There's never been a better time to put together drum tracks in your computer. Plugins and self-contained applications from dozens of manufacturers offer amazing levels of percussion power. But Spectrasonics' Stylus RMX stands apart from the crowd for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, its creative sound design—masterminded by Spectrasonics founder Eric Persing—is consistently inspired. Second, the sound engine in Stylus RMX includes some unusual and useful features, such as the ability to process each drum hit in a beat individually with its own filters, envelopes, and effects.
In this article I'll reveal some ways you can get the most out of Stylus RMX. But the most important tip for anyone who wants to become proficient with the program is, watch the DVD! The tutorial DVD that ships with RMX provides almost nine hours of basic information in the form of QuickTime videos. And although the user interface is so well designed that the program hardly needs instructions, Spectrasonics has also included a 68,000-word online manual. Even so, RMX will do many things you may not have imagined. (Although Spectrasonics does not offer a downloadable demo for the plug-in, the company has an overview video and nearly 100 MP3s on its site.)
The eight mixer slots in RMX (see Figure 1) may seem like overkill. Who would ever need to run eight drum loops at once? When you're first discovering RMX, you may be quite content to load one of RMX's more complex, full-sounding beats into mixer slot 1 and move on to some other aspect of your song.
But one way to take advantage of several mixer slots is to load the stripped-down versions of various beats, thereby mixing and matching them. The factory multis provide numerous examples illustrating the possibilities, so try loading some of them and give them a listen. Solo the various mixer channels to hear the components, and take a look at the Edit and FX pages to see how the sounds are being processed. Most often, you'll want to use only one beat that has kick and snare, putting "color" parts in the other mixer slots, but some of the factory multis combine two kick loops.
After loading some components to create your own composite beat, you can adjust their level and panning and add effects to each of them as needed. I recommend exporting the MIDI data for the tracks in Slice Menu mode, because that gives you far more ways to edit the beats in your host sequencer.
For example, you may find that the separate groove components produce a more cohesive rhythm if you use one of them as a quantization template and apply it to the others. In Cubase SX 3 for Windows, for instance, right-click on a MIDI part in a track and select Advanced Quantize -> Part to Groove. That copies the timing of the part to the quantization menu, complete with the name of the part. Then select another MIDI part and hit Q to quantize it to the template.
A more twisted way to work with RMX beats is to play the sounds of one pattern using the MIDI data from another. If both patterns have a regular 16th-note rhythm, you'll only be changing the feel of the rhythm, not the structure. But if one pattern or the other has a few long notes or extra notes, the resulting rhythm will be staggered. You can hear this technique in action here:
In bars 1–2 and 5–6, four RMX beats (57-Isle a, 52-Alice's Dream Wood Hits, 50-Timeless hats, and 68-Tower Zero Repeater) are heard in a layer without any alteration in their original rhythms. In bars 3–4, I dragged all four MIDI patterns onto different tracks so that they're playing the "wrong" sounds. In bars 7–8, a manually edited fill pattern alters the rhythms of the original beats. (I'll cover this technique later in the article.) I compressed the RMX signal with the Cubase Multi-Band Compressor; the bass sound is from Native Instruments' Reaktor.
If you're performing live with RMX, you may want to assign each mixer level fader to a separate hardware MIDI knob or slider so you can do real-time fades. RMX's MIDI Learn feature is not where you might expect. To activate it, you click the floppy disk icon in the lower right corner of the screen, select MIDI Learn from the pop-up menu (see Figure 2), and then click on a control and wiggle your MIDI slider. (Or wiggle the slider first and then click on the control.)
Although RMX won't let you scale the amount of response to the MIDI data, you can use MIDI Learn Inverted to assign one physical slider to two of the RMX level faders (or four of them) so as to crossfade between two entirely separate beats with one physical movement, like this:
The example above, performed live, has four tracks and uses a MIDI knob to crossfade between two of them. The sustaining sound at the beginning is also from Native Instruments' Reaktor. You can see this technique demonstrated in detail in the Super Crossfader Trick tutorial video that comes with RMX.
The main limitation of this crossfading technique is that all of the RMX tracks will be playing all the time. You won't hear some of them if you've crossfaded them out of the mix, but they'll still be using CPU cycles, as will any effects you've assigned to them. However, the effect On/Off buttons can be assigned to a MIDI footswitch, as can the mixer channel mute buttons. If you have nothing better to do with your feet, you can shut off some of the effects when they're not being used.
Since the early days of electronic music, people have been fascinated by the idea of letting a computer choose which notes would be played. A random number generator is often used to make musical decisions, its output being constrained (limited) in various ways that the programmer or composer hopes will be musically interesting. Not only the choice of which notes to play but also their timings and timbres have often been fair game for random processes. (For more on the history of this concept, see the sidebar "Algorithm Rhythm.")
Stylus RMX's Chaos Designer (see Figure 3) borrows some concepts from earlier computer composition programs, and applies them in a way that makes sense for percussion tracks. You can apply randomness to several aspects of an RMX beat in ways that will sometimes produce musically evocative results.
Here are some suggestions on how to get the most out of Chaos Designer. Start by playing your selected beat using RMX's own playback engine, and find some chaos settings that you like. With most of the sliders, a little goes a long way. Pushing them up too high will most likely produce a mad beat that will give your listeners a headache. As with other forms of computer "intelligence," at least 75 percent of the things you try will be useless. Persevere until you find the 25 percent that sound interesting.
If there are sounds, such as a snare backbeat, that you don't want the chaos to affect, assign them to a separate edit group and switch off Chaos Designer for that group. That will give the overall beat more stability. (Watching the Edit Groups tutorial video will get you up to speed on this feature quickly.) Alternatively, you may want to assign a chaos effect to a single element in a groove, as shown in Figure 4. In the following example, the Buzz effect is applied only to the backbeat:
As with the rest of RMX, you can use Chaos Designer in either Groove Menu or Slice Menu mode. Groove Menu is easier in this case: the entire beat is gated by one long MIDI note, so Chaos Designer can do its thing using RMX's internal playback engine. The disadvantage of this approach is that the chaosified beat will be different every time it loops. You may prefer to use Chaos Designer to create a beat that can then be repeated in a deterministic fashion.
To do that, switch to Slice Menu mode, start RMX's playback engine, and then click the Capture button on the Chaos Designer page. That will produce a MIDI file that you can then drag into the appropriate RMX track in your host sequencer.
You need to be aware, however, that only some aspects of the chaos will be encoded in the MIDI file. Specifically, the results of the reverse and pitch sliders are not exported, since there is no convenient way of representing them in MIDI. However, those sliders will continue to operate (randomly) when the beat is played back from the MIDI data in the host sequencer track.
Conversely, other chaos sliders (timing, pattern, and repeat) are converted to MIDI data when a chaos pattern is captured and exported, but those sliders have no effect when external MIDI data is played back in Slice Menu mode. The dynamics slider is unique in that it will affect both the exported MIDI data and external MIDI playback, so after exporting the MIDI file, you'll probably want to remove the dynamics processing from the chaos. Either that, or leave it off when exporting the file, and then add it afterwards for playback purposes.
If you want to "freeze" the results of the reverse and pitch sliders so that they're the same each time the beat loops, there are two ways to do it: either render the entire RMX beat as a new audio file, or turn off Chaos Designer, go to the Edit page, create edit groups for whatever notes you like, and set these notes' pitch and/or reverse values as edits.
The pitch changes that Chaos Designer introduces are always in half-steps, which is odd for a percussion instrument, where microtonal changes would be more natural. But half-step changes are extremely useful for processing pitched material. If you have a copy of Propellerhead ReCycle, try converting some melodic material to .rx2 files. (A violinist playing a country hoedown might be ideal, but anything with lots of 16th-notes will do.) Then import the .rx2 files into RMX using the Stylus SAGE converter and apply pattern and pitch chaos to produce melodic variations. Here's an example, applying pitch change to a jew's-harp REX file from Sound Propulsion:
The hundreds of beats included in Stylus RMX cover so much sonic and stylistic territory that you may never want to compose your own drum grooves. But RMX also can be used as a drum sound module. In this mode, the eight parts in the mixer respond to specific MIDI notes, which correspond more or less to the General MIDI drum kit layout. (See Figure 5.) The layout is fixed, which is unfortunate but understandable, given the eight-channel limitation of the mixer. Kicks are always assigned to the notes B0 and C1, and the two kicks are always selected as a matched pair. Likewise the assignment of the six toms to the white keys between F and D, and so on. There's no way to create an RMX kit that contains, for instance, seven kicks and nine snares.
What the DVD tutorial doesn't mention is that Edit Groups can be used in kit mode. You can mess with the parameters of either or both kicks quite drastically, and pump them through different effects. Ditto for the two snares, the six toms, and so on.
If you're planning to create your own drum tracks, and if your sequencer can extract a quantization template from a MIDI track, don't overlook the possibility of exporting an RMX groove to the sequencer purely to use for quantization purposes. Just find a good-sounding groove (well, they're all good—find one that seems to fit the style you're going for), drag the MIDI data into a track in the sequencer, extract the groove, and you're ready to go.
The Core Library in Stylus RMX is all grooves—the program provides no fills. Spectrasonics sells add-on sound libraries called SAGE Xpanders that do contain fills, but it's easy to create unusual fills and breakdowns in your host sequencer. If you're working in a traditional rock or funk style, you'll need to know how the drummers in that style typically play. But in any case, RMX is not really oriented toward traditional styles out of the box. (You can add rock and pop grooves through one of the SAGE Xpanders, but Steinberg Groove Agent would be a better choice for a percussion plugin if you're looking for '50s rock or '60s Motown.)
After dragging one or more MIDI files to your DAW's track(s) in Slice Menu mode, start moving the MIDI notes around and see what you come up with. Every pattern in RMX starts life as an ascending chromatic scale, as seen in Figure 6a. Your fill might end up looking like Figure 6b.
Spectrasonics has released several of their soundware packages in SAGE Xpander format, so don't forget to tell Santa you want them for Christmas. Having a larger sound library is always good, but personally, I feel I've hardly scratched the surface of what the basic RMX sound library can do. It will be a long, long time before I get tired of using this instrument.
The Chaos Designer in Stylus RMX uses controlled random number processes to make changes in a beat while it plays. As fresh as the idea may seem, it's nothing new. From the late 1950s, when computers first began to appear on university campuses, composers have been using them to develop new musical ideas. One often-mentioned experiment is the Illiac Suite, a string quartet composed in 1957 by Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson using the Illiac mainframe computer at the University of Illinois to generate number tables. Composer Iannis Xenakis also worked with mainframe computers during this period, as did Milton Babbitt.
Computer-assisted composition got a big boost when MIDI appeared in 1983. For the first time, it was possible to generate streams of notes on a small home computer and hear them in real time. The term "algorithmic composition" was derived from a program called Algorithmic Composer, written by Jim Johnson for the Commodore 64 computer. There was a flurry of interest when Jan Hammer revealed, in an interview in Keyboard magazine, that he was using Algorithmic Composer to generate his underscore for the hugely successful Miami Vice TV show.
Johnson (Jim, not Don) later wrote a deeper program called Tunesmith for the Atari ST. Tunesmith is currently available as a free download, but sadly, it will only run on the Atari. During the same period, Emile Tobenfeld of Dr. T's Music Software released the Programmable Variations Generator (see Figure A), a module for his Keyboard Controlled Sequencer (KCS); and a self-contained program called Fingers. Both ran on the Atari ST. In retrospect, KCS also anticipated some of the interactive concepts used in Ableton Live, though it was a MIDI-only program.
Another early leader in bringing algorithmic concepts to the mainstream was the sadly departed Opcode Vision (Figure B). Amazingly, one program from that era, M, is not only still available but will run on current computers. Written by Joel Chadabe, M has been updated for OS X and can be purchased from Cycling '74. Unfortunately, most of the other algorithmic composition programs are long gone, victims of poor sales and obsolete operating systems. Today, those who want to experiment with computer-assisted composition are more likely to build their own algorithms using Cycling '74's Max/MSP or something similar.
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