Embracing Electro-Acoustic Cohesion in Your Drumming

The fusion of electronics and acoustic percussion has been a rising force in the drumming community for years now. Today, numerous DJs and hip-hop acts hire live drummers to accompany them onstage, often playing along to a backing track. Now, along with the star DJ, an active drummer is on stage with an acoustic instrument, which brings a whole new level of appeal for the audience.

Electronics are also an excellent resource to the percussionist's arsenal, and many prominent drummers use 808s, loops, samples and MalletKats to push their artistic vision to its furthest boundaries.

The Invention of the Electronic Drum

Roland TD-11KV V-Drums

Roland TD-11KV V-Drums

The drum was the first instrument ever to exist, and has evolved alongside other technological advancements. Arguably, the first electronic drum was created in the early 1970s by Graeme Edge, drummer of The Moody Blues, and was used in the song "Procession" from the 1971 album Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. Soon after, Simmons, Roland and Syndrum models expanded our palette in the mid-to-late ‘70s. Groups like Rush, Devo, New Order and even the Grateful Dead (I blame Micky) began experimenting with these sounds almost immediately.

Although the technology wasn't amazing, we got to hear rock and pop songs with a clap instead of a snare, or with an 808 kick and electro-tom fill. And it only got better from there. In the late ‘90s, Roland came out with their V-Drums and we were able to experience a "real drum feel," yet hear any sound imaginable. MIDI, SD cards and basic programming allowed the musician to add their own personality into their instrument in an untapped way. Once Roland released the SPD20, SPDS-X, and other companies like Yamaha and Alesis released their E-Drum pads, the game was forever changed.

Advantages of Using Electronic Drums

Adding electronics to your acoustic drum kit can lead to endless possibilities. The ability to trigger unique samples at any time can really add to the dynamic of the song or groove. When playing a live hip hop show, it's great to have access to the trap hi-hats, claps, deep kicks and even vocal samples native to the genre.

I've seen some amazing shows where the drummer essentially was a one-man band, using Ableton, loops and samples, electronic pads and a kit. Much of this can be done without a click-track too, making this as "live" as can be. Adding loops and subtle percussive samples to your overall approach can make the song a whole new beast -- just look at Radiohead. The possibilities are boundless with electronics behind the kit, and a world with unending percussive possibilities is alright with me.

Mehliana (Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana) - "Hungry Ghost" (Live)

Deantoni Parks TECHNOSELF - "Bombay"

Criticisms of Electronic Drums

As genres continue to meld and the means of creating evolves with it, there are always traditionalists who want to cling to the original art form. There's been a lot of backlash from drummers about producers and the use of drum machines even when they are both creating rhythms in their heads and expressing them through different mediums.

Some feel that drummers playing along with electronic drum loops may have it easier than those without. Many use click-tracks live, and trust me, it's not that easy to play along to a click with a bad front-of-house mix and a big crowd. If you get offbeat once, the whole tune can be ravaged. Also, many drummers and musicians just find electronic drum sounds corny. I saw a drummer use a windchime patch on his Roland pad during a blues show, and the bandleader was visibly upset. It seems in some cases, embrace of technology doesn't trump poor artistic decision making.

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DJ Culture and Live Drummers

The way I see it, electronic music and solo DJ shows have been skyrocketing since the birth of the ‘90s underground scene. Now that electronic acts are getting headline festival slots, many fans have become bored with watching one musician on stage with a laptop or an APC/Launchpad. It's this environment where modern live drummer can make the biggest impact.

I have seen shows with a live drummer who added dynamics, energy and pure chops to the performance, and formed an absolute focal point of the set. I've also seen shows with a great drummer on the bill who can barely be heard over the DJ or producer’s drum track. Sometimes it works great, other times it seems like the DJ hired little more than a hype-man with sticks.

Snake Dance. Überjam: John Scofield, Adam Deitch, Andy Hess, Avi Bortnick

Kaytranada - "Bus Rid"e (feat. Karriem Riggins & River Tiber)

Creative Synergy

Wrapping up, there are numerous pros and cons to electronics in acoustic drumming, as well as electronic drums themselves, with the majority being one’s personal preference. While playing with a live DJ/producer for more than three years, I've embraced the technology, loaded up my Roland pad with all the samples I can find, tapped into the click track and had a blast.

Sometimes I get frustrated playing with a click and a pre-programmed beat, but with the right creative environment, those issues were solved. I'd sit down with our producer and help program the beats the way I heard them in my head. You need to embrace the creative synergy you can achieve from blending the new and old, both in terms of performance and technology. There are so many amazing artists blending the best of both worlds, and it is going to be great to see the tools and art form progress over time.

If you’d like to delve into this subject and compare opinions of traditional drummers, modern players, music producers and explore its potential as a tool, leave a comment below.

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