BY JAKE WOOD
You may think, Hybrid drum set? Pshaw, nothing beats the real thing. Or maybe your first thought is, Too many cables and electronics. I already have enough to set up at every gig. But no matter how rational the arguments you have against playing a hybrid acoustic-electronic drum set, we’re going to challenge them today, and we’ll do it without diminishing the integrity of the acoustic kit. Think of hybridization as an electronic makeover more than a remodel—no sledgehammer required.
Legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock had an interesting learning experience once when making a record with Miles Davis. In his fascinating autobiography, Possibilities, he details a situation in 1968 when he walked into the recording studio and saw no acoustic piano for him to play. Figuring it was a logistical oversight, he asked Miles what he was supposed to play. Miles pointed to a Fender Rhodes electric piano and said “you’re playing that.”
Now, most musicians at the time viewed electric pianos, as Herbie puts it, “cute but not substantial. They were gimmicks.” But Herbie took a seat at the Rhodes and hit a chord. Much to his surprise he thought it sounded kind of cool. Then he started fiddling with the volume and realized that the keys could get really loud—much louder than an acoustic piano. That meant that the drummer on the session, the incredibly young Tony Williams (he started with Miles at age of 17), wouldn’t have to hold back in fear of drowning out the piano. Tony could hit as hard as he liked, and this new musical freedom was immediately exciting to Herbie.
Acknowledging his unsubstantiated judgments and that he’d “almost missed out on an exciting new experience because of musical snobbery,” Herbie quickly made a philosophical 180 and thus began his voyage of pairing music and technology. Since that time he has always been on the cutting edge with the newest keyboards, turntables, and even robots. Herbie realized he’d been unnecessarily biased and stubborn and that it had been holding him back from exploring new forms of musical expression. See what we did there with the whole moral-of-the-story bit?
Electronics In Recorded Music Today
Before we get into the benefits of adding electronics to your setup, let’s not forget that our goal here, broadly speaking, is to make music. That is the bottom line. Adding triggers or pads should be another method used to enhance, color, and inspire the music making process. Furthermore, if we take an honest look at how people are recording songs, and use that as the starting point from which to play the song live, then we must admit that programmed and sampled drums are now very much the norm.
The three most common electronic implementations in recordings are as a drum machine loop, a sampled groove from an old record, and as a tonal augmentation with sound replacer. These being so common in contemporary music, it’d be downright negligent to ignore the pervasive and almost ubiquitous presence of electronics in drum tracks. With it being so much more than just a trend, working drummers that want to keep working need to recognize and embrace that.
Now assuming we’ve at least temporarily gotten you to put aside your hangups, let’s take a look at some very common real-world applications of adding electronics to drums.
Cover Bands & Tribute Acts
If you’re in a cover band and want to take your band to the next level, adding triggers and pads gives you the option to reproduce some of the exact tones heard on the record. Imagine being on the gig and toggling between custom snare samples that match the sounds of the original recordings. You might not get the same nuanced response from the triggers that you typically get from their acoustic counterpart, but the audience won’t care about that when they’re twerking with their boss at the corporate Christmas party.
Playing in a cover band or tribute act is an ideal setting for using electronics in your rig, especially if the band is going for the “if you close your eyes it sounds like the original group” vibe. Of course it all depends on the material you’re covering, but using a hybrid setup can easily enhance the authenticity of replicating many popular drum tracks, be it gated snare tones from an old Prince jam, the iconic “click drum” tones of Lars Ulrich, or the latest trap-style sounds from a Drake tune.
Depending on the music you’re playing, there are a few routes to harvesting the tones you can trigger. In some lucky cases there might be a snare hit on the original recording that is played in some level of isolation and can be sampled with minimal audio excavation. In other situations a song’s stems will be released, thus making it much easier to sample from. Try searching for “isolated drum tracks” and you’ll see some real gems pop up. If you’re still unable to sample from them, simply hearing the drum tracks in isolation can still give you a much clearer idea of how to sculpt a similar tone.
Sometimes you won’t need to harvest a sample or even attempt to recreate it because the original drum track is merely a classic drum machine. This is especially common in hip-hop and modern pop. Curating a library of classic drum machine tones (Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909, and the Alesis SR-16 are good places to start) will give you a valuable archive to draw from. Many programs like Ableton Live come bundled with classic drum machine sounds.
Hybrids in Pop Music
It isn’t just cover music that welcomes hybridization. Look at all the setups of drummers backing contemporary pop stars and you’ll find the majority include a multipad. It’s so common that it’s practically an assumed part of the pop-drumming setup. In many of these cases they’re using the pads to trigger samples that were lifted directly from the album’s recording sessions. Why play the album when you could be the album?
In addition to replicating elements of the album, the multipad performs a critical role in many pop setups by running backing tracks. The simplest of these scenarios involves having the backing tracks downloaded directly into the unit, but in many situations a sample pad is being used as a midi controller operating in conjunction with a DAW on a laptop. This latter scenario also works with lighting, thus making it possible to execute lighting cues to the music with extreme precision.
While the burden of operating backing tracks so commonly falling upon the drummer can be both confusing and frustrating, it’s also an opportunity for a drummer to add value to an act. And in some cases, particularly in union gigs, running backing-tracks includes a bump up in pay.
Paychecks aside, let’s get back to the reason we play music: creative expression. Just like Rototoms and cowbells, pads and triggers are but vehicles of musical expression; it’s a choose-your-own-adventure world with these things. For players more interested in creating soul gratifying art, the hybrid setup is like an all-you-can-eat sound buffet. The tonal options are endless, especially when effects are added, allowing for an expanded sonic landscape for original music.
The capabilities of electronic drumming have changed a lot in the last decade. For example, Sensory Percussion’s hybrid sensor system is leaps and bounds beyond standard triggers. Users train the software to recognize hits on different zones, and at different speeds and dynamics, of an acoustic drum, and assign each to a different sample. It’s really a whole different instrument at this point.
That approach might be a tad overwhelming for many, and luckily there are simpler solutions to hybridizing your acoustic kit. For those of us that recoil at the sight of a large drum module and a rat’s nest of cables, consider the streamlined triggering products by Roland such as the TM-1 and the RT-MicS. They’re designed for drummers that have minimal triggering needs and they require little in terms of operating and setting up. For a more powerful Swiss Army–setup that still maintains a relatively small footprint, there are sampler pads that can accomplish all manner of feats. The new Strike Multipad from Alesis, for instance, will turbocharge any drummer’s sonic reach.
The point here is that creative expression with triggering is far more sophisticated than what it was just a few years ago, and the creative possibilities are only just beginning to take form.
At this point you might be asking, Why not just use a fully electronic kit? Well, because the whole idea of a hybrid kit is to combine the best aspects of both worlds to create something new—something that wouldn’t be possible on an entirely acoustic or electronic kit. Just like sample pads add the option of loops, synth sounds, snippets of other recordings, and otherwise unimaginable effects to a kit, the subtle nuances of the hi-hat, gentle ghost notes of the snare drum, and the varying overtones of the ride cymbal add unpredictable, organic sounds to the music.
On the flip side, using samples to enhance and accompany the foundation of an acoustic kit can take the music to places you never dreamed it would go. It’s not just about adding electronic components to an acoustic drum set. In some cases it’s reversed, and acoustic tones are used to liven-up electronic tones or make them feel a bit more organic. The EDM genre has recently seen acoustic drums being incorporated into live shows even though the music is made entirely “in the box.” Why? Because acoustic drums are exciting (and they will always look great onstage).
So, what is our beloved Herbie tinkering with today? After all these years of creative endeavors he continues to lead the pack of incorporating technology in music, typically getting first dibs on the latest keyboards and gadgets. That singular moment at the hybrid electrified acoustic Rhodes piano altered his path, and he’s been utilizing electronics for over 50 years now. So, be like Herbie and open your mind to new possibilities in music, whether it’s with electronic hybridization or your instrument or robots and turntables.