Unique Control

A look at five inspiring approaches to electronic percussion
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Although the traditional configuration of an acoustic drum set is what first comes to mind when considering an electronic percussion rig, there are many alternatives that go beyond generic trigger-pad-and-sample setups. To help you find your electric groove, this month we examine a handful of instruments that offer a fresh approach to working with electronic percussion, both onstage and in the studio.

Sunhouse Sensory Percussion ($699-$1,599)


Fig. 1. Sensory Percussion sensors attach to rimmed or hooped acoustic drums of all sizes, from an 8" tom to a 24" kick, but not to electronic pads or hand drums such as congas.

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A dream come true for electronic-minded drummers, the Sensory Percussion by Sunhouse (sunhou.se) is a hardware/software system that brings the expressivity and natural feel of playing acoustic drums to a sophisticated sample-based software instrument. Each of the clip-on sensors turns a single acoustic drum into an electronic pad with up to 10 sounds mapped to it, complete with sample blending and stacking, effects, and parameter control based on your playing (see Figure 1).

Fig. 2: Each drum zone in the software has Sampler modules (right-hand side), where you can import sounds and edit their length, envelope and other traits.

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Wielding this ultimate electronic drum kit takes a fair bit of setup and equipment. The Sensory Percussion software supports up to four sensor input channels at a time ($699 for the software and 1 sensor; $999 for 2 sensors; $1,299 for 3 sensors; and $1,599 for 4 sensors). Each sensor needs to be connected to an audio interface channel with phantom power using a standard XLR cable in order for it to talk to the Mac/Windows-based software (see Figure 2). (The software works as a standalone program: There is no plug-in mode, although one is in development.)

Before attaching the sensor to an acoustic drum, you affix an adhesive metal pickup to each drumhead, which can be either a standard, coated or mesh drumhead. I prefer mesh heads, so that the sounds from the physical drum don’t conflict much with the samples from the software.

With the hardware setup, you must train the software to recognize your drum’s responses. For each of the four software channels, you select the type of drum used—for example, “snare-mesh 14-inch”—activate the Learn button, and then repeatedly hit the drum on each of the available 10 zones: center, edge, rimshot center, rimshot edge, cross stick, stickshot, damped, rim tip, rim shoulder and shell. The kick drum has fewer options: open, closed, rim tip, rim shoulder, hardware, and shell. You can retrain the drums at any time, as well as set threshold amounts for preventing cross-talk between drums.

Sensory Percussion comes with more than 1 GB of samples organized into several dozen kits, including some Single-Drum Kits for when you have just one sensor. I tested a 4-sensor, snare/tom/tom/kick setup; loading up one of the preset kits and going to town was great fun. There are genre kits (Reggae, Funk, Hip-hop, Modern Rock, etc.), percussion and synth kits, Foley-style kits, and many wilder electronic/ambient kits, as well as sample sets for ’80s and ’90s drum machines, electro, piano or guitar sounds, and much more.

Playing the drums with so many different sounds assigned to each one is a unique experience and quickly encourages you to explore new ways of approaching the instrument, with a greater than normal emphasis on hitting the drums on the rim and shell, as well as using rimshots, cross sticks, and so on.

If you train the software carefully, it picks up your strikes from all the various zones quite accurately, but of course there will be instances where you or the software trigger the edge instead of the center, for example. To counteract that, the software builds in blending between drum zones, so that the closer your hits are between two zones, the more the samples for those zones will blend together. You can edit the blends or turn them off altogether.

Many of the preset kits also use controllers, which alter almost any parameter in the software according to how hard, how fast, where and how you hit the drum, or with LFOs. All the controllers are editable and provide enormous possibilities, but as one example, hitting the drum from the center outward could rotate an effect parameter such as filter cutoff. There is a well-rounded selection of eight effects that you can apply to the drum channels, two effect sends, or the Master channel.

Want to create a custom kit? You can drag in any of your own samples. Each Sampler can hold multiple samples and you can stack multiple Sampler modules. So besides having up to 10 sound-zones per drum, you can highly tailor each of those zones with multiple sounds, blend them with other zones, and automate parameter changes based on how you play.

The possibilities are truly staggering and only limited by your imagination and effort. Sensory Percussion can literally change the way you look at a drum kit.

Roland’s EC-10 ($399) and EC-10M ($229)


Fig. 3. The EC-10 ELCajón has a built-in sound module and speaker for enhancing the acoustic sound of the instrument.

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The Roland (roland.com) ELCajon EC-10 (Electronic Layered Cajón) and EC-10M ELCajon Mic Processor are the latest drum-related products that use the company’s proprietary sensors and sound generation technology to launch the now ubiquitous Peruvian box-drum into a new sonic realm.

The EC-10 is ready-to-play right out of the box (see Figure 3). Even with the power off and the electronic sounds completely silent, the EC-10 is a fine-sounding cajón, comparable in quality to many of the models made by conventional drum companies.

Once you plug in the AC adaptor or slap six AA batteries into the battery case, though, the EC-10’s capabilities increase exponentially. There are three built-in electronic kit banks—Cajón, Percussion, and SFX—to choose from using the raised buttons located near the front edge of the seating surface. To begin experimenting with electronic sounds, simply select a kit using the bottom set of buttons and choose a sound pairing using the top buttons. Then, you’re ready to play.

One sound in the pairing is assigned to the middle of the drum (the “head”), while its partner sound is assigned to the “edge” of the drum (where the front surface meets the seating surface). The electronic tones can be heard through the small speaker built into the head of the drum, or by connecting the EC-10 to an amp or P.A. system.

Sounds on the menu include a basic cajón with reverb, cymbal splashes, darbuka, TR-808 snare, turntable scratch, dubstep kick, cross-stick, rototom, and chimes, among many others. Moreover, each sound is velocity sensitive: The amount of force required to trigger the electronic sounds is controlled by the Threshold setting of the drum, accessed using the select buttons. A handy Trigger Balance knob on the bottom rear of the cajón allows the user to mute the sound assigned to the head completely while continuing to use the sound assigned to the edge, or vice-versa.

Experienced cajón players will find the EC-10 generally very user-friendly, though some inventive thumb, palm, or finger flourishes are needed to flip through sounds while playing. And becoming acclimated to the electronic layer’s resistance to fluttery/fingertip strokes requires some modifications in technique.

Fig. 4: If you already own a cajón, you can augment its sound using the EC-10M.Fig. 5. The EC-10M uses a clip-on condenser microphone to trigger the sound module.

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The EC-10M, on the other hand, is a mic processor that uses a clip-based condenser mic to amplify the sound of an acoustic cajón and layer electronic sounds onto it (see Figure 4). (You supply the cajón, of course.) After clipping the mic to the sound hole of the cajón, then connecting it to the EC-10M and firing up an amp or P.A., the user can then select modes of operation and kit sounds using the foot controls on the processor (see Figure 5).

As with the EC-10, the EC-10M has built-in sound pairings (such as Hybrid Kick + TR-808 snare) in the Kit Shift Mode, which also, respectively, responds to strikes on the “head” and “edge” areas of the drum. However, the module offers a couple of extra features. In Pad mode, the raised pads on the processor can be tapped with the foot to trigger accent/additional percussion sounds (such as a splash cymbal, cowbell or shaker) while the player continues to use the selected kit sounds.

Musicians who prefer using hi-hat style foot technique can also connect up to two of Roland’s kick-trigger pedals to the EC-10M. In Loop mode, the player can record and loop phrases while continuing to use to the acoustic sound of the cajón to play along. Clearing a loop and starting over is all done using the foot controls. But you don’t have to limit the EC-10M to a cajón: You can turn a guitar body, cigar box, and other objects into a playing surface by clipping the mic wherever it will fit.

All in all, the EC-10 and the EC-10M are dynamite tools for pro-level musicians, producers, and pretty much anyone looking to spice up their sound palette using their hands in a decidedly simple way.

Nord Drum 3P ($699)


Fig. 6. The Nord Drum 3P is a 6-voice percussion synthesizer with 6 pads that are easily configurable into custom kit layouts.

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Capitalizing on the popularity of its Nord Drum 2 and Nord Pad pairing, Nord (nordkeyboards.com) has released an all-in-one version of its modeling percussion synthesizer—the Nord Drum 3P (see Figure 6). In contrast to having the Drum 2 sound module as a separate device (which, due to its form factor works just as well on the desktop in a studio as it does onstage with the Nord Pad), the Nord Drum 3P is a more performer friendly instrument, because it’s essentially plug-and-play: You don’t need a pair of separate stand-mounts, a CAT 5 cable, or trigger cables to connect them. Simply attach the Drum 3P to the included stand-mount, connect the power adapter, plug the ¼" stereo outputs into an amplifier or P.A. system, and you’re ready to play.

Small, rubber adhesive squares are included, which you can attach to the underside of the instrument when you want to place it on a flat surface, such as a desktop. The Nord Drum 3 weighs just over 4 lbs, yet it feels solid and roadworthy—typical of the company’s instruments, which are made in its Stockholm-based factory.

Fig. 7. While it doesn’t include all of the trigger inputs of the Nord Drum 2, the Nord Drum 3P does have a separate kick-trigger input, as well as MIDI I/O which can be driven, say, from Nord’s downloadable iPad step-sequencer app, Nord Beat 2.

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The six pads play and feel the same as the ones on the Nord Pad. And although the Nord Drum 3P doesn’t include the same number of individual trigger inputs as the previous model, it does retain the kick-trigger input, as well as a minijack headphone output and MIDI I/O on DIN connectors. The power switch is a welcome addition (Figure 7).

One of the most attractive aspects of the Nord Drum 3P is that, like the Nord Drum 2, it’s a 6-voice synthesizer, with every voice (or Sound, in Nord parlance) a mix of three Parts—Noise, Tone and Click—each with its own set of parameters. Think of it as being like old-school electronic percussion, in that it generates sounds onboard (in this case, using subtractive, resonant and FM synthesis rather than playing samples), but with a fully modern implementation in the sound engine. (For more on the Nord Drum’s sound generating features, see my review of the Nord Drum 2 at emusician.com.)

The user interface of the Nord Drum 3P is similar to the Nord Drum 2, but with a more concise layout. However, this new model adds some great features. For starters, stereo Delay and Reverb effects are now included and are easily accessible and adjustable for each pad.

The Nord Drum 3P adds new Drum Select banks, divided into nine categories of factory sounds including Bass, Snare, Toms, and Tuned Percussion. Eight user banks are also included for saving your own sounds. The Drum Select feature, accessible with a top-panel button, greatly simplifies the process of assembling a custom pad configuration: Not only is it easy to audition the sounds, you can map the one you want to any of the pads. For example, you could create a pad arrangement with more than one Snare sound in a few minutes, then save it as a kit.

The takeaway is that the Nord Drum 3P is an expressive and portable percussion synth the gives you a wide range of easy-to-use editing tools to customize your sounds, when you get to that point. If you’re just looking for a great sounding set of electronic drum pads that is lightweight and simple to use, the Nord Drum 3P fits the bill.

Polyend Perc Pro Drumming Machine ($999)


Fig. 8: The Polyend Perc Pro Drumming Machine is a system for mechanically playing percussion instruments using MIDI or CV/Gate input.

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Looking like an alien attacker in the ’60s animated series Jonny Quest, the Polyend (polyend. com) Perc Pro Drumming Machine is a system of mechanical MIDI-controlled strikers that can be used on everything from standard drums and Latin percussion to your favorite junkyard finds. Although the concept of using electronically or computer-controlled solenoids and the like to strike real-world objects is not new, Polyend’s implementation is easily the most elegant and simple-to-use system (Figure 8).

Fig. 9. Here, a beater with a wooden striker is attached under a pair of hi-hat cymbals.

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The basic system consists of a MIDI control module, three velocity-sensitive beaters, three stand clamps, and a USB cable. Each beater is housed in an anodized and machined aluminum ball measuring just under 3" in diameter, with your choice (when you place your order) of a wooden, aluminum or silicon striker mounted inside (Figure 9). This allows you to match the striker to the type of surface it’ll hit, such as a wood striker for drums or cymbals. (The beaters are also available individually at $349 each.)

Fig. 10. The Perc Pro Drumming Machine includes a MIDI controller that accepts three sets of CV and Gate input.

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Each beater connects to the rear-panel of the controller, which can be placed on the floor or on a tabletop. The beater ball sits on an 8.2" pole, weigh 1.6 lbs., and has a 10' cable, allowing you to put a bit of distance between the MIDI controller and each striker. It’s a relatively lightweight system that feels like it could withstand careful use on the road (Figure 10).

Fig. 11. The Drumming Machine’s controller includes USB and DIN MIDI connectors and supports up to three beaters.

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In addition to the three beater outputs, the controller module provides In/Out/Thru DIN ports, as well as a USB port (class compliant, so no drivers needed), for MIDI connectivity. A beater is assigned a MIDI Channel and Note by stepping on its corresponding footswitch and then playing the Note from the device you’re using as a trigger. Although each controller handles a maximum of three beaters, multiple controller modules can be connected via MIDI (Figure 11).

Three pairs of CV Gate and Velocity inputs are on the top panel and can be used for driving the Drumming Machine with, say, your Eurorack setup. The company says the system supports the full MIDI velocity range (0-127) and can handle tempos up to 1,200 BPM.

While I didn’t have a chance to test these extremes with the hands-on time I spent with them at events, I did find them to be straightforward in their approach and design. The latency between MIDI Note On and the striker hitting a surface was barely noticeable.

The Perc Pro Drumming System was developed to fit a wide range of uses. In the studio, it can be used for playing and recording real percussion from the same MIDI data used to play sample- based drum tracks, either in real time or from recorded data. The same uses would extend to taking the Drumming System onstage, where you could have it play objects from an iOS app, drum machine, or computer during a performance. And, of course, the system suggests applications such as art-and-sound installations where a plug-and-play setup for striking solid, resonant objects is required.

The biggest drawback for many will be the price, especially with only three inputs on the controller. Nonetheless, the Perc Pro Drumming Machine provides an unusual, yet highly practical and musical way for electronic musicians to incorporate real-world instruments into their real-time or recorded projects.