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Can a Machine Resonate?

How I learned to stop worrying so much and (almost) resolve a beef with drum pads

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The term "electronic drum" always seemed like an oxymoron to me. From the time I started learning about acoustic drums to my recent years writing about drummers and rock music, I've maintained a special prejudice against electronic drumming in general. I considered its use to be a form of cheating. I viewed the phenomenon of digital percussion in its various forms as a threat. I dismissed it all as synthesized cheesiness.

I preferred the natural, crisp resonation of an acoustic drum set. I respected the drumming greats who never touched electronic pads or newfangled sequencer machines. I loved the maintenance, cleaning, and tuning required to be an acoustic drummer. Electronic drums were simply faddish imitations with no tuning required, or so I thought.

Listening to some of the more tasteful recordings by musicians and producers who utilize digital drum sounds to a song's advantage softened my stance considerably over the years — but not completely.

Recently, I was curious about how musicians who've worked with electronic drums and digital percussion weighed in on the pros and cons of acoustic and electronic drums — pros who don't have a beef like mine.

As a percussionist, guitarist, and engineer/producer at Hello Telescope Studio, Josh Kaler regularly makes use of both analog and digital drums. "It's always a taste thing," he says. "I decide which way to go usually in the first 10 minutes of hearing a demo. I'm either air drumming something — or my brain is envisioning some programming behind it. Or maybe it won't have any drums ... maybe some quirky percussion. I just follow my gut."

My own gut used to twist and turn at the sound or sight of digital drums. From the synthesizer-based New Wave and teen pop music of the early MTV years through the tackiest elements of the early rap, hair metal, and industrial rock of the late '80s and early '90s and the radio pop of today, I personally had a serious beef with what I considered to be fake drums.

By the time I started learning my first drum rudiments and rock beats, early versions of plastic and rubber drum pads that triggered pre-programmed sounds were already new hits on the market. I scoffed at them. Even when Neil Peart of Rush (one of my favorite rock drummers in my youth) incorporated a set of Simmons electronic drum pads into his teetering set of acoustic drums, I stubbornly remained suspicious of their value or validity.

Local drummer Michael Davidson developed an open-minded attitude way before my attempts. He still rocks both ways. As an up-and-comer, Davidson was a dedicated traditional drum kit man, but he eventually recognized the value of electronic drums.

"From a monetary standpoint, good electronic drums are expensive — and much more complicated," he says. "Drumming is supposed to be primitive, right? Before I bought my first set of electronics, I always used to make fun of the guitarists for tweaking pedals, dealing with feedback, talking about issues with tone and volume, getting distinct sounds, having problems with cords, and all that."

In recent years, while keeping time with Bring Out Your Dead, Joy Ride, and other local bands, Davidson switched between a full Roland TD-20 electronic set of pads to a full set of acoustic drums and cymbals.

"There was a song I did with Bring Out Your Dead that was about the addictive qualities of love and sex," Davidson remembers. "One time, just for fun, I programmed a drum to make a sound of a car starting. I used this during one of the song's breaks. The rest of the band didn't expect this, and after we recovered from laughing, we decided it was appropriate, no matter how ridiculous, and decided to keep it in."

Nick Jenkins, a Charleston-based musical and visual artist, utilizes both acoustic and digital drums, too. He can handle a jazz or rock gig on a traditional kit with ease, but he's just as comfortable mixing programmed beats and samples on his own recordings, as demonstrated on his independently produced solo albums.

"I usually try and make sure there is a genuine source of inspiration that is fueling the song in the first place," Jenkins says. "Wherever that focus needs to go, I try to do my best in following through. That could mean that the drums and/or programming need to be more or less intense in a section, or that I should sing a chorus that ties the rest of the song together, or that I should just chop out an entire section of a composition."

Most musicians can easily remember certain tracks where the simulated drum sound either didn't work within the song or sounded too cheesy within the other instrumentation.

"Most smooth jazz recordings use a very stale and predictable drum tracking," says Jenkins. "It's very boring, actually."

Davidson also finds similar flaws in the drum sounds of modern pop, R&B, and hip-hop, but he points out that the overtly digital quality has become the norm in some situations. "Blatantly cheesy electronic drums in hip-hop songs are no longer cheesy since they, in part, help define the genre," he says.

"In some instances, I could make an argument that some electronic kits can sound indistinguishable from acoustic kits on recordings," Davidson adds. "The sound modules have become that robust in interpreting the electronic signals from the triggers. And the technology is only getting better."

Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to using electronic drum kits or samples in modern rock and popular music. There's really no right or wrong approach.

"A disadvantage can be the loss of a human element, therefore, making it a less honest representation of the song," says Kaler. "However, the song 'Too Much' by Sufjan Stevens is full of crazy programming, and it was a deliberate production move to make the lyrics even more intense. There's literally 'too much' programming going on, but it works so well I love it. The only disadvantage I see is that it does take quite a bit more time and skill to make them sound good. It's worth it though."

Maybe giving modern machinery — or at least finding an appropriate way to tastefully take advantage of it — is worth another try. But I still remember tinkering with my first real drum at age 12 — an inexpensive, eight-lug snare drum with a coated white batter head and a red-sparkle finish.

It was a cheap instrument, but it was functional and sturdy. I tested it out, tightening and loosening the top and bottom heads and adjusting the tension of the metal snare strands. I conjured different sounds out of that snare drum from hitting it in various ways, too.

"The times when I find electronic drums don't 'work' are when the drummer doesn't spend enough time tweaking the kit's settings for a particular situation," says Davidson. "Some snare sounds still make a machine-gun sound instead of the nuance you'd expect from an acoustic snare. Cymbals can be much the same way."

Jenkins agrees to a certain extent. "I think that we live in an age where everything is available to us and technology is limitless, in a sense," he says. "This makes us act accordingly. It's like a guitarist who has 40 foot pedals and can only use four at a time. A drummer only has four limbs. Unless you're in a situation where the music calls for triggers and samples, then I would just say be tasteful. There's a time and a place for everything. Everything all at once may not be a good idea in any case."

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