Saturday, January 10, 2015

Jamstix Software - Part 1 of 4 - The Easiest Way to Add Drumming to Your Music

If you're a singer/songwriter or a bedroom producer, or even a producer at a proper studio, you might find the Jamstix software to be one of the best-kept secrets in music production. What's the backbone of a huge percentage of modern music? A drum kit or rhythm section. Who's the person in the band who LEADS the band on stage, even though it might not be apparent to the audience? The drummer, who sets the timing. And what is the single most unlikely instrument that most aspiring singer/songwriters are likely to be skilled at? The drums.

If you're a singer/songwriter or an aspiring producer, Jamstix is THE software that will revolutionize your music.  Seriously, it's a game-changer.  You do not need to learn to play drums to produce your own tracks.  You don't even need to own a drum kit.  If you already know a few basics about music production, such as how to insert an effect onto a channel in an audio editing software package, or how to use a VSTi (virtual instrument on a computer), and you have an audio editor on your computer, you can probably learn how to use Jamstix in an afternoon.  And I don't mean just making a simple, static, rigid, and boring kick/snare combination that doesn't change through your whole song.  I mean something that sounds like it was played by a real drummer.  And by the way, I have absolutely no affiliation with Rayzoon, the company that makes this software.  I just need to give credit where credit is due.  Here's a video that covers everything from part one of my four part tutorial series about Jamstix:




If you're looking for other blog posts in this series, here are the links.  Each one has it's own tutorial video:




I'm going to teach you absolutely everything you need to know about this program.  But first, you may wonder why I'm qualified to make these claims about this program.  Let me give you a bit of background about myself.  I do know a bit about playing drums.  I used to play, not very skillfully, quite a few years ago.  I don't own a kit, and never have, although my father was a drummer so we had a kit in my house when I was growing up.  I do play the piano quite well, so I have lots of music theory background.  With piano, I studied classical music for quite a few years.  I also play the guitar passably well when it comes to the skill level required for campfire singalongs, although for the guitar, I don't know the notes, and I just play by ear.  I also know a fair amount about music production, and I was able to get up and running with Jamstix and produce my first Jamstix song in about two hours, start to finish.  And if you don't believe me, listen to this (focus on the drums, just ignore the other instruments):




Yes, I'm saying that it only took me two hours to create the drum track in this song, and this was the first time that I used this software.  I could probably do that in twenty minutes now that I know the software much better.  It's not fancy ... Jamstix is capable of much better drums than this, but this was a first attempt.  Please note that this song is the backing track for a song that I have already copyrighted.  The song itself was one that I wrote for a video about tree planting.  In this "Jamstix Demo Version" I removed the vocals, and dropped the levels of the guitars so you can hear the drums more clearly.  Incidentally, if you're a singer/songwriter and you want to download this backing track and use it with a song that you write of your own, please feel free to do so.  You don't have to pay me for the music.  The only condition I have is that if you copyright your song, I want 50% of all publishing, mechanical, performance, and sync royalties.  If you're in the sort of position to make that happen, you can contact me directly and I'll give you a better quality version (uncompressed) than this SoundCloud mp3 version, and I'll balance the levels back out for you.  I'll also give you my SOCAN and IPI numbers for assigning royalties during registration.


Anyway, the point of this blog post and series of video tutorials that I'm making right now is to teach you how to use Jamstix.  And believe me, it won't be too hard for you to learn.  Now I do know a fair amount about programming drums from scratch, and I know lots about other drum creation software, such as Battery (Native Instruments), BFD (FXpansion), EZDrummer (ToonTrack), and Addictive Drums (XLN Audio).  Each of those programs has their own strengths, but if I could generalize, I'd say that as a group, they generally have great sounding drum samples, but you really have to do a lot of work and technically programming to create the drum track.  Jamstix, on the other hand, has an Artificial Intelligence engine that they call the AI, or sometimes call "The Brain," which acts like the brain of a human drummer.  You give it some simple instructions, and then the Brain composes and plays the track for you.  No tedious programming, or adding notes onto a MIDI grid.  Yes, you are still able to do that to enhance your drum track if you want, but if you want something simple, you can set about a dozen parameters and the Brain will do everything for you.

By the way, I've created a clickable index for the whole series, so if you've watched everything but you want to review a certain section, this might come in useful. CLICK HERE to go to that index.

You'll learn a lot from watching my video, so you don't necessarily need to read any further.  But just in case, I'm going to list in point form some of the most important key concepts about Jamstix.


Overview


- I put an installation video at the bottom of this post, in case you'd find that to be helpful.

- Simulates a real drummer.

- Most drum modules output static MIDI patterns or pre-recorded patterns.  Jamstix doesn't.  It has the Brain which simulates a human drummer.

- The Brain's performance is based on rules (but with some random variation added in) to provide a unique output every single time, rather than being based on static patterns.

- As an example, the Brain knows how long it takes for a drummer to move his/her arm to a certain piece of the kit.  If you move that piece further away from the drummer, the Brain will compensate by playing it less often or not at all.

- Everything that Jamstix does is playable by a real human drummer, unless of course you specifically tell it to ignore human rules.  You can do that if you want to pretend you have a ten-armed drummer.


Intended Uses


- Useful for everyone from hacks to studio engineers, novice to professional.

- Create a quick backing drum track, for a songwriter.

- Create and tailor a complex track, for professional producers.

- Good for students learning about drumming styles.

- Even if you're not doing production work, it's very good for casual use, for example if you just want a "jam partner" to practice with.


Slightly Technical Stuff


- Jamstix is fully functional on its own.  However, it's also good if you have any other existing drum modules, because Jamstix can take advantage of their libraries.

- Similar to Steinberg's Groove Agent in some ways, in the sense that it's easy to make a quick "out of the box" backing track.  Disclaimer:  I used to love using Groove Agent, versions 2 and 3.  However, Groove Agent 4 is very different than GA3 and I wasn't really that impressed by it.  Steinberg did a terrible job with the user manuals on GA4, and the learning curve is difficult.

- If you're used to using EZ Drummer, Battery, Addictive, or BFD, you can still integrate your kits from those modules into Jamstix to take advantage of high quality samples.  Now I need to make a clarification here:  the quality of the Jamstix sounds is quite good.  But some of the other modules have absolutely amazing samples, and if you already own one of the others, you don't want it to go to waste.  So a good option is to combine the Brain and simplicity of Jamstix with the strength of the samples from your other module(s).

- Three types of plug-ins, 32bit, 64bit, and AAX for ProTools 11+.  As I write this, I'm currently running version 3 of Jamstix (version 4 is coming in 2015) and version 11.2.2 of Pro Tools.  They do work together quite well. This was not the case with previous versions of Pro Tools.  There is one slight limitation with audio output for Pro Tools users (single stereo master instead of eight lines) but I'll discuss that and a workaround later on.

- Jamstix works with all other VST hosts, as long as they fully support the VST specification properly AND can handle VSTi's.  VST's and VSTi's are very related, although a few editors can only handle effects and not instruments.  Jamstix works just fine with Ableton, Cubase, Sonar, FL Studio, Digital Performer, Bitwig, Reaper, etc.  Please note that two popular audio editors, Audacity and Audition, do NOT currently support VSTi instruments, and you cannot use Jamstix with these two editors (Audition temporarily supported VSTi's in a previous version, but that functionality was removed because it wasn't working well).  The fact that Audition and Audacity don't support Jamstix is unfortunate.  Some packages will support VST plug-ins but not VSTi instruments.  Make sure you know the difference, and check before you buy!  I suspect that the Rayzoon website probably lists some other lesser-known working DAW hosts which I haven't listed here.

- If you're already familiar with using VST and VSTi plug-ins with your DAW, even if you consider yourself to be an amateur, I predict that after an afternoon of learning the software, you'll be able to put together good sounding complete drum tracks in about twenty minutes.  Of course, you can spend hours doing fine tweaking of your drum track, if you're comfortable with that sort of technical detail, but the basics are fast and easy and don't require a tremendous amount of skill, as my videos will demonstrate.

- I just said that Jamstix is very simple and easy to use.  I should clarify that that's true for what you see on the surface.  For those of you who are technically inclined, you'll keep learning new stuff and capabilities for weeks.  Under the hood, Jamstix is quite complex and powerful.

- For really top-notch results, a lot of professionals might want to feed in a basic MIDI track, let Jamstix generate a proper new track based on the simple MIDI submitted, then route the audio to a different module or sample library of their own.

- The strength of EZDrummer, Addictive, etc., lies in the quality of their sample libraries or sounds.  They great if you're comfortable with playing pre-recorded patterns, or if you're a professional drummer yourself playing through a MIDI kit.  Only Jamstix has the Brain.  And also, you can mix and match parts of kits from Jamstix and other drum modules.  For example, you could use a basic kit from EZDrummer combined with cymbal and percussion sounds from Jamstix.  Tons of flexibility.

- One drawback:  Jamstix does not operate in standalone mode (as of version 3.x).  That won't matter to all producers, etc., but it could be a weakness for someone that just wants to use it as a jam partner, but who doesn't own a DAW.  So you must have some sort of audio editing software (partial list above) and let that software act as the host, and then have Jamstix as a VST plug-in (or AAX plug-in for Pro Tools).  Probably the cheapest DAW software that I can recommend which is still a high quality software package would be Reaper, by Cuckos.  Only $60 for a personal license, and you can try it as a full-featured trial for a month for free.  Reaper is highly praised.  And who knows, maybe Jamstix 4 will offer a standalone mode.


How Does It Work?


- First of all, if you don't know anything about drums, it would be helpful if you know the basic terms and parts of a drum kit.  A couple of my recommendations would be to read a book like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Drums" by Michael Miller, or "Drums For Dummies" by Jeff Strong.  You can also find lots of YouTube videos that teach you the basics of what's involved with a drum kit.

 If you want, Jamstix can work like a traditional drum module.  You can send it MIDI notes from your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, or audio editing software) and it then plays.  Where do you get the notes?  Three choices: random MIDI clips that you've downloaded from the internet, stuff that you've played in with a MIDI drum kit or on any other type of MIDI controller, or MIDI that you've programmed by hand.  Your choice, all of those options work if you want to give MIDI to Jamstix.  But you don't have to.

- Jam Mode is pretty cool.  When you're using Jam mode, Jamstix will synchronize automatically to the position, tempo, and time signature of your DAW host, and play right along.  So you use your DAW's controls to start and stop play.  When your host plays, Jamstix plays.  If you already have a bassline programmed or recorded in your DAW, Jamstix will play the drums along with it and you can sing and play guitar.  Or whatever.

- You do NOT need to record the Jamstix performance in your host.  It's possible of course, but not necessary.  In fact, sometimes recording the performance might be a weakness, because it means that you're "stuck" with that particular version.  Remember again, although I haven't explained this in detail yet, that Jamstix takes the parameters you've given it and generates a slightly different performance every time it plays.  So if you're using it as a jam partner, you might appreciate hearing a slightly different performance each time.  Now of course each performance will be pretty similar, because Jamstix is paying attention to the parameters you've given it, and also paying attention to a complex set of internal rules.

- Further to the above point, what about saving a performance when you're going to shut down your DAW session?  Well, you can save that particular "performance" (set of parameters and Jamstix settings) as a unique song, if you want.  But if you've got Jamstix all set up within a session, and you save the session, the Jamstix parameters are automatically saved.  This is slightly different than some other situations.  For example, if I'm using Reason as a slave within Pro Tools as a host, using ReWire technology, when I save my Pro Tools session I need to remember to also save my Reason session separately, and re-load both next time I come back to work on the project.  This is not the case for Jamstix.  If I have Jamstix inserted on a track in Pro Tools (or whatever DAW) and all the parameters are set properly to perform the way I want along with other tracks in my project, when I save the Pro Tools session, the Jamstix information is all automatically saved within the Pro Tools session.  I don't need to save the Jamstix information separately.  I guess I might want to save it independently on rare occasions, if I want to use a copy of that Jamstix setup in another project.  But in my experience so far, I find it's probably easier to just create a new Jamstix track from scratch, tailored to your new project.  It's that easy.

- If you do happen to decide to save a particular unique song from Jamstix, instead of just saving the settings in your host's session, you can save it in the "songs" folder if you want and if so, it will automatically be added to the Quick Start list in the Wizard.


How Do You Control What The Brain Plays?


- To start, set your tempo in your host DAW program.  Remember that Jamstix plays along with the host, so you can't force Jamstix to play stuff randomly that's out of sync with your DAW.  Time signature changes and tempo changes are fine.  Jamstix follows along.

- Select a Style.  Styles include things like country, jazz, pop, rock, etc.  That seems pretty general, but don't worry, within those examples that I just gave there are dozens of basic variations to use as a starting point.

- Select a Drummer.  Depending on which version of Jamstix you own, you'll have at least a handful of drummers to choose from, and possibly dozens.  Each drummer has a slightly unique way of playing, so they'll affect the performance slightly.  Each drummer has a first name only, but I think they're roughly modeled on real-world drummers of the same first name.  For example, I think that Phil plays a very similar style to Phil Collins of Genesis, Lars plays a very similar style to Lars Ulrich of Metallica, etc.  I'll post a list of some of the Jamstix drummers in one of my upcoming Jamstix posts, and who I think they are roughly modeled on.

- You can change Brain settings.  This is hard to explain in writing, and it'll make more sense in the video.  It's tricky because every drummer has his own unique group of settings, although some types of settings are shared by many drummers.  Of course, you don't have to touch the Brain settings if you're looking to get a performance together quickly.  They're set to sound quite good at their default values.

- You can import MIDI patterns or create your own (playing them or programming them) if you want, and the Brain will pay attention to this MIDI when it performs.  But you can totally skip this step if you want, and it'll still sound good.  But yes, if you provide MIDI to the Brain, the Brain studies it and uses it for inspiration in generating a performance.  Or you can turn off the "creative" part of the Brain and just have Jamstix play your MIDI note-for-note.

- It's important to understand that each time you play through the song in your DAW, Jamstix generates new audio.  This audio will have very slight human variations compared to the previous performance.  If you have edited the previous performance, this new performance can overwrite your edits!  So if you make editing changes, you might want to click "lock" so Jamstix doesn't overwrite your edits.  I'll explain this more once we dig into using it.

- Jamstix lets you drag and drop individual bars, parts/sections, or the whole song into your host if you want.  This gives you actual MIDI clips to work with in your DAW, if you'd prefer to start doing some detailed technical editing to a performance.  At this point, you don't necessarily need Jamstix anymore.  You might want to keep Jamstix to use as a drum module, ie. route the MIDI from your DAW back to Jamstix and use the Jamstix drum sounds.  But you might also want to route the MIDI through a different drum module, or through your DAW's internal drum kit, if there is one.


Understanding the Differences between Song vs. Part vs. Bars


- Since I'm going to teach you how to use Jamstix, you need to understand a few pretty basic terms.

- A "Part" refers to a specific section of a song.  I always want to call these "sections" but in the Jamstix manual and software, they're referred to as "parts."  Examples of parts that Jamstix understands include:  verse, chorus, bridge, intro, end, pre-chorus, solo, drum solo.  So as you're putting a song together, you don't have to think purely in terms of bar numbers.  You can think in terms of intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, end (just to give an example).

- A "Song" is, obviously, a song.  Jamstix thinks of it not just as a number of bars (like "87 bars") or as a time-based length, it thinks in terms of a bunch of sections (parts) that are played in linear, sequential order.  Of course, some parts might be repeated.  You might have three or four instances of the "verse" within your song.

- Each part can have a unique number of bars.  This starts out as a default value, but you can edit it.  And yes, you can change that number of bars at different points.  For example, your first two verses can have eight bars each and your third verse can have twelve bars.  No problem.


How Does Jamstix Compose?


- This is something that's important to understand if you want to do more than just very basic compositions (if you don't care about anything fancy, you can ignore this information, but I think even beginners should try to understand this concept).  Each individual bar in Jamstix is composed of three layers.  Each layer acts slightly differently.

- The "Groove Aspect" layer is the main rhythm, ie. the basic instruments like the kick and snare.

- The "Accent Aspect" layer is the embellishments, with lots of variety, ie. maybe some ride cymbals or open/closed high-hat stuff.

- The "Fill Aspect" layer may not exist on some bars.  Or to be more precise, it may be empty on some bars.  Fills are only needed in certain parts, usually near the end of a part, or sometimes in the middle of a part.

- If the Groove Aspect of a bar is already composed, Jamstix plays the existing content.  This would be the case if you've already played the song, or if you've given Jamstix a specific MIDI part to play.  But if there is no content yet, then Jamstix creates some.

- There is a concept call "core bars."  A core bar is any bar in the FIRST instance of a part within a song, ie. the first verse, the first chorus, etc.  The second verse would not contain core bars, because they can only be in the first verse.

- As Jamstix is playing, if the bars are empty (because this is the first time through the song, and you haven't given it any MIDI to use as a reference), then bars are created.  If the bar that needs to be created is considered a "core bar," it is created based on the setting in the brain, ie. the style and drummer that you've picked.  If it is a non-core bar, ie. a bar in the second verse, the brain looks back at the core bars from the first part and plays something similar.  This means that the style of playing in the second verse will resemble the style of playing in the first verse, to give continuity.

- The above explanation only applies to the Groove Aspect of the bars, ie. the main rhythm.

- No matter whether the bar is a core bar or not, the Accent layer is always composed from scratch, so it's always unique.  The same applies to the Fill layer of the bar IF a fill layer actually exists for that bar.


Three Ways to Approach Composition


- First, you can just let Jamstix compose everything by itself, based on the tempo and style and drummer that you pick.

- Second, you can start by letting Jamstix compose the initial performance, then you can hand edit certain parts.  These hand edited parts can be "locked" to become permanent changes, or they can guide Jamstix in future performances (but certain parts may be overwritten if they're unlocked).

- Third, you can program the entire performance by hand yourself (or play it in if you're actually a drummer in real life), so the Jamstix Brain isn't responsible for any of the composition.

- Although this isn't necessary, Jamstix has the capability to monitor audio or MIDI input through playback of a composition that you've provided, OR in real time, and the Brain reacts accordingly.  In other words, the Brain can act somewhat like a human jam partner, reacting to your live performance!  Essentially, what it does is that it keeps reading the average volume of audio (or the velocity of MIDI) and then uses that to adjust the Jamstix output, ie. playing softer or louder, and using different performance techniques.  The Brain is pretty smart.


Tour of the Jamstix Interface


- This section is pretty much impossible to explain in writing.  You really need to watch the video.  I'll just explain, in point form, the features that you'll see in the Jamstix interface.

- You can change between "Jamcussion" and "Drum Edit Mode."

- The snowflake symbols freezes the arrangement, like freezing a track in a DAW.

- Jam mode can be done in one of three ways:  normal creativity, paying attention to MIDI, or paying attention to audio.  Just depress one of the three buttons to pick which one.  If none of the three buttons are selected, Jamstix will act as a drum module.

- The transport bar in Jamstix has a big knob on the left for the "power level" and a little knob to the right of it that controls "minimum dynamic level."

- The Song Structure section is used to quickly create a song.  The wizard button is the easiest way to create a new song.  The song structure section lists the parts in sequential order, and they can be further edited.  With the time and shuffle, you can change characteristics of individual parts or of the whole song.

- The Time Line down on the lower left lists all the bars in sequential order.  The current bar is always highlighted.  The brown bars indicate the last bar of the section.

- The Upper Display Window has lots of options, depending on the main menu.

- The Lower Display Window shows one of three things at any given moment, your choice;  kit editor, bar editor, or mixer.

- There is a Status/Help bar to give you feedback and suggestions.


Straight from the Horse's Mouth


I'm going to provide two links for you here in a second before I wrap up this first of four parts to my Jamstix tutorial series.  It only makes sense to give you a link to the Jamstix website and to a copy of the Jamstix 3 manual (remember that version 4 is coming out in 2015).  Be aware that the link below is to the 3.00 manual.  As I write this, they're up to version 3.61 and there have been improvements that are not reflected in the manual yet.  For instance, the manual for 3.00 was correct in saying that only 32-bit VST plug-ins were supported, but the current version of the software DOES support 64-bit VST's and AAX for Pro Tools 11+.


     Website:  http://www.rayzoon.com

     Jamstix Manual:  http://www.djbolivia.ca/docs/jamstix3_manual.pdf


I also want to point out one other thing.  When I was getting ready to upgrade from Groove Agent 3 to Groove Agent 4, I was doing a lot of research on the internet.  I saw a couple of quiet references to Jamstix (every single one was very positive), and I saw comments on message boards by the owner of the company.  I was also struck by the number of times that people said, "If you have support questions or requests, this company is very good at answering them quickly, and not ignoring you."  That means a LOT in this day and age.  I haven't had to use their support team, and I don't expect to, but you know that when a company pays attention to its customers and is willing to help you through any questions personally, that's a company that cares a lot about its product.

Ok, that's enough for today, check out the other parts in my Jamstix series shortly.  I'll have all four parts online within two weeks. As always, if you found this blog post (or video) to be useful, please share them, especially on any music-related message boards or forums where people who don't know about Jamstix might be introduced to it! I don't like self-promoting my own tutorials on message boards where I'm not a regular contributing member, but if a member of that community posts it, that's awesome.

Here's the link for the blog posting for part two of this series:

http://djbolivia.blogspot.ca/2015/01/jamstix-software-part-2-of-4-covering.html




Also, if you are nervous about the installation process for this software, here's a video that I made that guides you through it all:




 My YouTube channel has quite a few tutorial videos relating to DJ'ing, audio editing software, music production, and studio equipment. I have an organized list of those videos in the index of my "videos" page on my main website. If you're interested in any of those topics, you should bookmark this page right now:

www.djbolivia.ca/videos


Thanks for your interest in my blog and videos, and thanks for sharing this post or links to any of the videos.




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