Electronic Percussion is not just V-Drums

14 Dec '11

Dave Gerhart posted an article recently called “A Question Concerning Electronic Percussion” by Norman Weinberg over on drumchattr.

I read this article in semi-disbelief and it wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised it must have been written quite some time ago (actually in 1990).

It is interesting to read such an old article to see how the world of electronic musical instruments has changed but I got stuck on one of Weinberg’s predictions:

“For better or worse, the knowledge and skills required to manufacture a good sampler, mallet controller, electronic kit, or drum machine are more complex… This means that electronic percussion instruments will most likely come from the larger corporations rather than the small home-factory.”

This has turned out to be absolutely not true, but I think it’s something the percussion (especially PAS) community isn’t necessarily aware of. While instruments like Roland’s V-Drums have stayed more or less stagnant in terms of design (but not in price or adoption!), creative performers have been making new electronic percussion instruments or innovative hybrids of existing ones.

The last 10 years has seen an explosion of interest in DIY fabrication of electronics and in particular electronic musical instruments. The threshold of “knowledge and skills required” to create electronic percussion instruments has become vastly lower thanks to the efforts of groups who believe in making “making” more accessible.

With an Arduino, a “drum kit kit” circuit board and a handful of piezo transducers a beginner could go create something similar to Roland’s old octapad or Alesis’s “Performance Pad”. With the right teacher, this could happen in one afternoon!

Of course, it would take much more investment to create beautiful, expressive and robust instruments suitable for touring - but it does happen, and it happens more creatively from boutique instrument makers than it does in larger corporations.

The player-inventor

I think there’s a place in the world for creative instrument makers who manufacture instruments for performers. But the most creative new instruments I’ve seen have been invented by the players themselves.

The electronics side of the “maker” movement is often about putting a few existing components together in a creative way. The artist in this video above has done a little bit of work making a transparent drum with a stretchy skin and a lot of work on the software end, but, most impressively, he has put together the camera, drum and software in a totally creative way to make a compelling performance.

This same creativity can be directed towards making hybrid percussion instruments… part acoustic, part electronic. There are great tools available now from big instrument makers (Roland and Korg mainly) to invent our own instruments (or multi setups!) from ready-to-buy components. The computer-based tools are more accessible than ever and the barriers for creating custom software and hardware are ever lower so that even if a player can’t make it themselves, they can find a bedroom-engineer who can make it for them.

Percussionists didn’t fall behind with electronic instruments as Weinberg feared in 1990. Percussionists are trained for this stuff. We’re the “makers” of the orchestra. We’re the crazy sound kids that composers want to hang out with. We don’t need to rely on the large instrument manufacturers to invent our new instruments for us, we (with some friends at a local hackerspace!) can make them ourselves.