Building a better groove with creative sound design, sliced loops, and MIDI.
Skippy's Big Bad Beats and Retro Funk (from Ilio Entertainments and Spectrasonics, respectively, distributed by Ilio Entertainments) are loop collections developed for Ilio's Groove Control series. Groove Control's cool concept offers an audio loop's feel and realism combined with MIDI data's flexibility and easy manipulation. (For a closer look at that technology, see the sidebar "Inside Groove Control.") The simple but well-executed idea adds considerable value and versatility to these already high-quality loop libraries.
Big Bad Beats and Retro Funk cost $99 apiece for the audio CD versions and $199 for the CD-ROM sets (in Roland, Akai/E-mu, and Kurzweil formats). Groove Control relies on a tight relationship between the sliced samples and the sequencer files; therefore, that function is only available on the CD-ROM versions. I reviewed the Roland and Akai/E-mu versions.
SKIP-HOPSkippy's Big Bad Beats concentrates on infectious dance, hip-hop, and pop grooves, with an emphasis on creative sound design. Between the expected kicks, snares, hi-hats, shakers, and tambourines (which are often interesting and highly sculpted sounds), you'll find a variety of intriguing percussion and textural effects, such as pitch- and filter-swept cymbals, tons of filtered noise (from percussive hits to atmospheric swooshes), and even a strange animal noise or two.
There are 34 basic grooves, all with many variations, providing more than 300 loops. Sound designer John "Skippy" Lehmkuhl wanted to offer numerous choices within each basic pattern so users could vary the loops during the course of a song and maintain the same fundamental groove. For instance, many grooves offer several different full mixes, small mixes with a reduced number of elements, and mixes without snare or kick. A few also have matching fills.
The library tends toward dry, separated sounds, letting you add your own desired ambience. Tempos range from 66 to 145 bpm, and many have a swing feel. However, Groove Control makes adjusting tempo and feel factors stunningly simple.
AIRPORT MUSICWithin the pop, dance, and hip-hop genres, Big Bad Beats covers a lot of territory. Some of my favorites include Mozilla, with its deep, thundering house beat; the slow, swirling 70-bpm groove of Candlelight; and Gomer Pyle, featuring distinctive, cool, and almost offensive squonky noises over a heavy groove. Jack Attack showcases submarine noises that morph into a synth rhythm, along with shuffly shakers over a simple, vinyl-tinged drum loop. Jet Set is based on rich, surging noise effects reminiscent of jet planes layered on top of a basic, perky beat. Then there's the jaunty drum 'n' bass angel beat of Future Zone; one of its many alternate mixes adds Latin percussion, a surprisingly effective choice.
If electro is more your style, Greazy Meal delivers great sounds in spades, including juicy, resonant filter blips and a white-noise snare with slapback and filtered reverb. Java includes a mellow, pitched, resonant synth blip element and a juicy, gritty, highpass-filter sweep; ambient drums provide a backbeat in concert with multiple hi-hats and various different metallic percussion. Chewy was another favorite loop (for more on this loop, see the sidebar "Inside Groove Control").
All in all, Skippy's Big Bad Beats is an impressive collection of loops. Its innovative sound design and solid, get-up-and-move-your-feet programming make it worth checking out.
RETRO FUNKWhat can shake your booty when it's loaded into your sampler? Retro Funk re-creates a wide range of classic funk drumming styles and sounds that are up to the task. Spectrasonics founder Eric Persing and songwriter Bob Wilson co-produced Retro Funk (the first CD in Spectrasonics' Classic Drumming series).
The basic elements of any drum loop library are the drummers, and Retro Funk features four excellent musicians: Eric Boseman, Gregg Bisonnette, John Ferraro, and co-producer Bob Wilson. Each boasts an impressive and extensive resume; as expected with musicians of this caliber, the playing is superb. All the loops have a great danceable feel, and the timbres vary widely, as if you were needle dropping on a bunch of vintage records. Vinyl noise is provided separately, which is greatly appreciated; sometimes I like the effect, but I'm happy to have loops available untarnished.
OPUS DE FUNKSo how do you make a loop sound vintage? The documentation doesn't go into specifics, but it sounds like a number of creative recording and processing techniques were used. Of course, there's compression on everything, from the fat, thickly textured Funked Up to the ultrasqueezed Junk Funk. EQ plays a large role, from minor bass and treble boosts to more extreme effects, including some serious band-limiting. Kicks boom on one track; others are squashed into a tiny, band-limited space on another; snares ring out, snap brightly, slam deeply, or are squeezed into dull, cardboard hits. On the other hand, a good number of loops feature a tight, natural sound. The processing suited the material, but I could have done without the few loops that feature a prominent auto-wah effect.
As expected from Spectrasonics, the collection is well-organized. It has 56 basic grooves, ranging in tempo from 75 to 143 bpm. Again, tempo doesn't matter too much with Groove Control libraries. Most of the grooves include alternate versions of the main loop, and almost all feature multiple fills. Other solo loops provide percussion elements such as tambourines (and congas, in a few cases).
Picking favorites is hard - Retro Funk has lots of great loops. The highly compressed and band-limited Slinky features bouncy ghost beats on a brushed snare; Funked Up perfectly captures the Parliament-Funkadelic vibe with its thick, bottom-heavy sounds and solid groove. Trippin' has a squashed, ambient sound and a forward-driving beat, while Livin' Large has a natural, unprocessed sound, and its 16th-note tambourines put the polish on a real rump-shaker rhythm. The fat, slightly muffled timbre of Hammerhead's 16th notes set off a great syncopated pattern, playing the kick against the low tom. I couldn't keep my shoulders from swaying in time. Finally, Wicked Bad is light in feel and timbre, with a bouncing 16th-note snare, the kick only on beat one, and a band-limited tone.
MORE THAN FUNKTIONALI really like Retro Funk, and the Groove Control features put it over the top. Anyone looking for great-sounding, expertly played funk grooves should definitely give it a listen.
Groove Control is a central feature of Skippy's Big Bad Beats and Retro Funk. How does it work? "It's important to understand that Groove Control is not a single technology," says Ilio's Mark Hiskey. First, the sound designers create the audio loops. Then, using a combination of custom and off-the-shelf software and labor-intensive manual editing, the loops are sliced into thousands of individual hits. Finally, the sound designers generate and tweak MIDI sequences that, when used to trigger the sliced hits, reproduce the original loop's timing and dynamics.
Groove Control provides sequences in Cakewalk, Cubase, Logic, Performer, Vision, and Standard MIDI File formats, so they're broadly compatible. To give an idea of the amount of work involved, Big Bad Beats creator John "Skippy" Lehmkuhl says he spent about two months producing the audio loops and then about ten months editing to create the Groove Control version.
Because the sequencer plays individual hits, you can easily change a loop's tempo, impose a straight or swing feel, quantize, alter the pitch or gate times, and more - all independently. Furthermore, it's a relatively simple task to chop up hits and rearrange them to create entirely new rhythms. The audio itself isn't altered when you change the tempo in your sequencer, so you don't suffer the artifacts of pitch-shifting or time-stretching. If you play a loop very slowly, you start to hear gaps between the notes, but the sound designers extended the tails of the hits to allow a good deal of slowing down before that happens.
Here's an example of Groove Control in action: a Big Bad Beats loop called Chewy practically jumped out of the speakers for use in a track I was producing. The loop was at 97 bpm, but my song's tempo was 128 bpm. As soon as I pasted the loop's MIDI data into the sequence, Chewy automatically played at the new tempo with no time-stretching necessary. The loop's swing groove didn't match the track's straight-16th feel, so I simply quantized the Groove Control MIDI data, and the feel matched the song.
Then, I went a little further. The loop had a syncopated kick, but the singer wanted a straight four-on-the-floor kick pattern, and he felt a few of the percussion hits didn't match the song's rhythm. So I rolled up my sleeves and dug into the MIDI track. Groove Control sequences use a simple rising chromatic scale to play the hits, so they're easy to follow; I just grabbed a couple of kicks, copied them to beats 2 and 4, and got rid of the syncopated notes. Next, I found the errant percussion hits, reduced the Velocity on a couple of them, and changed some others to use a softer, less intrusive hit from elsewhere in the loop. It took only a few minutes and sounded great - how cool is that?
Some time ago, I moved away from using my sampler for loops. Since then, I prefer using my digital-audio sequencer for beat-slicing and time-stretching. With their combination of fidelity, ease of use, and opportunities for creative loop manipulation, Ilio's and Spectrasonics' Groove Control libraries have lured me back to using my sampler as a sound source for loops with, my MIDI sequencer acting as groovemeister.