The following article was published in the October 2016 issue of Percussive Notes. Authored by Matt Billingslea, it was written as a preview to his presentation at the PASIC 2016 event.
Half Man, Half Machine
Exploring Sound Design, Hybrid Kits and Samples
In today’s digital world, nearly every profession is influenced by technology. With an increase in home studios, changes in production styles, vast sample libraries, current trends in popular music, and high performance expectations, the modern-day professional drummer certainly qualifies for that distinction. We are often asked to step beyond the role of timekeeper and into the worlds of running tracks and recreating sounds. By ‘asked’, I mean ‘required’, IF you want to continue working. We can break these digital requirements down into two main categories:
1. Construction, Maintenance & Operation of Backing Tracks
Most current Pop, Rock, Country, Hip Hop, R&B, and Christian acts are using some sort of track rig to supplement the sound or to sync production elements. Sound supplementation is usually the starting point. For example, having a click track for the band and running loops, percussion and/or keyboard pads could help a small 3 or 4 piece band sound a little bigger. In addition, an artist could elect to carry a smaller band and put non-essential elements on track to save overhead. In an industry where touring dollars matter, the difference between carrying a 4 piece band on the road versus a 5 or 6 piece band is tens (often hundreds) of thousands of dollars per year. The buy-in for a basic tracks rig is around $5K-$10K. Of course you need someone to build, maintain and operate it. At the higher levels this is often a dedicated position. For the majority of acts, it tends to fall on the bandleader or the drummer.
2. Triggering Samples To Approximate Or Recreate Pre-Recorded Sounds
Once a group has a viable tracks rig, it can be easy to say ‘let’s just put that sound on track’. Triggering is a way to ‘take back’ some of the elements that might otherwise live on track. The process involves creating or finding your own samples or cutting samples directly from the album stems. For example, a drummer may elect to ‘play’ the loop that starts the song or the handclaps that carry the bridge, rather than sit there doing nothing. Or perhaps there are 6 keyboard tracks and no guitar tracks on a particular song. In that case, the guitar player could sample one of the keyboard sounds and play it on guitar. Triggering samples can bring a little more integrity to the live performance by allowing the musicians perform the music, as opposed to simply ‘playing over’ a pile of tracks. With this approach, it is also possible to sonically match a recorded performance – as in, make it sound just like the record. Sampling and triggering is a powerful tool when employed tactfully.
The rest of this article, as well as my presentation at PASIC 2016, will focus on the second of these two categories. Let me begin by saying there are many approaches to this world and many different ways to accomplish the end result. Triggering sounds live is not new and, in fact, many guys have been doing so for 20-30 years. So, where do we start with today’s technology?
A great entry point would be the Roland SPD-SX or a like module. For under $1000, you can have 2 trigger inputs (or 4 with some custom cables) and the ability to load your own sounds (via USB). In addition to the 2 inputs, you can also play the surface pads on the module, giving you an additional 9, potentially different, sound sources. As far as bang for the buck, this workhorse is hard to beat. The Roland SPD-SX is a solid, versatile piece of gear and has been proven by many of today’s most popular touring acts.
There are two main reasons to upgrade beyond the Roland module: sound quality and more inputs/outputs. Currently, the Roland SPD-SX requires samples to be 16 bit/44.1 kHz. 16 bit audio will get the job done, however, if you are cutting samples from a session recorded and mixed at a higher resolution, you will have to downgrade your samples. I was skeptical whether the difference would be noticeable in a big room through a PA, but I can assure you, it is significant. The other reason to upgrade would be for more input/output control and to give full stereo samples their due. Again, the SPD-SX offers 2-4 inputs and 2 stereo outputs. If you are only using 2 inputs (ie kick and snare), you can route each to a stereo output and have full stereo functionality. However, if you are using 4 inputs, (ie kick, snare, percussion and FX), and need them to output individual tracks, then each sound will become mono (ie kick output 1-Left, snare output 1-Right, percussion output 2-Left, FX output 2-Right). Again, this will cover a lot of bases, but at a cost. So, for more inputs and outputs, increased mix options and full sound quality, we have to explore other options.
Before diving in, it is important to consider your end goal. Do you need to recreate the feel and sound of an acoustic kit with pads only? Or do you need to supplement your acoustic kit with electronic sounds to provide the flavor of (and/or fully recreate) an album track? I’m talking about the difference between playing an electronic kit that mimics the ‘feel’ of an acoustic kit versus triggering ‘one shots’ consistently and accurately. The answer to this question is very subjective. It depends on your setup, the music, and the preferences/demands of the artist/gig. If you are supplementing an acoustic kit, looking for consistency, and using sounds from an album, you (and your audio team) will likely be happier with the ‘one shot’ approach.
To accomplish this goal, one approach would be to use a performance-based software like MainStage to run a plugin called ApTrigga. Essentially, you can create songs in MainStage and for each song, apply instances (channels) of ApTrigga to correspond to sounds you need. For example, in one song, you may have one kick sample, two snare samples, a hihat sample and an FX sample. You could create a channel for each sound, assign them to pads or triggers on your kit and be good to go. Further, you may have a song that has one set of sounds in the intro, different sounds in the verse, another set of sounds for the chorus, and a few more sounds for the bridge. There are a few different ways to program this scenario, but the basic principles stay the same. Also, these different song sections can be assigned program change numbers, allowing a midi track from your tracks rig to ‘fire’ the different song sections and load the intended sounds automatically. In other words, when someone hits ‘go’ on the tracks rig, the song starts with a click and count off. At the beginning of the song, a midi track sends a message to MainStage, to load a certain song and thus an array of sounds. The intro starts and the drummer is playing his triggered drums or pads accordingly. Just before the verse starts, the midi track sends another message to load a different set of sounds. This provides a lot of power and flexibility within the hybrid kit. For example, if you have three pads to your left, those three pads could have totally different sounds for every section of the song.
When setting up your kit, it’s important to position pads and triggers in places that make sense. It is also important to assign sounds to those pads in logical ways. For example, I’m a right-handed player so all the pads on my left are typically used for snare-type sounds, or at least sounds that happen on or resemble a backbeat. Pads on my right would tend to be things I might ‘ride’ on or accents for different sections of a song. An intuitive approach regarding where you place sounds will help greatly as songs get more complex.
This article represents the tip of the iceberg regarding sampling and triggering. It is a vast, fascinating world that can add a tremendous amount to your musical toolbox. I encourage you to begin exploring and experimenting as soon as possible.
Matt Billingslea currently plays drums for Taylor Swift. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and two kids.