Future Music - - FEATURE -

From Frankie Knuck­les to Aphex Twin, Roland’s clas­sic ’80s drum ma­chines – es­pe­cially the TR-808 and TR-909 – are as syn­ony­mous with elec­tronic dance mu­sic as the acous­tic drum kit is to rock. Even though the ma­jor­ity of pro­duc­ers have never had their grubby mitts the original ma­chines, we all recog­nise the sounds in­stantly thanks to their ubiq­uity in dance mu­sic. Luck­ily for us mere mor­tals, hav­ing enough dosh for the now-an­ti­quated orig­i­nals doesn’t mat­ter: not only can we down­load count­less sam­ple col­lec­tions packed with pro­cessed per­mu­ta­tions of th­ese drum hits, but Roland them­selves have brought hard­ware fetishists af­ford­able dig­i­tal repli­cas of the orig­i­nals: the Aira TR-8 (a hy­brid 808/909) and the new Bou­tique TR-08 and TR-09. So ba­si­cally, it’s never been eas­ier to use th­ese in­fa­mous drum sounds in your pro­duc­tions.

But with ev­ery pro­ducer and his dog se­quenc­ing th­ese iconic one-shots, it’s be­come harder and harder to cus­tomise and in­no­vate with them. Take the genre of trap (plus its pop/ur­ban cross­over off­shoots) as one ex­am­ple: you can’t get away from that dis­torted 808 kick, rhythm-shift­ing closed hats and skippy snare fills. Like­wise, you hardly hear a house or techno record that doesn’t feature the in­ter­play of the 909 closed and open hi-hats; or that ro­botic, rat­tling 16th-note snare fill.

So how ex­actly can we take th­ese sounds into the fu­ture? Well, the se­cret is to main­tain the original tim­bre – af­ter all, that recog­ni­tion fac­tor is the power of their ap­peal – but add your own di­men­sion of orig­i­nal­ity some­how. For in­stance, use a pitch en­ve­lope to bend the 909 OH, then use a short de­lay to mix in a metal­lic tone. Heav­ily dis­tort the 808’s tinny cym­bal, then smother it in weird re­verb. Or try crazy stereo tricks in par­al­lel on your 808 kick. It’s up to you to take the sounds fur­ther and give them a unique sonic stamp.

Another way to give the sounds a shot of life and char­ac­ter is via or­ganic hu­man­i­sa­tion. Yes, tim­brally, th­ese ro­botic drums are a mil­lion miles away from re­al­is­tic acous­tic drum kits, but you can still pro­gram them in clever ways. Take the elec­tronic hi-hat: we all know the original ma­chines fea­tured de­cay pa­ram­e­ters for short­en­ing or length­en­ing the hits. So by man­u­ally ramp­ing the de­cay knob up and down in real time (we’re talk­ing in sub­tle in­cre­ments), as well as gen­tly pump­ing the sound’s level in and out of other parts of your track, you’ll in­stantly by­pass the ‘ma­chine gun’ repet­i­tive­ness and give those hats an un­der­ly­ing feel­ing of au­then­tic­ity and move­ment.

How­ever, we’re stray­ing into sub­tleties here, and this feature is all about sound de­sign. In the modern day and age of un­lim­ited choice, it’s ac­tu­ally quite re­fresh­ing to limit your­self to that re­stricted palette of elec­tronic drum sounds when you need some source ma­te­rial to man­gle, dis­tort, fil­ter, loop and gen­er­ally f••k up. Al­though it’s a cliché by now, look at the use of the 808 kick in jun­gle and D&B. It’s no longer a ‘drum’; that kick is con­sid­ered a low-fre­quency os­cil­la­tor that can pro­vide more sub bass and har­mon­ics than your av­er­age cheesy synth patch. And since a good ol’ drum ma­chine is as good a stu­dio start­ing point as any, that makes it a fan­tas­tic can­di­date for pro­cess­ing on those days when you can’t nail a chord pro­gres­sion or synth patch.

We’ve kept this pretty con­cep­tual, but let’s wrap up with a few prac­ti­cal ways to make your drum ma­chine sounds stand out from the crowd. For starters, as you’ll see in our tu­to­ri­als, mash­ing up tuned kicks and toms with de­li­cious dis­tor­tion can cre­ate in­ter­est­ing bass and synth loops. Pro­gram­ming-wise, rapidly re­peat­ing notes off the grid – or lash­ings of de­lay ef­fects – will in­duce rhyth­mic odd­i­ties that be­come groove en­hancers. And treat­ing per­cus­sion like synths and melodic sam­ples will also broaden your hori­zons beyond the ex­pected. Time to plug in and start ex­per­i­ment­ing!

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