How do I use the effects in my drum module?
Every drum module from mid-range upwards offers you the opportunity to craft your own drum sets. In doing so, you're not just offered various instruments to choose from, but there are also numerous possibilities to edit their sound. Some of these sound-shaping tools are an absolute standard in the music industry.
Perhaps that's the reason why user manuals write about them in such a static and technical way. It is assumed that it's clear how to use these tools. However, it's overlooked that this is only clear to those who are in the studio or live at the mixing desk. They know how to turn which knobs to extract the necessary "oomph" from the kick sound provided by your drum module.
In other words: with your drum module, you're given essential tools - which are actually intended for completely different "craftsmen".
For many drummers who deal with E-drums, this is indeed a problem. How are they supposed to know how to use these "foreign" tools? If you belong to these drummers: help is on the way, because we will assist you on your journey to become an E-Drum Jedi*!
In our series "Pimp my Module", you will learn about the possibilities of shaping sounds.
The general part is more of a theoretical nature, but it's essential to get to know and understand the common tools you find in every module. For the practical side, you'll get insights into how each tool comes into play in different situations.
You will also receive practical tips on where you can intervene directly to significantly improve your sound. The intervention possibilities differ from module to module, even if they follow the same principles. Some tools are very sparing, others are very direct, and some are special tools that do not conform to any standard. Therefore, in this growing series, there will be focuses on individual drum module models and their equipment with sound shaping tools.
And you will understand under which circumstances it might even be better to skip this or that tool.
Table of Contents
- Why are the effects in the drum module useful at all?
- What do I have to do to achieve a clear sound?
- Bonus Knowledge: Ears
- What does stereo mean?
- What does the equalizer (EQ) do?
- What does the panorama control do?
- Bonus Knowledge: Energy distribution
- What do the reverb (Reverb) and the echo (Delay) do?
- How can I edit the dynamics?
- What does the mono jack (L/Mono) do?
- What does the compressor do?
What are the effects in the drum module actually for?
Basically, with the built-in effects, you have two options. Either you aim to make your sound clear, assertive, and natural, so your drum set sounds the way you'd expect from a good drum set. Or you use the effects creatively and see them more as "instruments" for creating special sounds. This is always the case when you set the controls to unusual or even extreme values.
It's very beneficial to first get to know each effect with the aim of shaping a clean sound. The rules for this aren't set in stone, but over the development of professional music productions across all genres, certain approaches have proven effective. In this case, the corresponding effects are used to accommodate the way our ears work or deliberately deceive our hearing.
So, once you've understood at this level what the respective effects actually do and how they interact, you can also be much more creative when it comes to using the effects deliberately differently.
What do I need to do to achieve a clear sound?
In principle, the task for a clean sound is quite simple. All you have to do is create a sound that gives the ear exactly what it expects to hear. The more the auditory information, which is forwarded from the ear to the brain, meets certain expectations, the more likely the sound will be perceived as good in the sense of "correct".
BONUS KNOWLEDGE! Our ears are fantastic tools! Due to their construction, they can relay a lot of information to the brain. They measure volume based on the strength of the incoming sound pressure. This is done in relation to frequencies (simplified: rates of sound vibrations), as our ears perceive them differently in volume, even if they are "technically" the same volume, i.e., have the same energy.
Since we have two ears located in different positions but are "connected" in the brain, we can determine the position of the sound source. If it is equidistant from both ears, we perceive its position as directly in the middle.
But it's even more precise than that. Due to the shape of the ears, high frequencies are dampened when they come from behind the ear. The brain can deduce from this that, for example, a central sound source is not in front of us but behind us.
Finally, the brain is accustomed to certain sounds. Very simplified, it can match incoming information with a library of "sound presets" and determine, for instance, whether a sound indicates danger (e.g., the cracking of a branch that we didn't cause ourselves). The body then immediately prepares for the potential danger. This is why we not only technically hear sounds but also feel them, even when we can't directly identify them.
If you shape your sound so that the information relayed from the ear to the brain is coherent, then you've created a clear sound - it sounds good! To achieve this, you use various effects that are combined with the selected sounds to form a stereo image. Additionally, you have the option to edit individual sounds or the entire result in terms of dynamics. The goal here is to make the sound more forceful or deliberately distort it.
What does Stereo mean?
When sounds are not produced naturally but technically, they need an artificial vibration system to even create the sound our ear can process. To bring the necessary sound information to the ear as authentically as possible, the stereo method has proven effective. You need no more than two speakers to provide all the necessary information for the ear. And it's your job to gather this sound information in the drum module and bring it into the stereo image. When your position, combined with the positions of the speakers, forms an equilateral triangle, you can interpret the stereo image best.
The stereo image is three-dimensional!
There is a common misconception that stereo is just about what comes out on the left and what on the right. In reality, the stereo process is much deeper. The two speakers are counterparts to the ears. Their combined sound creates a soundscape. By treating each sound source differently, you can precisely position it in the three dimensions: height, width, and depth.
And this is where the effects come into play!
What does the Equalizer (EQ) do?
The Equalizer deals with the dimension of height. With the EQ, you can edit the frequency spectrum of your sound source. High vibration frequencies are associated with "highs", low frequencies with "lows" or "bass", and the audible rest with "mids".
High frequency components do not necessarily mean a high note! While the bass drum is very prominent in the low-frequency components, there are also high-frequency components created when the beater strikes the skin. Both areas are essential for a bass drum to sound good.
With the EQ, you can detect and work on these areas. You can also, for example, expose and reduce disturbing mids.
By the way: as long as you only want to combine a few sound sources, you could easily work in mono. This would suffice with just the dimension of height. For example, the bass drum mainly covers the deep area, and the snare drum covers the middle and high area. If more sound sources come into play, it becomes more challenging to serve them all in just one dimension. This confuses the ear. A good remedy is the sensible adjustment of the panorama.
What does the panorama control do?
The panorama setting can assist the effects. With the panorama control, you move your sound source in width, so it can be positioned anywhere from far left, through the center, to far right. In conjunction with effects for the depth dimension, the panorama setting can relay very subtle information to the ear. This is where what is generally understood as "stereo" begins. If you move the snare drum to the far left, it will only sound from the left speaker. (By the way, nowadays, this would indeed be considered an effect, as the snare drum, like the bass drum and bass, usually belongs in the center, as you'll see.)
Every individual signal is initially a mono signal. It only becomes part of the stereo image at the end of the signal chain. If all your sound sources (bass drum, snare, hi-hat, toms, ride, crashes, etc.) remain in the center, then you have a mono image instead of a stereo image at the end, as the exact same sound comes out of both speakers. You're leaving the width unused and could only work through the depth dimension. However, this requires excellent (expensive) equipment, as the calculation of depth is highly complex and the ear is a master in this area.
On the other hand, the panorama control is straightforward to use and quickly leads to a better sound due to the improved localization of each sound source. So, use it!
BONUS KNOWLEDGE! In principle, you can freely decide which sound source should occupy which position in the panorama. However, for a good sound, you should make sure that in the end, the same energy comes out of both speakers, even if the signals are distributed differently. Otherwise, the sound image appears unbalanced. Conversely, you can often quickly correct an imbalance by simply positioning one or more sound sources on the other side.
The lower the tones or frequencies, the more you should move the corresponding sound source towards the center. Deep tones require more energy and put more strain on your sound system. It unnecessarily strains the system and your ears to properly position or locate the signal source. Another rule of thumb (which would be too detailed to explain here) is: the lower the frequency, the harder it is for the ear to locate. And the less sense it makes to move out of the center. That's why the bass drum (especially TR-808 and the like) and the bass belong in the middle!
What do the reverb (Reverb) and echo (Delay) do?
The reverb effect deals with the dimension of depth. This refers to the nature of the space in which the sound source resonates. Simplified, the rule is: the more room components resonate in the sound, the further away the sound source appears. For a natural drum sound, we will position all instruments roughly at the same distance. But for vocals, different distances make sense, for instance, positioning the lead vocals "in front" and the backgrounds "behind". This layering of depth can be achieved with reverb and delay.
Echo is a precursor to reverb. The path of the sound to the reflection surface and back to the ear is so long that we can clearly distinguish between the sound event and the reflection. In the mountains, sound is usually reflected no more than 4-5 times. So, you hear some echoes, usually of different volumes and different delays, because the mountains are at different distances. The closer the reflection surfaces, the more echoes can arise. The sound reflected from one surface (e.g., a room wall) can easily hit the next surface and be reflected again. Once the number of echoes increases to the point that you can no longer distinguish individual reflections, they appear to you as a single reflection, as room sound or reverb. The longer the reverb resonates, the larger the room appears.
Since our ears are very sensitive to the information of the room sound, it is very important for a natural sound to make this information consistent when artificially generated. The further away a sound source is, the more the information loses importance to the ear. The so-called Early Reflections are really important. These are the sound reflections of the walls in the immediate vicinity. They are responsible for the room sound and merge with the direct sound of a sound source into a unit. Early Reflections are very complex and correspondingly complex to calculate. Therefore, using inferior reverb devices can actually worsen the sound. Used correctly, the reverb only becomes noticeable when it is turned off.
How can I edit the dynamics?
Dynamics is another dimension that, however, is not related to the stereo image. To recall: editing the dimension of height with the help of the Equalizer means making certain frequency components louder or quieter. But that's not what is meant by dynamics here. Instead, it's about how dense a sound source is. The snare drum is a good example: it can be struck very softly, and then it sounds completely different than if you hit it hard. The compressor takes advantage of this phenomenon.
What does the mono jack (L/Mono) do?
Practically all sound modules offer you the option to use only one cable at the Master Out to connect to a sound system. This is often the case when the sound system consists of a single monitor. Since the stereo image requires two speakers, it cannot be created with one speaker. It is usually the left jack that is labeled "L/Mono" accordingly. The mono image brings all panorama positions to the center. This can be disadvantageous because several signals are likely to occupy the same frequencies. This is at the expense of a clear sound image. Whenever possible, you should create a stereo image! Check if you're better served with headphones as a monitor, because the headphone jack is generally designed as a stereo output.
What does the compressor do?
The compressor narrows the dynamics. Once again, simplified, with the compressor you can ensure that the quiet tones of your snare drum, for example, sound louder and the loud tones sound quieter. So, the dynamic range is trimmed. The sound of the snare drum becomes denser. This has the advantage that during loud parts the snare drum does not stand out, and during soft play, it remains assertive and can still be clearly heard among other instruments in the band. However, the characteristic sound of the soft and loud strokes remains. This is referred to as loudness. Using the compressor increases the loudness; the sound source appears louder because it now has to pack all energy into a smaller dynamic range. The energy, so to speak, has less space to unfold.
The common effects (EQ, panorama, reverb/delay, compressor) ensure that you can place a sound source in three-dimensional space and edit it in dynamics. The more your settings meet the ear's expectations, the more natural the sound appears. The more you deviate from this, the more creative you can shape the sound. While natural shaping has proven settings that lead to a good-sounding result, creative sound design will probably require several attempts before the result is perceived as sounding good.