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Master Class: Any Way You Slice It

December 1, 2009
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FIG. 1: In the Stylus RMX Edit Groups window, you can select loop slices in groups or individually for processing. I''ve gathered all of the snare hits and assigned them their own effects rack. Notice the little button that lets me add or delete slices from the group.

FIG. 1: In the Stylus RMX Edit Groups window, you can select loop slices in groups or individually for processing. I''ve gathered all of the snare hits and assigned them their own effects rack. Notice the little button that lets me add or delete slices from the group.

Half a decade after its introduction, Spectrasonics Stylus RMX remains at the very top of my list of go-to instruments. What keeps it on the A team is its elegant design, a massive and inspiring core library, tremendously recombinant rhythmic and sonic flexibility (even more so since Version 1.7), an ever growing list of third-party sound libraries and the bundled SAGE Converter, which lets you import your own grooves.

It's supremely simple to build powerful grooves in RMX. Just load your favorite preset parts and multis, lock RMX to the host tempo and loop until the cows come home. But that's like climbing into a spacecraft to repeatedly circle the block. Practically every page and every parameter of RMX offers ways to imbue grooves with your own personality, and that doesn't require a lot of deep digging. Furthermore, you can create your own animated rhythms and grooves from static loops of virtually any format.

In this article, I'll present tips and tricks to adapt to your own creative applications. I've compiled a treasure trove of pointers from the most respected users and developers in the industry.

As of this writing, the most recent version of RMX is 1.9.0e, and it is now 64-bit Mac native and Snow Leopard?compatible. If you haven't upgraded from 1.5, do so immediately; it's a free major upgrade for registered users. Time Designer is arguably its most dramatic new feature. If you want to know what the fuss is about, see my overview of software drummers in the August 2009 issue of EM (available at emusician.com/sftinstruments/sticking-software/).

Grilled Grooves

The Edit, FX and Chaos Designer pages have a powerful feature in common: They can access the Edit Groups window. How often have you wished that the snare in a loop had a bit more reverb or that the timing of that snare was just a tad more loose? Edit Groups let you do that and more.

Clicking on the grille panel at the bottom center of RMX's screen reveals the Group Edit menu. In an instrument laden with powerful features, you have just uncovered the mother lode. Here you can edit any and every slice to your liking (see Fig. 1). If you click on the tab that displays Assign, a drop-down menu appears, letting you create groups based on time divisions and rhythmic placement. Those criteria are handy, but when more complex rhythms arise or you need to process a specific kit piece, you'll want to create groups manually.

Here's how to selectively process any single element of a groove. For the sake of simplicity, I'll start with a drum groove and select snares for processing. Choose 75-Plate b under the Core Library > Swing submenu. Play chromatically up the keyboard until you find the first snare hit (E1). Click the Edit Groups Assign tab and select the second entry: Create Edit Group (First Play a MIDI Note). A new Edit Group is created containing the note you just played. To keep things tidy, select Rename Edit Group from the Assign menu and type in Snare.

From the Assign menu, choose Enable Add/Remove Slice. Notice the new Add Slice button that appears; when you trigger slices from your MIDI keyboard, the button's name changes to Remove Slice for slices in the current group. Play the chromatic scale and click the button as desired to add slices to or remove them from the group. Listen carefully for snare ghost notes because you'll probably want to add them to the group. You can confirm your selections by soloing either the Edit Group (to hear only the snares) or the Main Group (to hear everything else). If you hear a snare in the Main Group, find which key triggers it and then switch to the snare group and add it.

You can select any group and apply the Edit, Chaos and FX-page parameters to just the slices in that group without affecting the rest of the groove (see Web Clip 1). Notice that right-clicking (control-clicking on a Mac) outside of the rack area on the FX page brings up a menu of useful effects-rack presets. Those carve out some pretty distinctive sounds.

One From Group A

It's easy to forget just how flexible RMX is. You start by choosing from two modes: Multi (the default) and Kit (which transforms RMX into a drum-machine-like sound module). In Multi mode, each of the eight channels can operate as a MIDI groove player, in which individual MIDI notes play looping grooves, or as a MIDI slice player, in which individual MIDI notes play slices from a single groove. These MIDI modes are called Groove Menu and Slice Menu, and you can build powerful rhythm-section performances by combining them.

FIG. 2: The Chaos Designer opens up new worlds of loop mangling while giving you precise control over the results.

FIG. 2: The Chaos Designer opens up new worlds of loop mangling while giving you precise control over the results.

The most effective use for Groove Menu mode is the sequential and parallel triggering of related loops. With that, you can create very dynamic rhythm-section arrangements. Groove Menus often provide fills and breaks in addition to variations of the main groove, and they frequently include ancillary hand percussion, which makes it easier to heat up tracks with more activity.

Slice Menu mode is most often used to adapt sliced loops to new tempos, but RMX Chaos Designer takes you way beyond that (see Fig. 2). It has an almost uncanny ability to produce very musical variations by randomizing different aspects of a sliced loop.

When you want something in between a constantly improvising loop and endless repetition, use the Capture button. That will capture the MIDI-based activities of the Chaos Designer. Audio-based processes — reverse, rush/drag, pitch and buzz — are not captured, but you can bounce the audio track to lock those in. When you click the Capture button, the blue-highlighted area captures a MIDI clip containing the last 16 passes of the loop. (The Start button resets the Capture buffer.) You then export or drag a captured MIDI clip to play the captured version of the loop from your DAW (see Web Clip 2).

You can generate more focused variations in several ways. Create and then capture an Edit Group that affects only the final half measure of the loop for interesting fills (see Web Clip 3). Or be even more selective and capture the last half measure of just the snares and toms.

Ordering Out

When you have a loop that is perfect except for one sound (the kick or snare, for example), you can use Slice Menu mode to outsource that one sound. Getting this done is a multistage process, but it's worth the effort.

Suppose you want to replace the snares and are triggering slices from RMX MIDI data imported into a DAW track. In Slice Menu mode, MIDI data triggers the loop's slices sequentially rather than assigning specific kit pieces to their own MIDI notes (as in a drum machine). That may appear to make selecting all snares difficult, but it is really quite easy.

In your DAW's piano-roll editor, locate and select all notes that trigger a snare sound and then cut and paste those notes to a new track. Now remap all the snare notes to a single pitch and assign your new track to a different sound source, be it a different plug-in, a hardware instrument or one of RMX's Sound menus. Bear in mind that some drum modules may have alternate hits, such as rim shots, and right- and left-hand strokes mapped to different notes. That affords you the opportunity to remap the MIDI data to take advantage of those features (see Web Clip 4).

The RMX Sound menus are well-organized patches that gather one-shot percussive instruments by kit piece (see Fig. 3). Drag the note data vertically in the piano-roll editor until you have found a sound that suits you. Alternatively, you could instantiate a second copy of RMX and use its drum kits to remap the data. That is handy for remapping multiple RMX sounds on a single track.

Dynamic Duos

Starting with V. 1.7, you can use RMX's Sync button to make RMX start and stop in sync with your DAW. That makes it a lot more convenient to assemble complex multis replete with animated Chaos Designer moves without having to drag and drop bar after bar of MIDI data to the host tracks. But what if you don't want RMX to start at the beginning of the song or you want to create something more dynamic, say a single part or two playing for a couple of bars before RMX pulls out the stops? Through a combination of dragging MIDI tracks and MIDI remote control, you can dynamically vary RMX playback throughout the song without abandoning the cool programming of the entire multi.

Start by making sure the Sync to Host button is off. (You won't need it for this.) Next, load a multi with lots of different percussive elements — I've chosen 080 Chaos Theory from Factory Multis > Adreneline Rush. Now assign a MIDI command to start playback of the entire multi by selecting Learn a Control from the MIDI Learn submenu under the RMX Disk-icon menu. I use the Fire button on the joystick of my Korg microKontrol (MIDI CC65), but any on-and-off MIDI message you can send from a footswitch, sustain pedal or button will do. Click the playback button on RMX and then press your MIDI controller to assign it. You can now record messages to start and stop the entire multi (see Web Clip 5). Alternatively, you could assign separate MIDI buttons to start and stop playback of individual RMX channels. For more variation, assign MIDI controllers to turn each channel's Chaos Designer on and off.

FIG. 3: The Stylus RMX Sound menu hosts an amazing number of hits arranged across the MIDI keyboard, offering an enormous pool of replacement sounds for individual loop slices.

FIG. 3: The Stylus RMX Sound menu hosts an amazing number of hits arranged across the MIDI keyboard, offering an enormous pool of replacement sounds for individual loop slices.

One Nation Under a Groove

Sometimes homemade or even third-party grooves don't sit in the pocket as neatly as you'd like — the slices might sound choppy and not continuous, or they may have timing issues. The problem may be the result of poorly sliced loops or of choosing a tempo that is too slow. RMX can adapt to an unusually wide range of tempos, but there are limits.

Try this simple edit first. Use the technique for creating single-slice edit groups described earlier to isolate the problem slice and add a bit of a tail by extending its release time on the RMX Edit page. That will smooth the transition between that slice and the next one in line. Timing issues for any slice are easily remedied in Slice mode by nudging the MIDI data on your host's MIDI track. Although the new Time Designer feature doesn't support Edit Groups, selecting and adjusting a simpatico Time Designer preset will often help unify a groove. Len Sasso's article in the July 2009 issue of EM (available at emusician.com/howto/recording_production/sequencing_editing/sound-design-workshop-about-time/) covers Time Designer's capabilities in depth.

Don't overlook the Edit Group Solo and Mute buttons. Click Play on RMX to isolate the part with the problem slice in playback and solo the Edit Group so that you can hear the results of your edits. Un-solo the edit group to hear the slice in context.

These concepts should open up many new creative applications for RMX. For a wealth of insights and fresh inspiration, be sure to check out the in-depth tutorials by Eric Persing and others at spectrasonic.net, by John Lehmkuhl at pluginguru.com and by Kyle Z at ninevoltaudio.com. You'll also find a collection of their ideas in the Online Bonus Material at emusician.com/online_exclusive/master_class_any_way_slice_it_bonus.

Marty Cutler and Kenny Kosek (aka Chef of the Pasture) are busy cooking up more computer-assisted, panethnic meshugaas. Special thanks to Laura Whitmore of Mad Sun Marketing (madsun .carbonmade.com), Byron Devers of bigfishaudio.com, Paul de Benedictis of pdbmusic.com and Mark Hisky of Ilio Entertainment (ilio.com) for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

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