Thursday, April 28, 2016

Working with Electronics

Like many drummers I have opinions about electronic drums and drum machines. If I had to give a straight up answer on my feelings about them I would say that I am not really crazy about them because they can be sterile and unnatural. They lack the realness that comes from an acoustic drum set and/or when it comes specifically to a drum machine, it lacks the commanding presence that comes from working with a live musician.

With that being said let me further confuse my position on the issue because I have just as many reasons to like both of them as I do for disliking them because of the benefits they provide for those who use them. Like acoustic drums or any instrument for that matter they are simply a tool to express oneself. They have their good points and their bad points but at the end of the day it comes down to how one uses them.

I didn't get my first drum machine until I was in college as I bought it off of a classmate of mine. At first it was just something to mess around with when it was too late in the evening to play my drums but I soon found that there was so much more to it.

I got my first electronic set about five years ago when I traded them for an acoustic drum set I was selling. I did it mainly so I could practice at any hour of the day and so I could experiment with the various sounds they had that were not in the sound catalog of my drum machine.

Here is what I discovered about using these heavily discussed products:

The Groove 

Part of what makes a drum machine interesting is the groove it provides. Yes, let me repeat what I said: the groove it provides. Some people say machines have no feel but I beg to differ. While it certainly doesn't have a human feel it can in fact produce a good rhythmic pulse if the person using it chooses the right sounds, the right tempo and knows how to orchestrate each part in a most creative way. Don't forget that engines have a rhythm yet engines are not living things. Of course the lesson we learn from an engine is that it is a series of parts working together in harmony after being assembled and maintained by someone who knows what they are doing.

To be honest, I dislike most drum machine based grooves because of what I call a bland sound standard that most people in the industry choose to follow. However, acoustic drums are subject to the same problem because every era of music has the preferred drum sound of producers, which is nothing more than a producer trying to put their mark on an album rather then bringing out the best of the artist(s) they are working with. And to be frank, it is my opinion that a lot of drummers do not know how to tune their acoustic drums properly, which is why we've all heard too many bad sounding acoustic sets

Take for example the famous groove that the late Jeff Porcaro played on the Toto song "Rosanna." It is not only a great groove but one of the most famous grooves in music history supporting an amazing song. But, in my humble and probably lonely opinion, (here come the sharp objects) it sounds terrible! Sorry but there are times I wish producers weren't allowed to dictate the sound of an album because this great groove is just buried in what I think is a bad sound:

Once again, I don't dislike the groove nor do I dislike the song. I just prefer the sound of the groove on Porcaro's instruction video because the drums sound better!

The same idea applies to drum machines. I am not a big fan of hip hop as a musical genre but one of things I dislike the most is the genre's preference to what I call a very thin drum sound. I know that I am a biased drummer and all but I am also a drummer with a big sounding set so I want to hear a back beat with teeth! Sadly, I still find myself begging for the same thing in acoustic drums thanks to those thin acoustic drum sounds we hear on many recordings even though most of these drummers use expensive maple sets that are designed for maximum resonance? Seriously, why bother when all you're going to do is muffle it or do the studio thing to tame the beast? Thankfully, there are still sound engineers out there who capture the sound of the drummer rather than simply control the sound.

Music always changes and part of that is because of new instruments and technology. Think for a moment how much music changed when music manufacturers introduced the electric guitar or electric keyboards and how much it continues to change because of all of the progress made by those who build instruments and develop software. Like it or not sequencers and drum machines have helped create genres of music that couldn't exist if such pieces of art were played by live human beings. More important than that, those who have programmed some of this music have done a spectacular job in giving us great sounding music.

Take for example the late, great Ofra Haza. When I first heard her 1988 album Shaday it knocked my socks off. Her voice was amazing enough to catch anyone's attention but the musical parts behind her performances were just as amazing and it had electronics all over it. I remember sitting there speechless when I heard the first track "Im Nin'alu" then being further taken aback when I heard the second track "Eshal" These songs are both driven by drum machine beats and at that time I was a proud drummer who refused to credit anything that was programmed. That was until I heard these songs because there was no way around the fact that these songs have some serious groove to them!

Then you go forward a few years and listen to Herbie Hancock's 1994 release Dis is Da Drum again, same thing. While the album did knock my socks I wasn't really surprised because Herbie Hancock is in my opinion, a musical genius and his work with electronics was already well known by so many including me as a child as I remember his classic song "Rockit" back in 1984: So it was no surprise to me that he would come up with something just as good if not better in the future.

Then there is the electric drum set. I will be the first to admit that many of the default settings aren't anything worth remembering but after taking some time to alter the sounds to my liking I have created multiple custom drum set settings that sound great. I have used these setting on multiple occasions in recording situations to the liking of those who brought me in to lay down some tracks. All I simply did was try to create a sound that came closest to what my acoustic drums sounded like and after a tweak here and there I was in business.

Some may ask about the feel of those drums? Well, I'm the only playing the beats so if someone likes my playing, great. If not, well then there is nothing I can do about that, even if I'm using acoustic drums.

Coloring Songs  

While remaining on the issue of feel let's think of all of those songs that made use of both a drum machine and a live drummer. Like a good painting that features a focal point along with some background shading a drum machine used lightly before the entrance of real drums can provide a very nice experience for the listener. One of my favorite examples of that is the Natalie Grant song "Make it Matter." It uses a drum machine on the verses so when the live drums kick in on the choruses it's really powerful.

Such an idea is not exclusive to popular music, which of course in Natalie Grant's case would also include Contemporary Christian music. Such an idea can also aid a spooky heavy metal song that is also meant to provide the listener with a variety of moods. No better choice to go in the opposite direction than one of Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson's solo songs "Believil" off of his album Tyranny of Souls Again, the soft verse to chorus concept sounds amazing.

Hybrid Grooves 

Asides from dynamics between specific parts of a song one can also create complete songs with different textures thanks to a combination of programmed and live performances. One of my favorite examples of this is Michael Jackson's live performance of "Smooth Criminal" at Wembley Stadium in 1988. The studio version of the song relies heavily on electronics with the song being carried by an awesome bass line that is in fact sequenced. The studio version credits multiple drummers on the track but one can tell how much they made use of electronics and most likely some sequencing to help carry the groove. The live version of course features a live drummer on an acoustic drum set so it in fact has a different feel to it. The sequenced bass line is still used in the live performance and the song still sounds amazing.

Personally, I use a lot of drum machine parts in my own music mainly out of necessity. In many ways I wish I was like Stewart Copeland or Mickey Hart who have the financial resources  to purchase and store every type of percussion instrument out there. Since I have a day job I also don't have the time to master each of these instruments so yes, having access to these sounds through the use of electronics is most beneficial to me.

When I record my music I experiment with how I want to track each part. Sometimes I program simple and repetitive parts like bell patterns and shakers but there are other times when I might add a few other sound sources as well. Then I will track other parts by playing them live on my electronic set and they usually come out pretty good because even though it's a digital signal it has a more live fell than a programmed part. To each their own but I'm okay with recording my music in this way.

The other benefit to doing it this way is that it saves me money. When I am demoing music I am free to work on these parts as I see fit. Further, using electronics allows me to get a really good feed when I track each part so I really don't have to worry about some of the challenges that come from tracking live drums. Sadly, there are times when the session just doesn't work because the artist and engineer simply have a different way of doing things and when that happens the artist is still on the hook for the cost of using the studio.

Don't get me wrong. I love recording my tribal drumming songs with live acoustic percussion instruments and have done so many times. However, as time has gone on I wasn't shy about incorporating some electronics because when it comes to being creative there should be no limits. Once we drop our pride we allow ourselves to explore and it's not just with electronics. I will hit or use anything as long as it sounds good. One of the best examples of this is when I watch Latin drummer Dafnis Prieto who uses a frying pan on his set. Such an idea sounds funny but wait to you hear what it sounds like:

Overall the rejection of electronics always reminds me of the famous exchange that Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson had with a Polish fan back in 1984 when he said that you can't use keyboards in heavy metal music. Interestingly enough, the band went on to use them in the late 80's and have used them ever since with keyboards adding so much to the band's sound.

In conclusion, it's good to see that people are more opened minded to the idea of using electronic drums or drum machines than they were back when I was much younger. If it's still not your thing then that's okay because I know exactly how you feel because I used to feel the same way and still at times don't always like what I hear when people make use of them. However, I am glad that I took the time to at least give it a chance because the more I use them the more I enjoy the experience. Further, when I have those moments when I play my acoustic drums I enjoy it that much more because electronics give me a chance to work in a different musical setting. Music is supposed to be fun and I'm glad that I enjoy working in either setting.

Carlos Solorzano

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