Way-Cool Drumming With Reason's NN-XT
This article gets into the super-hot NN-XT sampler. I cover lots of useful things drummers will want to do with the NN-XT, with an emphasis on getting acoustic-like sound and responsiveness from your drums.
What's so great about the NN-XT?
Reason's NN-XT sampler is a perfect tool for drummers. It provides a huge amount of flexibility in all the places where it counts. These are some of the high points:
- Velocity layering: a basic, essential tool. You can have the sampler switch among samples depending on how hard you hit the pad, or use the same sample with different settings. This is key for getting your snare to "crack!" when you hit it hard, but not crack when you hit it soft.
- Alternation: allows you to provide several zones for a given pad (either different samples or the same sample with different settings) and have the sampler randomly alternate between them. This is key for getting "natural" play -- you don't get the same sample playing the same way each time you hit the pad.
- Group-based polyphony: something which looks esoteric but is necessary for drummers. You can create groups of zones which have a maximum number of notes that can play at a time. If you know what "mute groups" are on other samplers, this is the NN-XT's version of mute groups.
- Zone-by-zone settings: where the NN-19 had global settings for most everything, the NN-XT lets you do zone-based or group-based settings.
- Lots of outputs: now you can run different pieces of your kit into different mixer inputs, so you can tweak the mix like you would a "real" kit, plus put different amounts of effects on each piece.
And there's a ton more. But for the moment, just trust me that you really want to be using the NN-XT for drums instead of the NN-19.
I hate so say "RTFM" explicitly, but you really do want to read the manual for the NN-XT. Open the Operation Manual that's provided on your CD-ROM, not the Getting Started printed guide that came in the box. I'll be talking a lot about zones, groups, layering, sample parameters, and so forth. All that stuff is in the manual.
I'd also suggest reading my NN-19 article for some basics about laying out your drum map and setting amp envelopes.
Applying NN-19 concepts to the NN-XT
In the NN-19 article I mentioned settings for the amp envelope, velocity control, and other essentials. These all carry forward into the NN-XT, but are in different places. Of special note, in the NN-19 these settings applied to all samples, whereas in the NN-XT you can set them separately for each zone.
First comes overall sample volume. On the NN-19 you set this up where you assigned the root notes, but now it's in the bottom-left corner of the amp envelope panel. Second is the amp envelope itself, which is functionally very similar. A bonus is that you now see the timings as useful millisecond/second times instead of 0-127 arbitrary numbers. Third is the velocity response, which is pretty much identical, except the knob is called "level" instead of "amp" now.
A very basic tool for drummers is velocity layering. This allows you to provide multiple samples for each drum, switching among them as you play harder or softer. The Operation Manual provided in Reason 2 covers the mechanics of this in detail, so I won't cover it here.
There are a couple things to keep in mind, however. First, if you're going for realism, use smooth crossfades instead of dramatic breaks across the velocity range. I notice that most velocity-layered drum modules are too dramatic and obvious about their layering. Be a little more subtle, and tune it right for your MIDI drum controller. Of course, if you're going for dramatic shifts, then really go for it!
Another useful tip is to have your basic sample cover the entire velocity range but have another sample fade in at the top end of the scale, e.g. some "crack!" for your snare drum with a low velocity 80 with fade in of 100. That way your snare will sound like the same drum across the whole range, but you'll get that extra emphasis at high velocities.
An equally useful trick -- especially when you only have one sample of a drum -- is to adjust the filter with velocity. Say you have a sample of a hard conga hit. It'll have some high frequency ring to it that a light conga hit wouldn't have. To duplicate this, turn on the filter, set the mode to "LP 12" (low pass 12dB/octave rolloff), and set the filter frequency to somewhere around 600Hz. That means it'll start cutting frequencies above 600Hz, leaving just the low frequencies. Play with the setting until you get that "light conga hit" sound.
Now in the velocity response panel, set the "F Freq" knob to positive, say around 60%. Hit the pad softly and you'll get the lower frequency light conga sound, then hit it hard and you'll hear full frequency hard conga sound. Adjust the "F Freq" and "Level" knobs to give you the response you want.
I've found that proper velocity filtering gives a ton of "life" to acoustic samples. Shakers, tambourines, congas, whatever -- they all have much more natural sound and feel with this trick.
One of the best features in the NN-XT for drummers is alternation. This means that you can assign multiple zones to the same drum, put them all in alternating mode, and the NN-XT will flip among them randomly as you play the drum. You can either use different samples for each alternate, or the same sample with different settings, e.g. a little bit different tuning or amp envelope. This is a huge bonus for realism, since hitting a drum usually sounds a little bit different each time.
The key here is that sequential drum hits usually sound a little bit different. If you make them sound too much different, then you're not emulating natural drum responsiveness -- you're emulating a bad drummer. Play sixteenths on the pad and make sure it sounds like a good drummer playing sixteenths instead of some goofball who's never hit a drum before. Of course, maybe you want the drum to sound totally different each time you hit it -- then anything's fair game.
Here's another tip: if you didn't know already, you can load REX loop slices into the NN-XT. All those useless drum loops in the Factory Sound Bank just became useful, because the bonus of a loop is that you usually get several slices of the same drum. Pull a loop into the NN-XT, pick apart slices that sound very similar, group them, and set them to alternate -- you might get some decent results. The only problem with REX slices is they usually don't have full decay on them, which may be okay if you're going for a tight sound, but otherwise you'll need to add reverb or other effects.
Grouping and polyphony
Here's one of my favorite NN-XT features: you can put zones into groups and set polyphony for each group. This may sound simple, but there are about a zillion uses for it. The first and most simple is hi-hats. Put your "hat closed," "hat open," and "hat foot" samples into a group and set the polyphony to one. Now the foot note will cut off an open hat note when you step down.
Here's another one: cymbal choking. Set a crash to its own group, and select "Add zone" from the "Edit" menu. Set the ** No Sample ** low velocity to 1 and high velocity to 20. Set the cymbal to low velocity 21 and high velocity 127. Set the group polyphony to 1. Now softly grabbing the cymbal pad will cut off the crash cymbal. You may need to tune the cutoff value; 20 works well on my TrapKAT, but that'll vary depending on how you have your pads calibrated.
Another one: say you have a ride cymbal with a really long decay. Playing fast on this could get 20 samples or so playing at the same time, and you may wind up with a muddy sound. Or playing a fast tom fill would cut off the decay of your ride, or a boomy bass with the long ride would cut each other off. Set the ride to its own group and set the polyphony to 4 or 8. The group will keep other samples from cutting off the ride, and vice versa, plus you can turn the polyphony down if the overlapping decays sound muddy.
And another one: set a cymbal roll, reverse cymbal, or some other rolling or swelling sound to the same group as a cutoff sound (either a crash or no sample). Now you can start the rolling sound with one pad and cut it off with another. This works great with sustained sound effects, too. Perhaps you have a looped thunderstorm that you cut off with a crack of lightning. There's all kinds of potential here.
One last tip: put melodic sounds on your pads with a long release value, group them, and set the polyphony to 1 or 2. Now you can flip among notes with each hit. For examples of this and lots of other things you can do with polyphony, see Tony Verderosa's series of drum videos (aka "VFX"), and think "group with polyphony" every time he says "alternate group."
Finally the Reason-able (Reason-enabled?) drummer can play in real stereo. You have two options: set the pan and spread in the Amp Envelope, or use multiple outputs and pan from a mixer (more on that below). I prefer the former because that keeps your sample settings in one place, and you can use stereo spread. Set the pan where you want, set the mode to "jump," and then set the spread -- how far you want it to jump around the pan location. I tend to keep the spread under 20%, so the effect is there, but it's not in-your-face obvious. Also, I only use it on a couple instruments within the kit, like the hi-hats or congas.
The NN-XT has 16 outputs that you can use as stereo pairs or mono channels. I'm all in favor of flexibility, so I dig this feature. The reason you'd do this is to have a drum submix on its own mixer. Route the bass drum to one channel, snares to another, toms to another, then cymbals... you get the idea. This allows mixing by groups (especially handy if you have a MIDI fader box), plus separate effects send levels for each group. Finally, you send that submix into the master mixer and you're set.
Unfortunately, this feature is a mixed blessing. First problem is that your channels past 1 and 2 can't be given their own names. Question: what's on mixer channel 3 in the picture? Answer: I don't know either. Maybe it's the toms. I forgot. You will, too, a couple days after you've put your kit together. If you have a MIDI fader box, however, you can mark that and always use the same channels for the same type of instruments -- label channel 3 "toms" and always put your toms there.
The other problem is that it becomes hard to work with presets when you need to wire the NN-XT in a special way. I enjoy the freedom of putting together groups of kits for a given gig -- I can say I'll put an acoustic kit on MIDI channel 1, say a percussion kit on channel 2, and some effects on 3. Just drop in some NN-XT's and load the presets I created. This becomes much more complex when you need to remember how each preset is supposed to be wired into the mixer, and as with problem one, what's going to what output.
It's a simple trade-off. If you are willing to live with the limitations I mentioned, then multiple outputs are a great thing. I decided to use one acoustic drum kit that I always have in my "template song" which uses four stereo outputs, and then other kits typically use just one stereo out.
More and more and more...
The NN-XT is a deep instrument. There's a ton you can do with it -- these are only the basics. Read the manual, fiddle with things, play a bunch, and fiddle some more. Have fun with it! I think you'll find there's almost no limit to what you can do with the NN-XT and your MIDI drum controller.