The Rhythm Printer

The Idea

A method of imprinting one or more patterns of rhythmic accents onto any/each channel of the mix. The patterns should be easy to edit, and the accents adjustable from staccato to legato. The intention is unify rhythmically the various tracks to enhance their contribution to the finished mix.(1)

The Execution

The execution in hardware: a drum machine sound acts as a trigger for a noise gate, the signal then passing to an EQ unit and then on to a multi-effects unit. The signal being sent to this chain comes from an aux send on the desk, and is returned to a desk input preferably or aux return if there are none available.

A software execution can be easily envisaged based on this hardware chain, and in Cubase there is a plug-in called "Midi Gate" that helps achieves this very simply (and is easily my most-favoured plug-in of ANY for creative purposes!).

Well, I can hear you say, "that's nothing more than triggered gating, which has been around since they invented gates"... well, yes it is. But the 'imprinting' technique goes a little bit further than simple gating. Since it is on an auxiliary send, it is in a parallel, not serial, audio path. So rather than applying it to a single channel, it can be applied to any or all channels on the desk. A different balance of send levels per track will have a different rhythmic feel, and can be adjusted effortlessly during playback. The returns are mixed and panned against the original sounds.

Some practical considerations: since it may be that a lot of different signals might end up on that aux send buss, it helps to add a compressor close to the start of the signal chain.The EQ inserted before the multi FX allows tailoring of the 'print pattern' to lift it out of the spectrum of the mix for more impact e.g. one pattern could be mostly on the downbeats and EQ'd for more bass, a second pattern on the upbeats for more treble (but there is no need to restrict oneself to those conventions). If the final effects in the chain are time-modulations that are impressive in stereo, such as chorus, flange etc you'll need a stereo return for the mono send, so the channels start getting used up quickly, but the results are worth it.

While the hardware execution described above was how I did this back in the 1990s, more recently I've been using a hybrid approach of software and hardware, that gives me a lot of instant gratification. A soft-synth plug-in is loaded into Cubase with a patch that has a simple on-off gate-type envelope, and this is sent to a spare mono channel on the audio interface that is plugged in to the trigger input of my hardware gate in the chain. Currently in my case this chain consists of an LA Audio 4x4 gate, then into the compressor on the same unit, then on to an EQ, then a Digitech Studio Quad multi FX, returned in stereo.

The soft-synth gate control allows easy fine-tuning of the gate duration and the patterns, directly from the DAW midi editor, while I still get the instant tweakability of all the hardware downstream.

Of course, all of this can be set up in a software aux chain in the DAW... but I find I can listen more immersively while turning physical knobs, rather than having a larger chunk of my mental energies negotiating a GUI with a mouse while the music plays!


Here's an audio example. Three loops in the mix: drums, guitar and synth pad. 32 bar recording: the first 8 bars are the instruments mixed dry, the second 8 bars I bring up the first pattern on a fader, the third 8 bars I bring up the second pattern on another fader, the last 8 bars are back to being dry. Each of the three instruments has it's own different send amounts going to the first and second "print patterns". The drums get a bit crunchy on the second pattern, perhaps I could have backed off on that send a bit.
You can feel the accents with the addition of the print patterns. No, it's not terribly subtle here for demonstration purposes, but you get the idea. The stereo effects at the end of the chain really make it jump out and widen the mix - if you're going for more subtlety, you might ease up on the stereo stuff and just pan a mono return.

The first pattern triggered by the blue notes in the Cubase screen shot are EQ'd for bass, and sent to a stereo detune. The second (red note) pattern is EQ'd for treble and sent to a stereo phaser, then echo.

And here's a second example: a 303 bassline and a 606 drum pattern, that's it! (Two instruments, a one bar loop, the foundations of house music!) Then I turn up the send from the bassline to the first 'print pattern', which features a treble EQ into a comb filter into a little echo. Then the send from the drums to the same print. Then I turn up the send from the drums to the second print pattern, a bass EQ into a dual pitchshifter - it sounds glitchy, as drums usually do when they're pitchshifted (see Bowie's "Low" album for a demonstration) - and then the bassline gets a turn with the pitchshifting, making a nice little harmonic and rhythmic extension. At the end of the cut I pull out the two print patterns from the mix, exposing the unadorned bass and drums. Big difference! Just two instruments and two different print patterns... and look, people are dancing!

Of course, any one of these steps is open for experimentation. Exactly what FX you choose, and where in the chain they're placed, how much you filter, EQ, distort the signals etc. The patterns themselves don't need to be locked to the bar lines either, if you wanna get down with some Cuban jazz polyrhythms or whatever. Also, it's not something that has to be chosen at the start of the creative or mixing processes: it can be brought in as a salvage or remix technique after other tricks have failed!

(1) Well, that was the original idea. As it turns out it's also a great way of finding new grooves.