Ableton Live Pack 42: Snake Drum Synth

My good friend Mike, singer/guitarist of NY rock band My Summer, has this cool percussive instrument that I believe is called a snake drum (at least that’s what it says on the bottom of it).  Basically, it’s a hollow wooden box with little cuts in the wood.  These cuts in the wood are struck with a mallet creating a musical tone.  It’s a pretty simple idea that has probably been around for thousands of years and winds up sounding a lot like a marimba or wooden xylophone.  It is severely limited in that it only has six notes, but it has a sound that transports you into some kind of ancient tribal ceremony.  Mike asked me to show him how I go about building my own Ableton Live instruments, so we decided to sample this snake drum.

Snake Drum mic'd with an RE20 on faux-alligator-skin bench

We mic’d it up with his brand new RE20 and went to town.  The final instrument you hear is made up of all six tones layered on top of each other, which really thickens it out, and all of those layers really bring out the sound of the room we were in.

Once inside Ableton, I added some effects and controls that gave this instrument as much versatility as possible.  The first two controls affect the FM Modulation.  These allow you to seriously alter the timbre to all sorts of sonic extremes.  Next I added a Redux, which at its most extreme setting, miraculously transforms this ancient instrument into something reminiscent of the the arcade in your average bowling alley in 1985.  I’ve added reverb and a spread control for creating space and special effects.  By playing with the pitch envelope macro knob, you can change the attack sound of the instrument from sounds similar to a steel drum all the way to bass drums and electronic disco tom toms.  Finally, I placed a Ping-Pong Delay, set to repitch mode, for anyone who loves those warping stretch sounds of old analog delays.

Now because of the limited range of the original instrument, some interesting things start happening when you play the virtual instrument in the extreme high and low octaves.  Drop down a few octaves and you have an incredibly heavy bass sound, similar to my Tuned 808 Ableton Pack, but with a certain organic character.  Try playing around with the pitch envelop and you can achieve some awesome bass drum sounds.  When you crank up to the highest octaves, these interesting insect like sounds start happening.  I found some really far out sounds by simultaneously playing around with the FM Oscillator controls.

This is the real beauty of sound design.  Such a simple instrument can be digitally mangled into something completely unrecognizable and out of this world.  Mike and I spent sometime fooling around with the controls, and recorded the crazy noises we made and then resampled those into a drum rack.  I’ve included this drum rack and called it “Snake Bites.”  These are just some insane glitchy bits that were created with this instrument in a matter of minutes.  You can see me play around with those in the video, as I trigger them with my Launchpad (which is painted red).  Check out the video, all the sounds you hear are made with this instrument.  I included the clips I created in the download so you can mess around with them for yourself.  Maybe you might even do your own remix and send it my way :)

Check out the latest album from My Summer “Ice in the Loveliest Veins”