Drum Programming (Part 13)
A Series By Warren Cann.
You may have fantastic drum patterns booming in your head, but how do you achieve that sound in real life? This month we cogitate about kits, keyboards and controllers.
How do you get the rhythms you're hearing in your head, and have in your hands, into usable data? The drum machine has pads. Synths have keys. MIDI percussion controllers have pads. Electronic kits have pads. Even acoustic drum kits can be fitted with triggers. So, what's best?
'Best' is a relative term — your own background and preferences may dictate what you'll feel more comfortable with. Some people feel at home with the pads on their drum machine and that's that — other people find their synth's keys expressive enough for their needs. Put a pair of drumsticks into non-drummers' hands and you immediately find two sets of people; the ones who barge in happily with them, and the ones who freeze up and scoot back to their keys or finger-pads. If you already have a firm opinion regarding how you like to input rhythms, that's fine. If you find you're unable to achieve the results you'd like, then hopefully I can give you a few ideas.
The drum machine's main interface with its operator are the soft-touch, velocity-sensitive pads on the control panel. Entering beats and programming rhythms via these pads is a huge improvement over earlier drum machines (Roland's CR78, circa 1980, was the first commercial drum machine which let you program your own rhythm — you had four pattern memories, one hand-held, non-velocity-sensitive pad for input, and no quantising), but the shortcomings of such an arrangement become obvious the moment you start to get ambitious and attempt to program the sort of rolling, syncopated fills that a drummer can play with ease. You simply can't achieve the same degree of fluidity with two stabbing fingertips that you can with sticks and wrists.
Many drum machines address this problem via a Fill feature which lets you play notes repeatedly at the rate set by your selected quantise value (8th's, 16th's etc.). The Linn 9000's version of this also let you lean into the pads as the roll progressed — the differing velocities produced by the swell of finger pressure went a long way towards making the roll sounding more realistic. Most machines play each note in the roll at the level of the initial hit on the pad, so if you want to avoid it sounding like a machine-gun you need to edit the velocity of the notes in Step mode, which is very tedious. The hitch was that, to sound truly 'authentic', you had to really understand the dynamics of the fill, which was a stumbling block for most people. Getting it sounding okay was one thing, getting it to sound right was another matter.
Obviously, the size of the pads and their tactile feel has a lot to do with how you get on with the system. Drum machines with large, firm pads (Akai-Linn MPC60 Mk.I & II, for example) are easier to play and feel good. Machines which have tiny, tightly spaced, plastic pads which wobble around do not feel good. They're so close together you start tripping over your own fingers. Still, you learn to work around their shortcomings and can accomplish just about anything on them if you persevere.
While I can understand why manufacturers make their drum machines small and portable, I really wish they'd make something full-sized. Not everyone wants a drum machine to be the size of box of chocolates — a drum machine is an instrument in its own right, and a scaled-up size version would address a lot of deficiencies. How about 16 or more pads large enough to use sticks on, individual EQ (with knobs, like a mixing desk) for each pad, a large back-lit LCD display or a monitor socket, space enough at the rear for each pad to have its own 1/4" jack output, more memory (facilitating a decent selection of cymbals with long decays, for starters), digital I/O, onboard disk-drive, and lots of single-function buttons and faders (à la Roland JD800). That's probably enough whingeing for now.
Keyboard players who use their synths' internal drum sounds (or trigger drum machines/expander modules) know that their keyboard technique doesn't exactly equip them for playing nuances which are essential for the expressive, articulate delivery of sundry drum fills. Personally, I find inputting certain rhythms and/or fills via keys so awkward as to be nearly impossible. Perhaps I'm just more used to drum machine pads, though I've seen some great work accomplished from a keyboard. Keys are usually more responsive than pads and some drum machines respond to the full range of MIDI Volume values, but only via MIDI, not via their own pads.
One definite way you can make the keyboard more accommodating is to take advantage of the number of keys. Don't map it out so that one key equals one drum; spread it out, assign one drum to four or five keys. That way, you've got a much bigger target. It's easier to play with abandon when you don't have to worry so much about which key is which drum. Mishits, where the edge of your finger accidentally brushes the edge of an adjacent key, still happen, but this way you might inadvertently end up with some interesting flams. Try combining this approach with tuning variations. Let's say you've got three toms (high/mid/low), each at a default tuning of zero, spread out across across 15 keys starting at Middle C (MIDI note 60#). Tune the drums up and down slightly on each side of the centre of the 5-note cluster, as shown in Figure 1. You want to keep the impression that there are three distinct drums, so don't tune them so there's a smooth transition from highest to lowest — give each of the three drums its own tonal range. There should be a small but discernable interval between the lowest pitch of the high tom and the highest pitch of the mid tom. If your sound source can respond to pitch bend messages, then you can achieve some interesting tones on the drums if they're bent slightly via the keyboard's bend wheel/lever.
Having a single drum assigned to a 5-note cluster comes in handy in other ways — it gives you a chance to get a little more mileage out of the keyboard's velocity-sensitivity. Instead of trying to strike one key harder with each successive hit, you can just fan your fingers and thumb across that cluster in a rolling motion, leaning in as you go. This kind of 'trill' (little finger first) sounds great with snare drums or toms. Be more imaginative in mapping the drum voices across your keyboard — the results are well worth the effort.
So, pads or keys? If you're willing to compromise there are solutions to the problem. First, you have MIDI percussion controllers. It's a rather grand name for what is, essentially, a package of large (compared to a drum machine) velocity-sensitive pads which, when MIDI'd to your drum machine, you can hit with sticks. Probably the best known example is the Roland Octapad — it has no onboard sounds of its own, but its extensive MIDI facilities (MIDI mapping, program change, adjustable velocity-response curves, velocity-switching between stacked sounds) have made it a very popular controller. Roland's more recent offering, the SPD8, is a pad controller that adds sounds of its own. Its MIDI facilities are more modest than those of the Octapad, but it makes an effective controller for your drum machine (it also has a handy stereo line-in socket, you can plug the output of your Walkman or CD into it and practice playing along). Being able to-play those flashy drum fills with sticks is a whole different world; things that previously took you ages are now achieved quickly, and with far more spontaneity.
"Keyboard players who use their synths' internal drum sounds (or trigger drum machines/expander modules) know that their keyboard technique doesn't exactly equip them for playing nuances which are essential for the expressive, articulate delivery of sundry drum fills."
A further advantage of percussion controllers is that they (along with keyboard triggering) can access the full range of MIDI volume, whereas some drum machines merely group their internal volume dynamics into factors of eight; dynamic level 8 = MIDI vol. 127-112; dynamic level 7 = MIDI vol. 111-96; and so on. So, obviously, when the pads are on the touch-sensitivity setting (as opposed to a fixed dynamic level) you get the effect of them responding to velocity by being louder or softer, but not to the full extent possible. Often the same drum machine will react to the full range when it is being used as an expander, because the incoming MIDI information bypasses the restrictive portion of the unit.
The next step up from an Octapad-type controller is a full-sized electronic drum kit. The pads are almost the size of real drums and arranged around the player like a drum kit — you can run them straight into the percussion 'brain' that the kit came with to produce your drum sounds, or you can plug them into the back of a drum expander like Alesis' D4, which has trigger inputs on its rear panel. The major drawback to this set-up is conspicuously obvious: you have to be able to play drums to get the best out of it. Clearly, this may be too radical, so it's not for everyone. If you have ability in that area, however, then this is a great way to work. You can just thrash away and afterwards, at your leisure, edit out your mistakes and quantise yourself to your satisfaction.
Of course, you can always MIDI an acoustic drum kit. Trigger-to-MIDI units work by placing small pick-ups on the drums themselves — the pick-ups send their signals to the main control centre which processes and manipulates the information before it fires the sounds in a drum machine, expander module, or sampler.
The Yamaha DTS70 is a good example of such a system. An automatic Trigger Learn feature analyses the signal characteristics of each pick-up, which then sets optimum values for controlling how the incoming signals are treated. Another 'learn' feature provides a shortcut for assigning MIDI note numbers and channels to trigger inputs. You can choose different velocity curves, and each can have its level and velocity settings edited so the range of dynamics fits your playing style. You can store Performance set-ups and create chains so you can step through different 'kits' in any order you like. It can transmit more than one MIDI note at once which lets you stack sounds up to four deep, velocity-switch between them, and determine the order of the notes. Sophisticated trigger-to-MIDI units like this are very comprehensive tools which, aside from being the exclusive province of 'real' drummers, are the most direct means by which human rhythmic feel can be injected into sequenced music.
Beyond this, people sample actual playing, or get into really drastic stuff like selectively EQing and gating a piece of music in order to isolate its rhythmic components, then feeding these signals into a trigger-to-MIDI system. All in all, you'll probably get the best results from a MIDI percussion controller. They're approachable by non-drummers, relatively cheap, easy to use, and help enable you to progress from the tiny, 'intellectual' movements you've been making while programming to more immediate and expressive, physically involved playing.
Feature by Warren Cann
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