BY PHIL HOOD
Aerodrums is not the first alternative drum controller but it’s easily the most portable. At the 2014 NAMM show drummers lined up to play the Aerodrums—essentially a system for playing airdrum gestures that trigger top-quality drum sounds and can provide an experience that is surprisingly close to playing real drums.
To play Aerodrums you need a Windows or Mac computer, a Sony Playstation 3 eye camera, software that you download from the Aerodrums site, and a pair of Aerodrums sticks. The camera tracks your movements. Drummers quickly learn how to produce sounds even though there is no rebound as on a conventional kit.
The Aerodrums software runs on your computer and understands what you are trying to do by “watching” you through the camera. Aerodrums uses a subset of the Natural Drum Kit sample library, providing very high quality sound and expressiveness on par with a real drum kit, according to the company. For example, Aerodrums supports 16 different levels of openness for the hi-hats and uses as many as 58 different sound samples for a given openness level, per hand.
The brains behind the clever setup belong to Richard Lee (left in the photo) and Yann Morvan. Their background is in video games and computing; they met in the Visualization and Graphics Lab at Trinity College, Dublin, where they both earned Ph.D’s. Now, they are building tools for drummers, including Aerodrums, and Aered, a Wysiwyg music notation editor that was developed from the Aerodrums project.
DRUM! Tell me what was the first step or genesis of the Aerodrums idea?
Yann Morvan My colleague Richard and I used to be researchers in Trinity College Dublin’s computer graphics research lab. The lab had one of those multi-camera motion capture studios that are used in the video game and special effects industries. I was working with it on a project, tracking some gherkin pincers for a 3D modeling interface idea when Richard said “we should try tracking my sticks sometime, see if we can do air-drumming”.
DRUM! Were you a drummer before then?
Yann Morvan I’m still not a drummer, Richard is. He’s teaching me but I’ve been a bad student so far. He has been playing drums most of his life. It would not have been possible to make Aerodrums feel as realistic as it does without the involvement of a drummer. Having each drum and cymbal respond accurately to soft hits, hard hits and everything in between required a huge amount of experimentation.
DRUM! What other approaches did you try before settling on the Sony camera and software or did you start with that in mind?
Yann Morvan When we started we didn’t think a single camera, let alone one that cheap, could do the trick. The motion capture studio was using 12 high-spec cameras to capture accurate 3D positions. A single camera only gives you 2D and a bit of information about depth. Also, our initial approach was to represent the drums as 3D surfaces and look at when the sticks hit them. So we needed 3D tracking to be able to do that.
It turns out that this didn’t work at all: it’s very hard to learn the exact location of invisible drums when all the feedback you get is sound, so you can’t control your timing and dynamics. It is only later that we started looking at the striking gestures people do when air-drumming and realized we could get the computer to do a great job at determining when you are hitting a drum. I had been using the Playstation 3 camera on another project, and it struck us that it may be sufficient to capture the air-drumming gesture. That worked really well and that’s when Aerodrums in its current incarnation was born.
DRUM! Have you ever gigged with Aerodrums, as opposed to using them for practice?
Yann Morvan No, I wouldn’t want to be caught drumming in public:) Richard uses Aerodrums to jam with other musicians but doesn’t actively gig right now. We’re aware of customers who play Aerodrums live: one drums in a church band and the other is in a party entertainment duo in Cyprus. We’re hoping to see many more drummers gig with it.
DRUM! What’s the limitation for Aerodrums as a practice tool that can be used anywhere?
Yann Morvan The main limitation is light: you can’t drum outdoors in daylight, you need to be able to control the amount of light that the camera sees around and behind the drummer. I know you expected me to say the main limitation is that you are not hitting anything. It is a limitation but nowhere near to the extent some people assume. You get a similar sensation when you complete an air-drumming striking gesture with a stick.
By letting the butt of the stick hit the palm of your hand, the hitting sensation is improved and the stick can rebound off your palm.
We made a video to debunk the myth that hitting a physical surface is essential to drumming.
By the way, the reflective balls at the end of the Aerodrums sticks look big but they are very light and the sticks are balanced to feel like normal drum sticks. We’ve talked to many teachers, and some told us a couple of things that bode well for practicing with Aerodrums: they tell students to steer clear from high rebound surfaces when practicing, for fear of relying too much on rebound; and a few encourage those who don’t have a kit to air-drum between lessons.
DRUM! What’s the distance from camera to drummer?
Yann Morvan You need some free space to drum with Aerodrums: the camera has to be about four feet from you. If your foot technique or the music you play relies a lot on the kick pedal’s spring, you’d probably want to pack a practice pedal or two in your bag along with Aerodrums and your laptop.
DRUM! How durable is the product?
Yann Morvan We’re on our second production batch now, you can now expect the electronic part to last forever. There isn’t much stick breakage in air-drumming, but the reflective balls are fragile. They’re well protected in our box so we encourage people to use it while traveling. In case of accident, there is a replacement kit in the box. You can buy more kits, including if you want to turn your own sticks into Aerodrums sticks, they’re $9. You’re more likely to loose the foot markers than break them, replacements will cost under $10.
DRUM! Getting users to accept a new controller has proven to be difficult in the music products industry. But you have some interesting thoughts about the evolution of instrument interfaces.
Yann Morvan I think it is a big ask to introduce a musical controller with a radically new way of playing: the odds of getting enough musicians to take it up so that the interface can be perfected through practice are small. We think that the ergonomics of a musical instrument are the result of a complex evolutionary process involving many musicians trying small improvements one at a time. Pat Downes’Airdrums from 1986 were probably a victim of this: the limitations of the technology of the time made the sticks feel too different.
So we tried to stay as close as possible to the drum kit when designing Aerodrums: we wanted existing drummers to be able to adapt easily, and for people who want to learn drums to do so using Aerodrums.
DRUM! Have you thought about Aerodrum gloves for playing hand drums?
Yann Morvan Yes, we’ve had several drummers ask about hand drums at NAMM. We haven’t started working on this yet but we will. We have done experiments with reflective thimbles in the past that we will probably revisit. Hand drums are challenging because the touch element is very important, and unlike kit playing, there is no stick to provide it, so the gloves would have to be cleverly designed.
Right now our focus is on customer requested features, including supporting brush hits and sweeps. We will release this as a free update at NAMM 2015.
Aerodrums is available at Amazon in the US here and the UK.