Sound Design Workshop: Syllabic Percussion

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FIG. 1: Battery''s Setup tab lets you configure when and how each cell is triggered.

Spoken and sung words make excellent fodder for layering with or replacing drum sounds. You can use them unaltered, but even with heavy processing, speech retains an organic essence that nicely complements percussion (see Web Clip 1). Public-domain sources of speech clips abound on the Web. Check your favorite news sites ( quickly posts audio of its broadcasts) and search for free and inexpensive libraries of old movie, radio, and television dialog. If you have a collection of sample libraries, you''ll likely find vocal clips among those, as well.

For percussive purposes, you''ll need to extract snippets from one to a few syllables in length and install them in your sampler or sample-based drum machine. There are as many ways to do that as there are sample editors and samplers. For my examples, I''ve used Iced Audio AudioFinder 5 ( to peruse my audio library and drag and drop select snippets from audio files directly onto cells of Native Instruments'' Battery 3 (

Once you''ve assembled a kit of vocal samples, you can create percussion-style sequences for use by themselves, but it''s often easier, and more authentic, to interweave them with standard percussion. You can start with audio drum clips and manually layer vocal-kit parts. If you start with sliced drum loops such as REX files, you can use their associated MIDI trigger files to align the vocal kit to the drum loop''s groove.

Many sample-based and synthesized software drum machines let you extract MIDI files of their sequences, which you can modify to play your vocal kit. Create multitrack patterns in their step sequencers and export them to your DAW.

The first task when you use a MIDI drum loop is to remap the MIDI notes from the drum loop to the desired vocal snippets. I shift all the notes up or down by enough octaves to get them out of the range of the vocal-kit pads. I then select one part (pitch) at a time and try that part on each of the vocal-kit pads, auditioning it both by itself and layered with the original drum loop, to see how it fits. If your DAW supports it, it''s more convenient to use a separate MIDI track for each part. That lets you edit and play them independently.

Once you''ve matched a drum part to a vocal sound, several adjustments may prove useful. Mute some of the notes in the vocal part—every other note, for example—or move them to a different pitch (vocal sound). Try jogging the part anywhere from a few milliseconds to a few 32nd-notes in time (see Web Clip 2). Altering the note velocities can be particularly effective when you''ve mapped different sounds to their own velocity zones.

You can accomplish typical drum effects in several ways. For example, you could create a roll by creating closely spaced notes in a MIDI editor, by triggering an arpeggiator with a single note, or by using a gated delay. Arpeggiators are especially useful for round-robin triggering of different pads. For vocal snippets, try loading a different syllable for each round-robin instance. If your sampler offers multiple audio outputs, you can apply individual effects (EQ, compression, distortion, and so on) to different sounds. You can use a sample editor (often within your DAW) for sample manipulations like reverse, granular time stretching, pitch and volume envelopes, and cut-and-paste operations.

Full-featured drum samplers offer tools for applying most of those processes to individual pads. For instance, Battery''s seven cell-specific editing tabs offer processes as diverse as detailed sample editing; four independent loops; sample layering, crossfading, and grouping; and an assortment of audio, modulation, and articulation effects such as flams and rolls (see Fig. 1). You''ll find that drum-style processing often delivers surprising results when used with vocal snippets (see Web Clip 3).

Len Sasso is a freelance writer and frequent EM contributor. For an earful, visit his website,