with ADSR, then click here to read the Wikipedia article on ADSR. To quickly summarize, ADSR stands for attack, decay, sustain, and release. Attack determines how quickly your sound will become loud. Decay determines how long your sound will play before fading out completely. Sustain determines how quickly your sound will fade out. Release determines how long your note will play after you stop pressing a key on your MIDI keyboard.

So, the first thing this kick drum needs is more punch. Turn the knob labeled “A” (for attack) all the way to zero. Second, take some of boom out of the kick by reducing the sustain. Turn the knob labeled “S” (for sustain) all the way to zero. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of character out of the kick, too. To get a little “air” back into the room, increase the release. Turn the knob labeled “R” (for release) to 80.

The knob labeled “gain” controls how loud the kick drum is. Turn the knob labeled “gain” up all the way to 127.

The knob labeled “vel” stands for velocity. This controls how much the drum volume will fluctuate with midi note volume. For example, if the velocity is all the way up and you barely press a key on your MIDI keyboard, then you will barely hear the kick drum. On the other hand, if the velocity is all the way down and you barely press a key, then you will hear the kick drum at full volume anyway. For this tutorial, our kick will only have a little volume fluctuation. Turn the knob labeled “vel” to 20.

Great! You’re all done with the amplifier and the kick drum is sounding pretty good! If you are stuck, try referencing the screenshot below.
Kick Drum Programming - Step 9

Part 4: Final Filtering

Now it’s time for the finishing touches. The frequency ranges produced by the oscillator need to be reduced. This is the perfect job for the filter.
This section deals with the Synth1 area labeled “Filter“. (See the screenshot below.)

Kick Drum Programming - Step 10

The filter section, like the amplifier section, offers ADSR envelope control over the filter. However, you don’t need to use it at all for the kick drum. Turn the knob labeled “amt” (for ADSR filter envelope amount) all the way to zero.

Your kick drum now sounds muffled again. This is because the filter is performing a lowpass. This means that high frequencies are being removed. In practice, a lowpass filter removes the hiss from a bassdrum and keeps the thump. The cutoff frequency determines how much hiss is removed. For more information, click here to read the Wikipedia article on lowpass filters. To get some high end frequencies back into the waveform, you need to raise the cutoff frequency. Turn the knob labeled “frq” (for cutoff frequency) to 100. Good. Now the kick has some high frequencies and “breathes” again.

Cutoff frequency is almost always paired with resonance controls. So what is resonance? Resonance allows you to boost frequencies at the point of cutoff. For example, if you were cutting off frequencies below 2,000Hz and had a high resonance, then the frequencies from 1,000Hz to 2,000Hz would get a boost. In practice, adding resonance is useful when you want to recover some volume lost due to a lowpass. However, in this case, this kick drum doesn’t need it. Turn the knob labeled “res” (for resonance) all the way to zero. Now the kick sounds a little thinner.

Just like with the oscillators, the filter can be adjusted according to the pitch of the note played. This feature has the same name as before: pitch tracking. Just like last time, you don’t need it for the kick drum. Unlike last time, for the filter section this feature is controlled using a knob. Turn the knob labeled “trk” (for pitch tracking) all the way to zero.

Just like the amplifier, the filter can vary according to the volume of the midi note played. Unlike the amplifer, for the filter section this feature is controlled by a button. This kick drum doesn’t need to vary its filter at all. Click the button labeled “vel” (for velocity) to turn it off.

Tada! You’re DONE! If you had any trouble with this section, try referencing the screenshot below.

Kick Drum Programming - Step 11

Part 5: Conclusion

You now know how to build percussion sounds from scratch using a synthesizer. These techniques are applicable to almost every synthesizer in existence. If you have any questions or comments, please click here to visit the SonicTransfer forums.

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Happy Synthing!

Matt Sonic