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“Universal” Gated Reverb

Last week’s tip covered using the Mixverb to create the 80s gated reverb effects with drums. This week, we’ll present a more universal solution. But also, we’ll do some cool tricks with gated delay (there’s nothing like a dotted eighth-note delay, right?).

Compared to last week’s tip, the main difference this week is that it’s not limited to using individual drum sounds (although that remains the most flexible approach). Because the gate following the reverb has a sidechain, it works with drum loops or a mixed drum bus. Fig. 1 shows the mixer setup for a drum loop.

Figure 1: Mixer setup for gated reverb drums.

The drum (or loop, or bus) track has two sends. One goes to an FX Channel with Open Air reverb followed by Gate. The Pro EQ2 before the reverb is optional—it’s there to keep low frequencies, where the kick lives, out of the reverb. The other send controls the Gate’s sidechain.

For Open Air, I prefer reverb sounds that don’t have a lot of early reflections, with a long, consistent tail. Try different reverbs, because the results vary greatly depending on the reverb itself. My go-to is using a 4.00 or 8.00 second “Balanced” impulse from my Surreal Reverb Impulse Reponses sample pack, tweaked with the Open Air EQ. In the audio example, using this particular impulse imparts a sort of melodic component as well as space. However, most long, smooth reverbs will work.

Gate Settings

First off, a “gotcha”: When you assign a sidechain to the Gate, it assumes you want Duck mode. You don’t! Make sure you turn off Ducking, or you’ll wonder why the gating doesn’t work as expected.

The Gate’s Hold parameter plays an important role. You can set the Threshold to pick up as much of the drum dynamics as you want, and then use Hold to set a specific amount of time that the Gate is open. Release tailors the sound further by setting the way the Gate cuts off, from no time to a bit of a decay. For example, 250 ms adds a bit more of a reverberant character if you want a less drastic gating effect.

Audio examples? Sure! Let’s start with gated reverb on drums.  The first half is dry drums. The second half has gated reverb, and uses the parameters shown in fig. 1.

80s Gated Mixverb Drums.mp3

The final audio example gates a dotted eight-note delay from the Analog Delay. In some ways, I think this is a better application than traditional reverb…but maybe that’s just because I haven’t heard it a zillion times before. This example has only the processed sound, since you already heard the dry sound in the previous audio example.

Gated 80s Drums_Delay.mp3

EZ 80s Gated Mixverb Drums

The gated reverb effect on drums was one of the signature sounds of the 80s, with probably the most famous example being Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” The dramatic moment when the drums came crashing in was all about gated reverb.

It may seem like this is an easy effect to create, but it’s not as easy as it might seem. Not just any reverb sound will do, and the gate parameters are critical.

Fortunately, the Mixverb is reasonably good at doing gated drum sounds, especially with drums like toms that have a decent amount of sustain or ring.

The downside is that the Mixverb’s gate section doesn’t have a sidechain, which is needed for the most flexible and authentic gated reverb effects. Because the gate is after the reverb, its gating action tracks the reverb’s decay, not the drum’s decay. Also, if a couple hits happen in quick succession, they’ll keep the reverb going. This keeps the gate opens, and forfeits the gated effect.

For best results, each drum whose reverb you want to gate will need a separate output, processed by its own Mixverb. Fortunately, it doesn’t draw much CPU, so your computer won’t complain. For next week’s tip, we’ll cover a more traditional (albeit more complex) solution for gated drum effects. Meanwhile, let’s hear what the Mixverb can do.

80s Gated Mixverb Drums.mp3

The first half is unprocessed drums, the second half has gated Mixverb on the toms and snare.

The mixer setup (fig. 1) is straightforward.

Figure 1: Each drum track with gated reverb has an individual output, with a Mixverb inserted.

Start with the initial settings shown in fig. 2, which are fairly crucial. Because the Gate is post-reverb, the Size, Gate Threshold, and Gate Release interact.

Next, vary the Gate Threshold to alter how long the gated reverb effect lasts. The optimum settings will depend on the drum sound itself, and the incoming level to the Mixverb. Even a 1 or 2 dB change in the threshold can have a major influence. Then, vary the Mix control to obtain the desired blend of dry and gated reverb sound.

Finally, play around with the Size and Gate Release controls to see if you can optimize the sound any further. Note that the snare in the audio example had the same settings, except the Gate Threshold was at the lowest possible level, and the Gate Release was 50 ms.

Figure 2: Mixverb settings.

After trying this, you might think “Nice try, Craig…it sounds okay in the audio example, but my drums don’t sound like that.” Well, remember that we just got lucky with the Mixverb, and it’s not equally accommodating to all drums. So tune in next week, when we’ll show a more universal way to do gated reverb drums—which can also be very cool with gated delay.

Studio One’s VCA Module

A modular synthesizer’s VCA (Voltage-Controlled Amplifier) changes gain in response to an input control voltage. One of my favorite applications is controlling a VCA with an envelope follower—for example, using an envelope follower on drums, and running power chords, pads, or sustained synth sounds through the VCA. Then, these sounds take on the percussive characteristics of the drum part. But Studio One doesn’t have a VCA, right?

Actually, it does—the Expander. You can set up the Expander to act like a VCA, with its gain controlled by a sidechain signal. So, in the example above, you can run sounds like guitar chords through the Expander, and feed the Expander’s sidechain from a drum track. Here’s what it sounds like.

VCA Expander Demo

[Caption] The first four measures, drums modulate the guitar. The second four measures use the Analog Delay to provide an additional 1/8th-note rhythm.

Test Setup

Fig. 1 shows a test setup to play around with this process, and hear how it works. Insert a drum loop in one track. Normalize it so the signal level is consistent. The drums provide the sidechain signal.

In another track, insert the Tone Generator set for pink noise, followed by the Expander. Using pink noise makes it easy to hear how adjusting Expander parameters alters the pseudo-VCA’s response to drums.

Start with the Expander settings shown in fig. 1, and assign a pre-fader send from the drum track to the Expander’s sidechain. Note that when you assign a sidechain to the Expander, it automatically selects Ducking mode. You don’t want this, so de-select Ducking.

Figure 1: Test setup to check out Studio One’s VCA.

Start playing the drum loop, and you should hear the white noise’s amplitude being modulated by the drums. If not, make sure the drum track send provides enough level to the expander sidechain. Here’s how the Expander controls affect the sound.

  • Release: Start by varying the Release. Longer times add a decay to the pink noise.
  • Attack: This isn’t as useful with percussive sounds, because the sound is over before the attack can complete. But if the sidechain signal is coming from something like a pad, you’ll hear an attack time superimposed on the noise.
  • Range: This acts like a bias voltage for the VCA, that always keeps it somewhat open. It’s good for when you want the VCA to be affected only by the drum peaks.
  • Threshold: Lower this to pick up more of the peaks. It’s kind of like compressing the sidechain signal.
  • Ratio: Higher ratios make the effect more percussive, to the point where the sound is so percussive you might not hear the drums anymore. Lower ratios create a less percussive sound, somewhat like changing the ratio.

Now that you know what this technique can do, start running other signals through the Expander. And by the way—automating Threshold and Release can add some serious animation to the percussive effects. Check it out!

Parallel? Narrow? Bass? Say What?!?

It’s probably obvious that I love the Chords track. It’s so useful that if you haven’t made friends with it yet, look over the Reference Manual…then take it out for lunch. Meanwhile, here’s a way to have it create a rhythmic keyboard part—with very little effort.

One of the Chords track’s (many) talents is generating a chord chart from your playing. Play an acoustic instrument like guitar (yes, chords are allowed) or a MIDI instrument like Presence, then drag the audio or MIDI data up to the Chords track. It automagically maps out your chord progression.

Tip: Quantize the part before you drag it up, so that chord changes happen on the beat where they’re supposed to change. Or quantize the Chords track after it’s extracted, so that the chord changes line up on the beat.

Once the Chords track extracts the progression, any subsequent audio or MIDI parts you record can follow the chord progression. Audio has more options than MIDI, so for this blog post, we’ll just consider the MIDI aspect.

The keyboard overdub shown in fig. 1 is not following the chord track that was extracted from guitar. Actually, all it’s doing is playing the same chord with different rhythms. But we’ll fix this.

Figure 1: The original, unedited, totally uninteresting keyboard overdub.

It sounds as useless as it looks—and to prove it, check out the following audio example. I’ve left the guitar, bass, and drums in for context. The keyboard part is panned right, and mixed up fairly high so you can hear the part easily.

Original Track

Tip #2: When using the Chords track as a songwriting partner, don’t be too concerned about the notes you play—the Chords track will fix them. Just nail the timing, and play in the general vicinity of the note range you want the final part to cover.

To have the MIDI notes follow the Chords track, click on the track, open the Inspector (F4), and from the Follow Chords drop-down menu, choose Narrow. This moves the notes to the nearest note that conforms to the chord specified in the Chords track (fig. 2). Looks a lot better, doesn’t it?

Figure 2: The Chords track has processed the notes with Narrow mode.

And it sounds a lot better, too, as you’ll hear in the next audio example.

Narrow Mode

The Parallel option shifts the notes in parallel, so that a chord’s root notes line up with the root note of the chord in the Chords track. This typically creates voicings that cover a wider pitch range, which may or may not be what you want. However, occasionally this will transpose some notes so they’re not in the right key. If so, you’ll need to do a little manual editing. Here’s what Parallel mode created (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Parallel mode voices notes over a wider pitch range.

 And here’s what it sounds like.

Parallel Mode

Following the chord track in Bass mode isn’t relevant here, because it just aligns the chord’s lower note with the Chords track chord—the end result is the same as choosing Parallel, which definitely doesn’t generate a fun bass line. But as described previously in the blog post Studio One’s Session Bass Player, combining the Chords track with the Fill Notes option can create some pretty amazing bass parts.

Oh, and if someone wants to spoil the fun and say you’re “cheating,” remind them the only thing that matters about music is the emotional impact on the listeners—and if they like what they hear, they won’t care what you did to get there.

Lively Up Your Drums

One element that can help make drums exciting is including the room sound where the drums were recorded. If you don’t believe me, listen to the drum part in Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”

I rest my case.

When mixing drums, if there wasn’t a separate track of miked room sound, or you’re using a pre-recorded loop, you do have options. You can add a room sound with reverb, but that won’t be the same as the room where you recorded the drums. Or, you can compress the drums, which will bring up the room sound—but also squash the peaks.

The best option would be bringing up the room sound without squashing the peaks. Fortunately, with parallel compression, you can do this. The trick is to set a super-low threshold, then add some compression. This brings down the peaks, but keeps the low-level audio intact. Turning up the Mix control just a bit brings in the low-level sounds, but because most of the mix contains the dry drums, you won’t squash any of its peaks. Now you have full peaks and room sound—as you’ll hear in the audio example. The first half is the drums by themselves. The second half enhances the room sound using this technique.

Lively Up Your Drums.mp3

How It Works

Insert the Compressor in your drum track, and set the compressor parameters as shown in fig. 1 (or just download the preset). Here’s what the controls do.

Figure 1: Compressor settings to bring up room sound, without squashing peaks.

-48.00 is the lowest possible threshold. A 2.0:1 ratio adds enough compression to bring down the peaks so they don’t interfere with the dry signal, without sounding too compressed.

A tight compression sound is important for drums, so set the attack to minimum and about 50 ms of release. Don’t click Auto, because we’re not using the compressor in a standard way.

The Low Cut filter reduces the kick’s effect on the compression, so the lower-level sounds aren’t “pumped” by the kick. You’ll probably need to add some makeup gain; the preset uses 8.00 dB. The Mix control dials in the desired amount of room sound. With the settings shown, and a drum track that’s normalized to maximum, 30% seems about right.

And that’s all you need to do to lively up your drums. If you still want to squash the peaks too, then insert a Limiter2 after the compressor. But also note that this technique can bring up the body sound of acoustic guitars, bowing sounds with string sections, mouth sounds with vocals, and the like. Experiment!

Create Your Perfect Vocal Channel Strip Preset

First, some news: If you own The Huge Book of Studio One Tips and Tricks, the free update to version 1.2 is available from the PreSonus shop. Just go to your account and re-download the book. Also, my 2021 album project was recorded entirely in Studio One, and the playlist is posted on YouTube. You’ll probably find the song “I Hope” of particular interest, because the keyboard part was created automatically (yes, it really was) using the tip about the “Fill Notes” function, and the guitar and keyboard parts use the Shimmer Reverb tip. Okay, on to this week’s tip…

We all know how important vocals are, and the Fat Channel is an excellent channel strip for creating vocal presets. So, let’s go step-by-step on how to create your own Fat Channel preset. We’ll cover the reasons for choosing the parameters in fig. 1, and the order in which you want to edit them. More importantly, we’ll describe how to customize parameters for your mic type and voice.

Figure 1: Channel strip settings for my voice with a dynamic mic.

HPF/Gate

The HPF can reduce pops, as well as excessive bass from singing too close to the mic. Choose a frequency that tightens up the low end, but doesn’t thin the sound. With a ribbon mic, you might want a higher frequency.

To keep low-level noise out of a vocal, try setting the Expander threshold to -55 dB. This should be high enough to get rid of residual hiss and room noise, but low enough to retain vocal nuances.

Equalizer

EQ settings are like a combination lock—get them right, and your vocal opens up. As to signal chain placement, equalizer before compressor is more forgiving of substantial EQ boosts that create “character.” Let’s run through the order for adjusting the edits.

HS (High Shelf). This gives the vocal “air.” Freq will be in the 8 to 10 kHz range, but Gain depends on your mic. Some mics have a high-frequency lift, so you don’t need much gain. A ribbon mic might sound dull, and need more gain. Turn up the Gain to where you get sibilance problems, and then back off until the sibilance issues go away. 

HMF. The frequency range from 2 to 5 kHz is all about intelligibility. A broad boost helps the vocal stand out in a mix. Turn up the Gain until you hear more definition and greater intelligibility, then back off just a bit. The ear is most sensitive in this range, so too much boost can sound harsh.

LMF. A broad cut in the lower mids between 200 and 500 Hz can reduce “muddiness.” This isn’t always necessary, but reducing the lower mid response leaves more room for other instruments. Besides, with the HMF and High Shelf boosts, the vocal should come through just fine. An easy way to adjust LMF is to temporarily increase the Gain in this range, and sweep the frequency for the most “boxy” sound. That’s where you want to cut.

LF. With the HPF active and LMF cutting, a slight boost here re-introduces a little more warmth into the vocal. With a ribbon mic, or if the vocal was recorded with a significant bass proximity effect from singing too close, you might want to cut here instead.

Compressor

The Tube Comp is a favorite for vocals, and it’s blissfully easy to adjust: Set Peak Reduction for the desired amount of compression, then use Gain to make up for any decrease in level caused by compression. I usually aim for 6 to 8 dB compression on peaks, but a lot of engineers like to slam the compression harder, especially for rock vocals.

Limiter

Setting this to -3.0 provides insurance against stray peaks going higher than desired.

The Preset

The downloadable preset has the parameters shown in fig. 1. Although it can serve as a point of departure, I strongly encourage you to tweak the parameters to perfection for your own voice and microphone. You’ll find the effort is worth it!

Download the Fat Channel preset here:

Slick Tricks for Stack and Strum

Version 5.5 introduced Chord Stack and Strum features, which are pretty cool (for the basics on how they work, check out Gregor Beyerle’s YouTube video). We’ll warp these functions in some novel ways.

Chord Stack Meets Arpeggio

You can combine creating a Chord Stack and arpeggiating it at the same time.

  1. Start by selecting the desired Key, Scale mode, note length, and clicking the Scale check box (fig. 1). I find the most reliable option is to click Q, which follows the current quantization setting (quantization doesn’t have to be enabled).

Figure 1: Select the appropriate parameters circled in white before proceeding.

  1. Choose the Paint tool.
  2. Hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac).
  3. While still holding down Alt or Option, click where you want the note to start, and drag right (dragging left doesn’t work), while dragging up or down.
  4. The further you drag to the right, away from where you started, the more notes you’ll generate.

Past a certain point, some notes will repeat before moving on to the next note. The repeating is most likely to happen when using scales with few notes, like a Major Triad. The repeating notes can be a fun effect with sounds that have a fast decay.

When doing arpeggios, I like to drag up to the scale note just before the octave, and then create a second, downward arpeggio (fig. 2). You can turn this into an Event, and hit D to create as many iterations of the arpeggio as you want.

Figure 2: An arpeggio created by stretching a chord shape up, then creating a second arpeggio that stretches the chord shape down.

Strum Fun

Let’s turn our attention to strumming. One of my favorite alternatives to a conventional strum is that you don’t have to strum from the top or bottom of a chord, you can strum from the “inside out.” It sounds more like fingerstyle picking than strumming.

  1. Create your chord of choice.
  2. Select all the chord notes.
  3. Click somewhere toward the middle of the note where the strum should end (fig. 3 shows what happened when I chose the middle of the 7 notes) and hold down the mouse button.
  4. While still holding down the mouse button, hold down Alt+Ctrl (Windows) or Option+Cmd (Mac), and drag left or right. This is a wonderful effect—try it!

Figure 3: Inside-out strum.

Even better, we can take advantage of another new 5.5 editing feature. Set the end of the Event to where you want the notes to end. Select all the notes, right-click on one of them, and choose Musical Functions > Process > Extend to Note End. Now you’ll have a lovely, strummed attack, and all the notes will end at the same time.

More strum fun tips:

  • You don’t need to strum all the notes of a chord. You can select, for example, just the top three chord notes, and strum those.
  • Don’t overlook downstrokes. Click on the lowest note of a chord, hold the mouse button down, then hold down the Alt+Ctrl or Opt+Cmd and drag right. Now the top note will stay in place, and the strum will progress downward in pitch. If you want to end on the lowest note, choose the highest note instead of the lowest one, and drag left.
  • Anyone who’s been following this blog knows I’m a fan of 12-string guitars and Nashville tuning. So, copy your strum, move it up an octave, and offset it slightly late compared to the original strum (see fig. 4, which once again takes advantage of the Extend to Note End function so that all the notes end at the same time).

Figure 4: Octave strums have a different character when you offset the higher-octave notes.

Finally, it gets even better when you combine these techniques. For example, in fig. 4, you could strum the octave notes from outside in, and the lower notes from the inside out…or make one a downstroke, and one an upstroke.

Are we having fun yet?

“Melodify” Your Beats

Wouldn’t it be cool to add a harmonic element to beats? Well, thanks to Harmonic Editing and a little pink noise, you can. The goal is to have your beat or drum loop follow a chord progression, embed the percussive qualities into the chords, and then mix the desired blend of beats and chords. First, you need to do a little prep work:

  1. Create a chord progression in your Chord Track.
  2. Add a track with a drum loop or drum part.
  3. Add a pink noise track.

How to Create a Pink Noise Track

  1. Insert the Tone Generator effect in a track.
  2. Set waveform to pink noise, level to -6.00, and then turn on the Tone Generator (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Tone Generator settings to generate pink noise.

  1. Create an Event that lasts as long as where you want noise, by dragging the pencil across the pink noise track.
  2. Select the track in the track header, and choose Transform to Rendered Audio. Now you have a track of pink noise.
  3. Open the Noise Track’s Inspector, and for Follow Chords, choose Universal (fig. 2). The Tune Mode doesn’t matter.

Figure 2: Choose Universal for the Follow chords mode.

Next, let’s have fun by blending the chords generated by the pink noise (from the Harmonic Editing) with the drums. Here are some examples.

Gate the Chords

Insert a Gate in the pink noise track. Send a sidechain from the drum track to the Gate. Adjust the Gate parameters so it triggers in sync with the drums (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Typical Gate settings for opening and closing the Gate in sync with the drums. Make sure Ducking is not enabled. Also, I EQ’ed the sidechain to inhibit the kick from triggering the gate, so that the noise track followed only the higher-frequency percussion.

Here’s what it sounds like—fun stuff!

Automating the Gate parameters can be useful, too (especially Release and Threshold).

X-Trem the Chords

This sound inserts two X-Trems (fig. 4) in series in the pink noise track, and syncs them to tempo.

Figure 4: Settings for the two X-Trems.

And here’s what they do to the beat…it sounds very reggae.

This is another application where automation can add a lot of variety—particularly by varying the LFO Speed parameter in the second X-Trem.

X-Trem + AutoFilter the Chords

Now try replacing the second X-Trem with an AutoFilter, set as follows (fig. 5).

Figure 5: AutoFilter settings used in the audio example.

This audio example plays only the chord part, and doesn’t mix in the drums. You can introduce a lot of mileage in a song by varying the mix of drums only, chords only, and drum+chords.

Have fun!

Cool Reverb Trick, Bro!

Let’s go right to the audio examples, because they’re worth a thousand words.

The problem: You want a big, lush reverb on drums. But that overpowers the drums, and turns them into a reverby mess…like this.

So sadly, you turn down the reverb, and give up your dream. But wait! Here’s the solution.

We haven’t changed the reverb settings at all, so there’s still plenty of reverb. But now it sounds tight, instead of like a reverby mess. The secret is creating a bus, and inserting X-Trem before the reverb (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Setup for cool reverb drums.

You can ignore the Pro EQ, it’s there only because I usually insert a low-frequency rolloff prior to drum reverb (this prevents the  kick drum from misbehaving). Fig. 2 shows the X-Trem settings. Make sure X-Trem and the drums are synced to the tempo.

Figure 2: The X-Trem is using sine wave modulation, set for 1/4 note sync. 1/8 note sync can also work well for faster tempos, and 1/4 for slower tempos.

If you have other tracks feeding the Reverb bus, you might not want them subjected to the X-Trem (or you might). If not, then see fig. 3. 

Figure 3: How to apply this effect only to drums, when you want other tracks to feed the reverb bus.

Use a pre-fader send from the drums to a bus, insert the X-Trem in that bus and turn down its fader, then create a pre-fader send from the X-Trem bus to the Reverb bus. Now you can feed other tracks directly into the Reverb bus.

Cool reverb trick, eh?