Kick-beat Emphasis and Other Techniques

Kick-beat Emphasis and Other Techniques

  • In a nutshell
    • EDM and other bass-focused music relies on a heavy emphasis on the bass beat
    • Many groups and producers use sidechain compression, which automatically lowers the volume of some audio, in time with the beat, to make space for the kick
    • You can do the same thing using MIDI triggering using LFOTool instead, which also has a range of other envelope-driven effects on resonance, filters, and volume
    • LFOTool is a highly capable and flexible tool that can be used in a range of ways for pro and semi-pro audio production

As a teenager, I was heavily into Rock and Metal music, but also loved synth-based musicians like Jean Michel Jarre (I was blown away by Rendezvous Houston), and Tangerine Dream.  My tastes have grown broader over time to include things like Dance, Trance, and Trip-Hop.  One of the things I particularly like about these genres is their emphasis on the bass beat, and I only recently learned how easily these effects can be professionally created.

A signature sound in this type of music is to reduce (or duck) the volume of one or more sounds in time with the kick drum, to create space for the beat.  This creates an audio emphasis and is very rhythmic and consistent, usually on the quarter note.

A common way of doing this is using sidechain compression, by putting a compressor on the track you want to this effect on, and connecting it to an audio feed from the kick drum, so that it can drive the compressor.  This has the effect of using the kick drum as a trigger, meaning that the compression on the impacted sound is normal most of the time, but increases every time the kick drum hits.

Here’s an example I created using the files in the Source Files section at the bottom of this page, but with the Cubase Compressor running with an audio SideChain from the Kick Drums:

Gareth BarrSidechain Compression Example

While this is a good approach, it can be challenging to get the settings right, and some DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) have limited sidechain capabilities that make this more complicated to accomplish.  That’s why I tend to prefer LFOTool by  Xfer Records – an amazingly powerful and flexible modulator effect utility that can deliver a range of effects well beyond what we are going to cover here.  You can buy it online for ~$50, but you can also download a free trial here, which will work for 15 minutes.

LFOTool Screenshot

LFOTool uses time based envelopes to control parameters like filters, volume, resonance, pan, and other variables.  You can think of these as being similar to ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) type envelopes that just run through start to end from the point they are triggered.  There’s a great deal of flexibility in how you trigger them and how they are played – for example, you can have them triggered every quarter note or any other measure, automatically synchronized with your project, or you can trigger them from a MIDI note in a variety of ways.

Because we’re going to focus on the basic things in LFOTool, we don’t need to get too deep into the various settings right now, but can simply focus on the central part of the screen, which shows the envelope that will be used to control the volume.  It should look something like the image labelled LFOTOOL SCREENSHOT.

To start with, we’re going to duplicate the sidechain compression effect we heard earlier, but instead of using an audio feed from the kick drum to drive a compressor, we will use a MIDI trigger to drive a volume envelope in LFOTool.  I will walk through this example using Cubase Pro as my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), but you can use pretty much any tool, including Ableton or Pro Tools just as easily.  If you’re following along, please make sure that you have already downloaded and installed LFOTool.

If you have your own audio files for this, along with a MIDI Kick Drum beat, you can use them.  Otherwise, you can use the samples provided at the bottom of this article to recreate the different effects shown below.  Make sure you download all four files from the source files section – Drums, Bass, Synth, and Kick Drum MIDI.

Now create an empty project, and drag each of the files into it, noting that the MIDI file does not need to be connected to any instrument for now.

It should now look something like this.

and sound something like this.

Gareth BarrRaw Mix

As you can hear, it sounds OK, but doesn’t really have any emphasis or punchiness.

Now let’s configure LFOTool for our sample project, and apply the same type of ducking effect we heard in the earlier sample.

First, add LFOTool as an insert on the Synth track.  In Cubase, you do this by selecting the Synth track, expanding the Inserts section in the Track Inspector strip, clicking on the first empty space, and selecting LFOTool from the list of plugins.  At that point, LFOTool will open, and you will also see it listed in the Inserts section.

It should look something like the image labelled LFOTOOL INSERT IN SYNTH.

LFOTool Insert in Synth

Now we need to use the Kick Drum track as a MIDI trigger.  Select the Kick Drum track, and change the MIDI out to point to the LFO tool.  In Cubase, this will say the track name you used, with LFOTool – MIDI In on the end of the description.

It should look like the image labelled ROUTE MIDI TO LFOTOOL,

Route MIDI to LFOTool

Now we just need to configure LFOTool itself.  Let’s start with something fairly basic.  First, we will select a preset by clicking on the top right corner of LFOTool, where it says Presets, then click on SideChain, and pick one of the SideChain presets – I used SideChain-2.  That will configure the tool with the right settings.

Next, we need to ensure that LFOTool is using MIDI as the trigger, so click twice on the “Note Retrig” icon in the bottom left section of LFOTool, titled MIDI.  This should show the letters ENV next to Note Retrig, which indicates that the note will be used to trigger the Envelope.

Lastly, a personal preference – on the right hand side, where it says LFO Routing, I tend to lower the volume impact to around 75, which makes the effect slightly less weak – i.e. it doesn’t completely cut the audio when the drum strikes.

If you have followed all these steps, LFOTool should now look like this.

LFOTool Configured

And it should sound like this.

Gareth BarrLFOTool Sidechain-type Mix

As you can hear, the effect is very similar, and can easily be tuned and refined to provide a richer sound.  The point though, is not that you can spend $50 to reproduce a basic compressor, but that this tool gives you incredible flexibility to customize the envelope and create interesting effects.

For example, you can move the envelope around easily, and change the way the effect sounds.  Try the following while playing the music in a continuous loop, and listen to the way these changes impact the sounds:

  • Drag the solid/filled circles into new positions
  • Drag the hollow circles either way along the line to see it create curves instead of straight lines
  • Double-click anywhere on the line to add a solid node, and double-click on it again to remove it
  • Hold down shift while clicking anywhere on the line to create a flat segment

This is only scratching the surface of what you can do with this tool, as we are only playing with a single envelope, and with it only impacting volume.  As I’m sure you can imagine, you can do a lot more with multiple envelopes simultaneously controlling things like resonance, filter controls, and volume.  I strongly recommend playing with the different presets to get a feel for what is possible.

Lastly, to give you a flavor of the sort of effects possible, I am including another sample below that uses the TranceGate-1 preset.

Gareth BarrLFOTool - Trance Gate Effect

As you can see, LFOTool is a very easy to use, yet incredibly powerful tool for creating interesting and powerful sound effects and modulations.  Even though it’s more commonly used in EDM (Electronic Dance Music), I think this could be just as interesting an effect in a Rock band, maybe impacting the guitar sounds, or even the vocals.

I hope you found this interesting and/or useful, and would welcome further suggestions and ideas for what to share next.

If you want to recreate this sound, the source files are below.

Source Files

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