The usefulness of a good sampler in your production toolkit can’t be overlooked. It’s great for everything from developing your own custom sounds to consolidating your favorite samples into a single instrument. Back in the 80s, dance and hip-hop pioneers could put together an entire track using a hardware sampler with just 2 MB of memory (that’s MB not GB). On it they’d have all of their drum samples, bass and keyboard sounds, even guitar phrases and backing vocals. Working this way, with just a few MIDI sound modules and very limited RAM really forced you to be creative, to write solid beats and killer songs. Unlike today, you weren’t in a position to dazzle listeners with layers upon layers of neatly produced sounds because, frankly, you just didn’t have the tools. Instead, you had to focus on the basics, where every part that you played was integral to your song’s arrangement.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. It’s such a privilege to have all this production power in our computers at our fingertips, but having all of this power is no guarantee that we’ll be able to write good music. As an exercise in my Producing Music with Reason course I demonstrate the unbridled power of Reason’s NN-XT Sampler and what you can do with it when you truly understand how to milk it for all it’s worth. Students generally find the lesson to be an eye opener, but because it’s such a different way of working and thinking about arranging it can be a confusing lesson. So, in addition to the online lesson material, and the assigned reading, I’m posting a 9 minute video that follows me through the entire process of constructing a custom NN-XT patch.

Those of us that ran up a credit card bill in the 80s buying just one Akai or Roland sampler for around $2,500, well, we were determined to get the most out of our new hardware. We had excellent incentive, we had to write a “hit” to pay off our credit card bill. There’s much less incentive nowadays, beyond the personal challenge, to write an entire track using just a sampler. But, I’d strongly encourage you to give it a try because besides the fact that it’s a lot of fun it will force you to learn a sampler inside and out and to stretch your production chops and think in new ways.

Now, here’s some incentive: Imagine if you will that you’ve been caught in a temporal vortex and transported back in time to 1982 and the only way for you to get back home is to write a satisfactorily slamming beat with your Akai S900 sampler and 2 MB of memory. Now there’s a challenge, are you up for it?

Here’s my attempt to get back to the present, written entirely using Reason’s NN-XT sampler and a few effects devices. And, just to make things even more realistic, I did this in Reason Adapted, the limited features version of Reason.

Big Samples MP3

Big Samples Reason Song File

Download directions:
Right-click PC and from the pop-up menu choose, “Save Link as…”
Control-click Mac and from the pop-up menu choose, “Save Link as…”

By grasping the concept of velocity layers in a sampler you will be able to better use and more easily create your own dynamic and exciting sampler patches. Digital samplers, like Reason’s NN-XT, are an essential tool for creating your own unique sounds and audio effects (such as stuttering) and have been a secret weapon of hit producers since the early 80s (especially in hip-hop and dance music).

In my Producing Music with Reason course I have an entire lesson dedicated to the NN-XT Sampler. It’s that powerful and that deep to warrant a whole week of study. Yet, the assignment at the end of the week, to build from scratch your own NN-XT patch, is for many a serious struggle. Consequently, the way I figure it, I can’t have enough material explaining the finer points of the NN-XT. That said, here’s a video tutorial I did on understanding the power of velocity mapped zones in the NN-XT Sampler.

There’s a lot that goes into producing a convincing drum track, especially when your drummer is a software sampler (such as Reason’s Redrum and NN-XT, Native Instrument’s Battery, or MOTU’s MachFive). Indeed, the shear number of techniques employed to create a great drum track would keep me writing blogs for months to come. But, rather than go on and on about how to produce realistic sounding drums, let’s cut to the chase and look at how it’s done in a Reason song file.

Using Reason 4, I’ve cooked up a song file that demonstrates how to produce and mix realistic sounding drums. I’m using only samples found in Reason’s Factory Sound Bank and Redrum as the sample playback device. You can do much more with the NN-XT in terms of the shear number of samples and velocity zoning. However, since most beginners reach for Redrum first, I decided to hold off on the NN-XT. The mix is not mastered (there’s no Mastering Combinator or Maximizer in the rack) so that you can see and hear how your drum levels should be hitting before mastering. (Mastering should be used to make a great mix sound awesome. Unfortunately, mastering is too often used to make a poor mix sound passable. But, that’s a subject for another blog.)

If you have Reason 4, you can open up this song file and explore the connections and settings. Of course, your drum tones and compression levels will vary with each individual mix, in relation to the other instruments in your song. For example, you might want your snare to have less compression on the initial attack of its waveform, for greater snap, or your kick to exhibit more mid frequency pop around 8 kHz. Fine adjustments such as these are easily accomplished when your devices are properly set up and routed, as they are in this song file. Alternately, if your drums aren’t properly routed, fine tuning your drum mix can be an exercise in frustration. Many of the techniques employed in this drum mix are the sorts of things that I teach in my Berkleemusic course, Producing Music with Reason.

Here’s a list of the production techniques used to produce this drum track:

· Compression and parametric EQ inserts
· Parallel compression
· Group effects
· Individual outputs
· Gesture sampling
· Proper levels and gain structure
· MIDI performance sample (a drum sequence created by a real drummer)

Turn your speakers up and have fun exploring this song file!

Redrum Drum Mix Demo

Shot of the Drum Mix Rack