HOW TO: Deconstructing Drum Loops

Deconstructing drum loops with Melodyne 4 Studio
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Celemony’s Melodyne has been raising eyebrows and lowering jaws since its introduction in 2001. Besides offering fresh takes on pitch correction and time stretching, the software introduced an unprecedented approach to the graphic representation of sound. Throughout the intervening years, Melodyne has become increasingly sophisticated and powerful, perhaps most notably with the introduction of Direct Note Access (DNA) in 2009, which made it possible to isolate and manipulate individual notes within polyphonic recordings in much the same way that one edits MIDI information in a standard “piano-roll” MIDI editor.

Melodyne 4 Studio ($849) extends that DNA technology to unlimited tracks, including crosstrack note editing; adds a new Sound Editor featuring unprecedented sound-design tools; introduces improved tempo detection and shaping capabilities; implements 64-bit plug-in support (plug-in and standalone versions are both included); and more. You can even record multiple tracks directly into Melodyne 4 Studio, encroaching upon DAW functionality.

Melodyne 4 operates in four modes—Melodic, Polyphonic, Percussive, and Universal—each with its own algorithm and corresponding display and tool set. As you might imagine, the Percussive algorithm is optimal for editing and manipulating drum parts, and one of my favorite things to do with Melodyne is to import a drum loop (especially a cheesy lo-fi loop) and transform it into something completely different and exciting. Here, I’ll describe just a few of the many possible approaches to doing that.


Fig. 1. Melodyne's Formant control can be particularly effective on drums when combined with a major change in pitch. Listen to Ex. 1 at the end of the article.  One of the easiest ways to manipulate a drum loop in Melodyne is to select the entire loop and alter it using the Formant control, which affects the relationship between the fundamental and the harmonic overtones. In the case of a drum loop, it acts sort of like a nonlinear filter, causing the overall sound to get fatter and thinner in strange and unpredictable ways. And it can be particularly effective when combined with a major change in pitch, as shown in Figure 1. The result is a boxy yet super-snappy kick, with a resonant snare that sounds slightly gated and reversed, and an oddly metallic hi-hat that sounds as if it had been run through an envelope generator.

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Fig. 2. Processing "blobs" independently lets you create nearly unlimited variations using only the Formant and Pitch controls. Listen to Ex. 2 at the end of the article. Digging deeper, however, Melodyne allows you to select a specific sonic event or events—referred to as “blobs”—to be processed, apart from the others. For example, beginning with the already altered loop, you could select the first blob (in this instance the kick on the downbeat), then choose Select Special>Select Same Beat In All Bars in the Edit menu, and all four of the downbeat kicks will be highlighted and linked. The pitch and formant parameters for these can then be changed as a group, independently of the other blobs. Continue the process with the non-downbeat kicks, snare, and hats, and you’ll be able to create a nearly unlimited number of variations using only the Formant and Pitch controls, such as the one shown in Figure 2.

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Fig. 3. Layering new "substitute" sounds over original elements. Listen to Ex. 3 at the end of the article. Besides altering the sonic characteristics of individual sounds in a drum loop by manipulating the formant, pitch, and other parameters (there are many more), it is also possible to substitute one sound for another. For example, say you like the sound of the snare, but would prefer a more ’80s “gunshot” snare sound on the second beat of each measure. You can select all of those snare hits, delete them, and then drag and drop your preferred single-hit snare sample into those empty slots. (You could even use an actual gunshot sound as the replacement sample.) And, alternatively, instead of deleting the original sounds, you might layer the new ones on top of them, as shown in Figure 3. And, if the replacement samples differ considerably from the originals—or if you just want to get creative—you can modify their duration, loudness, and other characteristics using the Timing, Amplitude, Attack Speed, Time Handle, and other tools.

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When either the Melodic or Polyphonic algorithms are used to analyze a sound, the new Sound Editor becomes available. (It relies the harmonic spectrum information provided by those algorithms.) Among other things, the Sound Editor makes it possible to shape sound by precisely analyzing and controlling its fundamental components, including harmonics within its overtone spectrum, which may be manipulated either individually or collectively using “macro” controls such as Brilliance, Contour, Odd/Even, and Comb. You can even copy the harmonic spectrum analysis of one instrument and paste it onto another, making, say, a trombone sound more like a trumpet. To take advantage of the Sound Editor, I reanalyzed the drum loop using the Polyphonic algorithm.

Fig. 4. The drum-loop sound is altered by modifying Harmonics settings in the Sound Editor to create a comb-filtering-like effect. Listen to Ex. 4 at the end of the article. Fig. 5. The loop is further manipulated using the Spectrum, Formant, Amplitude, and Phase controls in the Synth section. Listen to Ex. 5 at the end of the article. In Figure 4, I’ve used the controls in the Harmonics section of the Sound Editor to radically change the sound of the drum loop by setting Comb to 5.0 and Odd/Even to -12. That emphasizes both the odd and even harmonics that are five harmonics apart: first and second, sixth and seventh, 11th and 12th, etc., creating a complex comb filter-like effect that not only dramatically alters the relationships between the frequencies, but adds a bit of edgy phase shift. Using the Spectrum, Formant, Amplitude, and Phase controls in the Synth section takes things even farther out, as shown in Figure 5. In fact, it is entirely possible to transform the source sound into one that is indistinguishable from a synthesized sound.

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Although I’ve limited the examples to deconstructing drum loops, it should be obvious that these same techniques can also be used to modify any recorded sound. And, once you’ve arrived at something you like, you can always pitch-correct and time-stretch it should you so desire.

Barry Cleveland is a San Francisco-based journalist, guitarist, composer, recording artist, and audio engineer; visit