The Hybrid Orchestral Percussionist

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It has never been easier to create a hybrid electro-acoustic kit, thanks to the wide variety of electronic percussion controllers available. The difficulty has to do with integrating electronic and acoustic instruments in a musically meaningful way, rather than simply having them coexist in the P.A. system.

Italian-American percussionist Andrea Centazzo (pronounced “on-DRAY-uh chen-TOTZ-oh”) has spent more than four decades exploring this issue, and the trajectory of his career neatly coincides with the evolution of electronic percussion – from the early days of analog synthesizers and home recording to MIDI and the latest sample-playback technology using laptop computers.

As an improviser, Centazzo helped usher in new approaches to percussion playing, such as laying gongs and cymbals on drumheads to change their timbre. His list of collaborators reads like a who’s who of influential instrumentalists, including Mothers Of Invention keyboardist Don Preston; saxophonists Steve Lacy, Lol Coxhill, and John Zorn; and guitarists Derek Bailey, Elliott Sharp, and Eugene Chadbourne. A prolific composer, Centazzo has written for film, television, opera, theater, and even Balinese gamelan orchestra. His recent commission is a symphonic score for Chicago’s Adler Planetarium production The Searcher. In nearly all his work, he masterfully blends acoustic and electronic sounds to get a bigger-than-life sound. “I’ve always been attracted to electronics and unusual sounds,” he explains.

As a result, Centazzo has become one of the éminence grise of contemporary percussion design. Through his work with UFiP Cymbals in the ’70s, as a top artist for Paiste, and from his endorsement deals with Remo, Vic Firth, and Premier, he has helped expand the traditional sound palette to meet the needs of composers and percussionists.

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Centazzo in 1986.

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1977 ad for Premier Drums.

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In this photo from 1975, you can see the Synare to his left.

La Vita DIY

Although Centazzo didn’t start his professional career until his early twenties, he quickly made up for lost time. After studies with Stu Martin, Peter Giger, and legendary Swiss percussionist Pierre Favre, Centazzo entered the Italian jazz scene and soon found himself in the high-profile quartet led by pianist Giorgio Gaslini. “That was a stroke of luck,” says Centazzo. “When I started playing with Gaslini, I became a very popular drummer overnight. My father wanted me to be an attorney, but when I became a professional musician, he wouldn’t talk to me for two years. He used to say ’The world is divided in two: the people that work, and musicians.’ It was only after he began to see me in the papers and on television that he realized that this was something that could work for me.

“It was the most popular jazz group in the country,” he adds. “At that moment, free jazz was really, really big in Italy, because it was connected with the politics of the student movement. The nation was coming from the student revolution in ’68, and this type of music was seen as revolutionary, so we had a lot of opportunities.”

Centazzo’s stint with Gaslini was relatively short, but it increased his visibility as well as his capital, allowing him to explore musical interests that stretched beyond the jazz idiom. “We were so successful that I had the opportunity to buy a Tascam 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, as well as a reverberation chamber. At the time, that kind of gear that was incredibly expensive in Europe. So I had my little studio. After I left the quartet, my first gig, in ’76, was with Steve Lacy, and because I had all the recording gear, I could launch the Ictus record label. That’s how everything started.”

By this time, he had parlayed his interests in sound exploration into a consulting gig with the Italian cymbal cooperative UFiP (Unione Fabricante Italiana Piatti, or The Union Of Italian Cymbal Makers), and had begun designing new instruments under the imprint Ictus 75. “I spent ’74 through ’75 working with them, doing prototypes using the leftovers from the cymbal work. At that time, they were casting the cymbals in the ground, like bells, and it was very easy for the metal to pick up impurities. When you played the cymbals, the metal was weak at that point where the impurity was and immediately cracked. So they had a lot of broken cymbals. I started to work with the broken cymbals, and that’s where the Icebell idea came from.

“Originally, the Icebell was just the bell of a broken cymbal that I cut and lathed in different ways until I got that kind of sound. UFiP also had a shell for very weird cymbals with a big bell and that became the first big model Icebell, which had that very low and deep tone.” Centazzo went on to invent the Tampang and Ogororo, as well as many instruments that never went beyond the prototype stage. (The majority of his prototypes and other rare pieces from his collection were recently donated to the Museum Of Percussion, in Pistoia, Italy, where UFiP is located.)

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Andrea Centazzo in Bali with his Roland pads.

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2005 configuration.

From Moog To Simmons

As a result of his association with UFiP, Centazzo began attending instrument trade shows such as NAMM and Musikmesse, where he met manufacturers and distributors from around the world – the perfect job for someone on the lookout for interesting, new sounds. “I became friends with an instrument distributor in Milan and gave him some of my LPs. I mentioned that I would like to find a synthesizer. So he gave the LPs to Bob Moog in person and said ’What do you think of this guy? He would love to have a Minimoog.’ Bob loved the music! So I became an endorser and got a Minimoog with a [Model 1130] drum controller. That’s when I started to use electronics in my work.”

The acquisition of a synthesizer immediately led to experiments onstage and in the studio. “I was looping Moog sounds with the tape recorder, lowering the pitch by playing them at half-speed, playing the tape backward, all those kinds of classic electronic techniques.” His growing synth collection inspired him to explore different genres. For example, his released a “German Cosmic Rock” (referred to as Krautrock, today) project under the pseudonym “Elektriktus” (combining the words “electric” and “Ictus”). “On that record I also used a cheap Italian keyboard instrument called the Davolisynt made by Davoli in Parma. That little two-oscillator synth could make very interesting sounds.”

At the same time, Centazzo incorporated live electronics into his improvised performances. “I used the Moog drum controller with my set, but it was more of an effect at that time. It had a sample and hold, so you got a sound based on how hard you hit it. You couldn’t really control the tuning accurately.”

With endorsement deals from Premier and Paiste, Centazzo’s kit had grown to an enormous size, incorporating numerous drums, cymbals, gongs, and other percussion. The added weight of the analog synth proved to be too much. “The first step was to take out the brain of the Minimoog and use it with the drum, leaving the keyboard at home. But that was still too big and too much trouble. Then I found a French instrument called the Syntoba by Rameau Electronique. This was more compact – the size of a bongo – with two or three controllers on the side, and I used that for a period because it was much easier to carry with the 200 lbs. of percussion gear I had. Although the Syntoba was more limited in sound, it was perfect for creating electronic sounds while improvising on percussion.”

Still, Centazzo wanted the kind of subtle control over his electronics that he had with his acoustic instruments. “Later, at a NAMM show in Atlanta, I discovered the Synare 1 by Star Instruments. It had four pads that you could program. This was a big step up from the Syntoba and the Minimoog, where, depending on how hard you hit the instruments, you were never sure what would come out. The only problem with the Synare 1 was the hiss. It had a high level of noise. It was really annoying. Sure, you could turn the treble down on the amp, but the result was a muddy sound. But from there I went directly to the Simmons.”

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A close-up of Centazzo's current electronics rig.

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The Electronic Mallet Era

While Simmons helped define the pop sound of the ’80s with its innovative hexagonal electronic drums, it was the company’s mallet instrument that caught Centazzo’s attention. “When Dave Simmons released the Silicon Mallet, I knew that was the next step for my work. It had its own brain with all-electronic sounds – nothing sampled. Up to that point, I was mostly using electronics onstage as a bed to play percussion over, but it wasn’t integrated. I didn’t have a way to play electronic sounds live from a keyboard and play percussion at the same time. Integration came with the Simmons Silicon Mallet, where I could play electronic sounds with the same mallets I was using on my acoustic instruments.”

The new technology solved one problem, but it brought issues of its own. “I had two of them, one of which was five octaves! It was made from a thick metal and was so heavy to move that I used it primarily as a studio instrument, and occasionally for live shows nearby. I also owned a three-octave model. Unfortunately, the sensitivity was not equal throughout the octaves. It was basically a flat surface with hard rubber where the keys were printed on rather than in relief. As a result, it gave you an impact sound that was often louder than the sound from the amplifier – like someone backstage was tapping on a table.

“Later, I bought a huge electronic drum set, the Simmons SDX, their first sampler with a built-in computer screen inside – the same model that Bill Bruford was using. The sounds were absolutely amazing. It was a beautiful instrument ... when it worked. Most of the time it crashed. I got so frustrated with it that I sold everything except the three-octave mallet instrument.”

Fortunately, a MIDI controller had been developed that would carry Centazzo’s setup into the present day. “Around the same time, an Italian distributor of Ludwig drums started to import the [Alternate Mode] MalletKat into Italy. It was smaller than the Silicon Mallet and had rubber keys that were much quieter. So I began using it to control E-mu Systems Proteus 1 and Proteus 2 sound modules.”

Reduction For The Road

In 1991, Centazzo moved to Los Angeles to pursue opportunities in film scoring. However, relocating to the Left Coast meant he had to modify his setup to accommodate the extra travel required for touring. “The next step has to do with the airlines: They started to charge more for baggage. When I decided to play solo percussion concerts, it was almost impossible to travel with my old Premier set that had 19 drums, plus all the gongs I had from Paiste. Together it weighed something like 300 lbs. I needed to find a solution that could allow me to travel and still do the music I like to do, with my own sounds.”

First, he approached his friend Remo Belli with an idea for a lightweight kit, and eventually selected 12 frame drums that stack into each other when traveling. Centazzo says the combined weight of the drums is equivalent to a single 12" tom-tom.

“The drum part was solved. But you cannot make gongs from plastic. The only way was to sample my entire collection of gongs and play them from the MalletKat. So I spent months recording them with different dynamics in order to create a sample library using my own instruments.”

Next, he had to find a sampler for the road that could store a massive library of sounds while being light enough for travel. He settled on an Apple Mac G3 laptop. “Before that I was using Notator software on an Atari computer, but at some point I stepped up to Logic to do my recording. Then I had an idea: I can use Logic as a sampler, live in concert, rather than just a sequencer, and I can play my samples using the MalletKat to control the EXS24 software sampler. Unfortunately those laptops weren’t powerful enough, and every time I had complex polyphony or when there were too many Velocity layers, the computer would freeze. I had to wait until the G4 came out, and then everything was under control. And that’s where I began organizing what I do today.”

In 1997, Centazzo added Roland PD-7 pads, and eventually an SPD-6, to his setup, using them to trigger additional drum samples from the same computer that the MalletKat was using. “From 1997 to 2003, I often played gigs using only the Roland electronic drums, especially for performances where I was doing more conducting than playing. The setup provided a simple and fast way to have drum sounds for the groups.”

Adding Real-Time Effects

Centazzo’s current setup utilizes the processing power of the newest laptops to trigger his elaborate samples while simultaneously processing his acoustic instruments. “This has only been possible since 2005 when I stepped up to the latest generation of laptop. I use a 15" Mac Air because it’s lightweight, and its processor is powerful enough to handle all the samples. I use an 11" Mac Air to run video, because most of my solo stuff includes video projection.”

To fully blend his acoustic and electronics sounds, he runs the entire kit through a P.A. system, utilizing six microphones around the kit: two above the MalletKat that point at an octave of Paiste Cup Gongs; two in front of his drums and cymbals; and two in the back to capture the large gongs. The mikes are fed into the preamps of a Tascam US800 8-channel audio interface, which is connected to the Mac via USB. The MalletKat’s MIDI output is also connected to the interface. He uses multiple instantiations of the EXS24 software sampler in Logic to play his samples, while using effects plug-ins – delay, reverb, exciter, EQ – to process the sound from his microphones in real time. “The computer is so fast that I have no noticeable latency, even when I play rhythmic patterns.”

Next, Centazzo sends a stereo mix of the samples and processed sounds from the interface to a 4-channel ART mixer, as well as the audio track from the video running on the smaller Mac Air computer. Sometimes he augments the kit with an Alesis AirSynth. He wears earbuds or headphones to monitor the mix while playing.

The overall configuration might sound complicated at first, but it’s fairly simple to setup, and extremely compact. “Everything – the computers, mikes, interface, mixer, and my lunch – go into a small roller bag that weighs about 12 lbs. Then I have a backpack that holds a lighter MalletKat Express, divided in two. That’s what I carry on the plane.”

To further minimize the cost of touring, the rest of the kit is cleverly packed to conform with airline regulations. “I have two additional bags that I check with the airline. One is a round bag containing the 12 drums, the cymbals, and one or two gongs. Then I have a bag that contains all of the custom stands, made from very thin metal tubes, to hold everything, and miscellaneous percussion.” Each of these bags weighs 50 lbs., the typical allowance on domestic flights before fees are added.

Considering how little he carries, it’s amazing to see Centazzo set up for a performance. It is as if he is a magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, as the nested drums, gongs, and cymbals are unpacked and put onto stands. The process, including sound check, can take three—four hours, but the performances are well worth the wait.

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The Logic Of Using Logic

Centazzo sets up his Logic sessions with multiple tracks, each with an EXS24 sampler on it loaded with a different set of instruments that is mapped to the MalletKat. “I load the tracks with sounds that match the composition I am playing. I also use sequences and loops. Every piece has a different keyboard setup and configuration, and sometimes there are two or three different setups in the same song. One piece might have huge gongs and electronics in the first part, then I switch to the second part where there are tuned gongs and a marimba.”

To change the sample instruments, he uses the keyboard’s up and down arrows to step from track to track. “Sometimes I have 20 or 30 instruments across the keyboard. I stick labels on the keys to remind me of what sound is mapped to them, but I can’t do it for the 30 different sounds that could be triggered from the same key in a composition. So it’s a lot to remember.”

Although his sample library sounds gorgeous on its own, he carefully blends them with acoustic instruments. “The secret is to play a real gong, which is amplified with a little bit of reverb, while triggering, at the same time from the MalletKat, the equivalent sound with the same tuning but in a lower-octave, or another sound that fits with the real one. To the listener, the composite sounds natural because it comes from the same speakers. That’s why I insist on using a P.A. when I perform, otherwise you can spot the trick easily. And visually, if you play a keyboard and the sound of a gong comes out, it looks weird. But if you play a real gong along with a sample of a 30" gong, it looks and sounds realistic.

“Recently, I have begun using the [Native Instruments] Kontakt sampler with my library. I found a few electronic sounds in Kontakt that I like, so I’m trying to add my percussion samples on top of the electronic timbres to make original sounds. That’s the way I work: I find a sample that I like and manipulate it. I don’t bother sampling a vibraphone or marimba: there are already plenty of libraries to choose from. So I’ll use the vibraphone library that comes with either sampler and leave it in one octave of the keyboard and add my own samples in the other octaves.”

Video plays an important role in his solo shows, which is why he brings a second laptop to run it. “I play QuickTime files on the smaller Mac Air, and there are reference signals in the soundtrack of the video so I can sync my playing to the film without watching the screen. It might be a bell or an electronic sound – something that tells me where the video is when I perform.”

Because the audio from the video goes into the mixer, the audience also hears these cues through the P.A. “But they don’t know that it’s a cue. They think that it’s a sound I’m producing from the MalletKat. The cues are carefully chosen so that they melt inside what I’m playing. That note or two are in the tissue of what I’m playing, but I know they are the cue for the next section of the video.”

It’s About The Sound

With a setup this compact and rich in sound, Centazzo still at least one thing on his wish list. “I would really like another octave on the MalletKat, because four octaves is fine, but five would be better,” he says. “I wouldn’t have to step between as many tracks in Logic as I do now.”

Yet, he says that technology merely serves the music, and the sound of his gear is of the utmost importance. “Since the beginning, the Paiste sound has really fascinated me. Now that they’ve resuscitated the Formula 602 line, I’m getting all those cymbals because it’s the sound that I like and it fits what I’m doing. “