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Roll Reversal

We all like to daydream from time to time, so try this: envisage a world in which high technology had become the province of the drummer rather than the keyboard player. Tim Goodyer's imagination runs riot.

Let's play make-believe. Let's suppose the synthesiser had developed in a different way...

We're back in the early 70s. A number of American companies are investigating the potential of synthesis using analogue electronics. Amongst them is Dr Robert Moog - his company leads the way with a number of large modular systems which have attracted the attention of, amongst others, British group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Organist Keith Emerson is experimenting with a piano-style synthesiser; drummer Carl Palmer is experimenting with synthesisers controlled from his drum kit.

Although the keyboard allows Emerson to play pitched sounds in a conventional way, the system used by Palmer offers a range of dynamics unavailable on a keyboard. As a direct result, drum synthesis begins to take off.

An English guitarist foresees a great future for the all-electronic drum kit. His name is Dave Simmons. Simmons develops special hexagonal pads used purely for triggering his emerging SDS range of electronic drum "brains". The initial series of drum kits culminates in the SDS V, which quickly establishes itself as a world standard and virtually dominates the drum sounds of the world's pop charts. Simmons is recognised as The Father of Drum Synthesis; keyboard-based synthesisers, like guitar synthesisers, are declared a blind alley due to the difficulties in implementing control of the electronics and the general narrow-mindedness of their players. Bill Bruford takes his place at the top of the heap with his mastery of technology and innovative approach to its musical application.

From analogue electronics, synthesis - we're only talking drum synthesisers now - moves into the digital realm. Suddenly, it's possible to bring authenticity to drum synths. Those drummers still claiming that the electronic kit is no replacement for the old wood-'n'-skins kit are convinced. It becomes a rarity to see an acoustic-only drum kit.

Every leading hi-tech instrument manufacturer now bases its range of equipment on its electronic drum system. Simmons' expanding range reaches unsurpassed heights with the SDX digital drum system. The sampling and sequencing systems drummers have been dabbling with are brought together in this "complete" instrument. With it, drummers continue to break down the barriers which once confined them and their music. It's possible now to produce a whole song from behind a drum kit using pads to trigger pitched sounds and even vocal samples. The disquiet of other musicians becomes more audible. Drummers are accused of doing bass players, keyboard players, guitarists, orchestras and producers out of a job. Drummers are unimpressed, and compile endless "non-drummer jokes". How many keyboard players does it take to change a lightbulb? Eleven - one to change the bulb, ten to discuss how James Taylor would have done it...

The situation worsens as more percussion players latch onto the electronic revolution - Simmons' Silicon Mallet, for example, brings hi-tech to vibes players. The Musicians' Union consider banning the use of electronics from their membership but realise that the use of technology is so widespread that such a move would be totally impractical. Drummers, of course, are now in great demand for their programming skills. Somehow "conventional" playing skills have become optional - of course you can get a lot of mileage out of technology if you can get your chops together, but it's no longer essential. Anyone who can hit a few pads can sort out the mess in the sequencer. Quantisation becomes one of the drummer's buzzwords.

A "back to real music" movement is promoted by the record industry in an attempt to break new acts using old skills. The attempt is largely successful as neither the public nor the record companies realise how much technology - and how many drummers - are now involved in every aspect of music making.

Dance music booms, with drummers being totally in their element - the utter domination of rhythm, the hard electronic sounds, the visual excitement of seeing someone hitting all those pads... Drummers have reached a new stage in their evolution. The rest of the musical fraternity have missed the bus.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Apr 1992

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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