There was a time (a long, long ago, in a galaxy, far, far away) when certain members of any band would be the butt of all the jokes. Traditionally, the drummers were thick and dribbled when they played, bass players would be failed guitarists who could only count to four (so felt more comfortable playing a four stringed instrument) etc, etc
Thankfully, we have all moved on from there – the days of the drummer just hitting plastic head with wooden rods and that was all are long gone, and we are all expected to be a lot more ‘on top of our game’ now.
With the glut of music colleges pouring more and more trained musicians out on to the streets every year, we all have to be much more flexible and have much more experience under or belts. One thing its worth remembering is that there is ALWAYS someone within 5 miles of you who is much more qualified, much better technically, and who has ninja level social skills, who is just ready to take on all your work, so you’d better be prepared if you want to hang on to it.
However, it still amazes me how many drummers are happy to think that the main tools of their trade are drumsticks. We are now in a world where the average phone has more storage that the rolls of tape that the Beatles recorded the whole of the St. Pepper album on, and our tablets have better audio processing than used on Metallica’s Black Album.
At this point I’m not going to say ‘learn to play the bass’, or ‘learn to play the piano’ (though both would help massively in your quest to be a better musician), but I AM going to say ‘learn to use some software, and learn to use it well’.
Exactly which software is up to you. If you already have a favourite such as Cubase, or Logic or ProTools then stick with it, but you might want to continue to read on anyway.
If you have a Mac then you already have Garageband (which is to all intents and purposes ‘Logic Pro Lite’) and, despite what anyone says, is totally brilliant. If you usually use something else but need software in a hurry and have nothing else, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how powerful it is.
If you have a PC then you don’t have anything built in in the same way as a Mac user does, but both Mac and PC users can download Reaper (by Cockos in New York) for a free trial (you need to pay a very reasonable $60/£46 licence fee if you use it for longer than a sensible length trial period, but the ‘sensible’ length period is entirely down to your interpretation). Reaper pretty much covers everything that (the former, industry standard) ProTools can do.
But, if you have the money, or you have a free copy, I would seriously recommend getting a copy of Live by Ableton (more commonly called Ableton Live or just Ableton). Many companies are giving away a copy of Ableton Lite with various devices such as audio interfaces and USB devices, and Roland are currently giving away a copy with some SPDSX pads.
Now, at this point I should point out I have no professional connection to Ableton – I have never (to my knowledge) even spoken to anyone from the company. But, and it is a BIG BUT, I honestly think that it is SO GOOD that ALL drummers should get to know Ableton.
Quite why it is so good is rather difficult to say in a short piece such as this article, so I thought I’d give a few examples. Now, the following are not exclusive to Ableton, but there is no other software that does it all, and so efficiently, and easily, and are so drummer friendly.
The boring electronic kit.
You have an e kit. You are bored with it. Do you buy another module? No, you hook it up to Ableton on your computer with a single USB cable, open up Drum Rack, and then just drag and drop whatever weird, wacky or stunning samples into it, which are triggered by the pads of your electronic kit. Adding sampling to an electronic kit was never so easy. With another 10 seconds work, you can even create your own multi layer samples using your own samples if required. Want 127 velocity layer of a Black Beauty? You can do it.
The ‘creative’ electronic kit
Want to add loops to your kit and create some cool grooves to play over? Easy – drag in the loops, assign some effects (loads are built in) and away you go. To assign each loop to a pad, just press one button, click on the loop, and hit the pad you want to use to play it. Everything will sync to the click, even if they were all different tempos to begin with, and it doesn’t matter when you hit the pad – the loops will all play nicely together. If the loops all have different feels, it doesn’t matter – you can give them all the same groove so they mesh together nicely. It is really that simple.
The theatre musician
You need some weird percussion samples for your theatre show. Drag and drop the bell tree, Swanee whistle and gong samples into DrumRack, connect it to your multi pad, and away you go. It even makes a mean cup of coffee to enjoy in the second act (a complete lie).
The function band
You need clicks, backing tracks and the odd sample for that intro of the song by the Killers. Simple – drag them all in, put them in the rough order you want them, set the tempos and away you go, plus (and this is a big one with Ableton) you can slow down or speed up any of the tracksin real time as you are playing if required. Want to do the last chorus five times rather than three as the audience are going mad? Easy.
The pub band
You need a directory of hundreds of songs with backing tracks for the musical Karaoke you do down the pub. You have access to tempos, backing tracks, but you can also use Ableton as a mixer for the whole band and put effects on the instruments and vocals in real time. Plus all the effects will tempo sync to the tracks.
The nightmare audition
Imagine you are at an audition for a new, upcoming artist. The Musical Director gives you a USB drive and says “These are all the samples you need. There’s 254 of them. The tempos for the loops are all wrong – they need to be 5bpm faster. The snare sounds all need to be up 2dB and all the kicks need to have a little 3k rolled off them. The bell tree needs to be reversed and theres a snare sound that needs a beat matched delay at 123bpm but for the chorus only. We start playing in 15 minutes, OK?”.
Could you handle that? Would you need a new pair of trousers? Would you even understand what he was saying? A lot of people couldn’t, but with software like this, its pretty easy.
Theres a load more examples, but I think these are the main ones that we drummers might come up against.
Now, if you are like me, all of the above apply to me at one time or another, which is even more reason to have a look at it. You might also be saying, ‘Well, I can do all those things already’, and so you might, but I can guarantee its not with the efficiency and speed that Ableton allows you to do it.
The reason I’m writing all this, is that yesterday I spent a day showing another drummer (Hi JJ!) exactly how Ableton could help them in what they wanted to do. Its true that familiarity breeds contempt, and it was only showing another drummer quite how useful Ableton was that I was reminded just how absolutely unbelievably brilliant it is.
So, if you have been putting off learning a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Logic or Cubase or ProTools, do yourself a favour – get a copy of Ableton or download the free 30 day trial and just see what it can do for you.
I don’t want this to sound like an advert, and as I mentioned earlier, I don’t stand to gain anything from this, but I do feel that it really should be standard issue for us drummers, especially if we have some nice technology at our disposal to trigger it from.
If you don’t believe me, get in touch, tell me I’m wrong and I’ll show you how I’m not! Deal?