Anatomy of a Patch: Snare Drum in Massive
The process of making synthesized drum samples from scratch is simple but often overlooked. We continue our exploration with a snare sound.
by Vincenzo Bellanova, Jan. 2018
Drum synthesis – what a wonderful world! After a journey into Sylenth1, we will move forward and complicate things a tiny bit: in this second installment, we are going to make a snare drum in Native Instruments Massive, a wavetable synthesizer that gained a lot of respect across the years for its flexibility, especially in the modulation section, and for its capability of creating aggressive bass and lead sounds, becoming a must have for bass music producers and laying the foundations to the popularity of wavetable synthesizers. Snare drums require more attention, and we need to think of it as composed by different parts: the body, usually a short, low pitched sine wave for the lower frequency content; the transient, or the stick hitting the top head; and the tail, or the bottom head of the snare. There are many ways to pursue the goal: using three different instances of the synth or layers, one for the bottom end, one for the transient and one for the tail; or just two layers, stick and tail. We are going to create our sound with two layers, and all in one instance of Massive.
For this sound, we will need one oscillator and a noise generator. A sine wave with a dedicated envelope on its volume will allow us to create a short hit, while another envelope will take care of modulating the pitch of the sine wave very quickly to create a sharp transient. The noise generator will provide the tail of our snare, with a dedicated envelope on its amplitude control. Here more than ever, distortion will push our sound forward, “gluing” the layers together and enhancing the character by adding harmonics. In particular, we are going to use Classic Tube distortion in the Master Effects, and the Sine Shaper in the Insert Effects. All of the settings used are just examples. Feel free to experiment in every section and with every parameter.
Step 1: Basics
First off, let’s initialize our preset by clicking on File, then New Sound, and move to the oscillator section. The left column provides three independent oscillators for which you can select your wavetable and the related parameters (like Wavetable position, Amp, Pitch). At the right of Osc1, click on Squ-Sw1 to open the wavetable menu, and select Sin-Square.
Weird names, aren’t they? Let’s try to figure out what they mean and what a wavetables is. Think of a wavetable as a collection of frames, you can easily think of pictures of a waveform. Every frame, is a sample of a single cycle of a waveform, looped and read by the oscillator. Having more frames in the same table, allows us to seamlessly move across the single cycles, morphing the timbre without abrupt changes, like we were crossfading waveforms. This is accomplished via the Wavetable Position knob (WT Pos), which determines which frame the oscillator is reading.
“Sin-Square” means that, if the knob is all the way on the left, the oscillator will read a sine wave, at the right we will have a square wave, and, in between, we can slowly and seamlessly interpolate those by crossfading from the first wave to the second one. Things get more complicated when loading more complex tables, like Carbon, which have more than 30 cycles in the table.
The evident advantage of wavetable synthesis is that we can create continuously evolving timbres passing from a waveform cycle to another just moving the WT knob.
Now that we have a sine wave, let’s create a MIDI clip, in order to write a note and monitor our sound. We are going to put a spectrum analyzer on the channel to see where the fundamental frequency sits, and, eventually, adjust it with the pitch control of our oscillator, or simply changing the note in the MIDI clip. We used G2 in the clip, without altering the pitch of the oscillator, to have the fundamental at around 190 – 200 Hz, which is good for an acoustic snare, but it is common to hear some higher pitches on synth snares (250-300Hz and even higher).
As we did for the kick in Sylenth1, we need to increase the voices of unison of our oscillator and activate the Retrig function, in order to have a more consistent volume with more voices. In the center window, Massive uses tabs to give us access to more pages and parameters. Let’s click on Voicing Tab, and bring the unison voices to 8.
The retrig function, in Massive, is hidden under another tab, Osc, and it is called Restart via Gate. Once activated, we can control the phase of each oscillator (Modulation Oscillator included) by moving the horizontal slider from 0 to 360 degrees. We will leave the sliders unaltered, since we just need that each of the 8 sine waves to start their cycle from the same point. Remember to lower the Master Volume in the upper right corner.
Step 2: Transient
Now that we set the foundations of our sound, let’s move into the envelope section. We will now modulate the volume and the pitch of the first oscillator, assigning an envelope to the Amp knob, and another envelope to the pitch to obtain a tiny short hit that will serve as the transient.
Why not simply shape the main amp? We will also have the noise generator for the tail, and having separate volume controls allows us to have different curves for different parts. Then we can adjust the global envelope to further shape the sound.
Massive has four independent envelopes, with the fourth controlling the Master Amp by default (but you can change this setting, if you find more comfortable having the first envelope controlling the main volume). So we have three unassigned envelopes with which we can modulate any parameter. The envelope tabs are the blue ones in the center window, and all of them have identical parameters.
Here emerges another strength of Massive: the possibility to modulate almost every knob and parameter by dragging and dropping the modulation source in the desired modulation slot.
Let’s begin with the volume. As you may have noticed, there are a lot of empty squares below each knob. These are exactly where we are going to drop the modulation sources. To modulate a parameter, simply click on the double arrow symbol at the right of the blue rectangle of the envelope tab, and click again on one of the empty slots under the desired parameter. Let’s try to assign the first envelope to the Amp knob of the oscillator one. Click on the first envelope double arrow symbol and click again on one of the slots below the Amp knob. A blue number will appear, meaning that the first envelope is assigned to the parameter. Now click on the blue “1” and drag to draw an arc. This will be our modulation index, much more visual than the tiny knob on Sylenth1. For this one, the blue arc will cover the entire course of the knob.
It doesn’t matter which empty slot you have chosen, they accomplish the same function, if you are not going to use the side chain modulation. That, in conjunction with a Macro Control, by clicking on the grey SC under the Knob, will act as a Dry/Wet control of the modulation.
Now, we need to adjust the shape of the first envelope: turn the sustain all the way down (in Massive the sustain is called Level, the knob next to the decay, the fifth from the left), and set the decay at 10 o’clock.
At this point we will have just a short sine wave, without any kind of punch. Let’s modulate the pitch by assigning the second envelope to the pitch, and set an index of +27 semitones. With this second envelope, we will not need any sustain as we had in the first one. Also, we use a shorter decay, moving the knob to almost 8 o’clock.
Step 3: Tail
Now that we have our transient set, we need to design a tail for the snare. The sample-based noise generator in Massive, in the lower left corner, offers some of the classic noises like White, which is selected by default, Bright, and Brown, alongside some more unusual ones, as the Tape Hiss, Amp Noise, Paper, and more.
We will need a classic White noise for our purposes. Switch the noise generator on and turn the Color parameter down a little bit. Color will shift the overall frequency spectrum upwards or downwards. So, reducing it, bringing the knob just below its maximum value, will cut some of the high end.
At this point, we need to define the length of our tail by assigning a new envelope, the third one, to the Amp knob.
In the third envelope tab, as usual, we have to turn down the sustain and to adjust the decay, which will be obviously longer than the transient. Let’s set the decay knob right under 12 o’clock, but we can come back and set it to taste later. Finally, we can tweak the main envelope of Massive, the fourth. No sustain and a generous decay will work for our snare sound.
Step 4: Final Touches
Our snare is almost set, we need to bring the sound out by adding harmonics, as well as gluing together the transient and the tail. Distortion is the answer.
We are going to use two different distortion effects: Classic Tube, in the master effects section (upper right section, just below the master volume); and Sine Shaper, in the insert effects section (below the central window).
These two sections, master and insert, have totally different effects, but there is another important difference: in the routing tab, we can select where to put the insert effects in different stages by clicking on the grey Ins1 or Ins2 buttons (before or after the filter, for instance), while the master effects are always at the end of the chain.
Distortion will finally bring out the snare’s character. Experiment with the distortion parameters, modulation index of the volumes and with the decay settings to transform your sound to taste.
We could also go further with the processing outside of Massive. Here are some ideas to tweak more your snare sound. More distortion is always welcome, so we experimented with a stock Overdrive effect with a low amount of distortion in just the high section of the spectrum. With an equalizer, try to polish the sound attenuating unwanted frequencies above the fundamental and boosting some of the higher mids. Transient Shapers are great here, we boosted the attack a tiny bit to emphasize the transient. Last, we compressed the snare with Waves SSL-G Bus Compressor, and added a tiny bit of reverb with Valhalla Vintage Verb.