Electronic Percussion (Part 2)
"It's surprising how little you need to imply a great deal."
At our last sitting, the learned Andrew Duncan outlined the evidence in the case of electronic percussion versus real drummers. This month Mr David Stewart explains why he did the murders.
I started out in that direction because I didn't want to do things the same way that I'd been doing them for the previous 12 years. Drums were always the hardest instrument to record in the group. They always took the longest to get a sound on, and once an acceptable sound had been achieved you were stuck with it. Yet it was very rare that any one sound from a kit would be powerful or interesting enough in its own right to be recorded on alone and have a track built up around it.
Consequently all the potential space in the music would get eaten up by a drummer, 'drumming' — and they've achieved a high degree of sophistication with their arms and legs. It's great, but it was drumming-as-we-know-it, and it didn't leave me enough room to work around. So it became necessary to reach the point of being a one man band to come up with anything new compositionally.
The Simmons has made it all seem like BC and AD. Before the Simmons kit came along there wasn't anything similar that sounded any good. All the drum machines made before 1980 were rubbish and sounded weak. It was the first electronic device that sounded strong, so that you could leave out all the other acoustic sounds, whack the Simmons snare and accept it as a good sound because it had a certain integrity to it.
In the studio the blank tape is like a blank canvas and if you want to use space somehow synthetic percussion gives you more. The reason for that is very subtle and has to do with psycho acoustics — what you expect a sound to sound like, and what you expect it to do once you've heard it.
An electronically generated noise like a Simmons cymbal, is better suited to echo or other effects because it's a totally electronic sound. It has no real ambience to it; no room sound with it. You can add a room, but you have the choice of making that room many different sizes.
So you could start off a track with just a Simmons cymbal playing an off-beat, which would give you quite enough rhythm to be going on with while you thought about what textures to build up around it. If that was a real cymbal it would be harder to live with, firstly because it's acoustic and secondly because it's such a familiar sound. A Simmons cymbal is a fresher medium, somehow, and loses the element of familiarity. Hear an off-beat snare on its own and you're waiting for the rest of the band to come in playing a Free song.
How many songs can you think of where the drummer has just used one drum, one tom-tom? Usually it's a bloke playing a kit. The first Peter Gabriel album was a bit of a milestone because he didn't use any cymbals. Jerry Marotta had to do without, and it worked. That was the kind of rethinking of what a drum kit could or couldn't do that was needed. Robert Wyatt used to turn up without any cymbals in the days when Soft Machine were a trio, and it was considered very avant garde at the time.
You've got to look at what acoustic drummers can do, compared to electronic drums, and try to get the best of both worlds and not expect there to be this vast area in between. Musicians have got to come up with new ideas, it's fundamental.
Most records have got drums on them and most are made by putting the rhythm down first. The drummer comes in and plays either with a few other musicians, or in some extreme cases, on his own, and that ends up being the track. There's so much music that could be made where other instruments could make the rhythm and it wouldn't be tricky, experimental or un-pop. It's surprising how little you need in order to imply a great deal. Just a xylophone note on an Emulator sequence playing once every other beat can be the basis of an entire track, and I'd like to hear more records in that fashion.
It wouldn't mean that there would be no rhythm going on, you could evolve a lot, but it wouldn't be trying to fit over the drummer going Boom; Baff; Boom-Boom; Baff! That could almost be the last thing that would happen so all the other instruments could have space to do more rhythmically.
Pragmatically, a by product of this method is that by the time the drummer gets to overdub his part, there may not be more than a handful of tracks left on the multi-track, so they have to be recorded across fewer than if they'd started the whole thing off, and that's not a bad thing either. Many times in the past, with bands I've been in, the drums have been recorded over six or seven tracks and they're all been considered separately and people have worried about the EQ on each of those tracks, and in the end it made sod all difference. It might just as well have been recorded in stereo, or even mono in some cases. AND it probably would have sounded better.
With the Simmons sequencer you can press all the buttons, almost at random, listen to what comes out, and find that you've got a bonkers rhythm that no one would actually be able to play, or even invent. It's thrown open to the random element, and you can find good rhythms and then refine them by switching out the unnecessary parts. It's a new approach. If you asked a drummer to play like that it wouldn't be any more fair that it would be possible.
Now everyone's got more access to the sounds of the drum kit and to making rhythm. All the guys in a band can have a bash at the Simmons or learn to programme the Linn, or DMX, or whatever. Every musician can share in the problems of the rhythm making. And there are a lot of problems that I didn't even know existed... How to play in time being one of them.
Playing a drum kit is like a test of manhood. If I sit down behind a kit I produce the sound of a wimp. I tap around halfheartedly for a bit and then give up. You have to hit them in a certain way to get the right sounds. You have to get the old legs going unfalteringly. There are very few people who can do that. At least with the Simmons pads anyone who can tap out a rhythm on a table top can get by.
In simulating drum sounds with bursts of synthesised noise, I don't think it can be taken a lot further than Dave Simmons has already done because his sounds have been so imaginative. The likely direction is taking real sounds, say your brake drums, bunging them into a storage system and then triggering them in the rhythm that you want.
If you put them into an Emulator, for instance, you have the potential of two octaves of brake drums, so you can change their pitch. You can truncate their decay. You can build a sequenced loop out of them. You can make them go backwards. If you can trigger them from a programmable or playable device, you could reach out, hit something, and the 1812 Overture would start. Five years ago that would have been a complete fantasy, now it's just around the corner.
So what has to come next is a programmable OR playable set up which will provide any combination of the two. It should be able to record your own sounds but also offers a selection of prerecorded drums. You could alter either set and form any combination from them. It should have a real time sequencer and an auto correction system which would adjust your intended beat to the nearest quaver. You should be able to program a sequence then play along with it at the same time on pads which offer a range of touch sensitive responses... And you want to be able to buy it for less than a couple of thousand pounds.
Milord, when Mr Stewart's statement was being prepared, such a system as outlined above did not exist. Since then, certain information has come into our possession to suggest that both Messrs Allen and Heath, and keyboard player Rod Bowkett are hard at work on prototype drum machines that wilt provide many, if not all, of the suggested features. Meanwhile, we await the resourceful invention of our Japanese friends at this month's Frankfurt Trade Show.
Sometimes I sit in my music room surrounded by the Emulator, DX7, Linn, Simmons, Prophets, AMS digital reverb and all the rest of it and I feel like a real sham. I think — you've got all this shit and you still can't think of one effing good idea. I almost expect the readout to light up and say — 'You're a fraud, why don't you give up.' It doesn't make music any easier. You've still got to use the heart and the head, work out what feels good, juggle it all around until the music is happening, and that's as hard as it ever was.