Ear Training and Sound Design for the LSDJ User: Volume 1 – Kicks
Ear Training and Sound Design for the LSDJ User
Ear training is often referred to as a tedious task for classically trained musicians and jazz musicians alike. Many would argue that it is hard to develop such skills for chipmusic or other kinds of composition. What you hear in your head or in other artists’ songs – from drum noises to beautiful pulse leads and heavy WAV bass – is entirely possible to realize once you familiarize yourself with the abilities of your tools and your brain, just like any other musician. Part of the trade is learning how to make sounds we imagine (or stumbling upon them), the other is identifying the notes and rhythms we hear.
For this guide, I won’t put you through a bunch of music theory crap that there are links for. If you really want to learn about music theory, there is my favorite link of choice in the “P.S.” section. Later there will be lots of elaboration on basic music theory. I’ll do my very best to relate everything in music theory to something actively related to chip music. Given, it won’t be the easiest of things to do – often I will ask you to hold my hand as you jump over the WAV or Pulse channel cliff with me and plummet to our new destination at the bottom. Often you will have to look up from where we “fell” to understand why the cliff was so high up. Then we will climb to the top of the cliff, and then go find another place to sink our curiosity into.
I am writing this string of articles in effort to make a wiki for noisechannel.org and consolidate information from various sources so that it is easier to gather substantial information on everything to do with chipmusic, starting with the Gameboy platform. The Gameboy music scene is one that is a very common starting point for most chip musicians, and like the musicians I hope to see these guides branch out beyond the Gameboy. I hope that noisechannel may host wiki articles to help prolong the life of the scenes and foster the start of new ones. Chip music is something I hold dear to my heart, and something I want to teach others about. Seeing as LSDJ is my primary chipmusic software, it will be covered first. Later I may work on articles for things such as Famitracker, Deflemask and SunVox, but for right now it is best that we start with simple interfaces and “simple” synthesis.
Before We Get Started
In LSDJ we are given three kinds of channels – Pulse channels, a WAV channel, and a Noise channel. All the channels are monophonic (which means we can make only one sound at a time on each channel). All the channel types have their own unique sounds, instrument formats, and commands. For now we will focus on each channel and its separate way of making sounds. I may occasionally stray into a channel exterior to the one I am focusing on to demonstrate or simplify a concept, and to give you a resource to save for future lessons. I would strongly advise that you save these lessons and examples as your own LSDJ song file to use for reviewing or experimenting with the ideas and concepts I introduce. I will also compliment each article with a LSDJSNG file (Little Sound DJ song file) at the bottom of the page (I will include download links for LSDManager in the “P.S.” section).
I would strongly advise that you watch Chris Penner’s (known as Zef within the chipmusic community) introduction to LSDJ video on Youtube. There are other videos by other artists (andarugo, the fabulous PandaSTAR, and Danimal Cannon) that are great supplements to Chris’s video, but I will be using Chris’s video for sake of simplicity for now. Check the “P.S.” section near the end for links!
These articles are written for people who have casually played with LSDJ trying to make songs, noises, and instruments. For the seasoned LSDJ user this information may be educational but not necessarily world-changing. If you don’t know how to use LSDJ or any of the simple shortcuts (copy, paste, mute, unmute), be sure to read up on the LSDJ wiki about common commands and shortcuts.
To set things into motion, we are going to cover kicks on the Gameboy. We will start with defining a sound, exploring our options for making each noise, and figuring out which commands can best help to create those sounds. Do note that some sounds can be layered or made using multiple channels simultaneously, but I will leave that part of discovery up to you.
Volume 1 – Kicks
There are a few resources you can use for creating a kick drum in LSDJ, and you can color the sound to be fat, thin deep, shallow, faint, or strong. You can use one channel, or all four. You can layer samples on top of each other, or you can layer samples with the other channels. Whatever your implementation of a kick is, how an actual kick drum makes noise and how you can best replicate the kick in LSDJ using commands. Let’s start with defining our sound from an instrumental perspective.
Defining the sound and getting familiar with the instrument
The kick (or in some instances, bass) drum is a mainstay of almost all kinds of music – jazz, classical, rock, metal, classical, and tribal, to name a few. Drums are hollow containers with at least one opening or face covered in a head, a material that when struck vibrates and pushes air out of the drum. Tightness and material of the head determines the pitch of the drum, as does the structural properties of the drum body and the thing used to hit the head. Some drums you see have dots that cover the center of drum heads, which are extra material made to dampen vibrations. Often in music things called overtones (which, in short) occur when something vibrates at a rate that has a second rate of vibration (creating a faint, but present higher-pitched second tone, we will explore these more in the Pulse and WAV channels). Opting to dampen the overtone by taking out the “brightness” and “color,” only the lower intended tone is heard. However, there is a high-to-low pitch associated with kick drums and bass drums, which is created by the vibrations growing weaker and slower overtime after a single hit. The decay of the drum sound and the pitch can vary based on the intensity of the strike. This too shall be explored in the article. When it comes to kick drums for things such as electronic and dance music, the typical kick is snappy, “fat,” and quick. We’ll explore those three parameters within each channel in LSDJ, as well as methods for each channel and single-channel usage.
Replication in LSDJ
We’ll start off with work in the WAV channel, then Pulse channels, back to the WAV channel, and lastly the Noise channel. The order may seem a little arbitrary, but it will be effective in demonstrating the kick drum and relating to its sound while using LSDJ.
WAV Channel (samples)
The sample function in LSDJ is useful for creating quick references for drums to replicate in other channels, in addition to being an external sound producer within the otherwise hardware-only texture of Pulse and Noise channels. Open up a new song in LSDJ (leave the tempo and groove at their defaults!), select a space for a phrase in the WAV channel (I used phrase 01), and create a chain inside (I used 01). Create and KIT instrument (I used 01, see a pattern?) and select the 707 and 808 sample kits. Create a string of 707 Kicks (named BD1 or BD2) in the chain on beats 00, 04, 08, and 0C and press start. Observe how they sound and how clear they are on the Gameboy* (especially if you have LSDJ version 4.7.0 or newer). Notice that the BD1 sample does not sound as deep as BD2. Do the same for a new chain with the 808 kicks, and feel free to try the kicks from other kits. Notice how the 707 kicks are short and “square” (like your uncle who listens only to folk music), and the 808 is fatter and deeper. It is possible to model these sounds in the other channels through synthesis. In learning to model style of the kicks in synthesis, we will also learn a bit about shaping sounds. Let’s dive in. (Note: we do not need to model the kicks exactly, but instead we must understand how to shape a kick and it is simply handy to have samples in the WAV channel loaded for reference.)
*Do note that as of LSDJ version 4.7.0 and higher, nitro2k01’s WAV channel sample fix is implemented and drastically improves the sound quality of samples played back on hardware.
On PU1, on the second row of phrases, create a phrase 02 with chains 03 and 04 inside. We will be using instrument slot 02 for this channel in the two chains. For instrument 02, create a Pulse instrument with an envelope of C1, the second pulse width option, and select table 00 (leave all other selections as default for now). In the transpose column, set the transposition to a value of 30 from clicks 00 to 04 (remember, clicks are the ticks in a table!). Create a P command with a value of C0 and a K command following on click 02 to kill the note and the P command. It should sound a bit like the 707 BD1 sample. Now, in chain 04 create a similar pulse instrument (with table 01) and try changing the pulse width to the third option, raising the transposition from ticks 00 to 04 to a value of 3C, and move the K command in the table to 04. This kick is harder, like the 808 kick, but it doesn’t scoop as deep (pitches on the Gameboy’s Pulse channels have a hard lower limit of pitch C3). Now that we have done our best to imitate the samples on the channel, let’s relate what we’ve done to what we know about how kick instrument makes sound.
The pulse width determines how fat or thin a sound is by its overtones. Thinner sounds lead to “brighter” and “thinner” sounds. Since most bass and kick drums are “dark” and have no overtones, I tend to use the third pulse width option or the second or fourth for my pulse kicks. However, dark and heavy kicks are not for every song. Sometimes lighter kicks are needed, even in genres like thrash. Another way to control the intensity of the kick is through the transpose and P commands on the table. The transpose command is what sets up how high the kick will start, the P tells it how quickly to bend the pitch down. K stops the noise wherever you desire. It’s possible to have short snappy kicks, long fat kicks, and super long super deep kicks by messing with these parameters. However, there are tons of things to try, mix, and match. Also, the envelope on the instrument screen will affect the sound a good bit. I chose an envelope of C1 because “C” is a fairly loud envelope level, and “1” is the shortest decay possible. You can try using louder, quieter, shorter, or longer kicks via the envelope along with your table to gain more depth in terms of sound. Also, it is possible to make “reverse kicks” or “reverse drums” by literally reversing all the instructions for a percussion instrument.
I have seen and heard this used in a few songs, and it is a cool trick to have in your hat. To make a reversed kick, make an instrument exactly like our pulse kick (envelope C1, wide pulse width, table) and in that table have no transposition, a P command on tick 00 with a value of 30, and a K command on 02 or 04. Hear the low-to-high scoop? It’s a reverse kick. (I chose a P value of thirty because it is equidistant from 00 like D0 is, so it sounds truly reversed and not “about the same but reversed,” being careful with your math goes a long way in chip music.) Keep in mind that LSDJ will try to compensate for mathematical anomalies, such as when a kick goes too far down it will wrap up to the high range of the instrumental spectrum as a laser sound. It’s cool sometimes, but it is often undesirable.
Discrepancies you should be aware of: transposition as a command is not always necessary, neither is using tables for kicks. It modifies the pitch of an instrument while the table is running. This can be used to create thick arpeggiated sequences, runs, and various other things. In this tutorial, I used it for sake of using it. Kicks can be made with or without tables at all. To make a kick without a table, you can make a pulse instrument with a desired pulse width and envelope, pitch at C3 (using the wrap to your advantage, kick will start from highest possible note then slam downwards until stopped by K command), a P command on the same tick with a value of D0 or whatever you like, and a K command following after. Tweaking this is all up to you, and doesn’t give quite the same degree of control as a table. If you wanted to use a table but control the transposition of kicks, you could even put your P and K commands in a table then manually choose the pitch for each kick in the chain. Different strokes for different folks, different gongs for different songs. I’ll include an example of each kick down in the last phrases of the example, separate from the main body of phrases for your examination.
One last thing about envelopes: choose them carefully. Music in itself is relative, so are its components. When you have your sounds in LSDJ, you do not have any way of balancing your highs, lows, midrange, etc except with pure volume. If you are smart with how loud or soft each instrument is, you shouldn’t have to tweak the EQ very much when recording or playing live. We’ll cover good equalizing (EQ’ing) at a later date, but it should be understood that every sound in a song should have a “place” not as in actual placement in the song, put as a layer in the audio mixture. Take time to fine-tune the envelopes and volumes and you will be well-off for right now in songwriting.
It’s hard to be innovative with kicks, you can try squeezing other commands into your tables if you’d like. (I suspect you could even mess with sweeps and other setting for the Pulse channel to bend some pitches as well.) However, it is fairly essential that the kick stay in the center of the listener’s field of sound, so panning kicks typically isn’t a good idea. Experiment with commands and see how you can change the texture!
One last thing: it is good to swap into Live mode when dealing with a bunch of “floating” phrases in LSDJ, or to fill them with blank phrases and chains (I tend to opt for the latter option) for this article.
WAV Channel (synthesis)
We have already explored sampled kicks in the WAV channel, so now we should explore synthesized kicks in the WAV channel. There are quite a few more options for controlling your sound in the WAV channel compared to the Pulse and Noise channels, and some may argue that it is the hardest channel to learn. Creating on our next row of phrases (02 now, I believe) with chains 05 and 06 inside. Make a WAV instrument (04) with the following modifications from channel defaults: change play type from Once to Manual, third wave form option, start volume to 40. The table (02) should have a transposition of 30 along used ticks, P command with a value of CE on tick 00, and a K command on 05. This kick should look or sound familiar to you, it is from Roboctopus’s last “LSDJ & You” article (#9). The kick is short, warm, and punchy. There is a lot that can be done in the WAV channel, and in my upcoming article on bass synthesis (probably going to be 3 articles, really), you will learn more about the settings and features of the WAV channel than I am willing to disclose now (but don’t let that, or hell, this guide, stop you from experimenting). In chain 06 try making your own kick based on the one Roboctopus made and I reiterated for you, and fiddle around with parameters.
The play mode “Manual” as you may have guess leaves it up to you to define which frames of the waveform are played through use of the F command. If no F command is used, frame 0 is played and looped. In the waveform viewer you can see a nice clean looking wave, and this is the source of our beefy little kick. To learn more about the Manual mode, there is a “LSDJ & You” article you can read. This static use of a waveform is ideal for making kicks, but don’t limit yourself to just one frame, or the Manual mode. It is possible to use other modes and techniques (such as starting with no filters then changing to frames with lower cutoffs for deeper sounds) to make kicks that aren’t possible in plain Manual mode. The Length, Repeat, and Speed parameters are not of much use in Manual mode (though Synth designates which of the 16 synth slots is being used for the parameters on our synth screen).
On the synth screen we see our waveform choices, each with their own unique sounds. For filters, we have lowpass, highpass, bandpass, allpass. Lowpass (and even highpass) can be used to create kicks most easily, with the filters being tied directly to the cutoff parameters. When used with lowpass, cutoff limits the highest tones that can be heard (lower cutoff = lower pitches). It is possible to create a sort of bias in the sound of the kick by manipulating the volume and cutoff parameters for the start and finish. The start and end settings are what allow LSDJ to do the math that determines the filter settings and any manipulations to the waves themselves, and are of great importance when shaping the dynamics of a kick.
It is possible to use Q (resonance) as well as changing the distortion type (clip, which stops when it reaches the lowest or highest possible values, or wrap which literally wraps) to change the sound as well. Really, there is a ton to do in the WAV channel to modify sounds like kicks. Don’t be afraid of using other waveforms or filters, they are all tools for helping you sculpt your own sounds. LSDJ songs would all sound the same if we all mindlessly used the same tutorials religiously. Again, use your head, experiment.
The Noise channel might be the one of the most under-utilized components of the Gameboy in the chipmusic scene, in my opinion. In games it was constantly used for sound effects and sculpted from static into actual noises. Now it is primarily a snare-and-hi-hat generator, which isn’t that bad, but could be better. Noise channel kicks are somewhat difficult to sculpt, given the Noise channel has its own registers and partials. Typically when making a kick I will make a Noise instrument (05) with an envelope of F1, length of 26, and a table, leaving other presets as they are. Table 03 should be used, and we will be using our friend the S command exclusively for now. In the table, slap down S commands for ticks 00 through 03 with the values of CC, 02, 04, 09, respectively. On tick 05, put a H command with a value of 04 (this is a hop to 04 command that will loop, this prevents the table from re-executing later). This is a fairly “whump-y” sounding kick I use in my own tracks, I prefer to have noise kicks when possible. The Noise channel itself is a bit different from the Pulse and WAV channels in the you must define each pitch of the “fall” in the kick, as well as where it falls “to.” I used the pitches I did in a rather unconventional manner – the CC command starts low, rises with the 02, dips low again with 04, and rises again with 09. The sound creates a hollow thump, much like a big giant conga drum. You can try different things to get your kicks, just remember that there is more than one way to skin a cat/tie a shoe/roll a joint. But if you do it right, you will know it.
The Noise channel has three primary kinds of sounds: silence, grunts and plock sounds, and hiss/buzzing noises. You can use these in various pitches, patterns, and layers (if you like to use 2xLSDJ or something) to create cool effects and sounds, instrumental or not. Use your tables, play with your commands. Starting to see a pattern? If you are, it means you are already learning and observing.
If you have any questions, comments or corrections, please say so in the comments! I’ll edit the article from time to time to add them in, or throw in other helpful links as more articles materialize. The glorious thing about online articles is that they can be edited and added to. If I ever add substantial new material to an old article, it will be mentioned in the header of the next article. I want to do my best to educate others in both the compositional and design aspects of chipmusic, not that countless people can’t do it by themselves, but because it is often hard knowing where to start. Whether or not you know how to read, write, transcribe, or release chipmusic, I hope to abstract, define, and deliver a method for which others can learn by.
For future reference, the “P.S.” section will contain extra goodies and such that is referenced earlier on in the article. I will also always include a LSDJSNG file for the article.
Thanks for reading!
The Bitman (Max Dolensky)