We Can't Go On... (Part 5)
...Beating Like This
If conventional drum pads sound old hat, Matt Isaacson and Chris Meyer might have a few ideas for you as they check out the alternatives in our series on creative drum programming.
Our series on creative drum programming reaches its fifth instalment, as we begin a look at alternatives to conventional drum pads, and the possibilities they open up.
TIME TO CROSS over into strange, new territory - namely, things to beat that don't look like drums. Some of the specimens we'll be covering over the next couple of months will be electronic versions of acoustic instruments such as xylophones - things that allow those proficient on one class of percussion instruments to cross over into the Land of MIDI. Others will be unlike anything seen before - things you shake, twist, tap, and slap, and which do other unheard of things, too.
The original premise of this series was to interest non-drummers in creating more interesting percussion lines. We have been taking two approaches - educating both non-drummers and drummers in how to coerce more expressive sounds from MIDI'd instruments, and encouraging non-drummers to start thinking and acting like drummers. For the latter, we advocated swinging at things other than a keyboard - drum pads - to get more into the feel of being a percussionist.
But some of the more unusual instruments we'll be looking at have not been seen or used before by any species of musician. This raises some age-old debates. Is it valid to use "gimmicks" as compositional crutches? Or should we actively seek out and experiment with unusual playing techniques to get us out of our artistic ruts? And if we can't come to grips with a new, alien way of playing, is the fault in us, or in the instrument?
Difficult questions, and ones which we don't really have answers for - though they're certainly going to make the next couple of months tricky for us, as well as a lot of fun. All we can do is thrash away, give some in-battle reports, and sum it up in a clever epitaph - not on stone tablets from above, but in our opinions.
OUR FIRST STEP over the edge this month is a tentative one, with something that doesn't look all that far removed from a drum pad. As a matter of fact, Barcus-Berry suggest you mount this thing (in spec lingo referred to as a "BBE Model 2020") on an acoustic drum rim or "standard L-arm".
Manufacturers of drum accessories seem to have a greater sense of humour than any other niche of this industry, and Barcus-Berry are no exception. Their advertising mentions applications for the Krash Pad that include triggering light controllers ("now you can flash up to 1000 watts of light in sync with your beat") and firing "non-toxic smoke bombs from your drumset" - complete with the names of the American companies (Design Specialty and Tri Ess) that will help you do just that.
What we have here is a 5½" by 7½" sandwich of milky plexiglass, black foam, and an aluminium plate covered on top with a thin layer of black rubber. It has a ¼" jack coming out of one side (moulded into the plexiglass) and a mounting bracket on the bottom. It immediately looks roguish in its minimalism - which, of course, instantly appealed to a pair of renegades like us.
This is a trigger pad stripped down to its essence. It is small enough to put in virtually any nook or cranny of a setup, or to arrange a large number of them around you. As the ad that comes with it claims, the whole surface is hot (including the underside, we found to our amusement) and responds evenly, and it does indeed put out a very fast, high-level trigger. We tried feeding it into the Trigger In on a Sequential Studio 440 and a Simmons TMI. We were required to cut the hold-off time (how long a trigger translator waits for a dirty trigger pulse to settle down before looking for another one) on the 440 down to just 2 or 3 milliseconds not to miss beats - one of the fastest playing triggers we've found. The Simmons also married up just fine.
Rejection of accidental triggering (eg. from hitting another drum on the same stand very hard) was also good. The signal out of the Krash Pad was also the hottest of any pad we've tried - it'll drive anything, with a good deal of dynamic range.
Minus points? After searches through a couple of drummers' hardware collections and a safari to a local music shop, we came up with only a couple of weird unknown attachments that the bracket underneath the Krash Pad would fit. Some 2020s come with metal mounting screws and some with nylon; a drummer would only dare use the latter on the rim of a prized drum.
Although the Krash Pads look really cool at first glance, closer inspection gives the impression that they were slapped together by a garage operation. And even though they ore a little cheaper (15-25% less) in the US than the average drum pad, the price versus quality difference is not enough to consider them a replacement for normal pads in a kit.
Nonetheless, they are a good first step into getting something to swing at or to augment an existing kit. They'll certainly reside in our setups until BBE try to wrest them back from us.
ALONG WITH HAVING a greater sense of humour, manufacturers aiming for the percussion market also seem to assume that drummers have egos larger than those of your average musician. Certainly, they reason, drummers have the short end of the rock-star stick being trapped behind all that hardware and wood. Don't they deserve some attention, too?
Barcus-Berry's approach, as mentioned above, is to allow drummers to fire lights and smoke bombs to grab attention. Dynacord's is to let them step out front with the rest of the band - with the guitar-shaped Rhythm Stick.
As Nigel Lord discussed in our review of the Rhythm Stick (E&MM September '86), it consists of a lightweight, black plastic, BC Rich guitar-shaped body and a floor unit with power and MIDI connections. The two are linked with a multicore cable slightly thicker - and a lot stiffer - than a standard guitar lead.
On the Stick itself are eight membrane switches for selecting which sound to trigger, two rubber pads just above where the neck pickup on a guitar would be (one on the front, one on the floor side of the neck), a few switches for editing and selecting presets, an LED display, and an overall sensitivity control.
Besides the obvious analogy of playing an electric bass slap-style, an angle on this instrument that intrigued us is that no electronic percussion device we've covered to date is designed to be played conga-style - namely, with bare hands as opposed to sticks or mallets. Bare-hand playing seems to be more intuitive for non-drummers, and definitely requires a different feel and technique from playing with sticks.
Several playing modes are available on the Rhythm Stick: one where a sound (ie. MIDI key) is selected and latched with the left hand and then triggered with the right hand; one where the sound's switch must be held to be triggered by the pads; variations on those two where the sound is also triggered when first selected by the left hand (called "drum" mode, but closer to hammering on with a guitar); and further variations where one sound (such as a hi-hat or bass drum - whatever is assigned to sound 5) is latched and always played while the others may be selected. All sounds held down - from one to four - are simultaneously triggered by hitting the rubber pads.
The Stick has an astounding 170 programs - though only 16 of these are user-programmable. The rest are a wide variety of presets designed at the factory to work with a variety of drum machines and brains in a variety of modes. These are all documented in the back of the manual. Of the 16 user programs, a MIDI key may be picked for each pad, and a MIDI channel and velocity scale for each program - no multi-channel splits, unfortunately.
The manual suffers from the translated-to-English-without-checking (in this case, from German) malaise that afflicts so many other manuals. It uses the plainest, simplest terms possible to explain things and contains many illustrations (laudable), but you quickly get the feeling that things are presented out of order. For example, the first few sections go from line voltage to Rhythm Stick "theory" to transcribing drum parts to MIDI to programming functions - true, one possible path, but the feeling is disjointed. Explanation of the different playback modes does not take them in 1, 2, 3 order, and programming functions are given the same name - "modes" - as the playing styles. Misspellings provide comic relief, such as referring to drum kits throughout the last several pages as "kids" - factory kids, user kids, programmable kids (shades of our analogy a few months back of hitting your kid brother to get a better feel for dynamics).
Perhaps we come down a bit heavily on manuals, but we all know how rarely we bother to learn a new instrument or synth before trying to use it, and an expensive recording studio is not the place in which to be confronted with a confusing manual.
The construction quality of the Rhythm Stick continually got in our way. The two strike pads are not isolated from each other - or from the body - very well at all.
A hit on a pad sends the whole body into a sympathetic vibration, which then, in turn, retriggers one of the pads if you are not holding onto it firmly with the other hand. Dynacord themselves even warn about possible acoustic feedback from a sound finding the resonant frequency of the body (being handed Santana-like sustain is intriguing for a moment, but ultimately frightening).
The membrane switches for the left hand also have an uncertain feel. We could feel a "click" when they were depressed lightly, but they needed to be pushed further to actually trigger a sound - very uncertain for touch playing. A lack of other tactile feedback - such as perhaps ridges between the eight switches - further heightened uncertainty. After all, who wants to stare at their left hand just to be able to get the right note? The switches also responded differently between themselves - either poor matching, or the unit we had was worn out.
Beyond all of this is that the instrument is just plain hard to play. We're much more used to hitting different strings, keys, or pads to get different sounds, as opposed to having to select them first with the left hand and then hit a common pair of pads with the right. It would have been much better if there were several isolated pads along the length of the body that could play different sounds.
The current playing methods sacrifice too much in favour of merely looking like you're playing a guitar instead of drums. Maybe practised pop-and-slap bass players will feel more at home on certain licks, but despite both of us being bassists (admittedly not of the pop-and-slap variety), we could not come to terms with it.
XYLOPHONES, MARIMBAS, AND vibes represent the crossover point between keyboard and percussive instruments - things you strike with mallets, but which are divided in semi- or quarter-tones and arranged in a black-and-white key format. Even though you won't see them very often on any musical stage, they are inevitable targets for MIDIing.
The KAT comes as a one-octave master unit with up to three one-octave expanders each in a battleship grey metal case. The keypads are thick black foam pads with excellent feel and very little playing noise. An LCD (without backlight - naughty, naughty) shows the programming options. There are jacks on the back for the expander units, three MIDI Outs (eases cabling a bit), a MIDI In (for a future merge function, we're told), and three footswitches.
All programming is done by selecting modes, screens, and options with pads on the master octave. Even though there are help screens, it is best to have the manual nearby (and open) while learning the KAT; we resorted to taping labels on the pads to remind us where we were. Fortunately, the slave octaves retain normal function during programming, so you can quickly check out your latest changes.
In general, things weren't too bad until we started getting into the complex functions. At a stroke, the KAT went from being simple to downright confusing. It's worth going through the manual with the instrument by your side for a couple of evenings to learn the beast.
Notes can be sustained in three ways - by a preset "hold" time, by a sustain footswitch, or by actually holding a pad down the way you would in normal keyboard operation. It doesn't take much force to do this, which lends itself to some interesting playing techniques, such as holding and phrasing a bass note while playing a melody over the top. The unit claims to put out only nine distinct velocity levels, which is a bit on the thin side - at least 16 would have been preferable. There are 16 selectable velocity scales, with a warning/promise that the others could/would change with user feedback. That's encouraging - the dynamic range felt just a bit lacking.
The instrument does indeed seem to be in a state of evolution - along with the manual came a multi-page addendum that listed several interesting new features (which still didn't quite reach the level of promises in the glossy brochure - further development, we guess). Still, since KAT are a small company actively seeking feedback with this as their main product (and their level of dedication seems pretty high), we feel much better about actually seeing the promised updates from them than we might from other organisations.
The existing features are truly impressive. There are 256 programmable presets which can be arranged into 32 "songs". Two of the three footswitches can be programmed to function as sustain pedals, stepping through programs, starting and stopping sequencers (though the KAT does not seem to actually clock them), and triggering an additional note over MIDI (such as a bass drum or hi-hat). One of the new features, described as "hi-hat mode", allows you to send one note when the footpedal is depressed and another when it's released - not exactly like a hi-hat, but interesting nonetheless.
The KATs playing surface may be split at an octave point, and each side can have a different MIDI channel, sustain time, program it sends out over MIDI, transposition, and so forth. There is also an auxiliary program change that is sent over channel 16 whenever a new song is selected, allowing changing of an external effects program or the like.
Beyond that, three programmable "assignments" may be created, where each pad can have its own MIDI key number and channel. On top of this is a double mode where a pad can be sent over two MIDI channels at once. With the velocity scale on one of the layers inverted, velocity crossfading becomes possible.
Complaints? A couple of things would have made programming far easier - such as a backlight on the LCD, an overlay showing which pad does what in edit mode, and a real "underline" style cursor. Currently, the parameter being edited blinks slowly, which can cause momentary confusion as to just what you are editing when you change screens or fields.
But in general, the instrument was a joy - it kept us at it late into the night, if you'll forgive the expression. Every now and then we consider actually buying one of the toys we get to test in this series; the KAT is one such instrument.
SIMMONS ESSENTIALLY REINVENTED electronic drumming several years ago (after the stillbirths of the Synare, Syndrum, et al). Now that the market is saturated with electronic drums (and the sound has become almost passe in favour of monster reverbed samples), they are going to have to forge out new territory to survive.
This is exactly what they're doing. After programmable mixers and FM voice units, we now have the SDX (a comprehensive sampling/playing/performing workstation) and their shot at a keyboard/percussive instrument - the Silicon Mallet.
Simmons have always had a good sense of style. The Mallet continues this - it looks cool. Its three-octave playing surface (with expanders available) is a black wedge with red ribbing around the strike zones. The voice and control panel mounts on the back of the playing surface at a very accessible angle. And the stand - although a royal pain to put together (virtually all of the bolts require a drum key; the unit also happens to weigh just short of 100 pounds) - also looks great, is sturdy, and is very adjustable.
A bundle of cables connect the brain with two footpedals (one for pitch-bend; the other for vibrato and tremolo depth), a sustain footswitch, and a program advance/backtrack unit. The brain also has MIDI In/Out/Thru and stereo audio outs.
The Mallet plays its own six-voice, four-operator FM voicing. Variable parameters are reduced to dynamic sensitivity, brightness, harmonic, bite, and attack, decay, and hold times. Simmons must be complimented on making FM programming so accessible - we found it extremely easy to get a wide variety of usable vibe/marimba-type patches, and quickly, too. There are three rows of voicing controls - system, performance, and voice - with six real knobs underneath, making tweaking easy. Altering other parameters (such as split, MIDI channel, program chain, and so on) is not quite as easy, since these functions are relegated to just four other switches and a two-digit display. Still, life is not made unduly hard.
A couple of months back we were forced to take some major swipes at the lack of quality of Simmons' manuals. Much to our pleasure and surprise, the Mallet's manual is one of the easiest to read and digest that we've run across so far - illustrations, good step-by-step instructions, and clear bite-sized sentences and paragraphs. Very high marks on this score.
The playing surface uses the new Force Sensing Resistor technology that Simmons have been making so much noise about lately. This gives a very low playing profile - no thick raised pads like the KAT. Unfortunately, the playing surface seems a throwback to Simmons' earlier pads - not exactly hard hats, but hard rubber with a lot of noise and not much bounce-back. True, we were using hard mallets, and the manual does suggest soft ones to cut down on "mechanical" noise, but the monitors had to be cranked up considerably to overcome it. There was also a problem with hard hits triggering adjacent keys - particularly if you missed a particular key's zone altogether.
In these days of MIDI and voice expansion units, the need for an onboard voice unit easily comes under question. The six-voice capacity of the Mallet is a little short for sustained passages, and retriggering the same key selects new voices instead of retriggering the old one - a boo-boo that results in stolen voices if you double trigger.
Still, it's nice to have everything you need in one place and within easy reach, and one gets the impression that Simmons intended to present a complete, self-contained, easy-to-use instrument to mallet players making their first foray into electronics. And anyway, there are MIDI In and Out jacks along with a workmanlike, if not particularly fancy, MIDI implementation.
Disadvantage? Only that the price ($2599) is a bit hard to swallow. Such is life.
OUR FIRST EXCURSIONS into non-pad Beating have turned up a cheap, useful kind-of-pad, an unsuccessful attempt to marry bass playing with drumming, and a couple of approaches to MIDI mallet playing. We can only see more exotic beasts ahead. We promise to send postcards.
Price BBE Model 2020 Krash Pad. £69.95 including VAT
Price Dynacord Rhythm Stick. £400 including VAT
Price KAT MIDI Percussion Controller. £1100 for master, £200 per slave, including VAT
Price Simmons Silicon Mallet. £2200 including VAT
Stop Press: If you'd like to see how the KAT controller performs in a live situation, check out London Brass (featuring Man Jumping's percussionist Simon Limbrick) who are due to perform a piece, titled 'Hoquetues David', as part of the South Bank Festival Summer Scope. The piece, described by Simon as "an arrangement of very early classical music", makes use of two KAT percussion controllers as well as acoustic brass instruments. The performance is scheduled to take place at 7pm, Saturday, 29 August, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
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