The Rhythm Section
Bill Collins' first of his regular looks at the special need of micro-based Rhymists
Welcome to the uptempo world of Electronic X Percussion with our very own beatmaster Bill Collins (no relation)
If percussion is your forte then the Rhythm Section is your start-line in Micro Music. No doubt you'll be taking a lively interest in all aspects of making music with your micro but you'll find the hardware and software news and reviews specific to your special interest in electronic percussion in this column.
If you have any experience to offer or comments to make then send them in straight away for the next issue. We'll be giving away MM T-shirts to the best of your published letters. If you've got an article in mind on electronic percussion then get in touch with our Editor Darrin at the address on the contents page. It might be something on playing technique or programming advice, or maybe just a few words about your set-up and how you use it.
Mr Angry letters or pleas for help are also welcome. We'll try and sort things out or come up with an answer for you from the experts.
Send any correspondence to the Rhythm Section, Micro Music, (Contact Details).
To get this rhythm section - so to speak - started in Micro Music, I'll discuss using widely available software to help you play percussion. There are also reviews of some software "drums" and a BBC Micro drum add-on.
I have to admit that it never occurred to me while on stage in the school gym that I would ever plug my kit into the mains supply. My main worry was whether the bass drum pedal would make it through the evening. The guitarists were the ones with all the cables and effects. So too the strange new breed of keyboard players - every band wanted one but there weren't many around at the time.
Even when a micro appeared in the very same room as the practise kit it didn't occur to me to hitch them up. By now I was annoying fellow train passengers by programming rhythms on a drum machine but somehow the vital couple of neurons still didn't make the connection between drums and microprocessors.
The breakthrough came when I wanted to learn about controlling devices from the user port of a BBC Micro. The only thing I could find to switch on and off was a drum pad. I could trigger the pad in a regular pattern while bashing away with my sticks at the same time.
Communication and control of the sort now afforded by MIDI was offered briefly and temptingly by the blazing meteor that was MSX. MSX burned out in the UK but MIDI stayed on to be incorporated first into keyboards and then a couple of years ago into electronic percussion.
Nowadays Casio, Cheetah, Yamaha and Roland, among others, sell drum pads with which you can trigger a range of MIDI instruments. These can contain appropriately percussive sounds with sequencing facilities built-in or can simply be general purpose MIDI input devices. Triggering strings or horn sounds from your pads is great fun. Some portable pads have MIDI intelligence built-in. Drum kit style pads usually need interfacing hardware as well. If you already have a conventional drum kit then you can use it to trigger MIDI instruments.
Simmons - well known as pioneers of electronic percussion - have a £899 box of tricks called appropriately Trixer. You implant the six accompanying "bugs" and then teach the Trixer your style of play ie subtle brush strokes or belting hell out of your skins with sticks hewn from Californian pine.
Trixer contains four drum setups with more available on memory cards. It's also a mixing desk so you can combine the original sound of your kit with the electronics.
Drummers have differed greatly in their attitude to the new technology. Drum computers are suspected by some of replacing the traditional human rhythm machine, others have seized enthusiastically upon drum machines for composition and upon sampled sounds to expand their repertoire. If you're just starting out with the drums or percussion then you'll probably already have realised that it is so much cheaper (below £100) to get a percussion pad with MIDI than to buy even a secondhand drumkit.
Electronic percussion pads such as those by Yamaha can be programmed like a drum machine but MIDI is the key to combining the pad with your computer. Your micro then becomes a "front end" and there's a range of software for Atari, Amiga and PC to help you experiment with rhythm, with sounds and with composition.
Some software is created specifically for percussion programming and we'll be looking at some of these programs in forthcoming issues. This "drumware" often has much in common with the drum machine. You can set the time signature and the number of beats per minute. You can program a sequence of beats either in step time or real time.
In step time you program at your leisure, placing bass drum and hi-hat cymbal to establish a beat, scrolling through the sequence adding snare and tomtom sounds. You then "play" your sequence, going back to edit it until you get the feel you are looking for.
Realtime programming involves setting up a beat, which could be just a metronome click or a combination of bass drum and cymbal and then playing on top of this beat by hitting keys on the keyboard, each programmed with its own sound. Drum machine software tends to provide traditional drum sounds such as bass, snare, tomtom, ride and hi-hat cymbals, perhaps some latin percussion and always some electronic drum sounds.
Don't feel that you need necessarily be restricted by software specifically aimed at the drummer. Sequencer software can be combined with sampled sounds to meet the percussionist's needs. There is no reason why you shouldn't use a general music program such as Deluxe Music Construction Set (Electronic Arts) or The Music System (for the BBC Micro by SYSTEM) to compose rhythmically. Drummers can and do learn to read music and are not restricted to drum machine "dots".
Because of the flexibility of most music programs it is possible to load percussion sounds (which may be samples) from a library and to place them onto the on-screen music stave in traditional fashion. Most of these programs will scroll sideways along the music and it is usually possible to choose which sounds you want to hear played.
By now you must be realising the possibilities.
1. Load the percussion sounds and make them active
2. Transcribe some sheet music into your program
3. Program a sequence of "click" sounds to keep the beat
4. Play back the music to get a feel for what it should sound like
5. Turn off all the sounds except for the "click"
6. Play back the music again but this time play the rest of the piece yourself, on your kit, on your pads or on your knees - it doesn't matter which
BBC owners amongst you can go down the MIDI route with Hybrid's Music 2000 or with EMR's range of MIDI programs. But if you've got a BBC Micro and you want to get a drum machine why not consider combining the two. Rice Electronics thought this was a good idea and the result is a unit which produces both drum and bass guitar. The sounds are completely independent of the BBC and are samples of two bass drums, three snares, toms, electro toms, clave, cowbell and hi-hats open and closed. These are held on chip inside the "black box" which plugs into the user port.
In this way you get the best of software control and drum machine standard sounds. The software is a program on floppy disk which boots up into a text-based menu structure. The programming display owes much to drum machines you may know and love, although "upside down" with bass drum at the top of the screen "stave" and hi-hat at the bottom. Patterns are programmed and saved in memory and can then be strung together into tracks (songs). Both patterns and tracks have to be saved at the end of a session or they will be lost. The availability of floppy disk storage means that large song libraries can be built up. Output can be to your hi-fi, a modest PA or a mixing desk. Great value in my opinion if you are a BBC owner.
Price £47.50 for the drum unit on its own, £85.00 with bass guitar. Full details from Rice Electronics, (Contact Details).
Feature by Bill Collins
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!