Monday, May 28, 2012

Bleeps and Blurps: The Difficult World of Electronic Percussion

I don't have drums or a drummer. Thirty years ago this would have been a major problem. Today it is a minor problem, but the process of solving that problem creates, as a sort of byproduct, unlimited opportunities for creative thinking. But this freedom no doubt comes with a caution.

At the risk of stating the obvious, here is the golden rule of electronic beats: If you're going to use electronic beats, do not use them to imitate real drums. Instead, use them to create new and different sounds that do not resemble real drums

In other words, no pattern you come up with using drum software is going to sound as good as a real drum kit. You can't really get around this fact. Non-drummers, such as myself, might trick themselves into thinking they've done it, but they're wrong. When I first started recording, and even as recently as a couple years ago, I broke this rule often, and it was a major problem for my music. That's not to say that it rendered the music unlistenable, it was just far from what it could be. I thought to myself "I like a rock sound, so I should create a pattern that sounds like someone playing a drum kit." Bad idea. It sounds fake every time.

Fortunately, the golden rule of electronic beats cuts both ways. Just as electronic beats cannot effectively replace a drum kit, most of the cutting-edge electronic music of today cannot be replicated by someone playing a drum kit. The moral of the story: everyone stick to what you're good at.

Indeed, there are no limits to what electronic beats can do, but you need to emphasize the electronic aspect.  Radiohead is an interesting example because they demonstrate both sides of the coin. They have a drummer in their band, so the usual "I don't have drums or a drummer" excuse does not apply to them. When the band went electronic, it was because they had a reason to do so, not because they wanted to fake something.

When you spend hours programming beats, it's easy to get caught in the monotony of it instead of taking a step back and saying "why am I doing this?"  Any sound you could think to record or synthesize can be sampled into a piece of software and used in a creative way. That freedom is liberating, but also daunting. Anything can be a drum...

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