Electronic Drums

A long time ago, I used to be in a band.   When you are in a band, you have a part to play, a role to perform, a space to fill that is defined by the context of what other people are doing.  On the other hand, when you create music by yourself, layering tracks in a multi-track digital audio workstation (DAW), you have to compose everything, play everything, mix everything, etc.  That is both a wonder and a burden.   I can play rhythm and lead guitar.  I am a terrible keyboard player, but I solved that to some extent with my guitar synth, which can emulate or trigger almost any sound.  I can play bass guitar.  My main problem is drums.

When I first started doing computer music, I clicked in drum parts with a mouse.  Actually, I clicked in almost all of the parts with a mouse.  I was using FL Studio, formerly known as Fruityloops. It has a piano roll and a playlist.  The piano roll is a display with a piano keyboard on the left, and a grid that scrolls to the right.  You assign an instrument, typically a software synthesizer of some kind, and click in the notes, using the piano keyboard as a reference.  The notes appear as a block in the grid.  Short notes are  little squares, while a longer note is elongated into a bar-like thing.  You don’t have to know how to read music.  You can assign a kick drum sample to one key, and a snare to another, a cymbal to another, until you have a whole kit.  Then you can click in a drum part.   Such a drum part will sound pretty robotic, however.  In electronic drums, the search for “human feel” is a major concern.

Of course you can turn “robotic” into a virtue and run with it.  Just look at the drum machines of the ’80’s and what happened to popular music during that time.  Drum machine plus cheesy synthesizer equals the ’80’s.  There were some good songs written during that time, but the records sound like they were produced by space aliens.  (Sorry if those are the anthems of your childhood!)

For a time my solution was a program called Jamstix, which is a virtual drummer created in software through artificial intelligence.  The programmer, Ralph Zeuner, provides an amazing product that will create drum parts in different styles, as played by different drummers.  It can even monitor the dynamics of your playing, and create soft drum parts for quiet parts and loud drums when you are really digging in.  Ralph provides jazz kits, rock kits, and even a kit that emulates John Bonham’s kit in Led Zepplin.  It never sounds robotic.  However, amazing as it is, I always had trouble getting Jamstix to do what I wanted it to do in a track.  It is great fun for jamming, but I was never quite satisfied.

Many years ago, I possessed an acoustic drum kit for  while.  It was a cheap St. George kit made in Japan that I got from the drummer in our band when he moved on to better things, and it was pretty terrible.  Drums have to be tuned and maintained, so the quality of the shells, heads and hardware is important.  Even so, I practiced exercises, and I took it seriously for a while.  To be a good drummer, you have to divide your consciousness into four parts, one for each limb.  The two hands and two feet have to be capable of working independently, and the mind has to manage it.  It is not easy.  It is also very physical.  You need stamina and strength.

The other problem is that drums are loud and people hate them.  All drummers have this problem.  The family and the neighbors are constantly unhappy.  So I got rid of the drums.

However, now we have electronic drums, sometimes called “E” drums or “edrums” as opposed to acoustic or “A” drums.  The heads are rubber or plastic mesh, and underneath them are electronic triggers.  With headphones, practice can be almost silent.  The sounds are stored in the brain of the drumkit, or are triggered on a computer through a MIDI connection.   Now drummers can play a full kit without annoying the neighbors.  In fact, some small venues now forbid bands to use acoustic drums because they are too loud and it is too difficult to get a good sound.

I decided that edrums were my next solution.  However, computer technology allows considerable rethinking of how things are done.  The traditional drum kit is big, cumbersome and fussy.  The physical characteristics of the drums and cymbals and the spatial requirements of a four-limbed human wielding sticks dictate a certain design and layout.  Some edrums, such as the Roland V-Drums and the Yamaha DTExtreme sets, mimic the layout of a traditional kit.  However, because the drums are not actually producing the sound but only triggering it, and are not physically present,  the edrummer doesn’t need to have the same layout as an acoustic kit.  Thus there are drum pads such as the Roland SPD-20, which has eight square pads in a four by two array.  The pads can be assigned to any sound, and are designed to be hit with sticks.   The whole drum kit can fit into a large briefcase.

The third option is the finger controller, such as the Korg PadKontrol or the Akai MPD32.  These have 12 small pads designed to be tapped by fingers.  It’s a bit like playing drums on a numeric keypad.  Some argue that people naturally tap out rhythms with their fingers, so this is a very natural human interface for drums.  I think that most of the beats on hip hop records were done with this kind of controller.

Once can also play drums with a MIDI keyboard, but this is usually less than satisfactory.  The keyboard was not designed with drums in mind.

I ended up going with a Roland TD-4S, a setup that mimics a traditional drum kit.  I think this is because I have played acoustic drums before.  If I hadn’t, I probably would have gone with one of the finger controllers.  I think that it is interesting to re-imagine the human interface for musical instruments, the path from imagination to music, but in the end I didn’t want to re-learn absolutely everything.  Thus I chose the new/old rather than the completely new.  Of course, none of it is completely new anyway.  The most avant garde piece still builds on human tradition, and performance always must take humanoid physiology into account.

I’ll write more when the edrums arrive.


About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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