Hybrid Rhythm Vehicle

Electronic drum kits certainly progress every year, but they still sound unnatural, feel artificial and look silly. Also, sequencing with click tracks
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Electronic drum kits certainly progress every year, but they still sound unnatural, feel artificial and look silly. Also, sequencing with click tracks

Electronic drum kits certainly progress every year, but they still sound unnatural, feel artificial and look silly. Also, sequencing with click tracks has always been a terrifying and flawed exercise. Modern production is all about texture and detail, and the really exciting aspects of rhythm production in music today come from the electronic side of things, yet no matter how much technology has integrated with music, drummers seem to do best when they hit an object that resonates its own acoustic property. This begs the question: Isn't there a more symbiotic approach to live electro/acoustic rhythms?

Rather than ask a drummer to emulate a machine, why not let a drummer be a drummer while also seamlessly integrating rhythmic textures into the act of live performance? I set out to answer these questions by building a live performance system that could maintain the acoustic properties of a drum kit while incorporating an approach to electronics that would be fluid and interactive, rather than mechanized and constrained. I wanted to leverage the benefits of organic, acoustic-based drum and cymbal performance with contrasting electronic texturing and loop capability to bring them together into a hybrid system.

My first step was to develop a plan based on my needs. From a strictly logistical standpoint, portability and ergonomics were hugely important; it should facilitate quick setup and breakdown, but feel natural. Of course, everything also needed to sound good, be idiot-proof in a live setting and provide enough real-time sound manipulation and creative control as possible. The tallest hurdle of all was (metaphorically) learning how to drive this vehicle with my hands off the steering wheel. As a drummer, my hands are busy doing other things, so an important step was getting the right gear in place that would facilitate stable MIDI connectivity, hands-free interactivity and ease of operation. Ableton Live 5 (www.ableton.com) was the clear choice for software because of its amazing flexibility for live performance (and because I've always wanted to dig into this application). As a relative newbie, I've hardly mastered the program, but I quickly found ways to make it work in this setting. I also incorporated U&I's sound-design software Metasynth 4 (www.uisoftware.com) for audio samples and loop processing.

From the hardware side, I needed a method to control Live 5 remotely, so I looked to Roland, whose drum pads I've used for years. I chose the SPD-S sampling pad (www.rolandus.com) for three reasons: It's compact, it has a trigger input for kick drum and the top three of its nine pads are easy to locate and hit with a stick on a dark stage. I then needed a USB MIDI interface to connect it all. Beyond a simple interface box, I wanted something that would give me greater control over Live. This is where the beauty of the newer, low-cost keyboard-based interfaces such as those by Novation and M-Audio proved to be invaluable. Both companies make great systems for the task, but I ultimately chose the 25-key Novation X-Station 25 (www.novationmusic.com) because of its small (18.4-by-10.9-inch) footprint, huge variety of knobs and sliders, and its internal sound engine. For the drum kit, I chose something I already owned: the Yamaha Rick Marotta Hipgig (www.yamaha.com). This kit is genius for its portable design. The snare and two undersized toms fit into the 18-inch kick drum, and all the hardware fits into the cylindrical drum throne. It sounds great for its small size and packs up into two cases in less than 15 minutes. Snare drums being very personal things, I replaced the stock snare with either a Premier Modern Classic 13-by-5.5-inch Hammered Brass (www.premier-percussion.com) or a Craviotto Unlimited Maple (www.craviottodrums.com). Finally, I used Shure E2 Sound Isolating Earphones (www.shure.com) to monitor signals from the Novation.


The routing scheme I developed goes something like this: A Pintech adhesive trigger (www.pintechworld.com) is fed from the Yamaha kick drum to the trigger input on the SPD-S; MIDI In and Out cables run from the SPD-S to the X-Station; and the X-Station's USB output connects to an Apple PowerBook G4 laptop running Live 5. Using Live's MIDI Map mode, I am able to control the software through MIDI messages sent from both the SPD-S and the X-Station. The Novation handles all non-drumming aspects done in between songs or when loops are used exclusively. For example, I use noncontinuous rotary knobs for tempo and A/B crossfading. After first using the X-Station's nine sliders and mute buttons for Live track volumes and muting, I soon found that I wasn't doing very much track mixing. Instead, I now use the first six sliders and buttons to control effects. In my stored Live template, I have six common effects divided among two Live Return tracks and the Master track. Return A has Live's Reverb and Filter Delay (set to X-Station sliders 1 and 2), while Return B has, in order, Auto Filter, Beat Repeat and EQ Four (set to sliders 3 through 5). The Master track has Compressor II set to slider number 6. The last three sliders (7 thorugh 9) are set to track faders for volume control — the two Return tracks and the Master track. Each slider's accompanying button is mapped to its plug-in's device activator switch to bypass plug-ins. I also have Live's Send A and Send B for the first six tracks set to the rotary knobs just above the X-Station's sliders. This combination gives me great control over effects manipulation, which is one of the most exciting aspects of Live and is necessary for making changes in between songs or while loops are playing. Additionally, I have the X-Station's X/Y panner set to the frequency and Q settings of the Auto Filter so I can do full X/Y filter sweeping.

By contrast, the Roland SPD-S handles all of the performance aspects I need while playing the kit. Primarily, this is about controlling Scene changes in Live's Session view. But the Roland also triggers samples in Live. The kick-drum trigger is an obvious example, but I also like to reserve the SPD-S' bottom three pads to use as electronic snares and toms or as single-hit samples, depending on the gig (or the sample set). The SPD-S MIDI mapping in Live is as follows: Pad 1 = Tap Tempo; Pad 2 = Scene Launch; Pad 3 = Stop Clips; Pad 4 = Scene Up; Pad 5 = Scene Down; and Pad 6 = Stop Sequence. Pads 7 through 9 are reserved for single-hit samples. With Live essentially acting as my sample player, I have experienced problems with MIDI latency. This is not surprising, given the involved signal path. Here, I have to walk a delicate balance between buffer size and CPU power. I found 135 samples to be a workable middle ground for buffer size once I “froze” the plug-ins.


All of my work in Live is done exclusively in Session view, where I work with samples and loops and compile clips and scenes into song arrangements. Original beats are composed primarily using Live's Impulse drum sampler. Custom single-hit samples are loaded into Impulse's instrument slots and manipulated to varying effect. I also use audio loops as individual clips that I work into scenes. For audio editing, I launch samples into Metasynth from within Live and then save the samples back to Live. Metasynth, a Mac-only program I've used for years, is a far-out app that takes a visual approach to sound design. It allows you to drastically mangle and re-synthesize whatever audio you load into it.

On my first gig with this setup, I had a separate Live set for each song. This made me too reliant on the laptop for operation, though I had hoped to interact more with the X-Station and SPD-S than with the Mac. I approached the next show as a continuous gig, rather than as a collection of songs, by loading all clips into one master gig set. Clips were collected into their appropriate Scenes, and all Scenes were arranged into song structures. A song may have several Scene changes (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), so all Scenes of a particular song were identified by the same color. I then arranged the entire gig by chronological scene changes going from top to bottom. A cool feature in Live allows you to identify tempo shifts between Scenes if you name an upcoming Scene by its bpm value (for example, “138 bpm”). I also needed the ability to manually change tempos, which is the reason for two different methods of control over tempo: using an X-Station knob to set it quickly by hand or using the first pad on the SPD-S to tap out a tempo. One problem I noticed in Live is that engaging Tap Tempo restarts the loop from the beginning rather than just updating the tempo as the Scene plays. That was not very useful once a loop was audible, but it did come in handy before activating a loop, such as when another musician starts a song and I set the grid to his or her meter. It also helps when I count in a song; I tap on the first pad, and with every hit, count out loud, “one, two three, four,” and then hit the second pad to launch the Scene.


Without question, the number one fear a bandleader has about integrating sequences into live performances is being tied down to the sequence's authority. I've used sequencing in the past, and it does make it difficult to extend a guitar solo, go back to a bridge, change the tempo, etc. This is where the SPD-S/Live 5 combination makes things much more interactive. The SPD-S' top-level pads handle the most critical aspects (Initial Tempo, Scene Start, All Scenes Stop), while the three pads below it move me around the Live Session window (Scene Up, Scene Down, Stop Playback). With these six operations, I can alleviate most worries while still playing the drum kit. If I anticipate an upcoming change to a chorus, I quickly hit a Scene Up or Down pad to ready the Scene, and then hit Pad 2 to change it. If we somehow get off the beat, I can hit Pad 2 at any time to get things back on track. Of course, I also can stop a Scene at any time and restart it if I need to.

There is one other difficulty with Live worth mentioning, however. Its Master Quantization feature is great for setting up when the next Scene launches (say 1 bar, or half-note). But as a drummer, I like to set quantization to “none” so I can hit Scene Start and a crash cymbal on the downbeat with both hands. But due to very slight MIDI latency, if you're even marginally late with the hit, there is crossover between Scene changes that creates an ugly flamming effect. What happens is, if you're late, the first Scene has already made its way back to Beat 1 of the loop, while also triggering the subsequent Scene's Beat 1 note. So a flamming of the two is audible, which becomes particularly troublesome with delay effects or with the Beat Repeat effect engaged. A workaround is to set the quantization value to quarter notes, but then you have to be sure to hit in a free moment somewhere between the quarter note and the start of the measure.

Other than that, this makeshift system works like a charm, and Ableton Live 5 is as revolutionary an app as I've used. The system as a whole isn't perfect, but configurations such as these are eternal works in progress. The more you learn about the capabilities of your hardware and software — and the deeply rooted MIDI capabilities each has — the more you can grow with them. A favorite method I came to employ more as time went on is three-limbed drumming, leaving one hand free to operate the X-Station. I programmed some loops with a well-defined snare so I could ride on the hi-hat and hit the kick drum, while also tweaking effects parameters with my left hand on the X-Station.

Live drumming is, after all, mostly about physical human performance. That's something I wanted to preserve as much as possible while still extending the concept of rhythm beyond its normal parameters. I found that the most important thing was never to let the act of technology management become more important than my desire for a soulful performance.

Thanks to Ableton's Jesse Terry for help with this article.