Just like Rocky Balboa, I never shy away from a challenge.
So when I was challenged to recreate three iconic kick drum sounds from modern popular music using only D16 Group’s Punchbox drum synthesizer, I did what the Rock would do; I drank six raw eggs, put on two layers of sweatpants, performed 200 one-armed push-ups, and bashed suspended sides of raw beef until my knuckles bled.
I now invite you to accompany me on a journey through the vicissitudes and idiosyncrasies of Punchbox-exclusive sound design. As you read this post and consume the video content that I have lovingly, painstakingly created for you, I highly recommend listening to the Rocky theme music in a separate tab.
I’ve also included the final Punchbox patches for each song at the very end of this blog post.
Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown”
One of the many standouts from Kanye’s seminal 808s and Heartbreak, this instantly recognizable sound is the stuff of legend and needs no further introduction. Let’s see how close we can get to this iconic sound using only Punchbox:
The kick generator
It doesn’t take professional sound design skills to choose an 808 emulator for the kick generator section of this patch. A long decay, short sweep time, and low tone setting create an expansive, clean, subby kick that will be perfect for distorting and resampling.
The reference track includes some click and punch, but the sub is definitely meant to shine through and act as the focal point of the kick sound. When experimenting with recreating this track, I started by simply tweaking the first preset, and since the click already sounded good, I didn’t change any of the sample layers. I did knock the volume down pretty low, and I added a little bit of high pass filtering, but overall these generators aren’t contributing too much to the final sound for this particular kick.
This patch’s “secret sauce” is the bitcrusher, which is set to 100% wet. By truncating the audio down to 10 bits, I’ve introduced some crunchy digital noise to the sound. Next, I’ll export the sound I created in this patch, then open it up again in another Punchbox patch. That way, I’ll be able to play the sound in a tuned and key-tracked pattern while also retaining the nice crunchy noise, which will move with the sequence instead of being regenerated.
Punchbox has a killer feature that’s so small you might miss it at first, second, third, or fourth glance. The “EXPORT” function, despite its unassuming size and location in the GUI, was integral to my success in creating this patch.
Take a listen back to the first four bars of “Love Lockdown.” Those readers who are attempting to cultivate a sound designer’s ear will notice that the artifacted noise that gives the original kick its panache does not remain fixed in frequency. In fact, the noise sounds to me like it’s keytracking with the MIDI pattern of the kick. While I can’t speculate as to whether Kanye actually used resampling techniques to create the original sound, I found that using Punchbox’s resampling features allowed me to produce a reasonable attempt at remaking the iconic sub.
After exporting the sound I made in the description above, I reloaded it into Punchbox’s sampler. I admit I cheated a tiny bit here by using Ableton’s built-in Tuner effect to get the tuning perfectly right.
This resampler mostly just allows me to tune the kick, play it back using the right MIDI pattern, and add a very small amount of additional distortion. I’ve also cut off some of the original’s pop by adding a little attack time through the kick generator. Overall, I’m really happy with how this recreation worked out.
Azealia Banks’ “Anna Wintour”
I absolutely adore the sound of this kick drum. It’s tastefully distorted, not too subby, and not too punchy. Perhaps more importantly, it’s mixed beautifully into the rest of the track, providing a perfect foundation for Banks’ vocals to shine. Producer Junior Sanchez, a New Jersey house legend, really delivered on this one. My attempt at recreating this sound is below:
The kick generator
I used a sine wave for the kick generator section of this patch. These settings are pretty standard, but it’s really important to keep the start and end frequency parameters in mind when designing kicks. In this patch, the sound is starting around 310 Hz and ending near 50 Hz (approximately G1). A snapshot of the original track’s spectrum reveals the kick peaking somewhere in this range.
These layers add critical timbral flavor to this recreation. I especially love the tops sample, “Cry For Help 2,” for its spacious, hollow spectral characteristics. When I listened to the original track, I heard a scooped, squishy space to the kick that immediately piqued my interest. This tops sample really allowed that space to exist. The other two layers, “Tonal Supreme 3” and “Diggin’,” add modern sensibilities via more tonal, synthetic-feeling clicks. I used relatively mild filters to remove air and mud, while preserving the sound qualities that led me to choose these samples in the first place.
This FX chain might appear aggressive, but it’s really just tweaking a sound with which I’m already fairly satisfied. The bitcrusher, resampling around 3.5 kHz, and the distortion, driven to taste, provide this patch a pleasing punch. However, notice the FX amount knobs, which are conservatively set to pass a mostly dry signal.
The real standout here is Punchbox’s limiter module, whose quality continually surprises me. This aggressive limiting squashes the kick’s extraordinary crispy transients while endowing the sound with a beautiful subby weight. While I don’t feel the sound of the attack is perfect, the limiter module helped me deliver a reasonable approximation of Junior Sanchez’s distortion settings.
Ghostemane’s “Mercury: Retrograde”
Ghostemane’s music is aggressive, powerful, and visceral. You’ve got to love this kick sound – distorted, driven, and in-your-face, but still subby enough to shake your rearview mirror. Recreating this sound was loads of fun, especially given Punchbox’s delightfully simple skeuomorphic GUI. As you’ll see in the video below, the bass and kick sounds are distinct and layered together, so I remade both:
The sub bass: the generators section
Since we’re going to be layering this sub bass with another kick drum patch, it’s not necessary to emphasize the click, tops, or tools sections. While “Choking A Rat 2” might be one of my favorite sample names of all time, it’s not doing too much in this patch. “Barely 1” and “Close Up 5,” however, are giving this patch a small energy boost through a subtle high-end burst, similar to layering an open hi-hat on the patch.
When creating this sub bass patch, I planned to first create a clean sine wave, then distort the hell out of it. I’m using relatively standard settings for this: the sine sweeps from ~330 to ~47 Hz to match the key of the track. I also jacked the hold portion of the amplitude envelope all the way up to ensure that we’ve got a long, powerful bass sound that doesn’t die as the note is held.
The sub bass: FX
Now for the really fun part – we’ve got some noisy flavor added here from the bitcrusher quantizing the signal to 10 bits, but since its dry/wet ratio is set relatively low, this is a subtle effect. I played around for quite a while to land on these distortion settings – the module is really providing a pleasant, round set of harmonics here. It took a significant amount of dialing in to achieve this effect, but in the end I used a bandpass filter around 120 Hz, coupled with some support from the equalizer module to emphasize the ringing quality of the sub. Finally, I’ve really pushed the limiter module to the point where it’s contributing its own sonic character to the patch instead of simply providing gain control.
Eagle-eyed readers will also notice that I’ve selected the option to mixdown after the first FX module. Although it’s possible to re-order Punchbox’s FX modules, I found it more expedient for this patch to simply initiate the mixdown after FX1 instead. This preference controls the point in the patch where the generators are mixed with the sends.
The kick: the generators section
This kick drum has a slightly different pattern than the 808, so I created a separate instance of Punchbox on a new MIDI track. Here, we’ll focus on a punchier kick that cuts through the mix, leaving the sub some much-needed space to breathe.
You’ve just got to love the names of these samples. Punchbox’s layering capabilities are really important to this patch, since we’re really looking for a convincing, transient punch. I’ve used the “Stop Right There” and “Accelerator” samples together here to emulate the sound of a bass drum beater – these two tonal clicks really work nicely in tandem. It’s always fun to layer a clap on top of your kick drum for a little extra energy, which is what I’ve done here with “Clap Your Hands,” although the volume is low so this effect is quite subtle. The meat of this kick sound is coming from a 909 generator pitched to around 50 Hz. The result is a solid, meaty kick with a delightfully noisy click that will layer beautifully with the sub we’ve created.
The kick: FX
There’s nothing too surprising about this FX chain. I’m adding a reasonable amount of distortion by pushing the preamp gain up pretty high, but we’re only at around 35% for the dry/wet ratio, so a significant portion of the clean signal remains. A lowpass just under 3 kHz removes unwanted popping from the transient, while a few slight post-EQ notes help contour the sound before the limiter clips off the peaks. Coupled with our 808, this is a really potent, edgy bass section.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into sound design with Punchbox as much as I did. If you liked reading this piece, give it a shot yourself. There’s no better way to learn than by doing.
September 4, 2018