• What I've Learned: Drum programming.
When I bought my first home multritracker back in the 70s — a Fostex four track that used cassettes — I thought I was off to the races. I had everything I needed, right? Wrong. In order to create the sound of a full band without actually having a full band, I needed bass and drums, too. The bass was easy. I played guitar, I could play bass (you know, well enough). Drums, however, were a different story. Drum machines at the time sounded like rhythmic electrical problems, and there was no way my craving for a real rock beat could be met with one one of these primitive beasts.
And lo, the Drumulator was released. It was the world's first sample based drum machine priced for the pecuniarily challenged.
I still remember when I first heard a Drumulator. It sounded so... real. Of course, it actually sounded terrible — no highs, cymbals died prematurely, the bass drum was more of thud than anything else — and programming anything but a basic beat was just asking for trouble, because it would sound so machine-like. But I was hooked. After all, how else could I give my home recordings the thump of real-sounding drums?
Then I got a Linn Drum (pictured at right in the '80s, I was a spoiled kid) and it, too, blew me away at first, only to wear on me over time with its too perfect feel, its short-lived cymbal crashes and toms that made you laugh harder than they made you rock.
Finally, I purchased an Alesis SR16, which was decent, but still, I mean, you KNEW it was a machine after mere seconds.
After buying the Alesis, I not only quit my quest for the perfect drum machine, I also quit music for years. No, it wasn't because of crummy drum machines, there were other reasons, too. When I finally got back into music after my accident, drum machine technology had progressed. A lot. The reason was simple: storage for holding massive samples had gotten really cheap, and processors had gotten really fast.
To dip my toe back into the new waters of artificial skins, I bought a Doggiebox, a teensy software program for $35 that smoked my Alesis. The Dogg served me very well for many a month, but then a friend mentioned Drumkit from Hell and in researching it, I came across all kinds of cool, new, amazing stuff.
I finally settled on Digidesign’s Strike, which, just like all of my other drum machine purchases blew me away. At first.
And then, good ol' me, always a little slow to see the obvious, realized that my decades-long quest of seeking the sound and feel of a real drummer from a machine was a fool's errand. It can't be done, at least not by me.
What CAN be done is to create a great sounding metronome, over which natural instruments can be layered with the end result being musical, possibly even natural, but not the same as what you can get with a real drummer.
What's more, you’re better off working WITH a drum machine's limitations not AGAINST them.
What I mean by this is KEEP IT SIMPLE. Don’t program complex beats and fills in an effort to create a realistic feel. The simpler you keep your programming, the better your drum tracks will sound.
That said, if your drum machine comes with loops played by real drummers — as Strike does — then by all means use them, if they fit your song. In fact, I’ve found some of Strike's loop’s and preprogrammed fills to be so good, they’ve actually inspired music. Here are two examples (both have been posted to this blog before, both have me singing, you have been warned).
But, every time I start to get seduced by Strike’s incredible sound quality and tweakability, and try to program my best approximation of a real drummer, the result kinda sucks. Then I strip everything away and, well, it’s better.
So, here’s what I’ve learned: if you’re going to use a drum machine in place of a real drummer, which I like to do in the demo stage, keep your beats simple and let your natural instruments create the groove a variety your machining can’t. Or, and this is something I have not done successfully yet, embrace the drum machine’s mechanistic side -- as Prince and the Eurythmics did -- and don’t try to make it sound real. Embrace the machine.
And when you get frustrated with your fake drummer, try to remember what a pain in the ass real drummers are!