“I thought using loops was cheating, so I programmed my own using samples. I then thought using samples was cheating, so I recorded real drums. I then thought that programming it was cheating, so I learned to play drums for real. I then thought using bought drums was cheating, so I learned to make my own. I then thought using premade skins was cheating, so I killed a goat and skinned it. I then thought that that was cheating too, so I grew my own goat from a baby goat. I also think that is cheating, but I’m not sure where to go from here. I haven’t made any music lately, what with the goat farming and all.”
I realize that this isn’t the first time I’ve referenced this joke, and it’s for a good reason – it says pretty much everything that needs to be said on the topic. Or does it? Some will never be satisfied – until the end of this article, of course.
I first brought it up in the Ongoing Concept interview we did, because the band made all their own instruments by hand for their album Handmade. Seems like a long way to go just to make an album, but I think the result will speak for itself, and they wanted to make absolutely sure that what they were doing was 100% legit.
But what about the other 99.99999% of us? Are we skirting the truth by using triggers, samples, and other performance modifications?
You’re about to get the straight dope.
No, the music isn’t coming “from inside you”, unless you’re a singer. When you push a piano key, it doesn’t unlock a mystical vibration inside your soul that sets the music free, it moves a lever that strikes a set of strings that vibrate the air, metal soundboard, and wood of the piano. You’re using physics to amplify your own musical will, using a mechanical magnification of a motion that you make to vibrate something you never actually touched.
Of course, you would never call a piano player a cheater – that would be ridiculous.
Guitar players are big fat phonies too. No matter how hard I hit the strings on my electric guitar, it’ll never be loud enough to be heard over a drummer, triggers or no. So I plug a cable into my guitar that transmits the electric signal generated by magnets in response to the puny vibrations coming off the tiny strings to the preamp stage of an amplifier. The preamp makes that signal a great deal more powerful, and changes the tone completely from what was coming out of the guitar, then transmits that sound to the power amp stage, which amplifies the sound by 120 decibels. The guitar didn’t make that sound; I didn’t make that sound. It was a domino-style chain of events leading to an end result.
Now let’s talk about how a trigger works. A velocity-sensitive transducer is attached to the drum head (or anything, really), which transmits an electronic signal (the strength of which is determined by the velocity of the hit) to a sampler module, which triggers an internal sound that is transmitted to the module’s output. The sound that is produced can be essentially any sound that exists – a car horn, a chicken squawking, fart sound, etc. What this does is allow the drums to sound like something they aren’t. The most common application is to trigger a more ideal version of the drum you’re hitting, but it’s not limited to that.
Jesus, I really hope you see where I’m going with this – I’m gonna spell it out for you, but if you haven’t gotten the gist by now I don’t think it’s going to help.
Jens Johansson of Stratovarius plays a sampler keyboard. Its control surface is obviously based on that of a piano. Only, instead of striking a set of strings, the key strikes a pad similar to a drum trigger that transmits a signal to the sampler inside of the keyboard, and outputs the sound type of his choosing. I hope when you watched the above video and heard Jens’ sublime, tasteful phrasing and instrumental mastery that you didn’t think to yourself WELL IT’S NOT A REAL PIANO SO IT DOESN’T COUNT.
Sorry, I wrote that in all caps because most people who think that sort of thing are too stupid to distinguish between capital and lowercase letters.
No, using triggers isn’t cheating. As you can see, every performance on every instrument is transmitted from someplace to someplace else, and in the process is amplified, changed, manipulated, and generally not the sound that you yourself made. You think a fully acoustic drum set on a recording is any different? Good luck hearing that without microphones, cables, speakers, and electricity! Imagine trying to hear “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath from the album Black Sabbath without any of that – depending on your beliefs in quantum mechanics, Bill Ward’s original vibrations might still be bouncing around somewhere, but isn’t it better that there was an engineer on hand to cheat us all by amplifying his performance and capturing it to media so we could amplify it again later and hear it again? And you’re tripping HARD if you think there was no compression used to raise the volume of the drum parts and change the dynamics – on that or any of your favorite recordings.
One important thing that we look for as musicians and artists is control – triggers simply afford a drummer a greater level of control over their sound. It’s just a production decision made to help control certain parameters.
Here’s Dirk Verburen of Soilwork, one of the best drummers in metal today, playing an electronic drum kit, which is essentially a bunch of drum triggers without the acoustic drums at all. (Actually, it’s kind of ironic, because when Dirk records for Soilwork he doesn’t use triggers). I certainly hope you wouldn’t think he was cheating, as it’s pretty obvious he can play his ass off, on any kit.
The drum samples have multiple velocity layers, and how hard he hits the trigger determines what velocity layer you hear. Even if you max out the velocity, it’s because you’re going for a certain sound, no different from tuning your drum a certain way or choosing certain cymbals to get a certain sound.
A trumpeter blows air into a mechanical device that makes a sound that he couldn’t make without brass and the technology to bend it, a clarinetist blows through reeds that produce a tone they couldn’t make with their mouth – we’re all fucking cheats if you look at it that way. A drummer modifying the sound of his performance is no different from a guitarist using a distortion pedal, or a violinist using a bow. We’re all just searching for the sound we have in our heads, and we have to find it externally.
The idea comes from within, but the sounds are all outside of us – we’re all just transmitting our will into mechanical cheat machines. Let’s stop worrying about what’s real and what’s not and just enjoy the fucking music.