presenting: VIDEO from my AES demo on drum triggers at AiPh

Last summer (09/2016), I led a workshop at the Art Institute of Philadelphia on drum triggers, covering:

  • electromechanics of the piezo trigger sensor
  • playing MIDI with a full human body
  • tricks and inspirations from various sound parameters.

…see my initial photo-post HERE.

Several students happened to shoot video of my presentation, and over the past year, I have collected and edited that to better (re)present the tone (and sound) of this colloquium.

SHOW  ( and TELL ) !

Watch some highlights on my YouTube channel.

…or, below, with added reflection.


The Electronics w/in Triggers

The mechanical design of a single drum trigger is profoundly simple; a piezoelectric material (usually quartz) generates stronger charges the more you flex it, so hitting it harder makes naturally dynamic electrical spikes.

However, we encounter all sorts of unique problems when getting nuanced performance out a single trigger…

  • setting threshold to detect softest of hits, but not misfire basic vibrations.
  • calibrating the peaks of your hardest hits to the limited electrical headroom
  • digitally mapping dynamics between “my softest” and “my loudest” to both sound and feel intuitive
  • balancing the volume settings of one drum across multiple kits or songs to avoid unexpected blow-ups

…or even combinations of triggers in an “e-drum kit,”

  • consistently wiring the right trigger to the right sensor
  • further tweaking thresholds to avoid “false triggering” or “cross-talk” between others.
  • programming the same parameters (sensitivity, threshold, etc) across many different sensors through a limited User Interface.

I have lost track of how many times I was playing one pad while tweaking another and didn’t understand whey it wasn’t getting better.  Some systems “chase” the editor’s focus the last sensor triggered, but this may not always be desirable when trying to tweak crosstalk among the whole kit…

Motivation and Connection with the System:

The full-body choreography of playing a drumset will always feel more expressive and satisfying than smaller dexterity of fingers on knobs and buttons. However, when the sounds and control-schemes born from hand controls get mapped to full-body interface, we must be prepared to respond and interact to these systems with our full bodies.

It is inevitable that one has to adjust their technique (even a bit) to play through the augmented sensitivity of triggered drum(s), but once you get the “electronic prosthesis” of drum triggers up and running even fairly well, there is an impressive sense of power in juggling new sounds. With great power comes great… physical response.



Intact Acoustical bodies, Disparate electrical shadows.

A person playing an acoustic guitar feels the direct interplay of string and wood against their belly. By contrast, an electric guitar, can not only be much louder (enough to shake walls), but the sound comes from “over there,” and the initial string sound can be mutated by any degree of artificial distortion, filtration, or ambiance before coming out the speaker cone.

Playing purely-acoustic drumset exaggerates this wooden-belly connection to wall-shaking intensity. It makes connections to your body on several levels. First, the each hit pushes back with vibrations from the drums into skin, and you are haptically connected to the kit at large. Second, the rooms acoustic resonance and/or reverberence will be much more conspicuous to the force of the drum, and drummer may adapt their playing to the room.

Playing purely-electronic drums allows easily varied, artificially processed sounds to be played (in PAs or in earbuds), but it lacks the haptic connection. You still may play a boomy “power ballad” sound program differently than a snappy “crunk” preset, but that nuance doesn’t push back upstream skin and bones.

For me, the magic is playing a acoustic drum, each wired to trigger a different “shadow.” MIDI systems allow me to easily program and switch between differently “shaded kits” just as easily as electric guitarists may use analog pedals or digital systems to step through various preset effects setups right on cue… in my kits:

  • One song may have a boomier kick than another…
  • perhaps the snare may have added digital crunch just for the chorus,
  • perhaps these toms may have swirling tails only for the breakdown.
  • A pad that one a clap switches to a cowbell.

In this video, we hear both tom-toms shaded with “flerb,” or a fake reverb that runs into the swirling filtrations of a “flanger” effect.

The sound’s tail demands pause, and it makes me play more sparse, “doomy,” caveman drum parts.

Ug. Ug.



Mapping velocity to more than “volume”

Most all electronic drums have “dynamics”, but which hitting the button/trigger/whatever harder increase the volume of the sound triggered, but we can map this “velocity” to other things, for results both more realistic or fantastical.

Here I play trigger the rim of my snare and toms with nasty distorted sounds, and harder hits on the rim spin the sample pitch up wildly. This exaggerates the subtle range of the rim-clicks sound into something much more jarring.


Making drum (shadow)sounds Monophonic.

Flutes and (most) vocals are “monophonic,” in that they can only make one note at a time. Things things like drumsets and pianos are naturally “polyphonic,” each seperate key or drum voice rings out independently.

Artificial instruments (like synths and samplers) generally have limited resources to create and maintain voices (within one sound type, or in mulit-timbral mixtures). This creates two problems. On one hand,  attempting to play sustaining, overlapping budget keyboard limited to 4 notes of polyphony can lead to some unnaturally truncated notes, On the other hand, it would also sound “unnatural” to be allowed to play “flute chords.” Thus many poly-phonic synthesizers can artificially reduce the polyphony  of a sound program to “respect” the monophony” of the instrument, where the latest sound will cut off the previously sustained note(s).

Drum machines tackle a mixd problem. Kick and snare need to remain seperate, but the three hi-hat sounds (open, closed, foot-chick) should cut each other off. Thus, synthesizers geared toward making drum kit programs allow sounds to be assigned to “mute groups,” where only the last in that (“local monophonic”)  group plays alone. While most drum machines may hard-wire their mute-groups to the voices of the hi-hat (open/close/chick) or conga (open/slap/choke) sounds, systems like the MPC allow for arbitrary assignment of notes to mute groups.

In this excerpt, I explain how forcing all drum voices in a kit into one mute group makes for a “monophonic e-drum” part, which is quite flattering for “linear” drum beats (where one plays only one drum at a time. While linear acoustic beats balance clarity and cohesive, sustaining sound, this “monophonic electric” kit allows more disembodied and truncated sound sequencing.

Unfortunately, the cameraperson missed capturing the of the demo from the isolation of the control room.


TELL more ?

I’d be delighted t repeat and expand on this workshop; if any academic or commercial hosts are interested, let me know… I’ve continued tinkering.

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