In just under ten years we have seen the drum machine develop from its humble origins as a preset accompaniment device built into home organs through to the 'all-in-one recording studio' approach of today's fully programmable, ultra-flexible sampling drum machines, an example of which - the new E-mu Systems SP1200 - is reviewed on page 22. But are these wondrous machines really as flexible as we like to think or are they, by accidental design, a constraining influence on the music we produce with them?
If you stop to think about it, most drum machines impose a defined structure on your music from the outset simply by making you think in terms of 'bars'. Virtually all drum machines require you to specify the length of your initial drum pattern in bars and beats before you can begin recording (unless you make do with the machine's default setting, which is typically a one or two-bar pattern anyway). You may not have yet appreciated the fact that this 'accepted' procedure locks you immediately into certain fixed styles of music. In the search for versatility and the quest for new rhythmic horizons, I - like many others - am gradually eschewing the dedicated drum machine, precisely for this reason, in favour of a box which emits drum (and other) noises but which is manipulated not by the internal software but by flexible, external sequencing software that runs on a micro.
One of the major limitations, as I see it, with drum machines is that you can't just switch on, enter record, tap in your snare rhythm (say) and have it immediately loop from the point where you stop recording; then do the same for another drum but have it stop at a different point in the pattern and loop from there. You can already do this on any drum machine of course, but only once. The very act of doing so defines the length of your pattern. All other drum elements can then only occur within the fixed boundary of that pattern. Thus you can't have, for example, a 7/4 bar of snare beats playing against a straight 4/4 bar of bass drum and a 9/4 bar of congas, simultaneously. In other words, when using drum machines (and without incurring a lot of extra fuss) you are regrettably stuck with using the Western approach to rhythms.
This restrictive practice is exactly what Sound On Sound reader Kofi Busia writes about in his 'African Music' article (p66) in this issue. He wanted to programme additive rhythms for his music but no drum machine could do so, and so his solution to the problem was to use a sequencing package on a computer driving a Simmons drum voice module which generated the sounds. By coincidence, Kofi uses the same sequencing system as myself - Sequencer Plus from Voyetra Technologies (formerly Octave Plateau) - which I can heartily recommend to any IBM compatible computer user for its sheer flexibility and extreme ease-of-use. Such programs as Sequencer Plus allow you to record each drum on a separate software track, which can be set to any length you like. You can then toggle the looping feature on and loop each drum track independently, just by pressing 'L' on the computer's keyboard. What could be easier? You can also see what you are doing on-screen, which eases the brainache of trying to keep a mental track of how your pattern is building up. (More about Sequencer Plus next month.)
I doubt it will be too long before some enterprising drum machine manufacturer latches on to the benefits of such a cyclic programming system and speedily incorporates this valuable 'independent looping' feature into their own dedicated machines. The technology is certainly available now for it to happen, it just needs someone high up to recognise the 'gaping hole' in the drum machine market a device with this facility could fill. (Think of all the non-Western musicians you could sell it to!) Actually, I have a sneaking feeling that the forthcoming MIDI Performance System from Zyklus incorporates much of this concept to great effect, but in a slightly different manner. Mark my words, you are definitely gonna see and hear more of this feature in the near future and that'll be good news for all musicians. Enjoy the issue.
Editorial by Ian Gilby
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