Tempest Recipes: Tom-Toms

April 2, 2012

Many varieties and sizes of tom-tom, but for our purposes they can be considered as basically snares without the snare. Electronic toms rarely sound close to the real thing, their whackyness often a signature. The function is what’s most important:

Tom-Toms are tonal instruments – that is, if they are pitched correctly relative to each other, they can play a tune. If they are tuned to the key of the track, you can play key chords with the Toms, which tends to provide a strong harmonic reinforcement. This is a phenomenon you need to hear yourself, but the recipe below should get you going.

We are lucky though – tuning a physical kit between songs takes a lot of effort, but on the Tempest we can do it in seconds. Further, we don’t need to use more than one pad to set-up an array of toms that play perfect pitch each time. We can also model the output from toms of different sizes to change as we play higher or lower notes and velocities. We also benefit from a much larger palette of tunings immediately at our fingertips, which lends itself nicely to experimentation, and thus to new discoveries. I love this!

Tom synthesis is easy. Like our snare, the core sound is a pinch to make and yet again provides a fertile basis in which our ears can find purchase. Designing toms in-situ, while a basic pattern is running, is really required to get the right sound. What sounds good alone may sound bad in context, and vice versa.

So:

  • For this one, we’ll switch to 16 tunings mode on the selected pad. A triangle in both Osc 1&2, with mix at 100/0 for now. Playing the pads we already have a tom-like sound.
  • Add tiny amount of pitch envelope (<5 is enough for me) and play with the decay. Listen and tweak until it sounds right to you. There’s no voodoo, just don’t let the pitch change be obvious –  a pinch of spice to liven things up.
  • Now the filter – the 2-pole version – no resonance to start. Turn it down until there’s only a dull bump, and turn-up the filter envelope amount. Play with the filter envelope AND the Amp envelope. In general you want a longer decay on both to start. This way you can hear your progress better. Plus, it’s always easier to shorten a sound rather than lengthen it later. Also, I like to apply slight attack – enough at least to remove any envelope clicking. Remember, we want to percieve a note, not have our heads punched-in.
  • Osc2 is entirely optional, but worth a go. Introduce a little and detune it. Change the main pitch envelope destination to Osc1 only (by default it’s all Oscs), and use one of the Aux envelopes to modulate it’s pitch. If kept low in the mix, you can give it a  nice short envelope to momentarily emphasise the high frequencies – akin to the transient of our snare, but perhaps not as severe.
  • Introduce some Filter FM and some resonance – listen out for the effect – the Filter FM does a particular good job here,  providing hollowness and depth, as if moving through a drum shell. A small amount of highpass is essential too – just a little to prevent clashes with the bass drum, but also to give more definition.
  • Now the most important step: if you’ve been tapping-away in 16 tunings mode you may be feeling a little disappointed at this stage. Our tom, although sounding about right, needs dynamics to break the monotony.  Sure, we can beat out a tom melody right now, but it will feel rather flat. The most obvious start is to velocity-map the key parameters as I’ve detailed before. But our best friend here is keymapping (= NoteNumber in ModPaths). A effective use is mapping Note Number to the decay of the envelopes. As we increase the amount, notice that the higher-pitched toms will sound shorter, much as we would expect. It takes some tweaking-around – I suggest starting with a value of +80 and going from there. Try negative values too, and the other destinations
  • Of course you don’t need to use tunings mode – you can copy the same tom to different pads and tune then individually, but it takes more effort and eats-up you pad real estate. It does offer a lot more flexibility though, such as the ability to mute individual toms. YMMV.
  • If you’re going for realism, remember that drummers have two hands and two feet, meaning no more than 4 simultaneous drum hits (to simplify). Having the snare continue it’s relentless march while a huge tom pattern plays overhead is rarely good sounding (IMO). Electronica is different, especially when the toms are short and poppy – they can often underline a whole track nicely if kept low in the mix.
  • To make the tail more interesting and/or boomy, the methods used for bass drums are equally relevant here. Judicious use of the LFO’s is particuarly important – it really can be a gateway to surprisingly good sounds.
  • Don’t forget the envelopes! self-modulate them, especially the filter env, to provide the extra ‘pop’ (not ‘punch’).
  • Adding a hint of noise, either through the digital Oscs or noise as modulator, is always worth a listen, but I find it of limited use here. To me it seems to detract from the innocent simplicity of a good Tom  sound.

Again pointers, and by no means comprehensive – the importance of listening for the key parameters can’t be overstated, as you are surely in the right neighborhood by now.

Oh yes – back to tuning, etc. In 16 Tunings mode you can play pretty-much an chord your heart desires, beating even the biggest concert kits in the Toms department. The question is – what notes to play to fit what key? The answer (in a typically generic way) might be here:

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