incorporating ultrabeat into my workflow

Thanks to The Architech coming over and showing me some of the more interesting features of Ultrabeat, my drum composition has changed tremendously. I used to use ReDrum, a noble and wonderful little drum machine packaged into Reason, because of its familiar look-and-feel (its UI is modeled after the TR-909) and dead-simple feature set that was not only easy to comprehend, but easy to manipulate in a live setting. But composing in ReDrum has its drawbacks, and composing in Ultrabeat works better with the way I think drums ought to be composed in electronic music. However, this presents an interesting problem: since my live setup relies on Reason for drum beats, how am I going to get Ultrabeat patterns and sounds in Reason?

a little evangelism

Starkey turned me onto Ultrabeat at my last semester of UArts during a L.A.C.E. (Laptop And Controller Ensemble, a short-lived ensemble group established by Starkey and composed of UArts students who had an interest in live electronic performance) rehearsal one Tuesday night. He builds all his beats with the plugin, but the way he introduced it to me was describing a bug he had where it CRASHED Logic! Not a really good place to start...leaving me a little prejudice against its reliability until I had a conversation with Architech a few months ago at an Arts Garage party. It eventually led to him coming over to check out the empty room in my house (which he didn't take) and us educating each other about music. One of the most interesting things he taught me was some of the concepts of Ultrabeat that are really, really cool, and basically devalue my earlier reasons for not using the plugin.

the old-fashioned way

I'd like to illustrate my former workflow for dealing with drums. The major problem with drums, and this is why they can't just be bounced and used like any other track, is that the sound of all the other tracks revolve around the sidechain compression of the kick and/or snare. So these tracks need to be extrapolated at all times so the compressors can use them as keys for the sidechain. This is a major component of the house sound in general (plus, it sounds cool), and thus needs to be carried over into live performance from the studio. While screwing around during a rehearsal, I discovered that Reason files can be opened/closed at will without affecting the sequencer, so when I have one .rns file open and open another one simultaneously, I can close the first one without affecting the sound of the sequencer. Hopefully. There have been times where the computer simply gets overloaded and can't handle all that instruction at once, wherein the sound "hiccups" a little. To date, this has never happened to me in a live performance, but I still don't want to risk it. There must be a cleaner way to do this...

the new hotness

Ultrabeat is like any other drum machine. It's got a 32-square pattern sequencer and 16 separate sample tracks, each with their own dynamics control (as if they were just normal Logic tracks), and additional options for crafting the drum sound like a drum synth, filters and envelope definition. There can be an unlimited amount of patterns stored inside the plugin itself, but I almost never save my patterns, instead opting to click the grid icon next to the pattern chooser and dragging the current pattern into Logic's arrangement window, where it is added to the Ultrabeat track as MIDI. This MIDI controls the entire drum machine, allowing you to create "evolving" beats that can change every 2 bars (or longer), and so you can easily see which patterns are being invoked on each measure. By using Ultrabeat, and adopting a more MIDI-centric workflow, my new songs have taken on quite a different character in the drum track. Since it's so much easier now to create different types of beats in my drum machine, I'm able to push further and explore more variants of beats.

One of the things I like about Ultrabeat's UI is that it can be altered to fit your current workflow. What if you have the sounds you're looking for, but you want to actually sit down and write the pattern? Hit "Pattern view" and the sound-editing options will disappear, leaving you with a huge grid to play with. But what if that kick is filtered a little too high? No problem, just click the track and hit "Full view" to bring up the sound editing options, where you can alter the filter. Notice that below the editor, you can edit the pattern for just this track. Reason users may find this interface to be a little more at-home ( I know I did) because you're used to editing one track at a time. But I strongly recommend moving over to the pattern view way of composing, it's much easier to create cleaner drum tracks that don't collide with each other.

So Ultrabeat is a great interface for working with drums, but how about controlling the sound after the drums have been synthesized? 99% of the time, I have to apply some mastering plugins to get the drum sound I want out of Ultrabeat and my TR-808/909 samples. With Reason, I was able to totally control the routing of each drum track and establish compression/filtering for each separate drum sound. This gave each of my tracks a professional, heavy and floor-filling sound that was quite malleable yet easy to deal with. My father once told me that production-wise, the foundation of the track, drums and bass normally, may be the most important elements of the whole song, and I've always strived to make this foundation both interesting and prominent, regardless of the genre I'm working with. It may also be a reason for why I enjoy creating electronic music, and house/dance specifically, because of this attention paid on the foundation. It's just not House without a booming kick & funky bass line!

This is where it gets interesting. Because Ultrabeat is built into Logic, we can actually create Aux tracks from the drum kit itself, and extrapolate some of the drums into their own separate mono tracks. From here, we can EQ, add effects and generally craft each drum sound just the same as we could with Reason. You can even apply separate automation for each drum aux and really get down-and-dirty with controlling the sound. After learning all of this, I decided it was time to finally abandon ReDrum for composing, and totally immerse myself into this new plugin that greatly accelerated my workflow and taught me a LOT about Logic.

bringing it all back home

So now I have these new tunes created in Ultrabeat, but how do I play them live? This question plagued me for weeks after I realized a month ago I would need to somehow extract these drum parts and use them in Ableton. But Ableton doesn't support Ultrabeat, so a major disconnect was taking place. My old workflow used Reason for the drums, so it was easy to just open the file in ReWired Ableton and play it through a couple audio tracks. But now that I no longer use Reason to compose drums in, I need to figure out a way to migrate the drum patterns I come up with into a sequences I can trigger easily and efficiently.

After doing some tests, I discovered that Ultrabeat's MIDI output is standardized General MIDI for drums, and therefore can be imported directly into Ableton Live (each region even becomes its own clip!) and pumped via ReWire to the Reason instance. My Reason files are now simply used for saving the preset sounds of each song's drum kit, and Ableton will now sequence the patterns like it was meant to do originally.

This part is actually a little confusing, but it makes sense in the end. What you have to do is select the MIDI regions you want in Logic (I usually group by song form: verse beats, chorus beats, etc.) and go to File > Export.. > Selection as MIDI File, and then create a new directory called "MIDI Files" in your Logic project folder. Name the file after its form name, so "drums-verse.mid", etc. This allows you to use MIDI in other ways, like for example if you use a VST you can simply open the VST in Ableton and pump in MIDI/presets you created in Logic. This allows you to alter the sound on the fly for your particular PA system (they're all different, I find myself doing a lot of audio engineering work at the beginning of a set to make the speakers react to my music properly).

To import this MIDI into Ableton, create a new MIDI track for holding drum patterns (I called mine "Drums"), and simply track the .mid file into the track. The clips will show up horizontally, simply drag them into subsequent vertical rows in your Live Set to establish a proper order for the drums to go in. By clicking these clips directly, you can invoke the MIDI for each drum pattern.

In Reason, create a new file and remove the mixer. Add in a ReDrum plugin instance and set up the drums in exactly the same order as you have them in Ultrabeat. So for example, if your drum sample order looks like: kick, snare, claps, open hat, closed hat, ride in Ultrabeat, that's what you'd want in Reason. Mute out the tracks that aren't pre-set this way to avoid wayward notes triggering drums that aren't set up properly. Hit "Tab" to get the routing panel, and route the kick & snare into separate aux channels in Reason's hardware interface patchbay, then take those channels as input into Ableton for your kick & snare tracks. This will extract just the kick & snare into separate tracks so you can set sidechains for them in other instruments. Ableton's compressor has sidechain built in now, so no need for extra VSTs taking up your memory!

So now you have Reason set up to read MIDI from Ableton, and to pump drum audio back into the sequencer through 3 separate tracks. This is the way I do things live and at home, and I hope it helps your workflow because it's certainly helped mine!