Using… NanoStudio… to make a drum kit?

NanoStudio was the very first app that made me want to get involved with making music on iOS back in 2011. Was there another “all in one” production environment at the time? Maybe BeatMaker but I didn’t pick it up until several years later and I’ve still never got on well with that one. “NS1” as it is now referred to by its fans (not to be confused with the synth app by that name) has been languishing for a couple of years now as Matt at Blip Interactive has been concentrating on NanoStudio 2. Honestly, it no longer has everything I’m looking for in a production environment. It’s too hard to work with other apps for example. Not impossible, but the lack of true audio tracks and MIDI out do limit what you can do with NS1 relative to other options today, like Cubasis, my current iPad DAW-of-choice.

But NS1 works as well as it ever did and still does some things as good or better than any other app available. The MIDI and audio editors are very intuitive and easy to get work done quickly. And the collection of tools for effecting, sampling, resampling, mixing, and sharing make it a jack-of-all-trades (and master of many) toolkit for many kinds of musical tasks. This Using… article will pull a lot of them together to build a drum kit, from scratch (literally if you want). We will record samples, edit and “resample” them, then arrange and record loops for use in a larger project elsewhere.

  1. Recording – Capturing interesting sounds for later use is a fun hobby in itself. All you need is your device and a microphone. Since NS1 is universal, you can use an iPhone and the built-in mic pretty much anywhere. For drums, you generally want to avoid toned or melodic sounds in favor of ones that are either percussive and/or noisy. Fortunately, these are ubiquitous in either natural or urban environments. Anything you thump, tap, scrape, scratch, rub, punch, thwack, squeak, or bang has the potential for the next great drum sample. In my case, I wanted to make a drum kit completely out of ukulele sounds (the reason will become clear in an upcoming project log), but not by playing the strings in the normal fashion of course. I thumped and tapped the back, sides, top, and neck in hopes of finding kick, snare, and toms. I rubbed the surfaces to make shakers. I got some harmonics and muted plucky noises off the strings to maybe turn into cymbals. Do you catch the uncertainty here? It can be hard to predict how a given sound will react after subjecting it to some of the transformations we’ll talk about it. There is a lot of experimentation, discovery, and serendipity involved, and that’s part of the fun. For my uke project, I placed the iRig Acoustic mic in the soundhole like a normal uke recording session. I took about a dozen samples from three different ukes. Each uke got its own instance of a TRG-16 sample player to house its samples. The kick sound was easily the most complicated, so let’s follow that one through the whole process to see how it went.
  2. Sampling – if there is a distinction at all between “sampling” and recording, it would be that sampling takes a raw recording and prepares it for use in a musical context. Sampling in NanoStudio is done in the TRG-16 instrument. This screen shows a TRG-16 instance:img_0650Slot 13 has been used to record a raw sample. Here’s how it looked after clicking the red record button, thumping the back of my Iriguchi Keystone tenor ukulele, and clicking stop:
    img_0651It took about 1.5 seconds from clicking record to make the thump, then another second or so to stop recording. Here is the raw result:
    https://clyp.it/fn3te0l4

    Sampling to me means taking this raw recording, trimming the space at the front and back, and applying some basic “cleanup” processing as shown here:
    IMG_0652.PNG

    NS1 provides a 4-stage effects chain here, but note that the only one active is the EQ which is basically doing a low pass filter just to clean up the low end noise inherent with this mic (and pretty much every mic). Here is the result:
    https://clyp.it/1vxlwhzq

    Still doesn’t sound much like a kick drum, does it?

  3. Resampling – here is where you let your imagination run wild and just try different things with the TRG-16 sample controls and effects. You can use the effects in the sample editor as shown above, but I like to use the effects in the mixer as it allows the transpose/pitch controls to be applied before the effects. Looking at slot 1, notice that it is assigned to Bus 1 and the transpose is set to -23, almost two octaves down:img_0653
    And here is the effects chain for Bus 1:
    IMG_0654.PNGWhat’s going on here? First, the EQ is giving a max boost to the low end but has the Gain Comp(ensation) on. This keeps the overall level of the signal relatively constant so the bass frequencies will be much more prominently represented. From there, it goes to the “5th Planet Waveshaper” (where did that name come from?) distortion effect. The 6 distortion types and 3 control parameters provide lots of tools for changing sounds in subtle and not so subtle ways. Here, it is supplying a bit of grit with just a touch of lo-fi decimation applied. Finally, what’s that compressor doing? This is an example of using a compressor as an effect instead of its usual function as a dynamics leveling processor. Each control here combines to give the desired result. RMS is turned off (so the peak signal will be used), threshold is somewhat low, ratio is maximum, attack is fastest, release is slowest, and output is flat. What does all this mean? It means as soon as the signal exceeds the threshold (i.e. the thump “transient”), it will very quickly get clamped down and stay down. In other words, it greatly reduces the length of the sample. This is really useful as the transpose/pitch control in NS1 is not very sophisticated. It works just like speeding up or slowing down a tape machine. Slower tape means lower pitch but longer playback, faster tape means higher pitch but shorter playback. Dropping the transpose by almost two octaves increases the length of the sample almost 4 times. This might be what you’re after, but not what I wanted for this kick sample, so this compressor trick saved the day.What about resampling? Well, I probably went about this the wrong way. I setup a one-hit MIDI clip to trigger slot 1, then used the main Project Mixdown, saved the output to clipboard, and pasted back to a new sample. (The Resample tab in the sample editor helps reduce the “mouse clicks” needed for all this, so it’s worth reading the manual to see how that works, but I didn’t read it until writing up this article – doh!) Here’s the result:
    https://clyp.it/qbvsk4ww
  4. Looping – so far this has all been “sound design” but now the samples need to get turned into something musical. This is more typical NS1 usage. Here I’ve built up a TRG-16 with resampled and sampled sounds, using the volume/pan, transpose, and bus assignment controls to send to the mixer.
    img_0655
    I’ve programmed several 4 and 8 bars loops:
    img_0656
    These were captured as above using the Project Mixdown feature, AudioCopy, and then pasted into Cubasis for incorporation into the full project. Here’s an example:
    https://clyp.it/bsaxznn2

I ended up only using 9 total samples for this track, so I’ll probably return to this at some point for use in future projects. If you’d like to use this sample set, let me know and I’ll see about releasing them as raw samples or as a NanoStudio project file.

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