Basic Drumming With Reason's NN-19
Reason is hot. No synth guy or techno composer should be without it. But what about using Reason for drums? Actually, it's a perfect companion. In the first article I cover basic drum and Reason setup, and using the NN-19 sampler.
Reason includes two samplers, two synthesizers, a mixer, a handful of effects units, and some other neat stuff. For drums you'll usually want to use a sampler. The sampler in version 1, the NN-19, is very basic, but still useful. That's what this page covers. The additional sampler in version 2, the NN-XT, is much more powerful and can do most anything you'd ever want. The Redrum module looks like an obvious tool to use, but its limitations are severe, and I've found it to not be useful for drumming.
You'll control Reason using MIDI from an electronic drum system. I won't get into the details of setting up your drums -- that would be a whole separate series of articles. I'll speak in general terms that will apply to most any hardware. I personally use a TrapKAT by Alternate Mode, which in my opinion is the perfect match for Reason.
Set up your drums to send MIDI on channel 1, then in Reason's hardware interface, set channel 1 to go to an NN-19 sampler. We'll start with that since it's easiest, and you can load the NN-19 patch into the NN-XT later. Load up any NN-19 patch and verify that hitting the drums triggers some sound from Reason.
What intelligence goes where?
At this point you need to address a fundamental question: how do you best assign the drums to samples? You can change which MIDI notes your drums send, and you can also assign incoming notes in Reason to any samples you want. So any given "drum kit" is a combination of your hardware setup (which notes it sends) plus the Reason setup (which samples it plays on each note). This flexibility is nice, but it creates potential for great confusion, and you don't want this kind of confusion when you're in the middle of a gig.
You have two options: make your drums always send the same stuff, or make Reason always respond to notes in the same way. In the first case, you would set your drums to roughly follow the general MIDI drum map and leave them that way all the time. You could select different kits by changing the MIDI channel it sends on, but the same pads always send the same notes. Then on the Reason side you map those notes to whatever sounds you want. For example, your snare pad will always send MIDI note 37 (drum map for acoustic snare), but you might set reason to play a conga note there instead.
The other option is making Reason always follow the general MIDI drum map and you can change what notes your drums send. That is, on an acoustic kit your snare drum may send MIDI note 37 (acoustic snare), whereas on an auxiliary percussion kit it may send MIDI note 63 (drum map for low conga).
Which method is better? I personally use the first: do all the mappings in Reason. The pros and cons are as follows:
- Pro: Remapping in Reason is usually faster and easier.
- Pro: You can have an infinite number of kits, each saved as a sampler preset.
- Pro: Super-easy setup for any gig -- just load up the presets you want and assign them in the hardware interface.
- Con: You use up MIDI channels quick, one per kit. (But remember you can have sets of kits, one per Reason song file.)
The pros and cons on the second method, doing assignments on the drums, are:
- Pro: Easier to use with existing sampler patches which follow the General MIDI drum layout.
- Pro: You can replace Reason with a General MIDI sound module or drum module and get sounds roughly approximating the same kit.
- Con: Oddball percussion sounds won't fit into the MIDI drum map anyway (there's no note number for "thunderstorm"), so the above pros may not matter.
- Con: Number of unique kits limited to what your MIDI drums support.
So what's best for you? Either method is fine, but pick one and stick with it. Only change your variables in one place. If both are changing, then you get into a tangled mess of "now what kit number goes with what song file?" -- and those kinds of messes always pop up when you really can't afford the wasted time.
Setting up the NN-19
Finally we get to the good stuff. Open Reason, create a mixer, and create a NN-19 sampler. First task is to subdivide the "keyboard" into a bunch of one-note zones. Do this by option-clicking (Windows alt-click) in the space above the keyboard. It should look something like the example here.
Click the "Select keyzone via MIDI" button. Hit a drum pad, and the NN-19 should hop to that note. Now pick a sample using the blue "load sample" button (it looks like a file folder). Set the root note to match the note you're playing, or choose a different root note to pitch the sample up or down. In the example here, a tom sound is selected, with the high and low key set to G1, and the root note is set to G1, too. Last, set the level to whatever you want. The default level of 100, on a scale from 0 to 127, should be somewhere close already. In my experience, cymbals usually need the most volume adjustments to get the mix right.
You'll probably notice at this point that long sounds like cymbals get choked much too fast. The key here is the "release" setting on the amplitude envelope. Setting the release around 75-90% will usually give good a good amount of sustain. You can do some funky stuff with this slider, too -- try setting your hi-hat pedal to MIDI control it. (If your hi-hat sends continuous controller messages, do an "edit MIDI remote mapping" on this slider and set it to that controller number.)
The last essential setting is velocity response. Set velocity to control the amplitude, or else all your notes will come out the same volume. Setting the knob all the way right will give you full control, and in-between gives you some amount of compression in a sense. (Not the same as putting a compressor on the audio output, though.) Fool with this until you get the right volume response for your playing. May as well fool with the other knobs, too, and see what happens.
I usually turn the LFO and filter off to begin with, as that gives me "dry" samples. These settings depend entirely on the sound you're going for. If you're using acoustic drum samples, you may want to leave them off. If you're messing with other sounds, then have at it. Also try using your hi-hat pedal to control one of these knobs.
Limitations of the NN-19
While you can do a fair bit with the NN-19, in many applications you'll hit frustrating limitations. These include:
- No mute groups (aka "alternate groups"), where one sound will cut off another. This is most often used with hi-hat sounds.
- No velocity layering of samples.
- Entire drum kit goes out one set of outputs, so you can't run specific sections through effects devices (it's all or nothing).
- Global sample release setting (in amp envelope) cannot be tuned for each sample.
- Can't set stereo panning on individual samples.
...and other esoteric stuff. But the good news is the NN-XT sampler handles all that stuff with ease. That's the next article.