BY MIKE SNYDER
Drummers can be fickle about the things they hit. Take triggers, for instance. Way back in the roaring ’80s, drummers embraced the ability to trigger electronic sounds from acoustic drums as their only line of defense against the marauding invasion of drum machines that had suddenly captivated both producers and the public. Then, when the comparatively retro sound of hair metal sublimated synthesizer-drenched new wave in the late ’80s, drummers happily unplugged their electronic gear to return to the purity of sticks on skin.
But within a few years, the most predictable thing happened: Drum triggers came back into fashion, and for very practical reasons. As extreme metal drummers upped the ante on the boundaries of velocity, the frailty of the human body imposed its own limit on how fast they could go. In order to play faster they had to play lighter. Yet, in doing so, these brutes relinquished the pounding acoustic tones the genre demanded, leaving little alternative but to trigger sampled sounds.
This was especially true for bass drums. Why the kick rather than other drums? We turn to Derek Roddy, who raised the bar on superhuman speed drumming numerous times, with death metal bands like Malevolent Creation, Hate Eternal, and Nile.
“I trigger only bass drums for clarity,” Roddy says. “No matter what you do or how consistent you play, clarity does not happen above a certain tempo because of the laws of sound and physics. If you can’t hit the kick drum the same [with] every single stroke – velocity, attack, volume, consistency, etc. – you will not have clarity during fast tempos.
“Putting a mike inside of a big, open cylinder creates an airy, boomy, and sloppy sound, especially when playing fast. Couple this with a good-sized club, and you have a mess of a kick-drum sound for extreme metal.” But the ability to break Guinness world records explains only one reason why so many of today’s top drummers use bass-drum triggers. “There are two reasons I trigger my kick drums,” says ubertechnical clinician Thomas Lang. “Either I need to change the sound of my kick drum so drastically that I could never achieve the needed sound by tuning or muffling – for instance, in a live situation when kick-drum sounds can change from song to song – or I trigger when I need a little bit more attack as well as bottom end to really place the kick drum in the very front of the mix. I do this to have an ultra-aggressive, piercing, yet gutsy kick sound.”
While Lang’s occasional clinic partner, the incredible Johnny Rabb, also relies on triggered bass-drum sounds, he often uses the technology to create an organic blend between acoustic and electronic timbres. “I trigger my drums to either fatten the sound or change the sound entirely,” Rabb says. “Triggering an acoustic bass-drum sample and mixing it in with my miked kick sound helps me create a more punchy and beefy kick sound.
“Another option is to mix two completely different sounds. An example of that would be the kick triggering a percussion sound or electronic bass-drum sound, such as an 808 or 909 from my Roland TD-20 module, and mixing it with my acoustic kick sound, creating a completely unique sound.”
Although there are times when a simple microphone will do the job on a kick, triggering is a technique upon which many players depend, to dial in their sound quickly and reliably. Rabb believes that as music becomes more diverse and extreme, drummers must venture into the world of technology to be competitive. “Nowadays, we need to bring more to the table than just drumming,” he says. “It’s important to understand technology and production. If you play country, rock, funk, electronica, or other styles, triggering will help you achieve any sound you need. Live or in the studio, you will never have to say, ’I can’t get that sound,’ or ’Sorry, I don’t have that.’”
There’s no better time than the present. Let’s look at what you need to trigger your kick drum using the latest technology.
WHAT IS ACOUSTIC TRIGGERING?
At its most basic level, acoustic triggering is when the impact on an acoustic drum is used to generate a digital sample or modeled sound in real-time. The concept is simple: Striking the drum vibrates a piezo-electric crystal (the drum trigger). When put in motion, the piezo produces voltage, and a harder strike produces a larger amount of voltage. This voltage is received and interpreted by the trigger-to-MIDI converter – usually a drum module. Based on settings made within the drum module and the amount of voltage received, the sound module will output sound that can be recorded and/or amplified. (Fig. 1)
Fortunately, you don’t need a lot of gear, but choosing the right gear for the job makes life so much easier. Speaking from experience, you don’t want to skimp in any way – in this case, more expensive really is better. Generally, as triggers and drum modules get pricier, they become more reliable, have lower latency, better sounds, and more advanced settings to help attain better triggering results. Look at what the pros use. You can assume the gear is reliable, since their reputation depends on it.
You’ll need a trigger device (for kicks it can be either an acoustic drum trigger or an acoustic trigger pedal) and drum module. Buy the newest and most expensive module you can afford. Look into which ones are used by drummers who have a similar drumming style as yours. It’s important to choose a module with very low triggering latency.
Acoustic drum triggers can be head-contact triggers that stick directly to the head or hoop-mount triggers that attach to the hoop of the drum (Fig. 2). Hoop-mount triggers are far more durable than head-contact triggers. Although they’re more expensive, they will save you money in the long run by requiring fewer replacements.
Rabb prefers hoop-mounted triggers while playing with his two busiest projects, BioDiesel and DrumJockeys. “I use a 14″ acoustic bass drum with an Audix D6 bass-drum mike and Roland RT-10K trigger,” he says. “I am triggering sounds from my Roland TD-20 percussion module as well as Ableton Live running on a MacBook Pro.”
Your choice of acoustic trigger pedals is more limited. Luckily, high-end kick pedal manufacturer Axis Percussion has a clever add-on to its kick pedal that turns both single and double models into a trigger pedal. The EKIT (Fig. 3) is a small trigger box that mounts to the pedal and a tiny hammer-shaped striker – Axis calls it the “detonator” – which attaches separately to the pedal.
It’s an ingenious design in which the little striker hitting the sensor in the trigger box produces the trigger signal, taking the head of the acoustic drum totally out of the equation. This arrangement solves many inherent triggering issues, such as consistency, double triggering, and crosstalk. If you’re working on your blastbeats, seriously consider this pedal.
“I choose the Axis system because it is simply a superior way to trigger kick drums, as they don’t activate by means of vibration, like stick-on or mounted triggers,” says Roddy. “This eliminates all crosstalk and external sounds, such as the bass player, from setting off the module.”
NUTS AND BOLTS
Now that we’ve covered necessary gear, we’ll dig into how to make kick-triggering perform well. Loud sounds can fire the trigger even when the kick isn’t played. So in order to keep them as far as possible from the snare drum without giving up too much sensitivity, position hoop-mount and head-contact triggers on the outside of the batter head between 2:00 and 4:00 o’clock. As for placement of the kick-trigger pedal, well, attach it to the kick drum – it can only go in one spot!
Every kick drum can require its own unique trigger settings. Drum size, head choice, tuning, muffling, beater type, trigger type, and playing style all affect trigger performance. Getting the right settings can be a juggling act. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t come together quickly. The good news is that out of all the drums, the kick is the easiest to set up to trigger well.
Keep in mind, though, that each manufacturer might call a trigger parameter by a different name. But no matter what they’re named, they all function similarly. Read the owner’s manual for your interface or drum module, to become familiar with its trigger parameter names, as well as your drum module’s user interface.
HOW TO SET TRIGGER PARAMETERS
Trigger Type. If your module is older, it may not have this parameter setting. Consult the owner’s manual and set the parameter for what best matches the setting for an acoustic drum trigger. If you’re using a trigger pedal, set this parameter to match a kick pad of some kind. Choosing the closest trigger type will set the module’s trigger parameters in the ballpark for good trigger performance.
Trigger Input Sensitivity/Gain. Don’t be afraid to play the kick hard while setting the sensitivity level or trigger-input gain. When setting trigger parameters by yourself, there’s a tendency to play softer than you do when actually performing. Hit the drum! Don’t set the sensitivity too high, as it can lead to problems. But setting the sensitivity too low will limit your dynamic range. When you play your hardest, the sensitivity graph on the module should just hit its peak.
Threshold. Start by moving the threshold parameter to “0” (its most sensitive position), and play the kick at the lowest volume you are likely to play. While doing this, raise the threshold until the triggered sound begins to occasionally drop out. At this point, lower the threshold a number or two. Look out – a threshold set too low can lead to false and double triggering.
Mask Time. This is one of the most important trigger parameters. Depending on the manufacturer, this setting often goes by other names, so check the manual to be sure what it’s called on your module. Mask time is the parameter that is most responsible for getting rid of double, multiple, and false triggers. If possible, find out how your module’s numeric values correspond to actual time in milliseconds – this will make setting mask time clearer. For reference, on a kick drum, the space between a flam and the next note played is about 50ms.
Take the mask-time parameter all the way down to “0,” then play the kick as fast as you will in actual performance. While still playing, raise the mask-time setting until double triggering is reduced or eliminated. Then continue to increase the value until the tr iggered kick sounds begin to drop out, then back down the setting a few notches. Faster playing on the kick drum will require a smaller mask-time setting. There may be additional trigger parameters that your drum module has, in addition to those listed above. Do yourself a favor, crack your module’s manual and read about its trigger parameters. While you’re at it, read the entire manual. You’ll be glad you did!
TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING
But before jumping in headfirst, heed Derek Roddy’s words of warning for drummers who learn to like triggering a bit too much. “Triggering can be very useful, but it can also be used as a crutch for inconsistency,” he says. “Too many players these days – especially in the extreme metal world – rely on triggers to do the playing for them.” So in the end, triggers are like any other luxury – best used in moderation.
Mike Snyder resides in Portland, Oregon with his wife Maggie, and golden retriever Lucy. He can be contacted through mikesnyder.net. To learn more of the basics, check out his book, All About Electronic Percussion.