Extended Percussion

Editor's note: although this article is written from the perspective of a percussionist, many of these techniques can easily be applied to other instruments.

Beats and Loops: Extending Percussion with Electronics by Joby Burgess

As a percussionist, I get to play, learn, make and find hundreds of instruments, discovering new combinations in which to use them and new things to make them sound. Well before I even picked up a pair of sticks I also had a keen interest in recording music, playing with computers and hanging out in studios.

As I began to extend my on-stage percussion set-up with electronics, I founded the multimedia group Powerplant in 2005 to explore percussion-led music with a strong electronic sound. This has led to extensive research into developing a reliable and tour-able electronic percussion set-up, alongside a range of collaborations, commissions, remixes and recording projects. This article will give some starting points for further investigation into percussion and electronics, within the context of my own work.

Signal Processing

The simplest way to alter your sound with an electronic device is to amplify it, and then use a stomp box, a small effect pedal that many electric guitarists employ to process their sound – think U2’s Edge. This can be can be done fairly cheaply and by stringing a few boxes together – delay, flanger, chorus, pitch-shifter – you can quickly transform your acoustic instrument into something altogether different. Although the quality is not amazing, I like using stomp boxes because you can quickly get a good feel for combining different effects, while discovering which parameters each effect works within.

These days I tend to use plug-ins from the laptop to process my sound, because I can pre-programme every effect and it’s less to carry! When working live I often travel with my own sound designer; in Powerplant this is Matthew Fairclough, a composer and sound engineer with whom I have worked with for nearly ten years. Matthew processes my instruments for each specific venue, while also balancing the front-of-house sound; his presence means the level of complexity and precision achieved with the electronics is far greater.

MIDI Instruments

In 2001, I was involved in some concerts with drummer Stewart Copeland (importantly, one of the loudest drummers on earth), which required fast-moving ostinati to be played in the lowest register of a five-octave marimba. With a large rubber stick you get this great contact ‘slap’ sound, but even amplified the instrument was lost in the mix. Our solution was to use a MIDI mallet instrument with a good marimba sample, which could compete with the rest of the ensemble. The xylosynth is a relatively simple but extremely reliable midi mallet instrument with wooden keys similar to those of a xylophone, but laid out flat, identical to a vibraphone.

Designed and built in England by Wernick Musical Instruments, the xylosynth sends MIDI information and allows simple operations such as sustain, transpose and sensitivity to be handled with ease. However, as with most MIDI instruments you need to ‘learn’ the instrument, and this will mean adapting the way you might usually play. In general, I have to use smaller physical gestures on the synth than I would playing a regular vibes or marimba in order to achieve a full dynamic range. Once you’ve found and learnt the point where you are triggering sounds at the maximum velocity (127 on the scale of 0-127), you should start to feel comfortable.

Soft Samplers

In order to make a sound, my xylosynth needs to trigger either a sound module or, more creatively, a sampler, and I use a soft (software) sampler, running on a laptop to do this. The EXS24 in Logic Pro is really easy to use, and I either receive samples to upload from composers, or make my own by cutting up old recordings or searching out interesting sound effects. I also use soft synths in some of my work, usually Sculpture (also Logic Pro) – this is a very powerful tool, which lets you sculpt wave forms in many interesting ways.

For performing, I create one song containing all the various samplers, synths and vocoders I’ll need for a gig, which I select with foot pedals while I play. Graham Fitkin’s Chain of Command uses the voices of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld as the only sound sources, and during a performance I’ll step through eight different sets of carefully edited and processed samples.

It’s worth making sure you have plenty of RAM in your laptop (my MacBook Pro has 4GB) and closing all non-associated programmes, including Airport (tweet before the gig) and if your programs have a ‘Live’ mode, use it. This should help your laptop focus its full processing power on your music, and reduce the risk of crashes, which will leave you on stage alone and wishing there was no audience!

Counterpoint and Looping

As a soloist I often use either a sequencer or more often a looper – see www.loopers-delight.com – to perform multilayered music, effectively playing live on top of myself. The sequencer comes in really useful for performing Steve Reich, because you can carefully craft and produce layers of yourself in the studio before adding a solo part. It can be a time-consuming business, recording and mixing dozens of interlocking parts, but the result is worth it and you’ll have a fantastic piece with many layers of ‘your’ playing in it.

Unless you're using a software looper such as Ableton, one built in Max/MSP or a more sophisticated hardware device, you can get stuck quite quickly both rhythmically and harmonically when looping.  However, live looping is incredibly powerful and I use a Boss RC-50 to perform compositions with ‘classical’ structures, developing melodic material and starting/stopping different rhythmical phrases independently of one another.

I use this looper throughout Gabriel Prokofiev’s Import/Export, and because it has several outputs, we were able to process the live instrument and the three loops independently, further enhancing the raw sounds of the metal, plastic, glass and wooden junk objects.

About the Author

Joby Burgess is one of Britain’s most diverse percussionists, Joby is the leader of the multimedia trio Powerplant and co-artistic director of the chamber groups New Noise and Ensemble Bash.  Dedicated to the development of the percussion repertoire, often in combination with electronics, Joby spends much of his time commissioning and recording new music.

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