When the London Sample Workshop decided to sample drums with real reverb, they chose a swimming pool to do it. Tim Goodyer gets in deep with the Poolside Drums.
The London Sample Workshop's Poolside Drums project had made quite a splash in industry circles long before they became available in any form. Originally the talk was of creating the "ultimate" collection of drum and percussion samples by using nothing but the best recording and sampling, gear and getting a "real live" drummer to hit "real live" drums in a "real live" acoustic environment. The samples were to be painstakingly edited and presented on disc for use by the most discerning of samplists. Although the LSW's intentions were admirable, the Poolside Drums could have become a sampling status symbol - an elite collection for elite producers and musicians. Happily for you and me, once all the hard work of recording and administrating the project was in hand, it became obvious that the samples could be released as a sample CD for use by the masses.
Now, the London Sample Workshop aren't your average bunch of profit-hungry businessmen. Led by some-time MT contributor and master sample merchant Tom McLaughlin, the LSW put the interests of music and musicians above such trivia as fame and riches. Part of the reason for the Workshop's existence is to create a system through which musicians providing material for sampling receive a royalty on a similar basis to that operated by the record industry. But that's another story.
Coming back to the Poolside CD, we're looking at just over an hour's worth of drum and percussion sounds recorded in the swimming pool of the Janet Adegoke Leisure Centre (formerly the White City Swimming Pool, as the sleeve notes advise us) to obtain a rich and completely natural reverb. Five hours of material were recorded using Sennheiser, Shure and AKG mics, a Neve broadcast mixer and a Sony PCM2000 DAT recorder. From there the material was sorted and edited on Digidesign's Sound Tools system.
What we're presented with on CD is 20 tracks of stick, snare drum, kick drum, hi-hat, tom, temple block, clap, Rototom, Octoban, boobam, cow bell, bull whip and cymbal samples. Each sample is recorded not in true stereo, but as a 'mono pair' where each side of the stereo image is slightly differently mic'd to give greater flexibility of the recorded sound. Generally, the left-hand channel is a little drier than the right. While this arrangement can be used to give a stereo pair, it also gives you more choice in your sampling.
Predictably, the recorded sounds come as single strikes of single drums. Typically a drum will appear as five strikes ascending in velocity to give you a variety of sounds to choose between and also to provide the necessary material for building velocity maps. There are also rims, rimshots, damped strikes and so on. Some of the sounds are offered gated and with digital EQ applied. In addition to single strikes, the Poolside Drums are littered with fills and other, less scripted, audio events. Recorded by accident but deliberately left unedited are drum stool squeaks, dropped drum keys, and snatches of speech ("OK", "Can I just move this mic?") - all the material you could ask for if you wanted to create the impression of a session with a real drummer doing what real drummers do best (some of it, anyway). And it's here that the Poolside Samples kick off...
While the LSW team have put in a lot of time on the selection and editing of the material here, we're not looking at the tidy, readily-usable collection of samples found on most sample CDs. In fact, if you didn't realise quite what the LSW had set out to do, you could be forgiven for thinking that the disc is a mess - there's reverb everywhere, there are false starts, squeaks, distorted strikes... But there are meant to be. What the LSW have refused to become is arbiters of what constitutes musically valuable material and what doesn't. That's up to us. So where I might discard the squeak of a drum stool or an odd paradiddle (of which drummers are so fond), you may find a use for them. It's a clever approach to sampling - but not one which will find favour with everybody.
Another area where Poolside Drums differs from every other sampling CD I've come across is in the amount of work it requires you to put in. This isn't a convenient way of making music, it demands some heavy decision-making on your part, followed by a considerable investment of time and concentration. Choosing the actual combination of sounds which will make up your "drum kit" isn't significantly different from doing the same job on many current synths, but the type of decisions you're having to make about the sounds themselves is closer to working with a real kit than a box full of electronics.
One of the main features of the Poolside Drums is the natural ambience of the swimming pool. While there's no doubt that this makes the sounds very impressive, it has to be treated with care. If, for example, you want the biggest-sounding drum kit since Phil Collins discovered gated reverb, you'll get it off this CD. But be careful how much sample memory all that reverb is eating up. Similarly, you can build up some wonderfully realistic dynamics using velocity crossfades, but you'll need the Kbytes to do it.
Fading the reverb away with your sampler's filter is the easiest compromise to make, but I got a lot of mileage from gated sounds too. However you approach the reverb, a useful trick is to add a touch of artificial reverb to smooth the edges in the mix. It sounds ridiculous after the trouble the LSW went to to get you the real thing, but it works.
If you want big drums, you'll look a long way before you better these samples. If you want to convince the world that you're not using samples, you'll do it with this CD. If you want to be sure that nobody else's sampled drums sound like yours, try Poolside... Just don't expect to get it on a plate.
Price £49 including recorded delivery in the UK, £54 worldwide.
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