Adding an Electronics Rig to an Acoustic Drum Set

This is an article I’ve wanted to write for some time now.  I finally decided to put it together after I was prompted with a question from my buddies in The Spinto Band a few weeks ago.  They were interested in adding electronic drums to an existing acoustic setup to replicate some of their studio wizardry live.  I myself have battled with this issue for several years now, and my electronic rig has morphed and changed to fit new needs.  I figure this information might be useful to folks starting out on this thorny path for the first time.

Background

Though I’ve been playing drums and percussion since 4th grade, most of what I learned on this topic came from studying pop and live electronica groups in late high school and college.  Specifically, I was fascinated with Nine Inch Nails and The Chemical Brothers.  I later learned of artists like Jojo Mayer and Tony Verderosa, who were proficient at replicating the sounds and textures of drum n’ bass through a combination of acoustic and electronic drums.  Entering college, I was exposed to Tool’s Lateralus, and with it Danny Carey’s use of vintage Simmons SDX drums (and now Mandala pads) as an expressive electronic compliment to his acoustic setup.

Though I used some of the techniques I learned about in my high school band Halfslide (with an ancient Casio DZ-1 trigger to MIDI interface and and an Akai S01 sampler), it wasn’t until my college live electronica band Slow Comfortable Screw that I was really able to put some of what I learned to the test (again with that old Casio DZ-1 and an Alesis HR-16 drum machine).  Since high school I have also produced my own electronic music, which gave me an intimate familiarity with synthesizers, sampling, MIDI, and processing.

From a pragmatic and technical standpoint, I’m an aerospace engineer by training.  I tend to look at creating systems with an eye towards strength, redundancy, and compactness.  Much of my day job is spent making sensitive electronics and structures fit into tight spaces.  You won’t find any heavy calculations in the article, but hopefully my experiences will serve as a guide to help you ask the right questions before adding electronics to your setup.

Taking the Plunge

The decision to add electronic instruments to your acoustic drumset can be justified in two ways.  One is to add new voices to your playing.  The other is to replicate studio sounds live.  Though it can be both, in my mind it is very important to determine which it is up front.  If you don’t do your homework and/or aren’t honest with yourself, you may end up with a very expensive system that doesn’t meet your needs.

The second of the two scenarios is the less open ended, and the one you see most of the time.  Often the group you’re performing with has just shelled out X-thousand dollars in the studio crafting their masterpiece.  They really “used the studio as an instrument” this time, throwing in vocal samples and techno drums, pots and pans and lo-fi processing.  There is no way that they can live without this extra stuff live.

I’m exaggerating, but it is a valid point to make.  Is the stuff you want to replicate live really worth the expense of new gear?  If it’s an ambient intro that happens once at the beginning of a song but never again, you don’t need a sampler and a drum trigger to make it happen.  An iPod is far less expensive and less error prone.  If you’re band is playing to a click, consider adding all of your miscellaneous stuff to the backing track.  Something as simple as creating a wav file with a metronome in the left channel and your sounds (sans metronome) on the right can save you thousands of dollars in gear and post-gig Advil.

But for some, this isn’t an option.  As I can attest, a click track can add a ton of its own problems, and there’s something to be said for going “totally live”.  If it is strict playback of sounds you require, then a consistent, rigidly defined system will provide reliable performance night after night.  Typically, this is a hardware based setup with fast triggering capability and static sounds (no real time in-machine effects).  One hit – one sound.  The complexity of the device is somewhat moot.  Who cares if your electronics rig takes a month of work to set up initially?  Once it is good to go, you can plug it in, turn it on, and it will put out the same sounds night after night without fail.  I happened to be following the Nine Inch Nails Fragile tour closely when I learned about a lot of this.  Given the playing environment Trent Reznor kept on stage, this approach should give your band foolproof performance:

“Not eager to repeat the follies of tours past, Reznor adopted a “simpler is better” philosophy – the entire synth and sample library is just under 100 MB. Keyboard controllers aside, the synth rig consists of two Emulator 4 Ultras, which, according to Hendrix, is actually making for a more consistent-sounding show. “We don’t have a whole studio worth of gear out on the road that sounds different every night. The sounds are dead-on,” he notes. Similarly stripped down, the percussion banks are stored on a single 8MB PMCIA card on an Alesis DM Pro drum module. “The triggers run straight into the DM Pro, straight into its brain, straight to the card, no MIDI, no hard drives, no loading, no SCSI, nothing,” explains Danny. “Trigger inputs go straight into the machine that holds the samples. That little credit card-size card holds all of the drum sounds for the show plus more that we never get around to using.”

Source: Mix Magazine

However, if you are looking to treat your electronics rig as a full instrument and actively write parts using it, you will need something that is fast and simple to interface with.  If you’re stuck digging through menus while your bandmates are working on a new lick, your fancy gear will be written out of the song before you have the chance to contribute a single note with it.  There is a reason that most non-traditional instruments don’t get added until you’re in the studio recording: they normally take a long time to put together.  You’ll also probably want a level of expressiveness that is comparable to your acoustic instruments if you are going to be playing the two side by side.

Note that I’ve made no mention of what your electronics rig consists of.  In my mind, either you have something that plugs into the wall or you do not.  The minute you make that leap into powered playing, you’ve opened yourself up to both immense possibility and potential problems.  It doesn’t matter if you have one pad or a full blown secondary kit, knob box, and keyboard rig.  All of what I describe below should be somewhat applicable to your individual situation.

Beware of Safety Case Study

I play drums and keyboards for the Los Angeles based instrumental rock band Beware of Safety.  Formed in 2005, the band has released 3 records: It Is Curtains, dogs, and a 7 inch single Cut Into Stars.  Forthcoming is the fourth album, Leaves/Scars, to be released this summer through The Mylene Sheath.

When Beware of Safety started up, I experimented with adding a used Yamaha DTX II and a number of pads to the my kit.  Initially I dropped the idea.  The songs that formed It Is Curtains were largely written before I arrived and the group officially formed.  I simply was having trouble fitting new things in.  As we started writing the material that turned into dogs, I began bringing in a Evolution 49 key MIDI keyboard and a used Roland XV-5050 module.  This was prompted by large sections of the new material that worked best without drums.  A little bored with typical post-rock cymbal rolls, I started to look for things to add to the mix.

Initial Use

I ended up using a Rhodes patch prominently on the song Nu Metal, which became the first track on dogs.  We started playing the song during live shows in the 2006-2007 timeframe.  A second song, Yards…and Yards, developed with a sort of woodwind synth in it.  At this point, being somewhat bound to a power outlet, I brought back the DTX and the electronic drum pads.  At first, the main intent of the electronic drums was to approximate or enhance some of the specific moments on It Is Curtains in the live setting:

1.  Two big low tom hits on Kaura
2.  Three large snare hits on The Difference Between Wind and Rain
3.  A processed/electronic drum beat for the second half of The Difference Between Wind and Rain
4.  To create a more aggressive live “remix” of Veneklasen
5.  To replace a Thunder Tube and homemade Vibra-Tone used on O’Canada (if unmiked, these instruments can’t cut through the mix in a live setting)

The DTX had a number of presets that were able to meet my first four needs.  For the single drum hits on Kaura and The Difference, long decay low tom and gated snare samples provided the impact I was looking for while still meshing well with the acoustic kit.  For the second portion of The Difference, I went for more basic analog drum samples (kick, snare, hi-hat, and clap) which added a more extreme separation between the acoustic and electronic beats.  The Veneklasen beat used a snare patch “Enotype”, which mapped the pad velocity level to filter cutoff.  It was pre-programmed in the DTX and un-editable, but very effective at providing an expressive, morphing drum beat.  An 808-esq sub kick, “vocal” hi-hat, and an 808 cowbell rounded out the kit.  I was unable to replicate the expressiveness or sound of the Thunder Tube and Vibra-Tone on the DTX, so I continued to use those acoustic instruments.  In actuality, I have never been able to fully replicate the expressive depth of the Thunder Tube in electronics, and ended up replacing that sound with a china cymbal roll.

Veneklasen (Live at The Cocaine, Los Angeles 2007)

The physical pad setup consisted of two DTX pads.  Each was dual zone, for a total of four triggered sounds.  The pads were mounted in an auxiliary snare position off of my hi-hat stand.

First Pad SetupFrom a playability standpoint, this setup was left-hand biased.  Though I had access to both the hi-hat and ride cymbal while using the pads, it wasn’t perfect.  On Veneklasen I had to contort a bit to get two hand access to the pads for certain licks.  But all in all, two pads (four triggered sounds) provided me with a lot of room to start adding new textures to the band.

First Electronic Rigs

All of the electronics were originally housed in a Tupperware container.  While this was an inexpensive solution, it made changing patches an act of faith (I was totally blind to the screens).  To deal with it, I first tried using two mirrors as a periscope.  While creative, this was a little janky live.  Eventually I gave up, and every time that I changed patches on the drums or synth, I’d have to play it first to verify it was correct.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it ruins the surprise of the sound later in the song.  The plastic container also provided no shock protection for the gear, so I was rolling the dice every time I took it out of the house.

Alternate mounting schemes

One prototype for holding my live gear. Constructed out of DTX electronic drum set rack tubing.

After dialing up the wrong preset live a number of times and experimenting with several different setups, I shifted over to a Gator Studio2Go 2 unit rolling rack and a standard fold out keyboard stand to reduce setup time and the chance for error.

Gator Studio2Go

Gator Studio2Go easily held the DTX II where the laptop is sitting in this picture. All power supplies fit in the rear of the 2 unit rack. The Presonus Firepod was used to record band rehearsals.

Since adopting the pads into my standard setup, I started adding them to new songs created during the dogs writing sessions.  The beat on Hexa, for example, came out of playing these pads in context with the acoustic drum kit.

Note: this video was taken after I stopped using the DTX.  The chain drop was a sample from the Hexa recording sessions, and was implemented after switching to my current rig.

Despite the playability of the DTX, I was having difficulty adding the electronic drums into new material.  The DTX has a lot of power (as evidenced by what Tony Verderosa did with it on his first two records), but that power is buried deep in menus and the sounds are limited to what is in memory.  It was very difficult to call up new sounds in the context of a jam session quickly enough for them to be incorporated into the core of a song.  The same could be said for the XV-5050.  Unless I started carting around a computer to edit patches, I was limited to stock presets.

Setup time was another issue.  While it may not seem like much, every connection you have to make on a dimly lit stage takes up valuable time and adds chances for error (bear in mind that I also had to put together a fairly large drum set every performance).  As it stood, I had to plug in the following items

– Two pads
– A MIDI cable from the XV-5050 to the keyboard
– A keyboard power cable
– An audio out
– A sustain pedal
– A power strip

Add time for untangling and mistakes.

Finally, there was the issues of cross talk.  With my electronic pads mounted on my hi-hat stand, they often mistriggered when I was stomping my left foot or playing an especially heavy section.  I tried dampening the pads by adding expanding foam sealant to the aluminum rack tubes, but even with the velocity cutoff set to high, it didn’t solve the problem.  Yes, I could have added another drum stand, but I had worked very hard to fit all my toms and cymbals onto a pair of double braced stands and I wasn’t about to take on more heavy gear without a fight.

New Approach: Going Virtual

At the tail end of the dogs recordings, I started researching a new setup.  My main goal was to allow me the creative flexibility and fast work flow that I was used to in my bedroom studio while reducing the number of connections needed on stage.  After some thought, I figured out that the best I could do was six connections

– Power
– Audio out
– X drum pads (aside from the DTX pads, I only owned single zone pads)

This was possible if I somehow packaged the keyboard, synth module, and drum brain together with room to spare for the sustain pedal storage.  While I needed stock sounds like pianos and strings, I also really wanted to bring in elements of synths, sound design, and sampling.  I was also interested in live sequencing and sound manipulation, elements not traditionally found in the rock world.

I originally considered a hardware sampler, but to be honest, those are a dying breed.  Gone are the Emu E4s and Akai S6000s of the late 90’s.  As much as I love vintage gear, I wasn’t about to subject a non-supported device to the rigors of the road.  I also looked into workstations like the Triton, but the cost of a system that would support external samples quickly rose to the cost of a new computer and carried the risk of being outdated in a year or two.  At that point, it seemed only logical that I needed some sort of soft sampler solution.

After I bit the bullet and decided that I would be moving to a computer based setup, I had to choose Mac, PC, or Linux.  I’m traditionally a PC person, however I was not impressed with the latency that existed on my home laptop.  I had some experience with Linux, but there were no off the shelf or reliable audio hosts that I could find (reliable meaning phone in tech support, guarantees of functionality, and a large responsive user base).  Plus, as Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie once put it, Linux, like every OS, sucks.  But I digress.  Given the number of DJs and electronic musicians with Macs on stage and the rave reviews from some of my favorite artists, I decided to try Apple on for size, if only for reasons of natural selection.

Original packaging. You can see the Mac Mini covered with blue masking tape below the Alesis.

Now I couldn’t find anyone who was running keyboards and drum triggers off of the same computer, so I was unsure if this whole mish mash of technology would work together.  To play it safe, I started on the cheap with a Mac Mini.  I owned an extra flatscreen monitor, so total computer cost was minimal (for an Apple).  I also purchased a new USB M-Audio Oxygen 49 keyboard and an Alesis Trigger I/O.  I did investigate building my own trigger to USB unit, but in the end I’d rather be able to walk into a Guitar Center and purchase a replacement if it broke on the day of a gig than save money or tailor the unit to my exact needs.  I initially routed audio out through the Mini’s soundcard.  All of this was packaged into a small box that I cordoned off with a few modifications.

For software, I had two main options: Logic or Ableton Live.  The choice was actually quite simple: Ableton.  While I believed at the time that Logic might be a better overall program, it did not have any sort of demo on the Apple website.  At the very least, Live let me check out whether it would work on a Mac Mini before plunking down several hundred dollars for the full Suite.  Don’t get me wrong, Live is perfect for what I do and it provides a ton of potential.  Apple, however, should take note.

After reading about a similar live setup, I purchased a small 2 inch LCD monitor off ebay.  Traditionally used for GPS systems, it was big enough (with some squinting) to launch Ableton Live and shut the computer down after the show.  The rest, in theory, could be handled by programmable controls on my keyboard.

On the drum kit, I added two Dauz triggers above my high toms and one Pintech  mesh head pad to the left of my hi-hat (on a snare stand).  There were three Dauz pads on the unit, but one was inaccessible under the cymbals.

I was an absolute Ableton beginner when I put this system together, so my initial Live set had the track arm buttons mapped to toggle buttons on the Oxygen keyboard.  As I got to a new song, I would arm the various keyboard and percussion instruments as required.

Now, some enterprising folks may ask why I didn’t just use MIDI program change messages to handle all this.  My general theory on I/O is to reduce the overall complexity of the system.  Instead of placing “intelligence” into the keyboard where it could accidentally be reprogrammed on stage by a random sequence of hand bumps (I do it to my cellphone every morning), I made it stupid.  Every channel should do exactly the same thing – blindly send midi to the Ableton session.  If something were to go wrong with one of the Oxygen programs, it is far easier to reset the whole keyboard system to its defaults than it is to figure out a MIDI sysex dump or something.  I may have two degrees in rocket science, but I’m not a masochist.  I’d much rather debug within a graphical user interface.

How did the full system fare?  As far as set up time, the number of connections increased by one:

– A power plug
– Three drum pad cables
– A USB cable for the keyboard
– Sustain pedal
– Audio out
– Computer mouse

Functionally, the keyboard performed almost flawlessly.  There were some issues with the assignable buttons: sometimes they took two clicks instead of one to operate correctly.  The drum pad latency was noticeable, and varied from ok to horrible from gig to gig.  It seemed like I could correct the issue most times by restarting the Ableton set.  After a number of months the system started to lock up during shows.  Usually it happened when trying to load a string ensemble patch or a large drum set.  This made for some embarrassing hard restarts mid performance.

I had a number of theories as to why this might be happening.  One was the added heat on stage during a set (lighting, etc.).  The case I was using didn’t allow for much ventilation.  I also was experiencing some issues with the USB cable on the keyboard.  Although I love the fact that USB is dual power/data, it has a fairly weak female connector.  After some gigging, the connector on the keyboard started to wear, and I worried that if I jiggled it the wrong way, it would start crashing Ableton mid set.  I attempted a fix by hard wiring a USB cable to the internal USB solder joints, but I was wary of trusting it.  Third was that I was still using the internal sound card for audio processing.  Though I had a Presonus Firepod that might alleviate the problem, it was a 19 inch 8 in/out rack mount unit and I wasn’t thrilled to start lugging it around (especially since I wanted it in my home studio where I could use it to write and record).  Fourth was that it was an Ableton related issue.  Maybe arming the instruments when I was ready for them ended up choking the system.

I was ignoring number five: that the Mac Mini might not be powerful enough for this.  That was the most expensive to fix.

Version 2.0

I started working on the next design.  The goals were to, again, fit as much as I could in one package and eliminate connections.  After purchasing a Presonus Firebox (2 channel in/out), I designed a case to hold everything.  This time, I aimed to make the non keyboard electronics as compact as possible.  As it turns out, the Mac Mini drove the thickness and the depth of the box design.  By laying everything out in series, I was able to make it fit in a keyboard sized container.

This layout enabled all the connections to sit (roughly) inside the box, isolating them from the gig environment.  The keyboard was attached to the top of the box using industrial strength Velcro.

I did drop the connection count by one, but an increasing paranoia about having to debug an Ableton issue on stage using nothing but a 2 inch monitor started to get to me.  I started lugging around my flatscreen, which obviously didn’t fit into this rig.  The new audio interface did remove some of the latency issues with the drum pads, but not consistantly.  One nice feature of this new system is that I could (jankily) fit the whole setup into a soft keyboard bag.

I experimented with a number of mounting schemes, including one very adventuresome one which mounted the electronics rig over the bass drum with DTX drum rack components and eliminated my keyboard stand.  This didn’t last very long.  I realized a) it was stupid to frantically try and reconstruct a drum rack on stage, b) in those frantic moments, I tended to forget how to reassemble the drum rack properly, c) my drumsticks were hitting the keyboard (not good), and d)  the Mac was being severely vibrated on every bass drum hit (really not good).  I knew that I would have to start a new design.

Version 3.0

Since I wasn’t ready to give up on the 17 inch screen I’d become accustom to, I knew this was going to be a larger package than before.  I was still shooting for a minimum number of connections and an open/plug/play mentality for the whole system.  After some work, I identified the 24X36 inch Gator G-Mix ATA Rolling Mixer/Equipment Case.  It was the smallest (maybe only commercial) case that would fit the driving component dimensions: the stowed monitor for the case thickness and the Oxygen keyboard for the case length of 36 inches.  The combined width of 24 inches would also support the stowed monitor plus the keyboard width.  To verify, I created envelopes for all the components in CAD.

After some shuffling, I found an arrangement that allowed me access to all of the controls while still fitting into the case.  The base was a 24 x 36 inch plywood sheet, and the rest of the support structure was constructed from ¼ inch hobby grade sheet, blocks, and Gorilla Glue.

Alesis Trigger I/O and Presonus Firebox mounts

Mac Mini area. Note bump for added cooling and cable tie mounts.

Cable ties were used to hold down all the various components except for the keyboard and monitor, which were velcroed and bolted down respectively.  Note the handle, which helped pry the whole assembly out of the case when necessary.  The Mac Mini standoff allowed a little extra airflow to get to the computer.  I covered the monitor screen with a plexiglass sheet (again velcroed on) to protect it from damage on stage.

Version 3.0 of the setup with Ableton Live active

The total connector count was now at the minimum, however I often hooked up the computer keyboard for added functionality while playing.  The mouse and sustain pedal could be kept in the case (wired up) and positioned when I was set up.  This case design allowed me to roll it onto stage, place it on the keyboard stand, remove the lid, and wire everything up.  The whole system could live within the bottom half of the case, which helped tremendously with setup and teardown.

MIDI Effect Rack "switch" added before each instrument chain

The Ableton set was also modified around this time.  In front of every instrument, a MIDI effect rack with one chain was added.

Instead of arming and disarming tracks through the show, all of the tracks were armed on startup by default.  Each scene was designated as a song, and each clip had either an active Chain=0 envelope or inactive Chain=1 envelope defined in the blank MIDI clip.

Active envelope

Inactive envelope

In this way, I was able to hit return on the scene (song) and allow MIDI messages to pass only to the appropriate instruments.  All sample loading, etc. occurred on startup before any notes were played, and although MIDI flowed to each channel, it only triggered the active instruments when needed.  Presuming my assumptions of how Live manages system resources is correct, this should be the lowest use of playback CPU power.

I used this setup with much success for awhile.  It was bulky and heavy, but it rolled and was flat enough to sit under my drum cases in my C-RV.  Overall, I think this was a good mix of cost and functionality.  There were still some lingering issues with high drum latency, but I dealt with them for the cost and flexibility of the unit.

Current Rig Design

When the time came for Beware of Safety’s 2009 east coast tour, I faced the challenge of trying to reduce the size of the setup further.  The goal was something transportable as checked luggage on the airline.  At this point I was sold on the idea of a digital setup, however I realized that the Mac Mini was just not designed to handle this sort of work.

Though I had been gigging with it for a good while, I had cared for it very well.  A combination of good case design and painter’s tape had keep it scratch free.  Fortunately, this meant that I was able to sell it for close to what I bought it for.  I applied the money and “a little” overtime work to a new 17 inch MacBook Pro which became the centerpiece of this setup.  There were a number of advantages to the laptop.  Aside from increased CPU power and removing the need for an external computer keyboard, mouse, and monitor, it also featured an uninterruptible power supply in the form of its internal battery.  Second to fears of debugging the Live set on stage was the paranoia that the Mac Mini’s plug would come out (or a fuse would blow in the venue) forcing me to restart on stage.  Before doing anything, I fitted the laptop with a Speck clear hard case.  Without fail, the laptop got a nice thwack from a guitar head during my first rehearsal with it.  If placed on stage, your several thousand dollar investment will get banged up.  Protect it.

Like before, I turned to CAD for the design.  Through a number of iterations and case research, I was able to pair a layout with the SKB 61 Key Rotomolded Keyboard Case.  This was the smallest form factor I could create that would allow me access to all of the keyboard’s assignable controls.  Unfortunately, this case size was classified as oversize by the airline standard size limits (the standard musical instrument case rules appear to top out at guitar cases).  I was stuck shipping the case across country.  Thankfully I saved the box it came in.

Why all the effort to fit a standard case instead of building something custom?  In my mind, the case should be completely sacrificial.  It is designed to be the first thing that is damaged in an accident, and should be easily replaceable in the event this happens.  Say you put all your equipment on a pallet and shipped it across country…

As it happened, the rolling handle was completely sheared off in transport – validating my concerns.  I have to wonder what would have happened if I built up a beautiful wood case for my keys.  There is, of course, also the weight problem of building with wood.  A molded plastic case is just easier to manage overall, presuming you can find one that fits your specifications.

After the layout was determined in CAD,  I created two designs.  One was wood like my previous efforts, and the second was created using metal joist braces from Home Depot (shown in the CAD pictures above).  I prototyped the first design in cardboard to address my biggest concern: obstruction of the keyboard by the laptop

Cardboard prototype to test clearances

Also, this allowed me to check whether I would have problems routing the connection cables to the Firebox and the Trigger I/O.  If I wanted to fit everything in the case, I found out that I would need angled connectors for the firewire and USB ports.  Additional research pointed me to http://www.usbfirewire.com/, where I was able to order custom angled cables.  They had everything I needed except a 9 pin angled to 6 pin angled firewire cable.  I was able to make do with a 9-pin female to 6-pin female adapter.  The ¼ inch cables to my drum pads were already angled on one end, so no problem there.

Though I started building the wood and glue setup, I had problems with past designs coming apart due to the rigors of the road.  I ditched the wood version and opted for the bolted metal design.  All of the metal angle pieces were clamped together and match drilled for machine head bolts.  The brackets were then cut to size with a hacksaw, masked, primed, and painted.  Note that I left masked squares for adhesive cable tiedown anchors to keep things neat inside the final assembly.  I used existing threaded holes on the Firebox and Trigger I/O to mount them to the metal standoffs (a trip to home depot let me identify the appropriate thread sizes).  All bolts except those used on the equipment were secured with Locktite Blue 242 thread adhesive (none have come loose yet).  The keyboard was again velcroed to the base plywood sheet.  Smaller angled pieces were used to provide lateral braces for the laptop, and adhesive plastic door stops allowed the computer to sit flat above the bolt heads.  The images shown were taken before the angled cables arrived.

With MacBook Pro removed

Electronics rig with drum set. Note: pads above high toms removed.

After the angled cables were installed:

Alesis Trigger I/O connections

Clearance to sliders and keyboard maintained

The downside of using the angled firewire cables on the Firebox is that it blocks the MIDI cable breakout port.  I don’t use this regularly, so it wasn’t a huge issue.

Presonus Firebox and Oxygen 49 connections

The whole assembly fits in the SKB case with the laptop installed, though I do usually remove it as it forms the centerpiece of my home studio.  With the laptop installed, I connect a total of six cables when setting up:

– Power
– Audio out
– Four drum pads (two cable snakes)

The only downside to this setup is that is must be removed from the SKB case for use, which increases the potential for damage and the overall time for setup/teardown.  I looked at a number of actuated/movable rigs that might allow for the keyboard to “deploy” to a playable position, but the added cost and complexity seemed kind of silly for my needs.

The Dauz drum pads moved from above my high toms to the right side of my kit.  Primarily, this was due to mistriggers while playing live (spacing was tight in their old location).  There were added perks though.  I gained an extra pad without additional hardware, could have easier access to the tightly grouped pads during critical song sections, and now could assign electronic sounds to either my right for left hand depending on the need.  Unlike a single clustered-pad device, the audience gets a strong, full body movement cue associated with shifting from the right hand pads to the left, which blends nicely with the motions of acoustic drumset playing and the large sounds I tend to use.

2009 east coast tour drum set

Note the Remo practice pad on the left that I converted into a homemade trigger.  Cheap and effective.

Beware of Safety at The Troubadour, Los Angeles 2011. Photo by Robbie Su.

Beware of Safety at The Troubadour, Los Angeles 2011. Photo by Robbie Su.

Performance

The Ableton Live session grew with the new material (though I kept the same format).

I began experimenting with live looping and the use of time based effects (mainly delay).  The headphone out jack of the Firebox gives me a nice way to monitor myself on stage, which turns out to be a problem in the majority of venues I’ve been to (even with a full keyboard amp behind me).

Live looping intro to Nu Metal that I added for the east coast tour.

O’Canada synthesized Vibra-Tone

The Laughter Died strings section.  Given our stage setup, it’s very hard to hear a balanced mix of instruments.  Self monitoring through headphones is critical here.

The Laughter Died ending.  You can see the camera react to the big low end hits I’m using.  You can also hear a gong sample that I’ve added and pitched down for a big final hit.

Cut Into Stars recording.  The beat effects are done live by mapping the Oxygen’s knobs to various effects parameters.  Being able to stand up and twiddle knobs (“dj mode”) changes the on stage performance dynamic in an interesting way before the heavier drums kick in later (“drummer mode”).  Here, tiny sounds manipulated in a tiny space seems fitting.

The trigger latency in the drum pads still varies from time to time.  It is workable, but still not as good as a hardware unit.  I haven’t explored other options (BFD, Battery, etc.), so maybe this is an isolated Ableton issue.  I also have been frustrated that you can’t trigger clips from a pad hit.  I don’t see any reason why this should be a problem, given that it works for a midi keyboard.  This might just be a misunderstanding on my part.

I highly recommend soundchecks before your set.  Note: despite what the sound person may say, a soundcheck is different than a level check.  Don’t let the venue’s sound person off the board until you are done.  Send one of your band mates out to the audience and play a few measures of critical sections.  A/B your acoustic snare volume to an electronic counterpart.  Adjust the guitar keyboard mix.  Make sure you have the ability to mix between keyboards and electronic percussion on your single audio output (I do it using mapped faders on my keyboard), or provide separate outputs for keyboards and percussion sounds.  The auxiliary sounds in the videos above are a little hot, which can happen when the sound guy mixes your keyboards to be at a “normal” rock band level (which might not be what you want depending on the roll of these sounds in the context of the band).

Conclusions

Although it is a leap to get into some of this, overall it can add a tremendous amount of depth to your band if applied properly.  One area that is lacking commercially is “drumstick compatible” controllers.  I’ve been looking into how one might control MIDI parameters without needing to drop sticks or leave a pedal, which could open up a lot of interesting possibilities for drummers embracing these technologies.  As I move towards performing my solo electronica compositions live, I’ll continue to look at what approaches and technologies are available or adaptable.

I hope that this article has lent a few hints and dispelled some fears about adding these exciting sonic capabilities to your drum set.  If you found this useful or have questions/suggestions about my approach, please let me know.  I hope to write more music technology articles in the future, so be sure to subscribe to my blog!

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About morganhendry

I have been a musician and rocket scientist since 4th grade. I play drums/keyboards for the LA based instrumental rock band Beware of Safety (www.bewareofsafety.com), write electronic music as The Laterite Road (www.thelateriteroad.com), and just landed something on Mars (mars.jpl.nasa.gov). More info can be found at my website (www.morganhendry.com). Sign up here for updates on my many projects: http://morganhendry.fanbridge.com/
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3 Responses to Adding an Electronics Rig to an Acoustic Drum Set

  1. Pingback: Pearl Style Mount for Synesthesia Mandala Drum | morganhendry

  2. Gerry says:

    Thank you Morgan for sharing your drumming journey…it made very interesting reading…
    I sing with a Gospel band and we like our sounds to be unique.. God bless you gerry

  3. simon says:

    Thanks – interesting read.. I’ve been playing a solo electronic show for a couple of years – (Drum Kit + Electronics) but it had mainly been stuff that had already been recorded and bounced from Logic and I’ve only recently moved over to Ableton..

    Been using a ton of different Midi controllers – tried out the Push, Traktor F1 and X1, Midifighter and I just bought the new APC.. but I’m thinking that triggers are now the way to go and I found your blog post by searching Alesis Trigger IO and Ableton..

    The thing that has so far been the most use though, has been an iPad running this app called Touchable which can control Ableton wirelessly and allows the user to create their own custom interface – buttons, faders and everything, that you can label yourself..

    I’ve found that no matter how nice these interfaces are with their disco-light buttons they don’t help you much when you have milliseconds to figure out what’s going on.. especially if, like me you like to play spontaneously and don’t have much in the way of a set-list..

    You mentioned latency being a problem – I’m wondering if you got that sorted.. in theory the latency you get from playing a keyboard and drum triggers shouldn’t be any different..

    Also I have an Alesis Control Pad and I had similar problems trying to trigger clips with it rather than just drum hits – I can’t remember if i solved that problem or not because the unit was always cross-talking or the piezos simply giving up.. so i moved on to other ways..

    Anyways – would love to hear what you’re up to now.. my name is Simon the band name is Simotron and here’s some stuff on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/user/tsunchoo/videos

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