The rise of the drum machines
One day the machines will rebel and take the place of their masters. They will look like you, sound like, you, and feel like you. But they’ll be better than you. What the plotlines of Terminator, Battlestar Galactica and countless other sci-fi didn’t predict was they’d start by replacing the drummers.
Now please, let’s take this seriously – no jokes that they’re replicating the simplest lifeforms first . Drumming is harder than it looks. I‘ve tried patting my head and stroking my stomach at the same time and I can tell you it’s not that easy, especially when the other train passengers are looking at you funny.
Man or machine?
If you’re discovering the latest greatest underground metal phenomenon on Youtube, and they’re on a tight budget, there’s every chance that’s a machine bashing out the beat. Drum machines have come a long way since the tinny timbres that assaulted our ears in the 80’s, though. With great software products like Toontrack EZDrummer and Superior Drummer 2, and realistic electric kits by Yamaha and Roland, we’ve moved from something as lifelike as a blow-up doll to something more like a living, breathing cinema date. Nowadays the best way to tell if you’re listening to a drum machine is if the beat sounds too perfect or could only be played by an octopus.
We can rebuild you…
Even when the band does have a drummer in their ranks, for album recordings each original drum hit has usually been replaced or enhanced with a triggered digital sample. Of course this is all in the name of progress – a snare that begins life sounding like a monkey* banging on a biscuit tin can be transformed into the unwavering rhythmic crack of an assault rifle. *No offense to the Cadbury’s gorilla, that’s one polyrhythmic primate I don’t want to cross.
More power to your elbow?
All this sonic sleight of hand can also work against you though. Drum lines have become busier than ever before. Today’s metal drummers can beat their kits into submission with relentless double kicks, blast beats, and complicated fills. The trouble is all the other instruments have got busier and more demanding too, and all the instruments are fighting to plant their flag in the same patch of dirt. With the modern metal soundscape getting denser and denser, there’s a tendency for the drums to get painted into a smaller corner. Check out the huge drum sounds of any 70s hard rock, from Led Zep to Black Sabbath – they may not be the crispest, but they come across as massive, deep and powerful. You can feel the air move. Too often in modern metal that double bass is reduced to sounding like you’re drumming your fingers on a tabletop.
The paradox of perfection
Mixing a song is a tricky balancing act – it only takes one pair of exhausted eardrums for a mix to be unbalanced, and suddenly it’s hello guitars, goodbye beat. Let’s say the mix is a good one though – all that sampling and replacing can make an album sound very ‘cookie cutter’. By our nature, we humans (forgive my assumption if you’re not) don’t appreciate perfection. Have you ever tried putting a mirror down the middle of your passport photo? When the left side matches the other in absolute symmetry, your brain tells you it’s just not right. (Quite literally in this case.) Because we like variation. We like discrepancy. We like individuality. We screen out the dull. We screen out the repetitive. We’re screening out this paragraph, aren’t we?
So use the technology wisely. It can be an invaluable tool, but like cosmetic surgery, take it too far and you risk losing all that was arresting and original in the first place. If you’re programming your own beats, spend some time working some organic feeling into the track. And if your drummer is sloppier than as hell, it won’t hurt to tighten them up with a touch of technology… but don’t let it take over completely. I’m sure Sarah Connor and Colonel Adama would both agree.
How Kill or Cure use drum programming
In Kill or Cure we’re certainly not averse to using the technology. In fact, you can hear programmed drums all over the debut album. But we spent the time working in the dynamics and making sure the drum patterns were natural. Check out the clip of ‘Paradox’ below to hear them in action.
In my next blog I’ll be taking a closer look at the benefits of drum technology. In the meantime, you may want to check out an example of drum programming in action – this is …, a release off our new album ….
Writer: Dan Hepner