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.

Required reading

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.

Velocity layering

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.

Velocity filtering

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.

The best thing is getting separate samples of the same drum being hit repeatedly in the same way. Using the same sample detuned a couple different ways doesn't have a very convincing effect in my opinion.

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.

Multiple Outputs

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.


Im really glad someone out there has posted a tutorial like this, its very useful.

I was wondering if your going to add more to this one though, or have a second part to it - that would be great!

Thanks again,


Can the NN-XT accept program changes?

I'm trying to use my nn-xt to trigger my electronic drum kit and do not have the manual, so i'm struggling a bit. i'm trying to map my kit to the nnxt by "setlect zone via midi" and it doesn't seem to be triggering... these articles you have are great! thanks for posting them. cheers.

one more question. do i have to go through this process each time i want to change a drum kit? ie. can i set it up so bass drum/snare/etc always goes to the same channel and i can just flip through kits/sounds pretty easily?

generdude, it looks like you have two options: first, the one I use: I put separate NN-XT modules (or with Reason 3, Combinators) on separate MIDI channels. Then on the drum controller I just change the MIDI channel it sends on. Second, it looks like in Reason 3 you can use program change 15/16 to select previous/next patch. I can't verify the latter myself, since Propellerheads no longer include the MIDI Implementation Chart with their downloadable docs.

I'm also a huge fan of sampling in reason, for drums... and often samples taken from vinyl. My question is how to use Reason (I have 3.0) to trigger a sample in a way that it plays the full length, or repeats from the beginning when you trigger it again. Know what i mean, like most hardware drum machines. They offer three types of triggering sometimes: drum (plays the whole length and repeats from beginning if tapped during play), gate (only plays sample while being held), and trigger, which just plays the whole thing... or stops playing it if you trigger it again. Any ideas? I would be looking to do a "drum" type mode with the nn-xt.

Jake, you'll want to check out the NN-19 article and search for "release" to get your samples to play full-length. Then read the section on polyphony.

This may be a dumb question, but for an old guy who's just trying to get into all this stuff....
I play a set of Roland DDR30s and wonder if these programs would work on them? Sounds are, if you're familiar with them, very limited. Any ideas???

Andy, sure just take the MIDI out of the DDR30 into your computer's MIDI interface. The DDR30 probably lets you map pads to MIDI notes/channels, which is all you need for Reason.

Thanx for the info Josh. Can you give me an idea of cost for Reason?

I have an alesis DM5 routed through a MOTU Express Xt to a powerbook g4. NNXT will not play properly. The green line on the midi keyboard icon lights up, but sound only comes out randomly. I can even record the hits and they will play back. It just doesn't play properly in real time. Any suggestions?

i am having the same problem as andy (above), random output even though it all lights up.
everything works fine through redrum, it's just the nn-xt.
please help i'm desperate. i don't want to have to sell this on ebay :(

well, i guess that no-one reads this... no replies. oh well, give up?

Hi Todd,
I do read all comments posted on my web site, I just don't always have time for the necessary research to respond. I would suggest using a MIDI monitor program to make sure your drums are sending the notes you think they are. Also try sending MIDI notes from a different controller if you have one. Last, post your question on the forums at once you're quite sure the correct MIDI data is getting to reason.

Any chance on doing an article using the Dr Rex (if even possible, or the redrum) Cheers

Josh, awesome article! Just the other night I was trying to map the MIDI out from my alesis DM5 triggers to reason and couldn't figure it out. Seems like the NN-19 auto-detects the incoming midi note. Does NN-XT do this as well? If not I could figure out the notes being played using NN-19 I guess and then configure the samples on those notes in NN-XT? Because it seems that I can't set which MIDI notes are sent from each each trigger using the alesis MIDI controller. I'm pretty psyched to go home and give this a try. Now I just need a non-crappy electronic drum set. Roland V-Drums, hmmmm...........

I'm almost positive you can set the MIDI notes sent from a DM-5. I have one myself, but it's been a while since I've configured it. You can use a program like "MIDI Monitor" on the Mac to see raw incoming data from the DM-5. (I'm sure there are similar PC programs.) This will let you get the DM-5 configured right without worrying about Reason.

Once you know for sure what notes the DM-5 is sending for each pad, it's much easier to get in the NN-XT and configure things. The NN-XT is more difficult to set up than the NN-19, but in my opinion it's worth it for all the extra control over your samples.

what is the most number of notes the NNXT can play? Can it play mor ethan 16 voices? I run out of notes when using hte grand piano. How do i adjust this setting? Thanks for any help you can give.

This is pretty cool. Seems a lot more flexable than using redrum (which I couldn't use anyway because you can't change the factory present midi notes for each pad on my drum module).

Is it possible to set up the NN-XT with a hi-hat clutch, and how would I go about it? I have a footswitch for the hi-hat (which I think I can set to latching or momentary), and I want different hi-hat sounds depending on whether the footswitch is depressed or released.

question. where are you choosing your samples from? I see that only the Okester samples will show up in the NN-XT. did you buy a drum kit sample CD or something? the okester stuff really isn't cutting it for drum kit samples. Thanks

I found some samples online, I bought others, and recorded some myself. Note that Propellerheads sells a drum kit Refill and it looks excellent.

I just bought the Alesis DM5 kit and had the same 'random trigger' problem using the NN-XT. I spent hours trying to figure out the problem and now have an easy solution. The reason it triggers a random sample is because the DM5 note duration is not long enough for the NN-XT to to play the sample but is just long enough for you to see midi activity. The super simple solution for this is to download a free MIDI utility program called MIDIPipe. MIDIPipe is Mac OSX only but I'm sure there is a similar Windows MIDI utility program. You can use this program to add a 10ms duration to the note and now my electronic drum set works perfectly! If you need further info, you can message me at my MySpace page:


I'm new to Reason and need some advice. I'm a drummer that wants to get a MIDI drum pad device, hook it up to reason, play the pads, and record it into reason. Any tips on which device (under $200 hopefully)?

What about foot pedals? Can I configure it so reason recognizes an open HH and closed HH and records different notes for each? Thanks a ton!

FIXED! Reason NN-XT random note problem. (i.e. midi note duration problem)

Well, after about 2 months of effort, I finally fixed the 'random note' sound problem in Reason.

My problem was similar to Scott and Andy's above.
I'm using the yamaha dd-55c, and after recording directly into Nuendo, it became clear the the problem was that the dd-55 outputs very short noteon-noteoff pairs (very short duration). To complicate this, the duration is *variable* from 1 to 6 ms or so. Then, by trial and error, I figured out that the NN-XT appears to need a note duration of at least 6ms to 'trigger'. that's *bullshit* IMHO, but there is no way to change that. damn.

Scotts's fix (above) for the mac was exactly right. UNFORTUNATELY, there is NO utility for the pc, that will increase the note duration as described by Josh for the mac. I tried everything... midi-ox, yoke, maple vmc, you name it... nada. So i was hopelessly stuck for awhile. Then, in unrelated efforts, i came accross some software that is used in our video lab (drexel univ.) called Max/MSP ( Max is an incredible software 'visual programming language' that allows you to write any freaking kind of audio/video processor. It also has midi in and out. It also has low-level midi processing :0. I wrote a (very) small 'patch' (i.e. program) in Max that added 10 ms duration to the input of a midi channel, and then output to another midi port. Compiled the program as a standalone app (let's call it 'midiextend'. Installed midi-yoke to give me some more ports. run my midiextend max app, set the input from my source (tascam us-428 port 1), and output to yoke1. then i run reason, and set the input port accordingly and ...

VOILA! working and i'm dancing around the room.... until...uuurrrgghh! i play a drum line for awhile and it's glitching/hesitating/delaying all over the place. right. back to the drawing board. I decided to try running back into nuendo and using rewire to reason. everything set up ok, but no dice. still delayed. So i looked around and found this alternative to midi yoke called LoopBe1 ( uninstalled yoke and installed LoopBe1.

Well! it works! no more delays! so i'm dancing again.... until... glitch.
glitch. glitch. oh man.
another several days of trial and error, and i finally figured out, that ONLY the 16bit drum samples work in 'real' time. i converted everything to 16bit, including the reason refill, nuendo connnections, and my tascam US428 asio settings.
FINALLY, everything works. I have real time (about 10ms delay) drumming with reason nn-xt rewired through nuendo. probably the fix of a lifetime. ready to rock.
i hope this helps some other crazy person out there.

btw, thanks for the reply Josh, and thanks for the great website and stuff.


my system:
asus laptop core duo 2ghz, 2g ram, tascam us-428, yamaha dd-55c, nuendo 3, reason 3.

--> correction to post above:
'scott' is actually 'david'. i don't know how i messed that up :)

Jason: I haven't been following the latest drum pads coming out, so my advice is probably quite dated. I really like the feel of KAT gear. You can get older DrumKATs and DK10s on eBay for under $200, but you need to be aware that the FSR sensor needs replacement every 10 years or so, regardless of how much the pad has been played. Roland also makes some great pads these days, though the playing surface of the old OctaPads really sucked. Another option is a simple module with trigger inputs (e.g. Alesis DM-5) and piecing together pads from other sources.

As for foot pedals: most controllers allow you to designate a pad (or several) to send different notes depending on a pedal being pressed or not. Certainly all the controllers I've seen will do this. You can also make a pedal send CC controller values, then do sample switching based on that, but I've never gotten that to sound quite right.

Love the article. Regarding the hi hat polyphony, I have found that when I set it to "1" and hit the hat open really hard, then soft quickly as the open sound continues to ring, it re-triggers the open hi hat sound at a different volume and cuts off the already ringing out sound. This creates a sudden volume drop in my open hi hat sound, and as a result, sounds very unnatural and gives an almost sucking sound as the volume is cut instantly. Is there a way to get the hi hat to work (where I can close it, etc. as mentioned in your article), where when playing the hi hat open, it will sound natural and ring out without me having to hit it at with the same velocity on each hit?

Brian: that's the unfortunate part of using simple polyphony: there's no way to say "this note stops that note, but this other note doesn't." Other drum-specific samplers have that feature. (I'm pretty sure Battery does.) I've tried a lot of experiments with using CC messages from the hat pedal instead of note switching, for example have the hat pedal position control the envelope release setting. I couldn't get anything to consistently work well, however. Perhaps with the Propellerheads drum refill they figured out some other trick.

I have the first version of Reason Drumkits refill and I'm attempting to use it with the NN-XT. Can you give me any insight on the approach I should take? I want to get the kick, snare, toms, etc. on seperate channels and haven't messed with the NN-XT since I got Reason 5 years ago.

Using a HatKat (DrumKat) for High Hat Control with Reason Drum Kits.
Can the HatKat that is part of the DrumKat be used to control the Reason Drum Kit 2.0 for complex High Hat control? Specifically the Controller 04 that is in the version 3.8 software for the DrumKat? I understand that the HatKat is one of the most sophisticated controllers out there, and that it can supposedly handle some complex high hat control for some other products. But I would love to use it with Reason and their 'Drum Kit 2.0' as these are some incredibly realistic sounding drum kits. (I currently have version 3.0 for the DrumKat so I don't have access to the Controller 04 that has the sophisticated high hat control and am wondering if I should upgrade, and if in doing so will get me the high hat control I long for)

Alex: Good hi-hat control is something I've spent a lot of time on. Unfortunately I don't have good news to report. There's a couple approaches to take: traditional hat open/close/splash uses 3 samples and you generally have them grouped with a polyphony of 1. That allows the hat close sample to cut off the hat open sample. This works okay but not super-realistic. You can have the hat petal send CC messages (controller 04), and I tried a bunch to map these CC messages to various parameters on the NN-XT to allow a sample to play longer depending on the pedal's position. That never worked all that great. You can also have the DrumKat send something like 7 different notes depending on the pedal position. That also didn't work as well as I hoped, but perhaps with more samples it could work better.

Reason 4.0 will have one improvement of note: it'll allow samples in a group to play polyphonically but have different samples cut off others in the group. This would allow hat open samples to play over each other nicely, but still be cut off by the pedal. So, definite improvement there.

Ideally, though, you want a sampler where a specific note can cut off another specific note, but not necessarily the other way around. You want a close sample to cut off an open sample, but an open sample shouldn't cut off a close or splash sample. I think NI Battery can do this. Given fine-grain control like that, you should be able to program the 7-note hat control quite nicely.

Unfortunately, I haven't been playing for a couple years, so I haven't used Reason Drum Kits, DFH, or recent versions of Battery. They might already have some nice solutions in place.


I just purchased an Alesis Control Pad, and am wanting to play samples from Reason 3.0. I've learned how to play the samples on my Axiom 49, but do not understand how I will be able to apply each sample to each individual pad on the Alesis. I have 6 samples for one song, that will be played one at a time, at different points of a song, with a drumstick hit.

Do you know much about how to get the NNXT to recognize the pad for a specific pad?

Thank you so much!
Best regards,

thank god i founded this, i had the same "Reason NN-XT random note problem" with my yamaha dd55 , there is an app for PC to sorted this out , just google for "Boome's midi translator".have fun!

I have a DrumKat 3.8. How can I get it to talk to Reason 3.0 via Mac Mini? I need to know what settings can take place for this to work. Thanx.

I don't see how Bome's midi translator can extend the note duration? I downloaded the classic freeware version and I just don't see it. Please help.

I know this is an old article, but still pretty useful for new reason users. Thanks a lot man.

The NN-XT multiple outs are truly a blessing, there is that one little problem you mentioned about not being able to Label each output, but an easy way around that is to make a few Spider Merger/Splitters. Instead of hooking, let's say, NN-XT output 3/4 straight to the mixer, hook it up into a spider, then from the Spider to the mixer. You have the ability to label each spider, so you'll be able to see that label in the mixer. Yea, its a little more work, but well worth it when you have a drumkit with 5, 6 or more pieces and you need to figure out which one is the fader for the hi-hat on your mixer, haha.. Just my 2 cents, thanks for the article again

Holy crap this was exactly what I was looking for.

Thank god for people who take the time to figure this crap out and then actually share it with the world.

I need some footpedals for a Yamaha dd55c electronic drum set-does anyone know where I can find some?

I'm having a strange problem. My NNXT stopped working. I drag it under the mixer and everything seems fine but then when I open up the bottom tab to load my own samples the nobs and buttons don't work. I can see the piano notes and load my samples but there are no lights on the nobs so I can't adjust the key poly, modulation, velocity, nothing.....the lights and nobs just went out? Anyone know what to do?

I'm having a strange problem. My NNXT stopped working. I drag it under the mixer and everything seems fine but then when I open up the bottom tab to load my own samples the nobs and buttons don't work. I can see the piano notes and load my samples but there are no lights on the nobs so I can't adjust the key poly, modulation, velocity, nothing.....the lights and nobs just went out? Anyone know what to do?

Hey, is there anyway to Automap the sample start or end knobs to my Akai MPD 32 (or any) controller? Its the only reason I bought that and not an MPC but stupidly never realized that this wasnt possible. Its just dragging the knob value with my mouse and holding down the shift button is so time consuming and really annoying.

Please can anyone help or suggest something to, me???

Thanks! these 2 articles have been extremely helpful!

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