Beat Box Ballistics
improve your programming with the experts
Jon Lewin goes in search of better drum machine programming, speaks to some real life percussionists, and draws himself a chart full of stick tricks.
I'm not a drummer. But I can programme drum machines. So, when I read comments from Roger Linn (recognise the name?) that he thought non-drummers made drum machines sound lifeless, repetitive and dull, I naturally disagreed. But what do drummers think about the matter — can they programme machines better than non-percussive persons? The first person I asked to deal with this bone of contention was Woody from Madness...
Woody: "Yes, it does make a difference."
Can you give evidence in support of your conclusion?
"On our new album, I've been working with Tom Morley, who used to be in Scritti Politti; we've been writing drum machine parts together, working for hours and hours going over tapes of rehearsals, demos and things, trying to work the drum parts up for putting them into the Linn II. Using the drum machine helps me look at my own drumming, as you have to take your own style to pieces, in order to programme in all the variations that you might put in around the actual beat."
Does your skill as a drummer make it easier for you to write on the drum machine, though?
"Well, it gets harder if you know more. But you get a much better rhythm track at the end of it all..."
So you believe it's easier for a non-drummer to use a drum machine?
"No — it's just that the more you want, the harder it gets."
Then why bother using a Linn drum at all? Why not just play the parts yourself?
"Having the drum machine there as a kind of click track makes editing much easier, as you know you've got the same tempo the whole way through. On this new LP, we did nearly every track with both Linn and live drums, so we could mix the different sounds and styles. On "Sweetest Girl", "Coldest Day", and the single "Yesterday's Men", I'm playing along to the click track. But on "I'll Compete", we played live — we put that down in two or three takes, and it speeds up. But it feels right."
Regular readers of One Two will know that you are something of a home recording expert — how do you approach writing rhythms for your own drum machine?
"I've got an RX11 at home. When I'm working on a song, I'll just put in something really simple — an 8 beat hi-hat, 4 beat bass drum perhaps — and use that as a guide."
How did you approach programming the Linn for Madness' new LP?
"The hardest thing was trying to copy the drummer from Madness! But once we'd got all the basic rhythms sorted out, the single most difficult part to emulate was the hi-hat. There are so many different opening and closing accents that you can combine, it's virtually impossible to get a machine to imitate that."
Evidently you feel that the drum machine is not a wholly efficient drummer substitute...
"I was speaking with the drummer from UB40 the other day, and he was saying that the next time they went into the studio, he wasn't even going to bother taking his kit with him — he was quite happy to do the whole thing on a machine. And he's a fine player. It can be very fulfilling using a drum machine, as you can find out things about your drumming. If I didn't accept that, I'd feel I was being very narrow-minded and negative. Just as long as it doesn't turn into a Frankenstein's monster...
Thank you, Woody. We now turn to a non-drummer, Dave Stewart of '...and Barbara Gaskin' fame. Do you think it's easier for a drummer to programme drum machines? You did, after all, buy one of the first-ever Simmons electronic drums...
"Yes, it is. When I started learning to use drum boxes properly, I had to learn a whole new lot of things about the mechanics of how hi-hat beats worked, etc. Mind you, keyboard players are usually more used to electrics than drummers who tend to think of themselves more as mechanics with a built-in resistance to the world of soldering irons."
Does the type of drum machine make a difference to the way you might programme a song?
"In pop music, what the drums do is a question of sound, rather than what they play. With a powerful sound, you need fewer drums; with a weaker sound, you need a fuller pattern. Sampling has changed the basic difficulties behind that as it's now so easy to substitute other sounds."
I was thinking more in terms of the way the machine worked — step time, real time — the different options available.
"When I'm writing, I prefer to start with a metronome, then I'll get a musical rhythm going between the keyboard and the hi-hat or tambourine. Keep it simple. Bass and snare drum come later, when I'm beginning to get some sort of structure."
How do you programme in fills?
"I don't. Fills always sound so much better played live. No matter how high a resolution the machine has, it can't imitate the way a drummer plays around the kit. There's something in the way he can push the rhythm, change the emphasis, that a machine can't imitate."
What do you mean by 'resolution'?
"That's the ability of the drumbox to subdivide the beat into fractions — it enables you to add slight timing changes within the bar — little 'human' errors. I think the Linn doesn't have high enough resolution; the Oberheim DMX does.
"Mind you, I think all drum machines are shit — they're just all copies of the Linn. I think they're very cumbersome ways of making rhythms — I tend to think of them as good programmable metronomes. I suppose I could recommend the new EMU SP12, though, as that enables you to sample your own sounds into it."
It seems that while the exigencies of modern recording demand the perfectly regular beat per minute ratio, recording artists still prefer the 'feel' of a human drummer. Or do they?
"I'm a great fan of drum machines," quoth Phil Collins in OTT 18. "I started to use drum machines for basic patterns, but now I find it's the insistency of a drum machine that I like. If I try to play it, I do too much, so I've ended up using the machine on some tracks on the LP."
This introduces a further element to the discussion: the possibility of using the machine's rhythmical perfection as a creative element in itself, which obviates the need to imitate real drummers. Here the rhythmically illiterate — such as myself — can compete with the competent player. In my own group, the drummerless Perfect Vision, we rarely attempt to write 'drummerly' rhythms, beyond the provision of a basic backbeat.
Some of our most satisfying drum patterns have been written through a deliberately haphazard use of our Yamaha RX11's writing modes of real and step time: the variable resolution of the machine gives a degree of accuracy, while hammering away on drum selectors at random ensures an interesting cross-section of sounds. Speed it up, slow it down: the end result is always surprising, and often useful.
The Sisters of Mercy and the Cocteau Twins are probably the best known of the drum-machine rock groups (as opposed to those who use sampled sounds to build up rhythm tracks, like Depeche Mode). Robin Guthrie of the Cocteaus uses a Drumulator fitted with Rock Kit chips:
"We start with a very basic guide — bass/snare/hi-hat — and once the arrangement becomes apparent, we go back and redo the drums, triggered from the guide. The easiest way these days seems to be to record your drums on anything, and then use sampled sounds." (OTT 16.)
Howard Jones admitted to being a fan of the Drumulator in OTT 9: "Some people say it's hard to programme but I find it really easy. I always do it in real time, bang away, and it remembers it — and there's the correction device to line you up."
One inference that can be drawn from the above is that only drummers and rhythmically meticulous musicians (D. Stewart) concern themselves with the niceties of the hemidemisemi-quaver, and its relation to the onbeat. This is misleading. If the human ear can perceive a 10mS delay, it can certainly hear a 1/64th note, which would last 12.8mS at a tempo of 120bpm.) While the averagely untutored ear would hear nothing amiss with a perfectly regular drum machine rhythm, it would definitely be able to detect an added sense of urgency from the pushes and deliberately misplaced beats that a drummer might employ to beef up a chorus or solo. Untutored drum machine programmers are capable of using these tricks, providing they have a 'feel' for the music they are producing and adequate equipment.
The most common method of using Linn drums and the like in the studio was described by Jon Moss of Culture Club last April:
"I've always put Linn on everything when we're recording. Then I overdub hi-hats and cymbals and toms... I've taken chips of my kit and put them into the Linn, so it's got my sounds anyway.
"The Linn is good for keeping tracks in perfect time to help editing, and it's great for doing 12 inches."
The use of sync-to-tape codes means that it is no longer necessary to finalise drum patterns before they are recorded. Stewart Copeland has been quoted as saying that he is much happier working with drum-boxes (on his own recordings). He uses an Oberheim DMX to lay down a basic rhythm plus a sync track while he is writing; when the process of creation nears completion, he returns to the DMX and, triggering it from the sync track, alters the drum part to fit the song. That example illustrates the different needs of a composer and the recording artist: writers are content with a simple metronomic pulse, uncomplicated enough to allow ideas to flow freely. The performer, on the other hand, wants a drum track that responds creatively and dynamically to the kinetic structure of his song.
Any idiot, equipped with any drum machine, can provide the former; the latter requires a certain level of capability from both machine and user. The consensus of opinion seems to be with Roger Linn, although One Two's favourite distinguished session drummer, Andy Duncan, seems to me to be nearer the truth:
"It doesn't matter whether you're a musician or not — the only thing that limits you is your imagination. In my capacity as a session musician, a lot of the best ideas I've come across (just going into the studio to play with someone who's written a pattern on a machine) have come from non-drummers. They tend not to be blinkered by the idea of co-ordination, the tradition of making the arms and legs do all these various things.
"Conversely, I've had a lot of painful experiences with talented musicians who have no knowledge of drumming. Just getting a Linn, pressing go, and whacking away at the buttons doesn't immediately guarantee results.
"It boils down to the quality of the individual — there is no rule of thumb."
Feature by Jon Lewin
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