Let’s see if this sounds familiar: A little while ago, you bought an electronic drum kit, justifying the purchase by reviewing all the very cool things that you can do with an electronic kit that simply aren’t possible with an acoustic kit. You brought your shinny new kit home, set it up in the very best possible place, and started going through the preset kits: Acoustic, Hip-Hop, Rock, Power Kit, Reggae, Jazz, and maybe even a kit composed of Latin samples rather than snare, kick, toms, and cymbals. You play a few of your regular beats on each kit to get a quick impression of the sounds, and then settle on your favorite. Fast-forward a couple of months and there’s a nice layer of dust on the data entry buttons, knobs, wheels, and faders.
One of the things I enjoy the most about electronic drums is that they’re ideal triggers for kick-starting the imagination. Sometimes, hearing a great new snare sound, or a stunning frame drum sample, is all it takes to get the creative juices flowing. I play entirely different beats and patterns when all of my playing surfaces fire fresh sounds.
Hopefully, this article will help prod you to move out of your preset comfort zone into an unexplored realm of unique creative possibilities, greater personal expression, and enough stylistic variety to keep your boundaries expanding ever outward. First, let’s go over a couple of ground rules before we get started.
1) You can’t break anything by pressing buttons or moving knobs on the front panel. No matter what you do to accesses different functions or parameters available on the drum brain, you’re not going to do any harm to the hardware, so relax.
2) If you get too deep inside something and can’t find your way out, simply exit the edit mode without saving your changes. When in doubt, just turn off the machine, wait about 30 seconds, and turn it back on again.
3) If you really get screwed up, you can always call back the factory defaults. Every kit on the market has a way to restore all factory presets. This will make the drum brain act and respond just as it did when you first took it out of the box. Check your manual to find out how to do this.
4) If you’re thinking: “I don’t have time to mess around with this stuff,” or “I tried it once and it was just confusing and stupid,” consider this: If you devote just five minutes at the start of each practice session to learning more about your kit, not exactly a huge investment, I guarantee you’ll be a programming pro in just a few sessions.
Getting new sounds to sit under your drum and cymbal pads is one of the easiest edits you can make. While details will vary depending on the brand and model of your drum brain, you’ll need to enter a kit edit mode to make these changes.
If you’re using an Alesis DM5, simply press the “Voice” button. If the “Voice Chase” command is active, you’ll select the pad to edit simply by striking it. Then, select the voice group (i.e., kick, snare, tom, effect, percussion) and the individual sound (Rap Wave, Big Plate, Ghatam Low, or any of the hundreds of available samples). On the Roland TD-9 brain, simply hit the F1 button to change the instrument, strike the pad you want to edit, and start assigning your new sounds by turning the value knob.
If you haven’t really experimented with this in the past, a good starting point is to fiddle with the sound of a kit’s snare drum. The snare is one of the most important signature sounds of the kit, and making even a minor change could yield big dividends. If you’ve got two mounted toms, you might try changing one of them to a utility snare sound – something like a small piccolo drum.
If your kit has stereo pads that let you assign one voice to the head and another to the rim, you might try altering the rim sound to go beyond the standard, expected sound. By programming something like a timbale under the rim of your floor tom, playing rimshots will create a composite sound that’s totally unique. If you find that the timbale is overpowering the tom’s color, make an adjustment to the timbale’s volume.
Why should you consider assigning new sounds under your pads? On the gig, you may decide that playing a uniquely voiced kit for different songs is an effective way to give style, identity, and mood to the compositions. Unless you’re Phil Rudd, you wouldn’t dream of playing the same beat for every song. Why are you content with playing the same drums with the same sounds for each song? This is one of the main advantages of the electronic kit over the acoustic.
In today’s musical landscape, the sonic quality of a song is every bit as important as the lyrics and the formal structure. In many traditional musical styles, the kit developed and evolved to exhibit a particular tonal signature through years of experimentation and evaluation. A “jazz” kit, while offering a highly individual voice for great players to exploit, has a number of common properties: Ride cymbals are going to have a good deal of stick sound without too much build, in order for the highly syncopated and active rhythms to be clearly heard against the tones of the piano or the sound of a pick strumming a guitar; the bass drum is going to be tuned a little on the high side so that its color can exist on a separate plane from the string bass or bass guitar.
But what if you go against the grain and change this tradition to some degree? By increasing the upper frequencies of a rock-style ride cymbal and perhaps shortening the decay you should be able to find a sound that works in the jazz style yet is not the garden-variety jazz ride.
To tweak tones, you’ll need to access the edit functions of the actual sound, not the pads. Again, the exact method of reaching these parameters depends on the brand, so a quick glance at your manual may be needed if it’s not obvious from the front panel. Once you’ve reached the proper edit mode, you’ll be looking for the EQ parameters.
Depending on the flexibility of your kit, you may find nothing more than adjustments for treble and bass – similar to the adjustments available on a basic car radio. On more advanced kits, you’ll find controls for high, mid, and low frequencies that are totally adjustable in terms of frequency (which parts of the sonic range are affected by the controls), gain (the amount of boost or cut that is applied to the selected frequency range), and Q (the width of frequencies that are selected). Your kit may offer a number of pre-defined filters such as low-pass, high-pass, shelf, and so on that have their own settings and controls. You might even find controls that determine how the EQ and filter settings affect the sound over time.
When adjusting the tone of sound and you run into parameters that have odd names, it’s not always necessary to go back to school to earn a degree in electrical engineering. Simply take that parameter to its lowest value, and while you’re playing the sound, sweep the parameter to its highest value. Listen carefully and see if you can determine what factors are changing. Is the sound getting brighter/darker, closer/further away, crisper/muddier, or maybe more or less focused? Concentrate on the attack of the sound, the “meat” of the sound (steady state) after the attack, and the way the sound decays over time. By doing some critical listening, you should be able to determine how this parameter is altering the sound, and how strongly the various values affect the final outcome.
One of the easiest alterations you can make to a particular sound is the tuning. On many drum brains, you can adjust the tuning of an instrument over a pretty huge range. The entire MIDI range spans more than 10 octaves, with note numbers running from 00—127 (or 01—128 depending on your device). The lowest note on a piano happens to be MIDI note number 21, and the highest note number is 108. So, you can see that the audio range of your instruments could easily exceed the entire range of the piano.
In addition, many modules let you adjust the tuning to a narrower range than the semitones of a keyboard. If your drum brain lets you tune in “cents” or has a fine-tuning parameter, you can create pitches that are “in the cracks” of the standard pitch set. To be precise, a single cent is one one-hundredth of a semitone. So, if you raise the pitch by 50 cents, you’ve increased the pitch by a quartertone.
The vast majority of drum brains and drum modules fire recorded samples of drum sounds. So why would you want to mess with the pitch in the first place? Well, for one reason, the editors of the sound set may have decided that the sound of the drum recorded actually needed to be a little higher or lower. The exact recording may have been pitch-altered before being included in the kit’s sound set. On less-expensive kits, it’s common to use the exact same pitch-shifted sample for high and medium toms (as one example) in order to save memory. If you don’t like the decisions that the programmers made for you, you should have the authority – nay, the right – to change the pitches to those that you feel better suit your musical ear.
If you’re designing an entire kit of percussion sounds rather than drum sounds, tuning becomes a critical factor in the authenticity of the sound set. Congueros, bongoceros, timbaleros, and other Latin and South American musicians spend a good deal of time determining the perfect pitch balance between quinto, conga, tumba, or the hembra and macho bongos. To simply go with the factory defaults is often a cop out and could be a musical mistake.
Extreme tuning can also be a lot of fun. There’s nothing quite so funny as a bass drum tuned up a half-dozen octaves. Guess what? It’s not going to sound much like a bass drum anymore! Maybe you’ll use that sound as a substitute for a hi-hat or a secondary snare instead. By using very extreme tunings, you can often come up with entirely new sounds that can give a composition a unique personality. And with these new characters, create an entirely innovative groove.
Higher end kits have a number of bells and whistles that allow you to further shape your sounds. Effects such as reverb, echo, and delay can be used to place your sounds in a virtual reality such as a concert hall, church, cave, or dome stadium. Other effects, such as compressors, EQ, and chorus can be used to help your sounds stand out in a recorded or live mix. If you want to add more edge to your sounds, you might think about dropping in some distortion, wah, flanging, or ring modulation. Of course, not every brain is going to have the same set of sonic effects. Some let you add these colorations to individual voices, while others can only apply effects to entire kits without any individual instrument controls. However, no matter how basic or sophisticated these tools may be, the best way to learn how to take control of them is to twiddle with the knobs and do some serious listening.
A little experimentation goes a long way when adding effects, and you can be as subtle or as over-the-top as you wish. There are no rules concerning what sounds and effects might go well together or how they might be used at home, in the studio, or on the stage. If it sounds good to you, well, there you go.
Once you’re comfortable with assigning new sounds, adjusting the tone and tuning, and adding some effects, it’s time to push the envelope. Approaching your electronic kit like a sophisticated video game is not such a bad idea. It’s not called “playing” for nothing.
Sometimes it’s good to shake stuff up. What some fun? Try assigning your sounds to all of the wrong pads. Keep the kick, snare, toms, hats, ride, and crash, but put them where they don’t belong. Then try two different but related things: playing the same beats and fills physically that you would normally play (the sounds will all be different), and playing the same beats and fills sonically that you normally play (your actions that fire the sounds will all be different).
This little experiment will really turn your head around, and it won’t take long for you to come up with some hip patterns that are totally different that what you’re used to playing. Listen closely to your mistakes and you might just stumble upon some hidden creative genius.
Some of our favorite players are those that can play their kit melodically. If you want to expand your own abilities to play in melodic manner, there’s no better way than to assign melodic instruments to your pads. Several kits have the ability to assign non-percussion sounds to the pads. Piano sounds and bass sounds are great places to start because they have a similar attack and decay structure as drums. But, you may find some cool synth sounds, or even traditional orchestral instruments that work well for you. Simply assign the sounds to your pads and use the tuning adjustments to create a melodic pitch set. If you’re playing a five-piece kit, using a pentatonic scale (all the black keys) is a no brainer. Putting these sounds under your cymbals will give you a wider selection of pitches to play with. If you’ve got stereo pads, you might think about keeping the drum sounds on the heads and assigning your melodic pitches to the rims. This way, you can have the best of both worlds.
If your kit doesn’t include these types of sounds, you can use tom sounds in much the same manner. Instead of playing precise pitches, you can tune the toms to relative relationships that will still imply a more melodic approach to your playing.
If your kit allows stacking notes or playing alternates, your options for playing melodically increase exponentially. Stacking or layering notes allows a single stroke to fire a number of different sounds at the same time. Depending on how you might want to use this feature, the stack can be a number of drum/percussion sounds, or it might be a 3-, 4-, or even a 5-voice chord.
When programming a pad to perform alternates, each stroke will move forward through a series of steps that could be programmed to fire totally different sounds. Like the stacking features, you could choose to program drums or pitches. By programming some of your pads to fire chords and others to fire a series of alternating melodic notes, you can move your melodic drumming into an entirely new dimension.
So, take the challenge. Dust off those knobs and sliders, and dive right in. Remember that you can’t hurt anything, and you just might find some wonderful new applications and creative ideas that push your playing forward. And, after all, that’s what we’re all trying to do…become better players both technically and creatively.