"Are these electronic kits gonna take over altogether, d'you reckon?" asks Geoff Nicholls.
Has the electronic kit finally come of age, and will the acoustic drum hang up its spurs. Geoff Nicholls considers where drummers stand on synthesis in mid-86, and wonders what's holding them back.
ELECTRONIC DRUM KITS have been around throughout the 80's, and yet you were probably struck as I was by the fact that nigh on every drummer at the Wembley Live Aid show used a primarily acoustic kit. So are electronic kits just playthings, add-on effects, or simply in their infancy, not yet delivering quite what the drummer needs?
I love acoustic drums but I'm going to play Devil's advocate and argue that we're on the tip of a second wave of electronic percussion which this time isn't going to go away.
The signs this year are that electronic percussion is advancing away from acoustic drums in a similar way keyboard synths broke away from acoustic pianos a decade and a half ago. And a keyboard player today is regularly someone who plays just about anything but an acoustic piano. Keyboard players have long since ceased to concern themselves with portable piano substitutes (Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzers etc). They see synths as quite different instruments from the piano — albeit requiring keyboard know-how — providing them with a much broader role, undreamed of by the earlier rock pianist.
Electronic percussion now encompasses a vast range of programmable analogue "drum" sounds which can be played, triggered and sequenced in a multiplicity of ways. More than this, you can now tap your pads and produce notes, chords and runs on all manner of tuned percussion sounds, via synths and expanders. Led by Simmons, manufacturers have realised they can't compete with the acoustic kit on its own terms, so must broaden drummers' horizons to "free" us from "simply" keeping the beat.
But wait a minute. How far can the comparison between drums and keyboards be taken? As I've argued previously, drums occupy a pivotal position in pop. There are plenty of groups without piano (or keyboards for that matter), but none (virtually) without drums. And the fundamental beat, the bass on the down beat, the snare drum on the backbeat, has been quintessential since rock began. It has to be there, doesn't it?
Unless — who knows — there's a real revolution around the corner, the drummer will still have to provide this beat and with an electronic kit it still takes a major part of his effort and coordination. Yes a sequenced beat can be programmed while you play fancy bits over the top, but this has limited appeal. For every Depeche Mode there are a dozen successful bands with "conventional" drummers. And in recent months I've witnessed even devastatingly brilliant musicians, with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, swing like lead playing over sequencers.
But then musicians from the "swing" era took years to acclimatise to the seemingly rude beat of rock. Could it be those of us who've grown up with the variety and dynamics of an acoustic kit are in the same situation vis-a-vis the clean and often soulless sound of electronic drums, programmed or played.
What about the unique flavour of acoustic drums; the way that every drummer tunes to individual whim? It would be sad to see this subtle aspect of drumming disappear, though it would save drummers a lot of headaches (see last month) and engineers would probably cheer the roof off. It would be replaced by personal sounds based on programming skills rather than fluency with a Remo, a drum key and an individuality of stick work. Comparable with keyboard players again, and they don't all sound the same, do they?
So what else is holding drummers back? Well, if we're going to include some tuned sounds we've a lot of harmonic knowledge to catch up on which of course piano players already had. There are ample signs that this is starting to happen with drummers being much more active in writing and arranging. At least we can all argue this is a good development.
So we return to the big one which I've deliberately left to last. Electronic kits live haven't quite cut it yet, why else all those Wembley guys? Acoustic drums are the most dynamic and physical instrument in rock, and up to now you couldn't really play electronic kits like that. And it seems crazy to want to, if you don't have to. And yet they still don't somehow deliver like a real kit. Does this matter? Is it just a case of adjusting our expectations? Will the new kits with decent amps (this year manufacturers are getting serious about drum amps at last) deliver that little extra edge at present lacking?
I've been talking to Tony Beard ("Go West" and much else) and Ted McKenna (Michael Schenker, Gary Moore, etc) who are both into acoustic and electronic drums, and a couple of comments from them might set you thinking. Ted reckons the actual sweat and effort of a real drummer is essential to the spirit of rock; the audience and, importantly, the band need that visual encouragement to get down. Tony agrees, but points out it's inevitable that a new generation of drummers is emerging, brought up on electronic kits which are marketed as "easy" to play, and who will see winging drum heads and rattling snares as just so much aggro.
More from Tony and Ted later, but for now, what do you think the state of play is? Will electronics triumph, or is the acoustic kit so special to popular music it can hold out in a world of frantically advancing technology?
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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