Drum Programming (Part 14)
In the last part of this series, Drum Programming moves out of the studio and on to the road, as Warren Cann goes live.
Not all of you will be programming drum machines for use at home or in the studio, some of you will want to use them in various capacities for live work. Whether you're using a drum machine to 'replace' a live drummer, or whether you're augmenting a drummer with programmed percussion, the live environment presents its own set of problems. This month I'd like to touch upon the subject of amplification for stage use of drum machines; after all, what use is all of the work you've put in on programming if it sounds awful live?
If you're just starting out and haven't put a drum machine through an amp before, then my first advice is: forget about using the guitarist's spare, old amp — it just won't cut it. Guitar amps are specifically designed to sound best within a relatively narrow range of frequencies, and a drum machine can kick out enough highs and lows to blow its speakers clear into next week. An amp designed for keyboards will obviously be better at handling frequency extremes but it's doubtful whether it'll be tough enough to cope with the volumes required — most people totally underestimate the decibel levels put out by an acoustic kit being given a good thrashing! Nor will the speakers be able to withstand the extreme attacks of drum and percussion sounds — those spikey envelopes will shred speakers with just one good hit. Even if the speakers could take it, you'd reach distortion/clipping long before you achieved practical, realistic volume levels.
You may get away with it in rehearsals if you're prepared to compromise and have everyone playing at much reduced levels, though I doubt you'll be very motivated by what you hear. Psychoacoustics come into play and you'll be very aware of listening to a machine, rather than getting the solid, gut reaction you should. There are solutions, naturally, but they aren't cheap. You need bulletproof speakers rated for extreme output, and a powerful amp with a lot of headroom to start putting out the necessary pressure levels.
"Okay, I'll make do in rehearsals and stick it through whatever's handy, but it'll be fine when we go on gigs — then we can run it through the PA and the monitors..." Well, yeah... sort of. It ought to sound good put front, handling drums is part of the PA's job, but you may come unstuck with the monitors. And, seeing as the monitors are what the band will be hearing, you could arrive right back at square one. Any quality, professional PA will have gutsy sounding monitors — bands always complain that they can't hear themselves on stage; if the monitors couldn't take it, the PA hire company would be replacing speakers at every gig — but there is a difference between reinforcing the volume of a kit onstage, so everyone can hear it better, and being the sole sound source. The monitors supplied may be able to reproduce your drum sounds at loud enough levels, but their construction and design usually prohibits them from sounding anything near as good as the quality you enjoyed hearing through your nearfield monitors at home or in the studio. In other words, the hi may not be very fi...
It's largely a matter of suck it and see — just don't be surprised if the sounds you hear are greatly coloured, sometimes to the point where you have your doubts as to whether the drum part will work the way you'd intended it to. Through experience I discovered that instead of using the usual cabs containing 1x15", 2x12", and a horn (which all sounded weird), using a lot of 10" speakers sounded great. Perhaps Ampeg and Peavey were really on to something with their line of 8x10" speaker bass cabinets? If there's any way you can go for using lots of smaller speakers instead of a few big ones, then I'd definitely recommend it. The voice-coil response of smaller speakers seems to suit the incredibly fast rise-times of drum signals much better than those of larger ones, the resultant sound being noticeably much tighter and snappier.
There's another aspect of live amplification which you must be aware of: what sounds like a good, healthy thump of a bass drum at a modest volume can sound like a drawn-out boinggg at multi-thousands of watts. Those ringing low frequencies have always been there, you've just never been able to zoom the power up enough to hear them. If you aren't in a position to edit your samples then some serious EQ'ing will be necessary. You may be very fond of some of your drum sounds, but they won't all stand up at high volumes. Don't be surprised to find that some of the sounds you've previously shied away from, because they didn't sound heavy enough in your studio, are actually real killers when boosted by a powerful PA. The only way to really know is to try them. For the same reasons, I wouldn't count on being able to use those h-u-g-e gated reverb sounds in anything other than the contained space of smaller gigs, where the natural ambience of a hall will usually add all of the reverb necessary. Drier sounds will sound pretty damn big as they are, and be far more controllable. A multi-effects unit is nice on some things, but you really don't need much in the way of effects treatments — you're just adding reflections upon reflections and, without attention, it will all start turning to mush.
"Don't be surprised to find that some of the sounds you've previously shied away from, because they didn't sound heavy enough in your studio, are actually real killers when boosted by a powerful PA."
Furthermore, the response curves of amplification of high and low frequencies do not match each other — it takes more power to amplify bass frequencies to any perceived volume level than it does for treble, so your carefully worked out balances (which you painstakingly edited into your programming) may be thrown totally askew once your drum machine's Left/Right outputs are plugged into a big PA system. Everything is getting the same amount of juice and your predetermined mix is no longer applicable. Trimming back of the toppy stuff like cymbals, hi-hats, and (especially) the snare drum will probably be necessary. If you don't rebalance, by the time you get the bass drum loud enough to really kick, everything else will be taking the top of your head off! If you can mix your drum/percussion parts through that kind of power you'd find that the very same mix, when listened through again via your home monitors, seems to make no sense at all.
It's to your advantage to make use of all of the multiple output options your drum machine has. Separate everything as much as you can — eg. kick drum through the Auxiliary Left output, snare through the Auxiliary Right output, and percussion etc through the main L & R outputs. The kick and snare can then be dealt with separately through both front-of-house and onstage monitor desks, giving more sonic control and making life easier for everyone. If it's not practical for you to do that, due to hardware limitations, don't be discouraged. With care and some patience, you can still tune and balance everything internally in your drum machine to give excellent results.
If you are responsible for the drum parts onstage, then it's vital that you have some control over the onstage volume. Failing that, you absolutely must have control over your own monitor level. If you're a drummer playing an acoustic kit, using the drum machine to supply added percussion, click-track, or to drive sequences, then appreciate what can happen if you can't hear it enough to stay locked in sync — you're sunk!
In the controlled chaos of the live environment, just a fractional change in level can make the difference between the drum machine being clearly audible and being totally inaudible. You may start the song being able to clearly hear your accompaniment but the natural swells in volume later on may cross over the level threshold. Result? You lose it for just a bar or so and then you don't know where you are. Not good. The solution is to have a small mixer close to hand, enabling you to instantly adjust the levels yourself. Boss make a tiny, 4-channel, battery powered mixer which is cheap and quiet enough to do the job if nothing else is available.
"Ensure that you have multiple backups of all of your drum machine's Program/Song Chain data. It's not uncommon during a soundcheck for all power to the stage to suddenly just cut out due to someone, somewhere, messing with the venue's mains supply."
Drum machines are reliable enough in their normal habitat of home and studio, but if you're going to use one live then you'd better be prepared to treat it with kid gloves. First, get a sturdy, well padded flightcase made for it [check out the SOS Classified Ads for companies that offer this service - Ed.]. Remember, your drum box will be spending the majority of its time on the road in that case and it's all that stands between your lightweight plastic box of expensive chips and innumerable large heavy objects. Store the drum machine flightcase in a suitable space inside one of your larger flightcases. Don't take any chances. Second, make sure that your drum machine is secured to something stable when onstage. Balancing it precariously on top of an amp is just asking for trouble — small stages and excited musicians make for occasional collisions, so tape it down if you have to.
Ensure that you have multiple backups of all of your drum machine's Program/Song Chain data. It's not uncommon during a soundcheck for all power to the stage to suddenly just cut out due to someone, somewhere, messing with the venue's mains supply (hall electricians are notoriously ignorant of the effects of power-cuts on sensitive modern gear). That way, if everything gets scrambled you can just re-initialise and reload your data. The reason you need more than one cassette/disk/memory card backup is because things will get damaged or lost on the road. Don't forget to have the drum machine's internal memory backup battery (the one that retains your data while power is off) replaced with a fresh one before you set off.
Drummers are not usually accustomed to being responsible for things like leads, but as soon as you start using electronics it becomes a vital concern. Use only high quality, heavy-duty signal leads — no bargain-bin cheapies. The same applies to mains plugboards, so forget about using one from Woolies — it's fine at home but has absolutely no business at all anywhere on a stage. RS Components do an excellent 6-way, individually switchable, metal-cased board which I can recommend. If your drum machine uses a remote Power Supply Unit (PSU), then I suggest you carry a spare. When they go, they go, and can be a very tricky item to locate, especially when you're in the middle of nowhere and the shops are shut!
Check inside your mains plugs for loose connections and don't forget to ensure that they contain the correct value fuse. A drum machine does not require a 13 amp fuse. Check your manual, and don't be surprised if all it needs is a 3 amp rating. If anything is going to blow, this will ensure it's the fuse and nothing else. Make sure the mains leads are all tucked out of harm's way, especially the fragile leads of any remote PSUs. If necessary, tape them down with gaffer; you really don't want to cut the power to your setup in the middle of a Load/Save operation by jarring a plugboard with your foot. And you certainly don't want to interrupt the power in the middle of a song at a gig. Invest in a mains surge/spike protector from a computer shop; they're relatively cheap and offer some degree of protection to your drum machine's memory chips. If you can afford it, I suggest you go for a more serious mains filter: the domestic power that goes into homes is anything but clean, and mains power at gigs is even worse. It's subject to all manner of interference — everything from the venue's facilities (air-conditioning, lighting) to your own amplification and lighting rigs.
Well that about covers things. This is the end of my 'Drum Programming' series but I hope it's given you a few ideas and made drum machine programming an easier process for you.
Feature by Warren Cann
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