Optimizing Your Kontakt Workflow, Part 2

February 18th, 2014

Welcome to Part 2 of our Kontakt Workflow series! This post will focus on ways you can get Kontakt running more smoothly in your DAW and operating system of choice.

Missed Part 1? Check it out here!

Computer Spec Check

Whether you’re on Windows or Mac OSX, Kontakt is a fairly efficient piece of software, refined through years of development and updates. That being said, before we delve into Kontakt and your DAW, it’s important to take stock of the machine you’re running it on. Setting aside the operating system, consider your available CPU (processing power), RAM (memory), hard drive space, and your audio interface.

CPU: Native Instruments recommends a Core 2 Duo processor at a minimum, released in 2006. If you’re using basic instruments with low polyphony, this is probably sufficient. However, most modern Kontakt libraries are more demanding, with advanced scripts, built-in FX, etc. An Intel Core i3/5/7 processor (2008-2009) is therefore more of a realistic minimum.

Why It Matters: When your CPU is overworked, it becomes unable to process audio in real-time, and the result is unpleasant pops, crackles, glitches or slowdowns in playback. Running at lower latencies (more on this later) causes the processor to work even harder. Note that even a very small sample library can be CPU-intensive due to scripting or high polyphony!

Below: A single, high-polyphony, CPU-intensive instrument being played in Kontakt on an Intel Core i7 processor!

RAM: The official NI recommendation for RAM is 4 gigabytes, with a minimum of 2gb. These numbers are quite low! Simply running your operating system, a DAW, and Kontakt – with no samples – can eat up well over 1gb, leaving precious little for samples. Though 4gb is a safe number, 8gb is our preference. For desktops, the price of RAM continues to drop considerably: adding an additional 8gb to your setup can cost as little as $60!

Why It Matters: By default, Kontakt loads only a small portion of each sample into RAM. The rest is kept on the hard drive and streamed via “DFD” (direct-from-disk). DFD settings can be changed to adjust this ratio. More memory will allow you to (a) load more samples simultaneously, and/or (b) conserve CPU by loading more of the sample into RAM! In fact, with enough RAM (16, 32, 64gb or more) it is even possible to disable DFD entirely for a big performance gain.

Hard Drives: Kontakt doesn’t use up much space, but as you probably know, sample libraries can be enormous. The value of a hard drive is obvious: more space = more storage for libraries, simple as that. How you configure them is slightly more tricky. If you frequently load multiple large libraries at once, you may benefit from using multiple hard drives, rather than putting them all on one. It is possible, due to disk streaming, for the hard drive to lag behind Kontakt’s demands with very high polyphony. Using multiple hard drives allows more bandwidth.

However, the ideal solution is actually the solid state drive, or SSD. SSDs have read/write speeds several orders of magnitude above a traditional drive. Not only does this allow for lightning-fast sample loading times, but better disk streaming as well. If at all possible, having an SSD for your operating system and one or more for your samples is the way to go!

Image courtesy of OCZ

Audio Interface: You probably think of your audio interface, be it USB, Firewire, or built-in, as being of prime importance for recording. A good interface has lower noise, better preamps, etc. But the drivers on your interface also have a major impact on the stability and efficiency of DAW work on your computer, particularly plugins like Kontakt. Most Macs come with a fairly decent built-in solution, but PC desktops and laptops are often under-equipped. A discrete USB/Firewire interface is an excellent purchase, and even the cheapest ones ($100-200) will provide superior performance over Intel motherboard audio.

Why It Matters: It’s all about the drivers! Good drivers mean more stability, and bad ones mean crashes and errors. Yes, it’s true: doing nothing but switching audio interfaces CAN make your DAW more stable! (Or less stable…) But most importantly, good drivers are more efficient at processing audio at lower latencies. As shown in the image below, some interfaces perform better (i.e. load more plugins/process more audio) than others.

Image courtesy of DAWBench.com

When we refer to “latency”, we are of course referring to the audio buffer settings, typically accessible through your DAW’s audio options. Lower latencies are universally more intensive, higher ones less so. All of this relates back to Kontakt: a good interface will simply be able to handle more polyphony at lower latencies than a bad interface. Bottom line – even if you do NO recording, your audio interface is very important!

DFD Settings

As mentioned earlier, it’s possible to tweak the DFD streaming settings in Kontakt. This can be done globally or on a per-patch basis. The global route can be done by going to Options (in Kontakt’s top toolbar) -> Memory, then checking “Override Instrument’s preload size” and changing the value of the slider, like so:

Lower preload values mean less RAM used, but more CPU as more of the sample must be streamed from the hard drive. Higher values mean more RAM, but less CPU usage.

DFD tends to work better for libraries with fewer & longer samples. If you’re loading a library with 5,000 very small samples, then even with a small preload buffer, your memory usage will still creep up since each sample must have a memory footprint. As a result, you may want to tweak the DFD settings for instruments on an individual basis by first clicking on the ‘Wrench’ icon, then Instrument Options, then the DFD tab.

Note: As you can see, if you use the global override, you cannot edit instrument preload options.

There is one more way to tweak DFD settings to your liking, but first, a word of caution.

WARNING: Save backups of your NKI/NKM patches before trying the following edits!

Without getting too technical, an instrument (NKI) in Kontakt is composed of one or more “groups”. Each group can contain many “zones” (samples). Many modern libraries have dozens if not hundreds of groups, with delicate organization and naming. Changing group settings is generally a bad idea unless you know what you’re doing, BUT, this is also how you can shut off DFD completely, should you choose.

In any given instrument, hit the wrench icon, then open the Group Editor. One by one, click on each group, and find the dropdown pictured below. If “DFD” is selected, you can pick “Sampler” instead, and the entirety of that group’s samples will be loaded into RAM. No disk streaming! Depending on the instrument this may not even increase your RAM usage too significantly (i.e. groups with lots of small samples).

Do not touch groups with OTHER modes selected, like Time Machine Pro. These modes already do not use DFD, and changing them can mess up the instrument completely!

CPU Performance

Besides everything mentioned above, there are other ways to impact how efficiently Kontakt runs with your processor – assuming it has multiple cores, as virtually all modern CPUs do. The first place to look is in Kontakt’s Engine settings.

CPU overload protection does what the description suggests – it attempts to avoid pops, crackles and other glitches by preemptively limiting polyphony. Whether or not you would rather have voices drop out, as opposed to play with some buffer glitching, is a matter of preference.

Multiprocessor support is interesting. It might seem like a no-brainer; after all, why wouldn’t you want to make use of all your parallel processing power? However, while this should be enabled in standalone mode, it may not be the best option when used as a plugin. Most DAWs have their own “multithreading” going on which may conflict with Kontakt’s. If you are having performance issues and want to optimize your CPU usage, try the following configurations:

1. Kontakt multicore ON, DAW multicore OFF
2. Kontakt multicore OFF, DAW multicore ON
3. Kontakt multicore ON, DAW multicore ON
4. Kontakt multicore OFF, DAW multicore OFF

One of these will likely be better for your particular system than the others. A good way to test each setup is to write a fairly intensive MIDI sequence and play it at a fast tempo to jack up the polyphony.

Another possible configuration is to spread your instruments across multiple Kontakt instances. For example, rather than loading 4 NKIs into one Kontakt instance, load four Kontakts, each with one of those NKIs. Depending on your DAW and your processor, this can actually be more efficient, despite the slightly increased overhead from using multiple Kontakts.

Bridging and Kontakt

Sometimes, even with a computer that has amazing specs and a killer audio interface, you’ll still have stability or performance issues with Kontakt. You can beg and plead with your DAW all day, but it just won’t play nice. The first thing to try is a different DAW, but this is out of the question for many composers, who tend to be creatures of habit in our observation (and personal experience). The next logical step is exploring the world of bridging.

Err, not what we meant by bridge…

Bridging refers to running a plugin (like Kontakt) outside of your DAW, while remaining connected via MIDI/audio. If you’re using a 64bit operating system and a 32bit DAW, the principal advantage is being able to use more than 4gb of RAM (the 32bit limit) for Kontakt, which itself can run as 32 or 64bit. However, bridging can also circumvent compatibility and stability problems in many cases and is thus worth considering if you’re having trouble.

There are a few ways to bridge plugins, but do note that the process usually does take up a bit more CPU, and it can take a bit of time to set up, depending on the solution you pick. Also, if one method doesn’t provide the desired result, don’t give up; each bridging solution below is implemented differently even if the intended result is the same.

Method 1: Your DAW. Many DAWs these days come with their own bridge built in. How you access it can vary greatly. For example, in FL Studio (a 32bit DAW), all 64bit plugins are automatically bridged. Non-64bit plugins have an option in the VST wrapper to enabling bridging. This is always worth trying first, so check the manual for your DAW and see how you can access this feature if it’s available.

Below: Bridge option in FL Studio’s VST wrapper.

Method 2: jBridge. This fantastic software for Windows and OSX will created “wrapped” (or “jBridged”) plugin DLLs on your computer, which you can then load in your DAW. Doing so will open the plugin in a separate process from your DAW. It’s fairly simple, inexpensive, and even has a free demo. Click here to check it out.

Method 3: Vienna Ensemble Pro. Vienna Instruments is one of the oldest and most celebrated developers of orchestral instruments, but they’ve also created this powerful program. Though it’s not cheap – over 200 euros as of this writing – it provides extensive options, features, and customizability for bridging plugins on your computer, or even across a network (LAN)! For particularly complex bridged setups, or ones using multiple PCs, this is an incredibly powerful option.

We hope you enjoyed Part 2 of our Kontakt series. In Part 3, we’ll talk about batch resaving, NCW, and more fun stuff. Thank you for reading!

Missed Part 1? Check it out here!

Optimizing Your Kontakt Workflow, Part 1

January 22nd, 2014

The Kontakt sampler plugin by Native Instruments has come a long way since it was first released in 2002; it went from being the underdog (compared with Tascam’s Gigastudio) to the most dominant sample editing and playback software in the industry. Though we’ve only been developing commercial Kontakt libraries since 2007, we’ve been using it since the very beginning. In this series, we’ll help you optimize your workflow and make the most of Kontakt, no matter what DAW or platform you’re using.

Loading Libraries

If you’ve only used Kontakt Player libraries, you’re likely used to the convenience of the Libraries tab. Just hit “Add Library”, add an instrument like Archtop or Juggernaut, register it in Service Center, and you’re good to go. However, the majority of our catalog – indeed, the majority of all Kontakt patches out there – are not Kontakt Player compatible and cannot be loaded this way.

The most obvious and straightforward way of loading any given NKI is to go to the Files tab of the Browser and either double click or drag it to Kontakt’s main window.

This works just fine, but it can become time-consuming if you have many libraries or an unorganized file structure on your computer. Before going any further, we recommend making sure your libraries are properly organized to save time in general. For example, check that you don’t have redundant nested folders, like “Shreddage 2″ within “Shreddage II”

Also, it can be helpful to make a general ‘Kontakt Libraries’ folder and organize instruments within that.

Quick Load

Once you’ve cleaned up your file structure, you’ll likely have an easier time locating and loading the patches you want to use. Still, there are even better ways. One is to use the Quickload function. Hit the Quick button at the top of Kontakt’s UI to reveal the Quick-Load window at the bottom.

You can drag NKI/NKM files here, or even entire folders. Doing this gives you immediate and easy access to your libraries, with a clear view of the folder structure for each. Very clean, fast, and organized! If your patches folders have generic names like “Instruments” or “Patches”, note that you can rename them here. This will NOT mess up the names of folders on your hard drive: it only affects the Quick-Load area.

The Database

Another fantastic tool is the Database. This is an incredibly powerful method of finding and loading patches, but criminally overlooked by many users. To use it, hit the Database tab in the Browser and then click DB Options.

Here, you can specify folders for Kontakt libraries. I’ve added a variety of folders here, including the folder for Koto Nation, a non-Kontakt Player library. After you’re done adding things, hit Update and then close the dialog.

If I want to find my Koto Pizzicato patch, I could use the Files tab or Quick-Load, but with the Database tab, I can simply type in “Koto Piz”… and it appears!

These search results can be loaded by double-clicking OR dragging, just like the other loading methods. If you *really* want to get fancy, you can also tag your sounds by right-clicking and selecting “Edit”.

Kontakt’s factory library is already pre-tagged, and depending on how many instruments you have, you might be interested in doing some basic tagging for your most used patches as well. However, even without relying on tag search, the ability to start typing in any instrument name or articulation and loading it in seconds is incredibly powerful.

This wraps up Part 1 of our series. Thanks for reading!

Ready for more? On to Part 2!

Designing Archtop: Hollowbody Electric Guitar

October 22nd, 2013

To date, our rock/metal-focused electric guitar libraries Shreddage and Shreddage 2 have been the most popular instruments in the Impact Soundworks family. We’re extremely proud of these releases, particularly Shreddage 2, which pushes the limits of how realistic a virtual guitar can be. But while we’re thrilled with the aggressive, heavy tone of these libraries and how well they handle rock/metal music, we’ve always wanted to explore the softer, more dynamic side of the 6-stringed spectrum.

Enter Archtop: Hollowbody Electric Guitar, our upcoming release. We’ve collaborated with virtuoso guitarist and session musician Josh Workman to produce an incredibly detailed library capturing the sounds of a Sadowsky Jim Hall Model archtop hollowbody guitar. This gorgeous instrument is one of the world’s finest guitars, particularly for clean styles like jazz, pop, R&B. It’s also quite capable for many rock and alternative genres as well.

Josh Workman

When we set out to find an excellent player for the library, it wasn’t long before Mr. Workman’s name came up. His incredible career spans over two decades, including hundreds of performances around the world with neo-swing band Indigo Swing, touring with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, hundreds of thousands of album sales, and a critically successful solo release. However, we needed not just an excellent performer, but one with a tremendous versatility and a deep understanding of their instrument. Here too, Josh fit the bill, being equally masterful in genres ranging from bop and Latin jazz to Brazilian, blues, gypsy jazz and more.

Josh Workman on stage: Napa, CA
Josh Workman on stage in Napa, CA

As with all of our releases, we prefer to collaborate with musicians to design our libraries. Over the course of many months, we refined and established a detailed plan for Archtop that covered all essential articulations, techniques, and intricacies. Once actual editing began, we continued to work with Josh to improve and iterate upon our concept to make it as comprehensive and realistic as possible.

The Recordings

A masterpiece instrument and a player with killer chops demand an excellent recording setup, which is exactly what we created for Archtop. Unlike Shreddage 2, and using custom-modified electronics, the neck and bridge pickups of the guitar were recorded simultaneously; the end result allows the user to seamlessly switch or blend between both pickups, just as you can on the real guitar. We also integrated “The Brick” into the signal chain, a true vacuum tube-based triple-stage DI box which gave our 24-bit recordings incredible warmth.

As with Shreddage 2, all recordings are totally, 100% clean/DI. Our #1 goal when designing the signal chain was for it to sound as rich and warm as possible even with no effects, amps, or cabs applied. Of course, the Archtop library also sounds excellent with either its internal effects or any external amp sim, and has various tools like virtual “volume” and “tone” knobs to further sculpt the sound to your liking.

Compare the features of Shreddage 2 to Archtop at a glance in this PDF!

Sampling & Articulations

The single biggest difference between Shreddage 2 and Archtop is that the latter features up to four dynamic (velocity) layers. With Shreddage 2, our philosophy was that the instrument should be amped with hi-gain settings, and thus subtle dynamic changes were not as important. On the other hand, we wanted Archtop to be adept at handling intimate, expressive playing even with no amp at all. This alone offers a wealth of possibilities for new playing styles.

We chose to focus on a slightly different set of articulations as well. Archtop features such techniques as thumbed octaves (a staple for many jazz styles), natural harmonics, “artificial” harmonics, 3-string chokes, and less aggressive palm mutes. Some techniques more relevant to rock/metal music were not included, such as powerchord playing, wide pinch squeals, and extra layers of ultra-short and biting mutes. However, the fundamentals are all still there: sustains, staccato, portamento (glissando) slides, hammer-on and pull-offs, tremolo, and various release noises.

Engine Features & Scripting

Archtop offers much of the same advanced functionality as Shreddage 2, such as adjusting the fretting engine, release noise volumes, splitting MIDI channels (for greater compatibility with MIDI guitars), envelope times, pitch bend range, and many more features. However, it was actually scripted completely from scratch; we wanted a fresh slate given that it’s a totally new and different instrument.

One of the new and exciting features included is the ability to more deeply customize how the instrument is played. A smooth velocity curve knob instantly changes the response (or “touch”) of Archtop from very light to very heavy and everything in between. Articulations can also be custom mapped to either any velocity range OR custom keyswitches. For example, you could assign harmonics to low velocities and sustains to high velocities, but use a low G note to trigger palm mutes as long as it’s held down. This versatility is essential given the breadth of articulations included.

Another feature is the ability to play polyphonic legato, either with hammer-on and pull-off articulations or portamento slides. This is particularly useful when combined with the Split MIDI Channel functionality, which assigns notes from separate MIDI channels to separate strings. Lastly, new humanization features have been added, included random sympathetic resonance. This emulates the open string vibrations caused by a guitarist playing quickly and striking adjacent strings accidentally. Though this may sound silly at first glance, having a small amount of ‘human error’ greatly adds to the realism of the instrument.

More To Come

We can’t wait to share more information about Archtop including price, release date, and audio demos. To give you a hint for each: the price will be comparable to Shreddage 2, with a generous crossgrade discount for S2 owners. The release date is slated for sometime before 2014, and audio demos will be released in the coming weeks.

Thank you for reading, and please leave your comments below or on our Facebook page!

Juggernaut: The Evolution of Cinematic Synthetic Drums

May 10th, 2013

What’s in a name? With so many virtual instruments and sample libraries available for composers and producers today, it’s important to pick a name that is both descriptive and memorable. We decided to switch the name of the library previously known as “Cinematic Synthetic Drums PRO” to JUGGERNAUT: Cinematic Electronic Scoring Tools. Why the change, and what’s the difference?

  • JUGGERNAUT truly communicates the size and impact of this flagship instrument.
  • Cinematic Synthetic Drums did not do justice to all of the non-percussive samples in the library.
  • Scoring Tools best describes the range and purpose of all the sounds included.

As we approach the release of JUGGERNAUT it’s important to note that we plan to keep the instrument updated and fresh over the coming years with various patches and expansions. The engines we have created are ripe for the addition of much more sonic material, from drum kits, to cinematic effects, to tonal elements. Stay tuned for the forthcoming release!

JUGGERNAUT: Cinematic Electronic Scoring Tools

Interface Design in CSD Pro

April 23rd, 2013

Creating a modern virtual instrument requires more than just great recordings, editing, and programming – the user interface and layout of the instrument can make the difference between a great library and an unusable one. This is especially true with libraries that have a great variety of sounds, such as Cinematic Synthetic Drums PRO. Together with Constructive Stumblings, we’ve been building, testing, and iterating on an intuitive and powerful UI for CSD PRO, and we’d like to talk about that process here.

Organizing Patches

One of the first questions we had to address was how to make it as easy as possible for composers to pull up ready-made presets. There are two distinct approaches to this: one is to have each patch (in this case, a drum/FX kit) as a separate .NKI file on the hard drive. The other approach is to have presets switchable within the instrument interface. We decided to use a hybrid of these two options to get the best of both worlds. From the main patch, you can easily switch presets using up/down arrows and thus audition sounds very rapidly…

… but by hitting the Load button, you can browse for presets (in Kontakt’s NKA format) on your hard drive, allowing you to see at a glance all available options in a manner of seconds.

With this solution to patch browsing, the user gets immediate satisfaction from quickly paging through presets, but also the power of being able to quickly load something specific from a list of both factory & user kits.

Building Kits

At the heart of the percussion/FX patch of CSD Pro is the ability to customize presets or create your own from scratch. With over 400 (!) individual sounds in 14 categories, making this process intuitive and fast was no easy task. Our early prototype for the library used a rather unwieldy method where you would bring up sound menus, find the sound you want, and then click a button on the interface to map it. You would then click “Kit Mode” to actually play the constructed kit.

The Percussion patch map prototype.

However, this setup required quite a few clicks to put a kit together and was less than intuitive. We sought to address this problem by presenting the current kit in a “mixer” style interface, with each key getting its own channel strip. A channel strip can be assigned its own sound category, individual hit/drum, tuning, volume, and panning with a minimum of effort. Additionally, sounds can be browsed either by “sliding” the drum #, typing in a value, or using the up/down arrows.

The current perc/fx mixer layout.

Reaching this solution did take several iterations and plenty of testing. For example, originally, there were no up/down arrows below each drum sound and new sounds could only be selected by ‘sliding’. There was also no way to type in a specific sound, which is fairly important when some categories have 40+ unique drums or FX. The iconography for the category (kick, snare, thip, slam, etc.) proved to be an effective means of communicating the sound type without using text. A “key” is provided on the right side of the interface, which allows users to auditioning entire categories with a single click.

Drum sound categories in CSD Pro.

Clicking these buttons switches out of the normal kit mode and instead maps every sound within the selected category across the keyboard. The preset selector then displays the specific sound being played at any time (“Snare 5″, “Splash 12″, etc.), so finding a sound you like and mapping it to your current kit is very straightforward.

Effects and Processing

A few months ago we wrote about the sound design process for CSD PRO, and how much effort and care goes into each individual sample. However, no matter how polished a drum or effect is, there is always room for additional processing – especially when combined with other sounds! Kontakt is more powerful than ever when it comes to FX, and we made sure to use a lot of them in the preset design for this library. To make FX tweaking intuitive for the user, we created a “rack” of things like saturation, transient shaping, delay, reverb, and filtering, with individual controls available within each processor.

The FX rack in CSD Pro.

While many composers have their own suite of effects plugins to use in their host, we “pre-tuned” many of these controls to hit a sweet spot that works well with our samples. The “1-click-hype” button, for example, instantly makes any sound phatter and louder with a combination of saturation, transient design, and EQ shaping. Most preset kits take advantage of least one of these effects, leaving lots of possibilities for further tweaking beyond the actual design of the kit itself.

The Complete Package

The overall look of CSD Pro is inspired by the clean, sleek design of modern hardware synthesizers, which we felt was appropriate given the synthetic nature of the library. Gritty textures like metal didn’t quite fit the sound and feel of CSD, while emulating the look of analog synths is something we consider a bit overdone. Our goal was to design something that looks very clean and streamlined without much ‘fluff’ and I believe we’ve achieved just that!

The Sound Designers of CSD Pro

March 14th, 2013

In our first blog post, we talked about some of the high-level concepts involved in making a single sound for a library like our upcoming Cinematic Synthetic Drums PRO. Now, we’d like to give you an introduction to some of the very talented and creative sound designers involved in crafting this behemoth.

Jordan Fehr

Jordan’s talent for creating fantastic sonic worlds is evident in the high praise for titles like Super Meat Boy, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Hotline Miami, The Binding of Isaac, Jamestown, Wind-Up Knight, and 20+ other film & game credits. An experienced sound designer, foley artist, and sound mixer (among other things), Jordan brings his skill and passion to the table and has already designed over 60 sounds for CSD Pro, primarily trailer-inspired FX such as impacts, slams, reverses, sweeps and textures.

Of his work on CSD Pro, Jordan notes: “I’m finding inspiration from watching trailers and films with unique synthesized elements, such as Skyfall, Iron Man, After Earth, and Oblivion. For sound sources I’ve been using my recording arsenal along with NI Absynth, Skanner, Razor, Reaktor 5, u-he Uhbik, Izotope Alloy, and the Massey L2007 limiter.”

Below: Jordan demonstrating proper mic technique

Erik Ekholm

With recent trailer credits like The Dark Knight Rises, True Blood, Last Resort, Top Gear, Castle, Scandal, and Greys Anatomy to name just a few, Erik is a master of emotionally-charged, high-impact music & sound. His diverse, epic compositions blend acoustic, vocal, and synthetic elements to great effect. As a longtime user of Impact Soundworks libraries like Shreddage, we were very happy to have Erik contribute custom, unique synthetic sounds to CSD Pro.

We asked Erik about his sound design process for the library: “When designing my sounds I aimed for an organic modulated approach. All filter sweeps and motion was done by manually turning knobs and faders on the gear! The signal chain consisted of an Arturia Minibrute going into an EHX Flangerhoax and Boss GT10, then patched into my Engle Gigmaster 15 for that sweet tube overdrive. Coming out of the ENGL’s FX send the signal went through the Ibanez FL9 Flanger, Hardwire SP-7 Phaser, MXR Analog Chorus, EHX MicroQ-Tron and EHX Memory Man analog delay.

From the pedal board, the sound passed through an Eventide SPACE with custom room patch for stereo depth, then from there into a stereo pair of Golden Age COMP-54s (Neve 2254 clone) for some sweetening, especially in the bass and highs, that these compressors do so well. The final stop in the chain is my MOTU 4pre interface. No plug-ins or automation… all manual, analog signal processing!”

Below: A peek at some of Erik’s sexy gear!
Erik Ekholm Studio 1 Erik Ekholm Studio 2

Erik Ekholm Studio 3 Erik Ekholm Studio 4

Mick Gordon

Another longtime user of ISW libraries, Mick is an incredibly in-demand composer and sound designer, well-known for his cutting-edge electronic and hybrid scoring work in particular. His vast list of credits include such games and trailers as Need for Speed: The Run, Shift 2: Unleashed, The Last Airbender, Dead Space 3, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Crysis 3, F.3.A.R and many, many others. We loved with Mick’s contributions to the original Cinematic Synthetic Drums library and jumped at the opportunity to work with him again on PRO. (Plus, we love his Australian accent!)

Below: Mick at home in the studio
The wild Mick Gordon in his natural habitat

Andrew Aversa

As lead designer and producer of CSD Pro, Andrew is responsible for a large portion of the library’s content, as well as supervising the collaboration between everyone involved. In addition to his design, editing and scripting work at ISW, he is also an award-winning electronic artist (‘zircon’) and media composer with credits for companies like Bandai Namco (Soulcalibur V), FOX (Touch), NBC (Heroes), Disney, LucasArts, Capcom, MTV, and many others. Inquiring synthesists can find on Andrew’s website a variety of synthesis tutorials for plugins like Zebra 2.

Below: A sampling of outboard gear & synths from Zircon Studios

Designing Cinematic Synthetic Drums Pro

February 22nd, 2013

Welcome to the first post of the official Impact Soundworks blog! We hope to give you insight into the process of designing, recording, and editing sample libraries and virtual instruments.

Cinematic Synthetic Drums Logo

The idea for the Cinematic Synthetic Drums (CSD) library was perhaps originally inspired by the soundtrack to Tron Legacy by Daft Punk. As an electronic musician myself, I found the blend of grand orchestral elements with highly electronic synths and drums to be very interesting and effective. What pushed me to actually construct and release thsi collection was the free, high-quality work of people like Blake Robinson (Blakus) on VI-Control who deserve great respect for their contributions to the TV/game/film music community!

After seeing the great response to CSD, I decided to take the concept and run with it for a full-scale library with hundreds of sounds, more variety, and a sophisticated UI. There are now multiple talented sound designers working on the project instead of just me, while Iain Morland is assisting with a number of editing and programming tasks. So, what goes into making a single sound? Our workflow looks something like this…

Synthesis -> Layering -> Processing -> Editing -> Programming & Integration

The first stage of the process, Synthesis is of crucial importance. This is where most of the magic happens, and it’s also quite challenging given the complexity of synthesizing percussion in particular. To craft a percussive sound, there must be a specific focus on the envelope or shape of the sound – its amplitude, pitch, and any filter and/or modulator.

For example, a standard kick sound may begin as a humble sine wave – easy enough – but it is not a static sound. There is usually a sharp spike in pitch at the beginning of the sound followed by a rapid drop along a carefully-tweaked curve, followed by a rapid decay in volume. Another oscillator (perhaps noise) might add an extra bit of buzz and ‘click’, with a third envelope controlling the cutoff of a resonant lowpass filter. The second oscillator may have its own volume envelope as well, cutting it shorter than the pitch (fundamental) envelope of the first oscillator.

These considerations are only the beginning. Through additive and FM synthesis, one can create much more complex interactions between multiple oscillators and modulators, in which case one must meticulously balance harmonics and overtones. A little too much of a spike can quickly turn an FM sound into pure noise… though that may be useful for something later :-) Granular and wavetable synthesis introduce many more possibilities in creating evolving percussive sounds like crashes, or unusual overtone series for exotic snares and thips.

Below: A fairly basic, no-frills kick patch in Zebra 2 (click for full-size).

Layering comes next – but not all the time. In some cases, simplicity and minimalism makes for a more effective sound. In other situations, the use of multiple patches on multiple synthesizers creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, we might use FM synthesis to generate a highpassed series of overtones while an analog synth handles the thunderous low-end with a lowpassed, rezzy triangle. Layering is also particularly useful with some of our complex, dubstep-inspired bass sounds which often have violent and chaotic middle layers, but rock-solid subs.

After the skeleton of the sound has been created through synthesis and layering, we move on to Processing and really get into the nitty-gritty of sound sculpting. Processing encompasses tools like EQ, compression, limiting, saturation, distorting, amping (or re-amping), spatial FX and much more. While not every sound necessarily uses layering, every sound in CSD Pro uses quite a bit of processing to achieve an end result that is immediately usable. I have personally purchased many drum libraries that have fairly ‘flat’ sounds which can be brought to life with plenty of multiband limiting, tape distortion, and re-rendering, but that was definitely not our goal here.

Below: A relatively minimal palette of FX for an aggressive drum sound.

From the screenshot you can see that we use quite a variety of tools, from renowned commercial plugins to some very handy free processors that we find to be competitive with even the very best commercial options. However, we’ve also taken processing outside the box with hardware compression / limiting, such as with the finicky and extremely temperamental Valley People Dyna-mite stereo limiter. Though we are keen on making sure every sound is polished to a mirror shine with a custom signal chain, we’re also avoiding a common annoyance among many other drum libraries by generally leaving out spatial FX. Nothing is worse than finding a great impact tone only to find it has baked in cathedral reverb!

At this point, the sound asset has been created (with possibly a slew of variations) and the Editing work begins. Percussive sounds tend to be easier to edit than many other instrument types due to the lack of a human ‘attack’ such as a thumb or bow gently touching the string or the tonguing of a brass instrument. That is not to say that there are no decisions to be made; sloppy editing can truncate a juicy transient sound, while over-editing multiple variations of a sound can make them more sterile and lifeless (ironic for electronic noises, but it really is true!) Meanwhile, sustained sounds such as basses cannot be edited automatically – proper loop points can only be made through very careful work and lots of listening.

Below: Comparing three variations of the same snare. Note the difference in transient timing and timbre.

Once sounds have been properly edited, it is time for Programming & Integration. As with the free version, CSD Pro will of course include 24-bit WAV files that can be used in any sampler, or dropped into a project as-is. However, we are also creating an advanced, intuitive and useful Kontakt 5 patch that we think will be very useful and time-saving. To do this, our first task is setting up individual samples (WAV files) into groups, and then mapping them across the keyboard in zones. We plan on segmenting the library into two patches: tonal material and percussion. The percussive patch will be playable drum kit style (one key = one drum sound, velocity sensitive) while the tonal patch will have layerable sounds spread across the keyboard with deeper editing options on a per-sound basis.

Kontakt scripting is an arcane art unto itself – though quite powerful, it is also severely lacking in documentation, often creating much consternation on the part of developers. That said, the feeling of compiling and applying thousands of lines of script and not getting an error message is pretty magical and makes it all worthwhile! As far as our script design, our goal is keep the needs of the modern composer in mind (it’s right in our slogan!) and that means creating tools that reduce, rather than add, complexity. We want to simplify and streamline things like post-processing, filter/EQ and modulation, not just by making those controls available on the UI but by creating sub-presets WITHIN a patch that let you create unique combinations of variations instantly, with a minimum of effort.

Below: Under the hood of CSD – download and view/edit the script for yourself!

In the coming weeks / months, we hope to show you even more from CSD Pro, from demo songs to individual patches, video and more. Thank you for reading, and please leave your comments below or on our Facebook page!

- Andrew Aversa