Blazing The New Frontier Astride A Hybrid Stallion

plugged in

Outfitting your acoustic drum kit with electronic capabilities opens the door to a whole new realm of possibilities. The beauty of embracing the hybrid ethos is that you’re only as limited as your imagination – and how keen you are on delving deeper into the technical side of things. You’ll still have your trusty acoustic steed to fall back on, but now you’ll have the power to go where no acoustic kit has gone before. Play a bass line? Sure. Sound like the different kits you played on a record? Absolutely. Play against and layer loops? Done. Add weird sound effects or make your kit sound like a trip down the Zambezi? Game on.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. You’ll need to do your homework to ensure there’s no gaff, technical or otherwise, in the midst of your performance. While you might not have much more to think about with an acoustic kit than who’s starting the song, the tempo, and when the changes happen, with a hybrid setup you’re going to have to plan where and how your enhancements will appear during the set.

Going cyborg needn’t be elaborate, but it can also be as convoluted as you’re willing to get. It depends on what you’re going for, how much you want to spend, and how much gear you’re game to haul around and set up. Think about how flexible you want to be. Do you want the simplicity of a plug-and-play self-contained unit? Or do you envision ultimate control and future expansion? Let’s take a look at several approaches available to the drummer who is hell bent on exploring the hybrid frontier.Selecting
Your Steed

In order to get a broader perspective on current trends in melding an acoustic kit to the binary hive via the arcane but entrenched protocol of MIDI, I spoke with front-of-house engineer/drummer Ryan John, Los Angeles-based drummer Ryan Krieger, and electronic musicians Ata Ebtekar and Timo Preece about their varied experiences. From the range of staggering hybrid kit permutations, several basic configurations emerged: namely the addition of triggers and/or pads in conjunction with a hardware module, and incorporating an all-in-one pad controller, such as the Roland Octopad or SPD-S sample pad, the Yamaha DTX-Multi12, or the Synesthesia Mandala, to name a few, either as a self-contained hardware unit and/or used in conjunction with software.

For those who are tactile and prefer a simple hardware setup, a drum module with either triggers or electronic pads, or a combo of both, offers a relatively straightforward approach to expanding the sound palette. A percussion multipad as a standalone sidecar to a standard kit is also a relatively uncomplicated path. Roland’s SPD-S sample pad takes that approach even further with the added advantage of being able to sample your own stuff, either in real time or by loading pre-edited loops and samples into the box via a Compact Flash card. It is possible to also load your own samples onto the Yamaha DTX-Multi12 via a flash drive. Incorporating a couple of triggers or individual pads to the trigger inputs of a multipad treads a little deeper into cyborg territory.

The ultimate flexibility comes from introducing to the mix a computer loaded with sequencing/looping software and sound libraries and using a controller to interface with that software via MIDI commands. The controller can be a multipad, a drum module or trigger-to-MIDI interface with pads or triggers, a dedicated USB drum pad such as Synesthesia’s Mandala, or a straight-up USB MIDI controller such as the Alesis Control Pad or non-stick options from M-Audio or Akai for instance. A virtually endless array of options will be at your disposal with such a rig. Of course, you can combine any of the above options for the ultimate Frankenstein, but let’s not get totally carried away at this point.

Ryan Krieger’s Cyborg Kit

Roland SPD-S functions both as MIDI controller and percussion pad, sending MIDI messages to Ableton Live while also utilizing stock sounds and original samples in the SPD-S, either set off by one of the pads or the external drum triggers.

The two inputs to the audio interface include the SPD-S and a Shure SM57 for live sampling of his kit to be processed in Ableton. The effects plug-in parameters are conveniently controlled with his auxiliary USB MIDI controller, which also controls channel mutes and volume. These sources get mixed in with the patches being accessed in the software and sent to outputs 1 and 2 on the audio interface to feed the P.A. and his monitoring setup. (Low latency is essential to jive with the live performance.)

Krieger made templates of the SPD-S to map out pad assignments for particular tunes, which facilitates ease of creating and recalling patches for live work. Based on the limit of 128 MIDI notes, this setup allows for 20 separate patches.

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Example template:

The first three shoulder pads are assigned to three specific MIDI functions:
1. Click ON/OFF – strike to turn click track on or off. (Click is assigned to cue outs 3—4 in Ableton, which is sent to the headphone mix on audio interface.)
2. Stop Clips – Keeps the software and click track running, but turns off samples and/or loops in Ableton Live. (Useful in a master/slave MIDI clock setup if another person still wants to run their clips.)
3. Stop – Stops all sounds and clock from Ableton Live.
P1—P6 – these pads allow for six assignable free open MIDI messages to launch samples/loops in Ableton Live and/or to use the SPD-S onboard sounds.

Example of pad assignments:

Patch #64 – Song title “Noizy Stabber”
P1 — Ableton – drumbeat loop
– assigned MIDI note
P2 — Ableton – drumbeat loop with reverb – assigned MIDI note
P3 — SPD-S – CF card – airport sample
– MIDI note OFF
P4 — SPD-S – internal – drumbeat fill
– MIDI note OFF
P5 — SPD-S – internal – snare
– MIDI note OFF
P6 — currently not assigned

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Harnessing The Power

Engineer/drummer Ryan John’s basic approach and drummer Ryan Krieger’s somewhat involved rig illustrate two configurations at opposite ends of the cyborg kit spectrum. Each setup is effective at achieving its respective objectives.

John is working as FOH engineer on tour with the band Escape The Fate, who is promoting a recent release. The band’s aim for adding electronics to the drum set was to replicate the sound of their studio album live. John worked with the drum tech and the drummer to set up the acoustic kit with seven Ddrum triggers and an Alesis DM10 drum module. By connecting the DM10 to a laptop via USB, he was able to load up particular drum sounds from the album and then simply drag and drop the desired samples onto the appropriate triggers.

Most acoustic drum sets become a crazy confluence of concussive madness during an especially bombastic performance. To put a leash on possible issues of sympathetic vibrations stimulating false triggering, the drum tech put half of a Moongel on either side of each trigger. While this deadened the drum a bit, it helped control unwanted triggering. To balance the acoustic sound of the drums, the tech applied a tiny piece of Moongel on the head at each lug, which John says ended up sounding great. He blends the samples in with the miked drums to enhance the sound and emphasize the attack, but he finds in this situation that the snare sounds better leaning more heavily on the miked acoustic sound in the mix.

Going Tornado

With more elaborate goals in mind than simple sound replacement and sample blending, drummer Ryan Krieger wanted to be able to contribute some complex dimensions to the music of his funky electronica band, Blusirkut, by controlling sonic enhancements, sequences, loops, and effects directly from his hybrid rig.

To achieve these ends he set up a Roland SPD-S sampling pad as the hub of his system and added Ddrum triggers to his snare and kick drum, plugging them directly into the trigger inputs on the unit. He configured the SPD-S to maximize its functions both as a playable sound module and trigger port as well as a MIDI controller for Ableton Live. Dedicating a laptop to running the program, he uses a Firewire audio interface to bridge the communications between the SPD-S and the software as well as to send the overall mix out to the front-of-house sound system and for monitoring what’s going on through his setup.

Krieger sometimes uses the second audio input on the interface for a dynamic microphone for capturing his kit in real time so that he can run the sound through effects in Ableton, such as distortion, delay, reverb, and vocoder. To easily manipulate effects parameters in the software as he’s playing, he employs an auxiliary USB MIDI controller: an M-Audio Evolution UC33e. There are other controllers out there that could serve this purpose as well, in particular the Akai APC-40, which was designed specifically to work with Ableton Live.

Additional equipment includes an external hard drive (7200RPM 2.5" portable Firewire) that stores his samples. Using the external drive helps the samples load faster to the computer while freeing up the host hard drive to attend to actual system tasks (operating system, etc.). He also incorporates a MIDI interface in order to send MIDI time code to the keyboard player so that their setups are in sync with each other and their choreographed sonic arrangements can be improvised against without everything falling apart. A Boss FS-6 A-B pedal allows him to toggle through patches hands free, and a homemade kill switch gives him the freedom to cut off the triggers and bring them in as he needs on the fly rather than toggling through menus on the SPD-S (Fig 1). This is handy for, say, bringing in a TR808 kick drum sample during a chorus, dropping it out during a verse, and bringing it back in again when the tune shifts.

With such a varied setup, laying out the creative logistics takes some careful planning. Depending on the tune, one could choose to use the onboard samples on the SPD-S, sample one’s own sounds and loops on the multipad in real time, or load up original samples via Compact Flash card. One could also use the multipad as a controller to trigger sounds, loops, and sequences in Ableton Live by assigning MIDI commands to certain pads to send MIDI messages to the software. There is capability to enhance the acoustic sound of the snare drum, for instance, by firing off a sample via the external trigger on the snare to change up the sound between songs or even within different sections of a particular arrangement. Another level of control is that effects can be inserted in Ableton and worked in real time via the outboard USB controller or assignments to one or more of the SPD-S’ pads. As you can see, the possibilities are vast.

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Signal Flow And Avoiding Delay

Some aspects to be aware of when entering into more complex hybrid setups include issues with latency from overloading your CPU and slowing it down, which can happen from running too many inserts or devices, and the occasional compatibility issue between various devices from different manufacturers – for instance, the compatibility of assorted components with a particular module. There’s also a lot more to keep track of, so documentation is important, or at the very least a consistent file-management approach that makes sense to you. If you’re going to get as involved as Krieger’s hybrid, you’ll need to take the time to create everything and set it all up and map it out too – so you need to have a plan.

To help keep things running smoothly and efficiently, Krieger recommends running all the audio on Firewire rather than using a USB port. Firewire’s architecture tends to facilitate faster data-transfer speeds while USB’s master-slave system relies on the CPU to dictate various functions, which can slow things down a bit. MIDI, he says, is fine to run either via USB or via Firewire. He uses the USB ports on his computer to hook up his MIDI interface and his auxiliary M-Audio MIDI controller while he uses the Firewire port to chain his audio interface and his external hard drive (Fig 2).

Going Soft – The Ultimate Performance Tool

There are many software options out there for recording your tracks and samples, and there are a number of loop-based programs that you can use in live performance. One of the most intuitive and stable live-performance software programs available is Ableton Live, which can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. One of the cool things about the program is its flexibility: It allows you to improvise in real time within the structure of a tune.

It has its own sampler, effects processor plug-ins, and virtual instruments, but it can be used with other plug-ins, software samplers, and sound libraries. It’s easy to load in your own sounds and pre-created loops and sequences by simply dragging and dropping them into clips, or you can create them in the Arrangement View in the software just like with any other linear DAW program.

Once you have your plan together and have amassed the sounds, sequences, and loops you want to use, the basic workflow is comprised of putting together the desired “clips” for each tune – a clip will contain a particular audio file. This can be done in the Session View, which is basically a grid that consists of rows of clips that create scenes – one might call them “patches” (Fig. 3). Once the clips have been loaded in and the scenes established, then you must assign the pads and/or other hardware controller features to the desired control functions, such as turning on and off a loop or getting a particular sample to fire off.

Assigning MIDI commands to pads, triggers, or other hardware controls is simple with the MIDI LEARN function. MIDI notes are programmed in your controller, so you don’t have to memorize a bunch of stuff or refer to manuals and tables. In Ableton, all you have to do is go into MIDI-mapping mode in the software, select the parameter on the screen (i.e., a transport control, a clip, or a scene), hit a pad or touch a control on the hardware, and the hardware control value will be automatically assigned so that the next time you hit that pad or twiddle that knob or fader it will control that parameter in the software, be it starting a particular loop, selecting a scene, or controlling the effects return on an insert.

To help keep everything sorted out between the software and the hardware controller aspects, Krieger made up layout templates of the SPD-S control surface and transcribed the duties performed by each pad (See sidebar). He did a similar arrangement with his auxiliary MIDI controller, labeling each function as it related to control of various effect parameters. With so much going on, it is necessary to spend a bit of time getting completely familiar with one’s own design, and documentation and labeling can facilitate that.

Breaking It Down

After all of this “sky is the limit” stuff, it should be comforting to know that all you really need is a MIDI controller to operate the performance software without having to touch a mouse. I mean, eek, right? If you’re trying to save some cash, a super affordable option is the Alesis ControlPad, which doesn’t have onboard sounds, but it has eight separate pads in addition to a selection of trigger ports and can control software via its USB connectivity. An interesting alternative is Synesthesia’s Mandala, which comes with its own software, but can be used to control other programs. It is unusual because a single pad can have up to seven assignable concentric zones, so it’s almost like having multiple pads in one.

Percussion pads with internal sounds have the bonus of self-contained action while still having the capabilities to work as controllers via their MIDI-out jack or, if provided, USB connectivity to the host computer. If you already have a drum module with MIDI out and triggers or pads, adding a laptop and software is a logical step to expanding your options. There are also trigger-to-MIDI interfaces such as the Alesis Trigger I/O or Roland’s TMC-6. These units provide inputs for triggers and pads and output MIDI to allow access to control both hardware and software sound modules and loop-based software.

Remember that you will need an audio interface when using software so that you can get sounds in and out of your computer for playback during live performance. Using the outputs on the audio interface, you can send a mix to the front-of-house P.A. system and/or your own monitoring system, be it a keyboard amp or headphones.

In the end, the simplest approach is to get a self-contained unit with onboard sounds and plug and play. But if you’re looking for flexibility and expansion, a MIDI controller, a laptop, and some good looping and sequencing software will let you get as convoluted as you want to get. If you like to haul around gear and deal with lots of interconnecting cables, adding different hardware samplers and sound modules to the mix along with a MIDI interface can take you even further and give you that old-school feeling. It’s up to you to decide which setup best suits your needs and your vision. Have fun exploring the hybrid frontier astride your own bionic drum kit!