Last month, I covered some techniques for creating synth
textures out of kick drums and other percussion instruments. This month,
as a counterpoint to those tricks, we’ll dive deep into synthesizing
the most influential bass drum sound in the history of electronic music:
the Roland TR-808 kick.
The 808 kick has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the
past year or so. Artists like Disclosure have incorporated its subsonic
hum into several of their bigger tracks, while labels like Claude von
Stroke’s Dirtybird Records have numerous releases that pivot on the bass
bombast of this legendary kick.
While there are hundreds of 808 kick samples available on
the Internet, the only way to have total control over its sound is to
recreate it from scratch. Accordingly, we’ll look at two ways to do it:
via analog subtractive synthesis and via Ableton Live’s FM synth,
Propellerhead Reason’s Subtractor does a terrific job of
nailing the 808 kick, thanks to its sine wave oscillator option. The
sound itself is quite simple. Just initialize the patch, then switch
oscillator 1 to a sine and sculpt the 808’s envelope: an immediate
attack, long decay, no sustain, and longish release. Then play a low G on the keyboard, as that’s the original pitch of the 808 kick.
At this point, the sound should already be close to the
TR-808, minus the original’s trademark clicky attack. Adding the click
is simple. Just apply a very fast pitch envelope (immediate attack,
almost instant decay) via Subtractor’s modulation envelope. There’s the
sound. Once you’ve got this dialed in, you can experiment with alternate
waveforms and filtering. For example, swapping out the sine wave for a
triangle will give you a dirtier, almost distorted character.
Whipping up the kick on Ableton’s Operator is even easier,
thanks to its graphic envelopes. All you have to do here is create an
Operator MIDI track, using the default Operator patch (which is just a
single carrier sine wave) and adjust the envelope using the same
approach from Step 1.
Next, switch to Operator’s pitch envelope and adjust its
settings and amount to add the click. Once you’ve got the sound,
Operator’s FM tools can further shape the sound with a lot of subtle
control. On the default patch, adjusting the level of oscillator 2 will
impart more upper harmonics to the tone in a very precise manner.