We Can't Go On... (Part 6)
...Beating Like This
...Beating Like This. If your drum machine is too robotic and your drum kit is too static, Matt Isaacson and Chris Meyer's tour of 'alternative' percussion controllers may be right up your street.
Our voyage into the land of percussion controllers gets curiouser and curiouser, as three of today's most imaginative instruments are surveyed in this, our sixth instalment.
WE CONTINUE OUR safari into the world of exotic and unusual percussion controllers with three instruments intended to be shaked, rattled and rolled - Palmtree's Airtriggers and Airdrums, and PKI's Gun Drums. All three are American in origin, and none of them yet has a UK distributor - but don't let that put you off.
Rather than being attempts at copying guitars, marimbas or percussion pads, these are controllers that are closer to percussion toys in concept. They are all hand-held, and the direction you shake them in along with other sundry settings (such as the last button depressed or program selected) determines what they do to the connected equipment. Without much further ado...
THESE LITTLE BEASTIES are the electronic equivalent of Airdrum sticks. They are metal tubes about 7½" long and 1½" in diameter that you swing at the air. At the end (or beginning, depending on how you hold them) of your swing, they send a trigger pulse to a ¼" jack on one end. This trigger is then processed by the trigger-to-MIDI converter of your choice (in the same way as the drum pads we discussed two months ago) and plays the sound of your choice. Airtriggers are covered with a thin, grippy coat of foam rubber, and have a good weight and feel. A slight ridge running the length of the tube serves to help you orientate them.
Own up. How many times have you acted out the drum parts to a tune (on the radio or in your head) by swinging around at imaginary objects and making little "boosh" sounds? At first, Airtriggers seem to be able to make this little fantasy a reality, but they require a bit more discipline. If you grab them as if they are bones or hammers to swing and throw about in the air (still holding on to them, of course), you'll be deluged with a seeming random hash of triggers. Cradled between thumb and fore-finger and shaken - either hit on the bottom with the middle and ring finger a la drum sticks or by the wrist or forearm so that they rebound against the palm of the hand - they respond much more nicely. With a little practice, it's possible to play them quickly and still maintain a good deal of control over dynamics.
Since they are merely being moved, as opposed to being used to hit a non-moving object, they are arguably easier to play than drums (for non-drummers, that is), since you can concentrate solely on timing instead of hitting a drum head. However, where it's possible to swing at many drum pads with one stick, only one trigger (and therefore, to all practical purposes, one sound) can be played by each hand with these tubes.
Inside, there is a nine-volt battery that disconnects itself when the cable is unplugged. A (very) flexible cable is provided with each trigger, and this is important - standard guitar leads are too heavy and inflexible, causing problems with backlash when trying to play the triggers quickly. You also have to be careful of any extraneous movements, which can accidentally be interpreted as a swing; it's embarrassing to get a massive snare or ride cymbal while merely stretching.
It's worth mentioning that we had a little trouble with reliable triggering with some trigger-to-MIDI converters. We looked at what was coming out of the tubes on an oscilloscope, and called Palmtree about the problem. They in turn gave us a list of converters they had already tested the Airtriggers with, and the next day sent us a new pair of tubes modified to work with the interfaces we mentioned. We simply cannot overemphasise how valuable that level of concern and service is.
Are they a replacement for pads and sticks? Well, they are a good deal smaller and lighter, and make no noise by themselves. Perhaps a pair of these and a kick pedal driving an inexpensive trigger-to-MIDI converter (for a rundown on a variety of converters, see the June '87 instalment of Beating Like This) would be useful to someone wanting to lay down a more physical drum track on a sequencer than a keyboard will allow, with minimum investment. Something must also be said for their visual appeal - giving the lead singer something to do while the drummer is soloing, for example (on second thoughts, better keep them away from the singer).
However, the Airtriggers really aren't a replacement for a kit of pads around you with a variety of sounds to swing at. To use a variation on a tired phrase, it's up to you to figure out exactly what you intend to accomplish before buying them.
"Since the Airtriggers are being moved as opposed to being used to hit a nonmoving object, they're easier to play than drums since you can concentrate on timing instead of hitting a drum head."
A STEP UP the evolutionary (and price) ladder from the Airtriggers are the Gun Drums. These consist of two palm-sized hand-held grips, festooned with buttons connected to a small black box with a belt clip. This in turn is connected to a small box with MIDI connections and a wall-mounted power pack. There are three additional jacks on the belt pack (which may also be placed on the floor - the cables provided are long enough); these are for footswitches to trigger kick drums or hi-hats. There are metal balls inside the grips that are shaken around: by shaking them forward, they trigger sounds over MIDI. And as would be expected, the harder the shake, the higher the velocity transmitted along with the notes.
There are six buttons where the fingertips sit on each grip, and two along each top. The inside buttons determine which sound that grip will trigger, with one button on the right-hand grip setting both grips to the same sound for simulating two stick rolls. You don't have to hold the button associated with the selected sound as the grip remembers it - but each grip can only trigger one sound at a time. This seems a shame in these days of big layered sounds, but then you can only hit one pad/head with one stick at a time.
One of the buttons along the top, if held, puts the grip in a mode where both forward and backward strokes generate trigger pulses. The other one is used to adjust the grips' velocity range (one hand raises it, the other lowers it).
Gun Drums offer eight preset mappings of grip buttons to MIDI notes which are selected by a set of three tiny DIP switches on the side of the belt pack. The buttons may not be reprogrammed by the user, but they do map to a good variety of drum machines, and you could always map the sounds on a sampler to match one of the Gun's mappings. The footswitches are of the standard variety and are not velocity-sensitive, but PKI promise a velocity sensitive kick pedal in the near future.
One problem with the Gun Drums - although it may have been solved by the time you read this - is that they do not send a MIDI note-off, just a note-on. The vast majority of drum machines will work happily with this, but samplers and synthesisers will leave notes hanging on indefinitely. It may also confuse some voice handlers and sequencers. But PKI have been alerted to the problem and promise to put in note-offs before shipping their invention to punters.
So how do Gun Drums play? Rather well, actually. They fit comfortably into the hand and are capable of handling some pretty rapid playing. It takes a very positive move to trigger them, which can be a touch fatiguing after a while (then again, so is real drumming), but this does avoid the "accidental trigger" problem.
Trying to use them like drum sticks can be frustrating, since they require a slightly different motion. But once you can picture what's going on inside - all you're doing is throwing a little ball against the front wall of the grip - they suddenly become easy to play. The non-drummer of the two of us adapted to them more quickly, but generally, they were a joy to use.
So, we have control of a full drum kit with just two small "pistols" and a pair of footswitches - small, portable, quiet, responsive, and not that expensive. The sound selector buttons are a little small and close together, but can be learned without undue hassle.
"Trying to use Gun Drums like drum sticks can be frustrating, since they require a different motion; but once you picture what's going on inside, they become easy to play."
Overall, Gun Drums present a very attractive approach to electronic percussion playing for non-drummers looking for something less like a black box and more like drums to program their rhythms.
ANOTHER STEP UP the price and evolutionary ladder is Palmtree's flagship product: Airdrums (previewed in MT, December '86). These consist of a pair of hand-held tubes similar to the Airtriggers, but slightly lighter and smaller in diameter. These are connected with flexible telephone-like cables to the brain unit, which consists of an attractive 15" X 11" X 2½" box with a 2X16 character backlit LCD, a pair of seven-segment LEDs to indicate program number, a generous array of touch switches to select programs and editing features, MIDI In/Thru/two Outs, and four ¼" jacks for footswitches.
Again, the tubes sense motion - but this time in six directions: left, right, up, down, rotate clockwise, and rotate anticlockwise. And yes, it is very difficult to learn to separate these control motions (you'd be surprised how inaccurate your hands can be), but thankfully, there is a programmable sensitivity adjustment for each axis of motion.
Twelve buttons and LEDs on top of the controller are used for selecting which axis is being edited, and to show which axis is being triggered or muted. How vigorously the tubes are moved in each direction determines the velocity, and it's worth remembering that the programmed note is sent at the end of the motion.
Airdrums have a more powerful MIDI implementation than almost any MIDI controller we have seen. There are 12 internal "busses", each of which can be assigned a MIDI channel, a program number to transmit over MIDI when a new preset is selected, and a number of trigger modes. These trigger modes include leaving a note on until a new note is to be sent (great for drone work), gating a note on for a specified length of time (up to four seconds), and leaving a note on until a new motion turns it off (without sending out a new note on that buss). Movements may be grouped on whatever combination of busses desired - as far as giving each its own buss.
The MIDI messages sent may be programmed per axis of motion, and each motion can transmit up to eight (!) notes. They are programmed by sending notes to the Airdrums over MIDI - and saying "capture!" from the front panel. This stores whatever notes were held at that moment. This is fine and dandy if you have a MIDI controller hanging around (any old keyboard will do) and don't mind repatching to program the Airdrums. But it would have been nice to be able to dial up the MIDI note number from the front panel. A minor quibble.
There are also live performance modes where the different motions cause three possible outcomes: playback of whatever group of notes is currently held at the MIDI In; playback of the last note played into the MIDI In; or transposition by notes at the MIDI In jack. All great (with some forethought) for interactive playing. (The latter is our sole gripe about using Yamaha PMC1's velocity note transpose feature - other players didn't know what key the drummer was about to switch to.)
"Airdrums are one of the friendliest, easiest to use pieces of equipment we've encountered, despite the depth of their features."
The four footswitches are for incrementing the preset number, muting a selected group of motions, a hold function, and selecting preset 0. Repeated selection of preset 0 causes alternate jumps between the last two presets selected - nice for quick program jumps. A button is provided on the front panel for each of the 30 presets, making more conventional program changing extremely fast and friendly.
There's also a whole host of other editing features such as naming presets, swapping and copying parameters and so forth, plus what should be a standard feature on any new instrument - a reset button. In general, the Airdrums are one of the friendliest and easiest to use pieces of equipment we've encountered, despite the depth of features. A very special tip of the hat to Palmtree, there.
Which is all well and good - but how do they perform in practice? To be honest, they are simply too finicky and precise for either of us to play percussion with. No doubt more practice would help, but there was a definite feeling of "why?" To beings like us, drumming still represents something a little more primal than preconceived.
Forget what we just said. This isn't a percussion controller; this is a whole new instrument. Once we gave up triggering drum samples and went over to driving a MIDI'd stack of keyboards (Oberheim Xpander and DPX1; Sequential Prophet 2002 and VS) we started really having fun (for "fun" read not writing but turning on the tape recorder, and taking turns jamming with the toy for a half-hour at a time).
Besides being a great drone controller and setup for all sorts of interactive performance possibilities, Airdrums start to cross over into the land of performance art and the avant-garde, with physical gestures being translated into notes. Anyone who might have glanced into our studio, attracted by the sounds billowing out of it, would have been both confused and amused to see us with arms outstretched, concentrating and performing our intricate gyrations.
Every now and then in the course of this series, we've run across instruments that make the transition from "interesting review item" to "object of intense desire". To date these have included the Roland Octapad, Yamaha PMC1, Simmons MTM, and the Kat mallet controller. Well, Palmtree's Airdrums have definitely joined this list. They are a mite pricey, but they're also unique and extremely well thought-out.
These past few months have been a journey into a very strange land. We have told many tales of strange, unseen or unheard of beasts. Next month we return to terra firma to investigate some more wildlife: "bugs". Not aphididae, but transducers and mics to be attached to conventional drums for triggering other MIDI devices. We'll also create a few animals of our own by placing them on non-drum items for triggering, and take a humorous look at the similar efforts of others. Brush the dust off your hat, and join us next month...
Prices Palmtree Airtriggers $99 each; PKI Gun Drums $699; Palmtree Airdrums $1595
More from Palmtree Instruments, (Contact Details)
More from PKI, (Contact Details)
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