Drum machines: not for hitting
Everyone knows we love drums at Hexinverter. But many people, ourselves included, have a tendency to think of modular drums as more like an infinitely customisable drum machine, rather than something you might play by hitting.
Of course, we don't deny that the Mutant Drums' lineage is that of the drum machine. The first drum machines were intended to provide accompaniment for musicians, often organists in church, and played a limited number of pre-programmed patterns (Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango etc). In time they became user-programmable and the sounds became more lifelike and powerful, eventually leading to the creation of the two most famous drum machines, the Roland TR-808 and TR-909. Those idiosyncratic circuits, much later, inspired us to create the Mutant Drums.
Drum pads, drum brains
But just as Roland, Linn and others were perfecting the drum machine, adding features like swing and variation to their sequencers to 'humanise' their rhythms, another class of devices were being developed that were, at first glance, very similar. These consisted of a number of pads, played with sticks or hands like acoustic drums, that sent triggers to a unit that produced the drum sounds, which manufacturers eventually settled on calling a “drum brain”.
The first drum brain was in fact a hacked, pre-programmed drum machine: an Ace Tone Rhythm Ace. The Rhythm Ace was of its time, ie. robotic-sounding and rigid with none of the humanising features later developed. So in 1967 Felix Viser, a drummer playing for Swedish pop band the VIPs, modified one of these simple drum machines, building a series of circuits with capacitive pads that triggered the drum sounds, so he could play them with his hands and give them the human feel that the sequencer could not. It was another decade before Simmons was formed, in 1978, to produce the commercial electronic drum kits that became famous in the 80s.
Suddenly drummers could sequence electronic drums in real time with their hands and feet:they could drum.
In the mid-eighties, using a Simmons kit, or supplementing an acoustic kit with a few Simmons pads triggering drum sounds - probably with a gated reverb on the snare - became quite common. Most drummers, however, did not take to them and many people still think of electronic drums as a short-lived 80s fad.
The most common complaint from musicians, then as now, is that electronic drums don’t sound as good as acoustic and don’t feel right. So manufacturers focused on making their drums more realistic, both in how they sound and how they feel. These days e-drummers can play massive libraries of highly realistic-sounding, multi-sampled drums, on mesh heads that fairly accurately replicate the feel of acoustic drums.
You may have noticed that perfectly realistic drum sounds aren’t our priority at Hexinverter. If the Mutant Machine replicates an actual drum, we don’t believe it exists in this universe. Although it can certainly produce lifelike timbres, the Mutant Machine is special because it can sound like nothing else. What can we say? It’s a mutant!
Using an electronic drum kit as an input device for modular, however - that sounds interesting!
A piano-style keyboard, the de facto synth controller since Bob Moog added one to the Moog modular back in 1964, is a fantastically useful input device for chromatic music but not so great for drums (although there are some amazing finger drummers out there).
The experience of playing is different: you use the whole body rather than just your fingers and hands. It is a more primal, basic form of music-making, with a lower barrier to entry: almost everybody can drum a basic rhythm and invest it with feeling, with little or no practice. And then there are the endless possibilities of patching: velocity can be patched to multiple parameters; we can layer drums so that different sounds come in as you hit a pad harder. Or how about using drums as clocks? Imagine a live modular performance from a drummer, using their own hi hat pattern as a clock for the whole set, syncing modulation or maybe even melodic elements, with live drumming.
But first thing’s first. We recently talked a very talented drummer, Brandon Goodwin, into having a go jamming on the Mutant Drums. Suffice it to say he blew us away - stay tuned for the video!
So, whether you’re a forward-thinking drummer or you just like hitting inanimate objects to make a sound (i.e. you’re a drummer) stay tuned to the Patchaday blog over the next few weeks to follow our ongoing exploration of “Mutant Drumming”.
Many people think that Bob Moog created the first synthesizer back in 1965. His Moog Modular set a standard that is still in use today. Compare the image below to a modern 5U system.
Of course, there were plenty of weird electronic instruments before then, from the earliest experiments using telegraphy to create pitched sounds, to commercially successful electro-acoustic instruments that are still with us in some form today, like the Hammond Organ. But Moog’s creation is often cited as the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer. It was a world changing instrument and there is no denying its importance in the history of electronic sound and music technology. But, in fact, the Moog Modular was not the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer. Meet the Electronic Sackbut.
This odd looking contraption was built nearly two decades before Moog’s world-changing instrument, by a Canadian physicist named Hugh Le Caine working for the National Research Council in Ottawa.
Obviously, it bears little resemblance to a modern synthesizer in any format! Built on a rickety-looking wooden frame, with panel indicators drawn in pencil on untreated wood and a key bed apparently salvaged from a gutted piano, it looks like something knocked up by Homer Simpson to a Rube Goldberg design. But the diversity of sounds it could produce, and how it produced them, marks it as one of the earliest, if not the earliest, synthesizers. If synthesizer is defined as an electronic instrument that uses controlled voltage as a key principle of sound generation, the Electronic Sackbut is number one.
Hugh Le Caine’s innovations in the Sackbut included the use of adjustable waveforms as timbres and the development of voltage control. Equally inspired were the playability features he developed. The instrument was played with one hand on the monophonic keyboard and the other hand on a controller that allowed for expressive change of timbre and amplitude.
The sounds it could produce are truly impressive. Possibly as a wry joke acknowledging its eccentricities, Le Caine named the Electronic Sackbut after a Baroque and Renaissance era trombone-like instrument. Caine’s version excels at trombone and all manner of wind and string instrument sounds. Here, for instance, you can hear it doing a realistic rendition of the clarinet in the famous opening bars of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
With tones that mimicked acoustic instruments by changing wave-shapes, as well as the use of touch-sensitive capacitive plates, one might think it prefigured the West Coast paradigm of synthesis as pioneered by Don Buchla in the 60s. But the Electronic Sackbut also featured a standard piano keyboard as its main control surface and was designed with the needs of a traditional orchestral instrumentalist in mind; features one more associates with the East Coast paradigm and Moog. There is also an indirect link to Moog’s instrument through Gustav Ciamaga, who was familiar with Le Caine's filters and subsequently influenced Robert Moog to design his voltage-controlled low-pass filter. In reality this was an instrument with its own unique approach, one that Le Caine would develop over the years with numerous other devices.
Hugh Le Caine designed the Electronic Sackbut while working for the National Research Agency, who allowed him to set up an electronic music studio and devote himself to his musical activities full time. He was also instrumental in equipping electronic music studios at the University of Toronto and McGill in Montreal, two of the earliest studios of their kind in the world. Le Caine equipped the Toronto studio in 1959, just two years after the famous room-sized RCA Mark II synthesizer was installed at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.
It's interesting to contrast these two births of synthesis, either side of the border. The RCA MKII was a room-filling monster that cost a quarter of a million dollars in 1957 (or half a million, depending on the source), funded by the vast resources of private enterprise in the form of RCA, then one of the world's largest electronics companies. Meanwhile, just north of the border, Hugh Le Caine was building a more modest-looking and much smaller and cheaper machine, but that was in many ways more advanced, funded by the Canadian government. A decade later Moog successfully got a (reasonably sized) synthesizer to market.
There were also attempts to commercialize the Electronic Sackbut. This is the commercial prototype of the Electronic Sackbut, designed and built right here in Montreal:
Sadly, Le Caine's work was not destined for commercial success - the prototype above was the only one ever made. One can only speculate as to why Moog went on to become a household name and only the fully committed historian of synthesis knows about Hugh Le Caine. Le Caine himself was, it seems, quite aware of this. There is some suggestion in writings about Le Caine that he felt saddened that his work was not appreciated by musicians, who were always the people who he wanted to please with his instruments.
So let's remember Hugh Le Caine, the Electronic Sackbut and the Canadian birth of the synthesizer.
For more on Hugh Le Caine and his work go to the excellent website written and maintained by Gayle Young (who also kindly permitted us to use the images in this post): http://www.hughlecaine.com
The Mutant Machine: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, under a 29HP panel...or at least it's a module that several people have told us they find a bit confusing. The truth is the Mutant Machine is powerful and deep but easy to get great results from and a whole lot of fun.
This is a detailed patch demo, building up a glitchy, noisy sequence using just a StilLson Hammer MKII for triggers and modulation on the Mutant Machine. We hope it gives you a good idea of what The Machine, our most powerful Mutant, is capable of!
It's no secret that at Hexinverter we love drums. Our Mutant Drums line now includes six versatile drum modules and a dedicated mixer - we think they're the best electronic drums in modular land!
Drum modules aren't in all modular users' systems. In fact, they're almost a niche interest in the already niche world of modular. Some people use external drum machines or a DAW and think of their modular as a complex synth voice or voices, many use non-drum modules to create drum sounds from scratch, and many others produce drone/ambient/experimental music that doesn't feature any "traditional" drum sounds.
But...much of the explosive growth in Eurorack in the last few years has come from the world of electronic dance music production, in which electronic drum sounds are ubiquitous and defining. And well-designed drum modules can be useful even in music that does not feature "traditional" drum sounds.
So, what is it that modular drums bring to a modular setup?
ICONIC VINTAGE SOUNDS
Many drum machines have been produced over the years but it sometimes feels like there were only ever two: the legendary Roland TR-808 and TR-909. Yes, they're over 30 years old, unreliable, eye-wateringly expensive, and have a limited feature-set, but still they sound fantastic. Plenty of music producers want those familiar drum sounds in their music; maybe re-sampled, perhaps heavily processed, but still recognisable.
Accurate reproductions of these classic drum circuits are now widely available in Eurorack format as clones and compared to the original machines they’re cheap. A clone typically has the features the original drum machine had – perhaps an attack, decay, pitch and level control, which can probably be adjusted with your fingers and not cv. Several clones can be bought for a similar price or less than a modern analogue drum machine, giving you basic (but great sounding) analogue drums in your Eurorack system, ready to be sequenced, processed and effected - all within the modular environment if you so choose.
If all you need are basic drum sounds, Eurorack has you covered. There are many interesting ways to sequence drums in a modular synth that can give you completely different results than a typical x0x drum machine (a topic for another blog post) so there are ample reasons to go this route.
WILD NEW SOUNDS
But modular is all about discovering new sounds - why settle for standard drum hits? A more featured modular drum, even one closely modeled on a classic circuit like the TR-808 snare drum, can produce a huge variety of wild percussive sounds. In the Mutant Drums parameters go further than the originals, parameters that were fixed are no longer fixed, and some parameters can be modulated via cv, allowing for completely new timbres and evolving hits.
In this video we've taken a classic 808 style drum pattern, in the old school electro style, and given it the Mutant Drum treatment.
As you can see, it is not that hard to take something recognisable, even humdrum, and change it into something dynamic and original.
How do you approach drums in your modular system? Leave us a comment below!