We Need to Talk About the Volca Beats

It’s not just a simple case of recording a pattern through the Volca’s direct output… the resulting sound is a mile away from what you hear through the speaker

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I’ve blogged before about my fondness for the Korg Volca synthesisers, and also about Volca jam sessions. I love the simplicity and immediacy of the Volca synths, and through these periodic jam sessions, I’ve come up with 3 or 4 ideas which could easily be turned into decent full tracks.

The Volca Bass sounds awesome recorded directly through its headphone output, and I’ve already used Volca Bass sounds recorded this way in tracks (e.g. Dystopia). The Volca beats on the other hand presents some challenges. I’m currently trying to adjust to weaving music writing sessions into full-time work, and at the moment I’m working on turning the first of those 3 or 4 Volca jam session ideas into a full track. And this means taking the sounds from the Volca synths and recording or replicating them into Reaper (and Kontakt in the case of the Volca Beats).

The Volca Beats has some good and bad points. Internet forums are full of people complaining about the snare drum sound, and I agree it’s the low point of the synth (although by turning the decay right down it can become a pretty good rimshot). The cymbals also are pretty rough sounding… OK through the Volca’s speaker, but fairly grainy when recorded into a DAW. On the plus side, the 808-style bass drum sounds huge recorded through a DAW with longer decay settings, the clap sound is quite good, and the clave is very versatile. The problem I’m having at the moment is replicating the sound produced through the Volca Beats speaker in a higher quality context.

It’s not just a simple case of recording the pattern through the Volca’s direct output… the resulting sound is a mile away from what you hear through the speaker. There are a couple of reasons for this. This first is just the simple limitations of the speaker. I’ve mentioned this in a previous post but the Volca’s speaker is tiny, and trying to push heavy bass tones and sharp attacks through something less than 1″ diameter results in all kinds of inaccuracies. There’s nothing much at all below 350Hz (to be expected), and the pushing of all these strong tones through a speaker which is in no way capable of properly handling them results in all kinds of (ultimately pleasant) side-effects… distortion, compression, and a big chunk of excess mid range. The other, and more important problem that makes the speaker sound hard to replicate, is that the speaker significantly affects the decay of the drum sounds. One of the most interesting things I learnt during my ‘sabatic’ year producing, was how small changes in the length and decay of percussive sounds can have a huge effect on the overall groove/feel of a beat… comparing the same Volca Beats pattern through the direct output and the speaker is a great case-in-point of this. Basically the speaker tends to significantly shorten the decay of notes, so if you compose a pattern through the speaker, what you then record through the direct out ends up with longer decays which completely change the groove/feel of the pattern.

So, you’re left with the following situation…

  • You can’t really use the sound recorded through the direct out (at least on its own) as it sounds completely different to the speaker sound
  • You can’t use the speaker sound through a mic as it has no low end at all

The best you can do is to try and replicate the sounds you hear through the speaker in your DAW, and then try and rebuild the pattern from there (messing with decay and note lengths to try and replicate the groove/feel). I’ve had only mixed success with this so far… a lot of failures, and lots of persistence has been required. The best result I’ve had in replicating the tonality is to use a layered combination of…

  1. The Volca speaker sound recorded with a mic (and type of mic seems to be a bit important here too… I’ve had more luck in capturing the ‘grittiness’ of the sound with an SM57 than my usual condenser mic).
  2. Some similar synthesized drum sound to provide the low end, and bolster the mid
  3. Potentially some blending with a similar sounding sample or 808/909 sample to give a bit more polish

… and in my last session I found that distortion is like a ‘secret sauce’ for getting a more present, compressed, and harmonically rich sound.

Trying to replicate these Volca Beats sounds and patterns has been a long struggle so far, but I need to keep pushing on. The ultimate reward will be that once I figure out the right way to do it, I can quickly materialise the 2-3 remaining jam session ideas I have into full tracks… will definitely post details of the techniques when I finally figure it out.

Spending Time Appropriately

I’ve blogged before several times about sample manipulation and clean up (i.e. EQ, compression, gating, etc…).  I use a lot of live-sampled sounds in my tracks, often as main/key elements in the overall composition.  So in these cases, properly cleaning up and compressing samples is really important, if I want these elements to stand out well and sound clean in the mix.

For the track I’m working on at the moment, I’m in the middle of doing all the incidentals, and part of that is incidental percussion.  I usually first sequence all of these sounds in the track’s Reaper project, and afterwards go through and automate EQ and compression to get them sitting in the mix properly (usually with a single EQ and compressor instance and using automation to adjust the parameters for each incidental).  That process can be pretty tedious, so I decided this time I’d do all the sample EQ and compression up front (i.e. before sequencing) in audio editing software.  This also was pretty daunting at first, because I had about 20 samples to treat, and I usually spend a good 5-10 minutes per sample finding the right EQ and compression settings, and auditioning on monitors and close listening through headphones.  But as I started working through them, I realised I didn’t need to spend so long on each one…

For samples which are used as key elements in the track, overly careful EQ and compression is really important… your key elements will either comprise the main ‘themes’ of a track, or at a minimum occur many times during the track’s progression… hence you need to spend time making fine and careful adjustments to get them sounding as good as possible.  On the other hand, the incidental samples I was working on might play in total a couple of times at most during the entire progression… plus they often occur at sonically ‘busy’ parts of the track (builds, peak points, etc…), where slight quality issues (like a tiny bit of distortion, or slightly wrong EQ) will likely be masked by all the other sounds occurring at the same time.

It made me realise I could afford to be (what I would usually consider) a bit ‘sloppy’ with my approach to this sample editing… only audition on monitors, and sometimes running mild effects like a slight limiting or compression with minimal or no auditioning (I use Waves L1 and C1 a lot for this purpose, and have used them so much I can usually apply mild adjustments without needing to audibly auditioning).  And more generally it made me think about using your time appropriately.  Time is a precious commodity for a producer… particularly if it’s not your profession and you have limited time to start with.  So you need to really think about the areas where it’s necessary to spend time, and the areas where you can afford to take a more ‘quick fix’ approach.

Noise Reducing Percussion Samples

A quick tech ‘how to’ post today… around noise reduction in live-recorded samples.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I use a lot of live recorded sounds in my tracks, especially live recorded percussive sounds.  Sometimes these sounds can be recorded quietly in the studio, but other times I capture them ‘on location’, and hence have to work with background noise.  On other occasions the background noise is unavoidably entwined with the sound source.  This was the case today when I recorded some tom sounds from the Volca Beats speaker.  The direct sound from this Volca is fairly useable , but the speaker is really hissy, and hence I ended up with a lot of hiss in the sample…

The raw sample

In the past I used to try and remove this in one of two ways…

  1. Use a high shelf filter to reduce the hiss
  2. Use a gate to fade out the tail of the sample

…but neither of these were ideal… the filter option would remove high frequency content from the whole sample including the attack part (which can significantly alter the sound).  The gate avoids that problem, but requires that you find a trade off between cutting the low frequency content of the tail (using a short release time), and ending up with audible hiss remaining in the tail (using a longer release time).

But, using automation you can combine the above approaches and get a much better result than either in isolation.  The trick is to use a high shelf filter, but automate the gain/level control, so that it’s very quickly attenuated just after the attack of the sound is finished.  The screens below demonstrate the setup in Reaper.  First you import the sample into an empty track.  Then add a high shelf filter into the FX chain (I’m using Reaper’s built-in ‘ReaEQ’ below to keep things simple).  Then automate the gain/level control of the filter (using the ‘Track Envelopes/Automation’ button on the track control)…

noise-reducing-percussion-samples-1
Reaper track ‘Envelopes/Automation’ window

Then draw an automation curve as shown in the below screen…

noise-reducing-percussion-samples-2
Automation curve
noise-reducing-percussion-samples-3
ReaEQ settings (‘Gain’ is controlled by the automation)

Depending on the nature of the sample, you’ll want to try adjusting the 4 highlighted parameters above to get the noise-reduced version sounding right…

  • The point where the filter starts to drop
  • The time the filter takes to get to minimum gain, and the shape of the curve (above option is using the Reaper ‘fast start’ point shape)
  • The frequency and bandwidth/Q of the filter

If it’s an excessively noisy sample, a low pass filter might also work better than high shelf.

In this case, the same sample with the above settings turned out like this…

The ‘noise-reduced’ sample

… that’s a considerable amount of noise reduction, but has maintained all the attack and general timbre of the sound.

Pitching Percussion

As I’ve written about many times in this blog, I learnt a stack of stuff during 2016 regarding production techniques.  One of those that really stood out for me, was the importance of correctly pitching percussive sounds.

For whatever reason, prior to 2016, I can’t consciously remember explicitly re-pitching sounds like hi-hats, snares, claps, etc… which says to me that I either didn’t do it that much, or didn’t see it as being particularly important.  I guess from a theoretical point of view, my thinking was along the lines of “they’re not tonal, harmonic sounds, so there’s no point or need to tune them”.  Ofcourse, now understanding what constitutes a sound much better, percussive sounds are no different to what we consider ‘instrument’ sounds… at the end of the day they both break down to a collection of sine waves… it’s just the sine waves in a percussive sound modulate much more quickly, and are often at more ‘dissonant’ intervals than those in instrument sounds.  For lower pitched, more ‘droney’ instruments like bass drums and toms, it’s pretty obvious that changing the pitch can have a significant effect (since the tail of these sounds is usually dominated by a single sine-ish tone), but I was suprised how much of an effect this can have on snares and cymbals.

Rather than bang on too much about sound theory, maybe it’s best to illustrate with an example.  Below is a raw clip of some of the percussion elements, and the bassline of my track ‘Dystopia‘…

… and here is the same clip again, but with the pitch of all percussion set to the default (i.e. as it was in the original samples)…

Hear the difference?  The pitched version sounds much more cohesive, and has a better groove… mostly due to the hi-hat and clap/snare sounds being more in tune with the bass line and bass drum.  Also there’s a high pitched  ‘woody’ sound played on 16ths (sample of a chopstick being dropped onto a pile of chopsticks)… it tends to stand out and sound incongruous in the unpitched version.  Overall, the unpitched version just seems to ‘lag’ somewhat, and definitely doesn’t have the same integrity and groove of the pitched version.

The actual differences in pitch are usually quite slight.  I use Kontakt for all of this percussion, and these samples would be shifted by at most 2 semitones.  But I find even a change of 0.3 or 0.4 of a semitone, on a key percussion element like hi-hat or snare, can have a profound effect on the overall sound and groove of a track.

It’s important to keep this in mind too, when auditioning percussion samples.  I tend to cycle through sometimes 100’s of snare and cymbal sounds, and when doing this you have to keep in mind that a particular sound might sound slightly off or wrong when directly auditioned, but could be transformed after a slight pitch shift.

Anyway, the importance of pitching percussion been a kind of interesting revelation for me, and in terms of potential effort vs benefit (i.e. it requires little effort to change for potentially a lot of benefit), is a technique you should definitely utilize.