Last Word: Skot Mcdonald
FXpansion Technical Director
For the last 12 years, SKoT has been living and breathing BFD, and he still thinks multi-tracking drums is the weirdest thing to get your head around. His latest project is an impending BFD collaboration with e-drum manufacturer Nfuzd.
It was something dumb we were doing in year seven. It just sort of stuck, and people remembered me as ‘SKoT with a K’. Originally I had an umlaut over the ‘o’. Until some Norwegian guy came along and said, ‘oh, your name is ‘Skoot’.
Our first family computer back in the ’80s, was a Dick Smith VZ200. If you spent three days coding away in the built-in BASIC in its 8kB memory, you could make sine tones play your favourite nursery rhymes.
It was 1995, and everybody wanted to be Nine Inch Nails. So my Computer Science honours project was to recover all the drums from industrial tracks. I’d do an analysis, work out where all the drums were and pull all the patterns out. Then get a simple expert system to learn all the rules of industrial drum writing, and automatically generate extremely average Industrial tracks.
No disrespect to Leæther Strip, but if they had a Z-side to any of their albums, that was kind of what the system was spitting out at the end.
My mate Andy Simper — who’s Cytomic [see AT100 for more] — and I were Vellocet, a dodgy Perth industrial band who hardly ever gigged and wrote plug-ins instead. He was at FXpansion for years, before leaving to go look at compressors and filters in ridiculous detail.
As poor students, we couldn’t afford Cubase, so we thought we’d write our own tracker and DSP effects units. Then when the VST spec came out in ’97, we realised there were people out there charging $150 for a flanger. It was an unfeasible amount of money, at least two weeks worth of beer to a student!
We threw out a freebie flanger, which caught Steinberg’s eye. They asked if they could put it in Cubase’s first bundle of free third-party plug-ins, and sent us Cubase so we could write with real sequencers.
The original BFD was a coming together of several minds. Angus [Hewlett, FXpansion founder] was at NAMM in 2003 and got talking to Nine Inch Nails’ sound designer, Steve Duda. Steve had tried to do multi-channel using three or four instances of Kontakt, and the engine was falling over.
I’d just joined FXpansion and had previously been working on a streaming engine, so I had a go at it. Steve just wanted to be able to load single ‘snare’ object and have all the articulations and layered sounds load automatically, with some drum-specific mixing knobs on the surface.
I thought BFD1 was going to be my last hurrah as a plug-in developer. The free VST scene was exploding on KVR, and it seemed the business model of selling plug-ins was a dead end. Anyone with a bit of knowledge and a good sample set would be able to go off and do it.
Our original business plan for BFD1 was to see if we could sell 600 units over two years. Within a month we were selling 600 units a month. Apparently there still was a market for complex plug-ins.
At some point I’d like to do a completely over-the-top BFD recording where not only are we capturing all the drums in ridiculous detail, but also get some high-resolution motion tracking, with cameras and accelerometers on the drum sticks, and laser devices to measure the drum and microphone positions and angles. We could use that data set to find out what we could model further.
Drum recording is still the weirdest thing to get your head around because there’s so many channels of microphones with different EQ responses, you’ve got all the phase relationships, and which thing is going to rattle when you hit another thing.
That was a big push in BFD3, to try and reproduce those sympathetic mechanical and through-air resonances of the drum kit… something people spend years trying to learn how to get rid of. It’s okay; you can turn them off.
A typical BFD recording session usually takes about seven days, and we work it hard for that time. You usually record three times as many hits of the 80 velocity layers that eventually end up on the sample pack. Bang… count to 10… Bang… count to 10. Then rinse and repeat for other positions, rods, mallets, all for just one drum.
Since BFD1, people have always asked why we don’t use a robotic drummer. We like to have a drummer involved so they can respond to how a drum voices.
We were doing a BFD2 recording, where the drummer was 20 seconds into a really long ride cymbal decay, holding his breath and trying to stay perfectly still. Then you hear him go, ‘Ah, f**k!’ And a fly go buzzing past the microphones. Literally a bug in the audio. After that, we introduced a new part in our recording process, where we do the Australian Customs aeroplane spray routine.
The problem with multi-channel drum recordings is the noise floor has to be really, really low. You might have 14 channels for one hit, and 20 hits fading out at the same time.
John Emrich always records his sample packs at night, when everyone’s already out of the studio. One night, he was hearing a tap, tap noise. He eventually tracked it down to a piece of water pipe that ran underneath the carpark, which was another 50m away. He looked on the security cameras, and at the far end was the studio secretary crossing the carpark in high heels.
He was doing the percussion pack at the time, which had everything including John’s old kitchen sink. So he asked the secretary to come in and walk past his microphones. Now we have high heels in the pack, walking across the floor in various states of duress… duress, not dress.