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Bob Elliott
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Bob Elliott

2/16/2009 11:02:15 AM ---- Updated 2/16/2009 11:05:51 AM

A Theory About Drum Machines etc.
Awhile back I read a book called "Science and Music." I learned how any sound is a combination of various pure wavelengths. When you think of it, how else could it be? I mean, that is all sound has to work with: the continuum of wavelengths. So like a note on the acoustic guitar, say the low E sounds like a low E on an acoustic because of the wavelength of Low E, but also the many other harmonics sounding out, actual other notes combining with the low E for various amounts of time at various pulsings, and that combo is what makes us hear "acoustic guitar." Same thing with any sound, a certain voice sounds like that voice and not another due to a unique combination of the various pure wavelengths at varying time cycles.

The book even pointed out that with some instruments the harmonic is actually louder than the tone we perceive as the root tone. You can measure it with some sort of oscilloscope or whatever. After I knew to listen for them, it became a lot like those pictures you stare at and see just dots and then suddenly you can see the picture. Well, when I knew what I was listening to , I could play a note on the acoustic and hear layers of other notes sounding along with the base note. I can hear them easily now, and it is true that sometimes the harmonic is actually as loud as the base tone, but you just don't notice that unless you think to notice.

The book went on to explain that fine instruments like a Stradivarius differ in tone from mere mortal instruments mostly in that they have more harmonics layered, especially in the upper ranges, a richer more complex sound.

So our brains perceive this rich complexity and mostly prefer it (hence the cost of a Stradivarius). I guess the human voice is extra complex blend of waves.

My thought on drum machines is that their mixture of sound waves is pretty consistent. I don't think it varies from hit to hit nearly as much as a real instrument. I think because of this lack of variance, lack of complexity, our brains take it in and understand it sooner than we ever can a recording of a real instrument which will subtly vary even when we try not to.

I think this is why music that used a lot of drum machine and other "set electronics" tends to be a recording that usually we can't listen to over the years as much. THey tend to wear out faster. They can have real strong initial impact, but don't seem as good at lasting year after year.

I think that explains the "Prince Problem." He was obviously as creative as most any of the major greats, yet I can't seem to listen to his old stuff over and over like I can with say Sly Stone. It's the drum machine. The very drum machine that might have seemed so special in the beginning is what I think kills the longevity.

Whereas the natural drum may seem less snazzy initially, I think it's deeper complexity in the sound wave will make it have more staying power as a recording.

I think our brains tire of sounds they get all figured out sooner, and I think natural sounds are generally much more complex for our heads to eve fully get figured.

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Hop On Pop

2/16/2009 11:53:31 AM ---- Updated 2/16/2009 11:58:14 AM

You can argue Picasso's cubisim vs. Renoir's classicism all you want. And you may, yourself, prefer one over the other. But this is an argument that can never be won.

Bottom line:
Great art will always reveal more of itself over time, no matter whether you are using a full palette or just the primary colors.

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2/16/2009 1:18:42 PM

well, and what shall I say as an electronic drums programmer ;-)

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Chris Hance

2/16/2009 1:22:45 PM

@mag, you could offer tips or tricks to get the most "feel" out of prg'd drums

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Chris Hance

2/16/2009 1:25:17 PM

@Bob, well put points.

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Richard Scotti

2/16/2009 1:51:18 PM

Real drums played by a good drummer are always better than a drum machines but I have heard programmed drums that sounded pretty damn good with samples of real parts of drum kits. The Akai MPC 5000 can be programmed to have some "human feel" and sounds pretty good. But there ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby!

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Hop On Pop

2/16/2009 2:09:17 PM

@ Richard

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2/16/2009 3:38:08 PM

I agree about waveshapes or waveforms, or waves period.

Don't forget time, too in that equation.

Time makes the waves ripple.

Toss a pebble into a pond, pretend your ear is the shore.
Over time the ripples ripple and rebound and add up to seemingly endless variety of waves hitting the shore where you are.

Same for harmonically deep sound.

Sound waves over time makes them waves, as opposed to sound particles which would have been blasted out to us like paint guns in one of those army games deals in the woods.

Sounds are not pellets.

Sounds are waves.

Drum machines emit sound pellets, just like paint-ball guns.
And that gets tiring after a while. Any ear can tell you that.

I am (and always have been) drawn to organs for this very reason of harmonics.
Originally that was Hammond organs, but of late, this has been the great call from the Electone organs.

The layers of harmonics are seemingly endless.

Especially with the aid of a Phase 90 and some echo.

Echo helps place the harmonics in time and meter.

Don't forget about time, because time makes the wave ripple.

Drum machines (or anything like a digital sample) equals sound pellets.
On the other hand, rodents emit pellets, and those are organic.

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2/16/2009 3:41:49 PM

I'll always try and mess up the drum machine: use a phase or flange on the hat or something. Mess with the time. Pan tricks.

But mostly I work with a drummer.

Or an analog drum machine inside a home organ. Those are better than digital.

Prince squandered so much of his greatness by not forming a kick-ass band to record with. Prince would have been great in the Police or Oasis.

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2/16/2009 3:42:41 PM

And I think Prince and Sting would have gotten along just fine. No fights at all.

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2/16/2009 3:44:12 PM

I don't think however, that Prince would have been happy in the Clash. Not with all that blood and spitting. Ick. The funny thing is though that Prince could have played in Metallica. But not Bon Jovi.

Radiohead f.Prince would have been a blast.

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Kevin White

2/16/2009 4:16:57 PM ---- Updated 2/16/2009 4:22:04 PM

I use both live and synth, depending what crayon color I want, and I'm always satisfied when I'm done ... because it's only choosing what to use when it's appropriate for the statement being made.

I wouldn't overstate the case for either. Great music has been created with both.

It depends on the medium, and the subject.

Regarding harmonics, talk to Sam about hearing strings in his guitar ... and there are gear industries based on the same fundamental concept.


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Hop On Pop

2/16/2009 5:52:34 PM

A drum machine cannot interpret and communicate like a real drummer. Period.

It cannot.
And, sometimes that's just the sound that I (or someone else) may want.

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Kevin White

2/16/2009 6:54:53 PM

As an illustration:


Total drum machine, and I truly couldn't imagine the piece any other way.

Nothing is "wrong" per se.

It's only sound.

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2/16/2009 8:31:30 PM

Larree, Hop,

I've played with the same drummer forever, and not once do I recall this "Communicate" thing you mention....are you sure drummers can communicate?

Glenn, you out there? Did Ron ever communicate and I missed it?

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never never band

2/16/2009 10:46:49 PM

when I recorded my Never Never tracks I would track the bass line with the drummer, then usually I would throw that bass line out and begin again with bass then guitars, then Keys if I used them then vocals..

so what would happen is I'd play to the drum track, but i'd know what he was gonna do so I could get that interactive vibe..
so even though there's an organic feel and an interactive feel for the most part it's sort of reverse engineered.

when I do midi drums I play them on the keyboard to a click track and a bass line/guitar line..I then quantize, but then I shift things around and try to add some variables and dynamics to the snare and hat, maybe I'll drag the time off lightly, like rush a snare hit on a turnaround. Most of the kits I use have 3 levels of touch so you can get some dynamics just going over hits in the sequencer and then you ca do this and that with other plugins...
all in all it's a lot of damn effort to make midi drums sound alive, especially for a guy like me who doesn't play drums on the keyboard real well (my son can do it and make it sound like a real kit, but his time is killer and he's a drummer)

I have a few tracks that I've done to straight drum loops and I COMPLETELY agree with the premise of this Topic that they dont hold up well over the long haul, and I think you're exactly right about why, there's not enough novelty in the sound...

I'd do everything with a live drummer if I could, but as I play all of the other instruments it still ends up being the sort of reverse engineered .
I love recording live, straight up room recordings of a trio ....but I never get to do that anymore as I dont have a band, sometimes when I sit in with a local combo we'll record our show with one of those little sony stereo recorders, but thats about as close as I get getting to record a real interactive scene.....

still, there's a lot of neat stuff you can do with midi drums and/or getting a drummer to lay some tracks with you that you can build....

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Bob Elliott

2/16/2009 11:34:35 PM

You're cracking me up, Flametop. Yeah, Prince and Sting in the same band would have been real peaceful. All they'd need is, hmmm, well, Stewart Copeland.

They'd get along so well.

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Bob Elliott

2/16/2009 11:40:59 PM

But yeah Man, I hadn't thought abought how explicit organs are with this very concept. The draw bars are the very thing...toying with the harmonics. What a trip.

Trips me out how some of you guys can play with the draw bars while playing the music. That would be very expressive if I could do it, but I find that kind of hard.

Sure, Hop, sometimes we reach for a drum machine, but that doesn't mean I'm not on to something about humans and sound.

Also, lately I've kind of seen the goal of recording the sound is increasing those harmonics. I mean, my acoustic is full of them and if I play right and let them ring out, and set the mic right, I catch that uncontrolled rich weirdness that is I think an emotional element for us.

I got a small vintage tube amp recently. First tube amp I ever had (Shoulda had one a couple decades ago). Anyway, it brings out harmonics that are mysteriously moving.

I think that complexity of sound in your fabric is an emotionally charged thing. Evolutionarily...

Can we get a beer over here??? A few Modelo Negros?

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Bob Elliott

2/17/2009 12:16:50 AM

Why could you not hear "Blame" without a drum machine?

Let's say Ringo wanted to give it a go?

I think he'd sound good on that track.

I like the psychedelic bit...

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2/17/2009 12:34:30 AM

Drum machines sound 5000 times more real than they did in 1990. Good drummers or compatible drummers are not easy to find. I'll take a drum machine over a mediocre drummer any day. A lot of people don't know to add swing to their sequences, so they make drum machines sound mechanical at times. Those lame drum machines from the early days are the reason a lot of 80s music sounds .. cheap.

Actually most home recording people rely on the sample sequences in the box and never learn to write drum parts.

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2/17/2009 12:36:27 AM

You are onto the real difference between a drum machine and a human drummer. Even though there are tools these days that allow you to layer drum samples and to vary their sound by velocity... it's getting closer, but it will never be the same as a real drummer on a real kit.

And yes, some folks are happy with their drum machines, but I feel sure that a lot of people who use drum machines exclusively would rather use a real drummer, especially if they had the chance to work with a real drummer for the same cost and convenience as a machine :)

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2/17/2009 12:38:32 AM

Depends on the drummer. It's not easy to find really good ones.

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Hop On Pop

2/17/2009 12:49:56 PM

I'm not arguing your point regarding humans and their response to more-complex harmonic structures. All I am saying is that (in some instances) drum machines provide a legitimate sonic option, if they fit the feel of the song.

And I am not saying this as a means of defending myself; listen to the songs on my page and you will not hear a single programmed drum (yet). But there are times that I could (and will) make the decision to use a drum machine because its sound is just right for that particular song.

See my point regarding DEVO, earlier on. Yes, they did use real drums on many of their songs, but they also frequently used synth drums and drum machines. It was a conscious decision... as is the Dadaist's decision to use austere, nondecorative motifs. As is the cubist's decision to deconstruct their imagery. As is the classicist's decision to use the full pallatte.

My only argument is that, there is more than one approach. You are discovering just how rich certain sounds can be and how pleasing that can be. I completely agree. It's funny though because I am just discovering how satisfying it can be to go in the other direction -- to break it down and isolate some of those harmonics (as I have always worked with only a real drummer and tube amps).

Again, it's the argument of Picasso vs. Renoir.
It comes down to: does the artist know what they are doing within their medium? Is there a reason for their choices and do they do it well? Not everyone will like it, but that's okay. Picasso was initially derided in his day, as well. (Although we all know that most folks are no Picassos!)

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Hop On Pop

2/17/2009 1:14:43 PM ---- Updated 2/17/2009 1:15:24 PM

By the same sentiment:
Drums are just a tool though too, Larree.

And, drummers being human... that's debatable. I've known many drummers who are tools, themselves!

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Kevin White

2/17/2009 2:32:00 PM

The discussion unexpectedly veers suddenly towards amp simulators versus live amp miking ...


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Hop On Pop

2/17/2009 7:52:26 PM

Another point:
Have you heard the new Lilly Allen single?
All drum machines. Sounds great.

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2/17/2009 7:53:19 PM

Recording with a drummer saves time.

Sure, it generates more hair-pulling out, but saves time.

There is always that discussion about musical conversation between players.
When I record with live drummer, live bass, live guitar, I always try to keep as much of that I as I can.

That's where the human converstaion lies.

They are my friends.

Over the years, well the total amount of spoken actual words we have exchanged probably adds up to a short Emily Dickenson poem. But the total amount of musical words (inarticulate speech of the heart) we have exchanged would fill every phone book in every city in every year there have been phone books.

Music is the inarticulate speech of the heart, Van Morrison got that right.

And that's why the bassist and drummer and I still make music 30 years on.

We don't have to explain ourselves, the music does the talking.

Life is short, we die.

I would much rather spend my remaining years in a room with my friends than in a room with a drum machine.

Anyone seen the movie "Once" ? ... stunning. Must see.

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2/17/2009 7:55:21 PM

Pete Best dismissed because he didn't seem to be able to join the conversation.

Ringo knew exactly what to say for "A Day in the Life"

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Hop On Pop

2/17/2009 7:57:25 PM ---- Updated 2/17/2009 7:59:58 PM

"I would much rather spend my remaining years in a room with my friends than in a room with a drum machine."

I completely agree.

The guy who plays drums with me is not only one of my best friends, but he's also a phenomenal drummer, as evidenced :

So, if the song calls for it, why not let the drummer program the drum machine? Get his or her feel (and company) while still getting the sound you need... if that is what you need.

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2/17/2009 7:58:51 PM

I do like drum machines because they are easy, simple, direct.
I used the drum machine in my Electones to get that whol Jean Michel Jarre thing, to comp that whole Tangerine Dream deal.

But my music is 100 times better when Mark confronts me with the proper beat and feel of the song. If my song is dragging, Mark can fix that right away. He's got 30 or 40 years of drumming chops inside the song to know what works and what doesn't.

I trust him complicitly

I trust him with my musical life, my songs are far better because of his drumming.
And my songs are never worse because of his drumming.

I adore drummers and bass players.

Music can not be made in a vacuum.

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2/17/2009 8:00:01 PM

If Mark is in the house, no drum machine will dare sound.

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2/17/2009 8:02:35 PM

Mark plays in his bare feet when we are recording and is time and again, the loudest drummer I have ever played with or ever heard (which can be a drawback on a balld).

He has no patience for weak, limp-wristed girlish emo songs from me. Mark only wants to play to good songs. NOW! The drumming animal must be fed.

Thus I get kicked in the ass as a song writer and arranger.

No drum machine ever kicked my ass.

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2/17/2009 8:05:18 PM

Funny thing because I have been listening to the Police (transferring vinyl into iTunes) and without a doubt it was the three of them that made the Police happen.

Sure, Sting is talented. No question.
But Stewart and Andy each added so much to the Police sound.

Andy added all those colours and tones and surprise sentiments (please read his book "One Train Later") and Stewart kept pushing the tempo.

Which song was it ... "Driven to Tears" weaves in and out of tight meter. And the song is all the better for it.

Sting really sucked when he got a meter-steady drummer on his solo records.
Sting's an asshole for breaking up that great band and not using them. Why can't we have one last great Police studio album?

Featuring Prince.

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Bob Elliott

2/17/2009 8:06:30 PM

These things are so true. My brother in law is my drummer, and he is my deep friend going way back to when he was only a child.

But we live 300 miles apart, so that causes some many problems.

I think all the recordings you've done lately with your friends are so organic and sound like you are playing in the same room, and it really is working.

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2/17/2009 8:09:29 PM

For the sake of new folks, here is my theory:

Primary Elements of Creativity are:

And say every song winds up at 100%.
If you have 10% Inspiration but 50% Craft and 40% Humanity you might be okay.
But the aim should always be to have as much Humanity as possible.

Ramones never had much % in the way of inspiration or craft.
But oh, the Humanity!

Related to the Police, you could even break that up into each member:
33% = Craft from Sting
33% = Inspiration from Andy
33% = Humanity from Stewart

That's what made the Police.
Sting was a fool to let go of his inspiration and humanity.

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2/17/2009 8:12:59 PM

As I get older I am regretting those years I wasted in isolated seclusion making solo, one-man-band recordings of songs nobody heard or cared for.

My remaining years are dedicated to making music with my friends, and know that music will resonate with new friends I have never met.

Everyone is ordered by me, tonight, to go home and set fire to their drum machine.
Stick your drum machine in the microwave or the oven. Don't breathe in the fumes though.

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2/17/2009 8:15:19 PM

using a drum machine is no different than participating in a Poetry Slam.

I'm sorry, there it is. I've said it.

And who here can honestly say they've evern truly enjoyed a Poetry Slam.
( Even if it got you laid by supporting your boyfriend/girlfriend )

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2/17/2009 8:16:58 PM

in sum:

Drum Machine = painful like paintball pellets, painful like Poetry Slam

Real Drummer = friends for life, better music, key to happiness

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Hop On Pop

2/17/2009 8:19:11 PM

Drums = tool
Drum machine = tool

Both are means to an end.

By the way, Fred... I would never, ever ask you to use a machine, were I your producer. Your music does not lend itself to one. (And I listened to your tunes and will likely add something -- it's damn good!)

Still, keep my arguments in-mind.
There are no absolutes.

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Bob Elliott

2/17/2009 8:28:13 PM

You are cracking me up.

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Hop On Pop

2/17/2009 8:50:55 PM

Then I got a helluva hand, Larree... because the song that's going to be the first single from the next record is spraying my entire world with happiness!!!

May be the most-perfect production that I've created yet.

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The Man With No Band

2/17/2009 9:19:43 PM

I knew a drummer once ... the band ruined him ... :)

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2/17/2009 9:30:40 PM

People who put down drum machines can't play them very good.

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Chris Hance

2/22/2009 11:46:10 PM

Heres a drum machine track from teh early nineties.................
Click 4 Angry NoizE!

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Bob Elliott

2/23/2009 2:27:49 AM

It's all kind of funny since I'm messing with some fat drum machine sounds on the thing I'm on right now. Love 'em. I like the hip hop kits.

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