Synthesis, Sampling, and Plain Old Acoustic

I've been doing a lot of pondering lately on my future with electronic music, spurred by considering Reaktor as a new software instrument (and instrument building tool) of choice. Reaktor is very cool in many ways. I most appreciate its completely open-ended flexibility, letting you build instruments from the ground up in whatever way you want. My frustration with Reason, by comparison, has been that it's flexible in some ways but not others, because the developers foresaw some uses for the instruments, but not all. This becomes especially apparent when playing from MIDI drum controllers.

But it turns out that Reaktor falls on its face with sampling. It's pretty awful. I've tried addressing these issues on NI's web forums, but to no avail. Their implementation of velocity switching is awful, and it appears to be very difficult to build a velocity crossfading sampler that both works and doesn't eat tons of CPU power. This really shouldn't be a difficult problem, especially not for a system as flexible and powerful as Reaktor, but apparently it is.

This whole adventure led me to consider the following: if you look at "return on investment" from my musical instruments -- that is, what I'm getting good use of relative to its price -- the one clear winner is my LP Giovanni djembe. I've played this in a number of settings, and currently play it at church, always with very positive response. Runners-up would be the LP compact conga, which I've used to improve my conga playing immensely, and my Yamaha S90 piano/synth, which I've been re-learning piano on.

The electronic drums and soft-synths, on the other hand, are all competing for last place. I don't blame the MIDI controllers (trapKAT, drumKAT), since these have been doing their job admirably. But the software side has proven to have innumerable limitations or hassles. Choosing and organizing samples that really sound good together is painfully tedious. (That's the nature of sampling, I think.) Getting MIDI control to do exactly what I want either means jumping through lots of hoops or is just impossible. (Mostly the fault of Reason.) Amplification is expensive and a hassle. (Nature of electronic instruments.) But probably the most significant reason it's just not panning out is that people -- band leaders and audience both -- want acoustic drums and percussion. At least with the people (esp. churches) I've been playing with, nobody's interested in electronics.

But the djembe... people just love it. I like it too, but I'm always surprised at how many complements I get after playing it. I'm decent with hand drums, but I'm not that good. Clearly some combination of the drum and my playing is hitting the spot, though.

I think my priorities from here out will continue to shift to low-tech hand drums, regardless of my instinctual draw to electronic percussion and synthesis. Reaktor is way cool despite its sampling limitations, and I'll probably buy it someday just to mess with it, but before that I'll be buying a conga and/or bongos. At the church I'm playing at they already have congas (LP Aspire), but the Giovanni series requinto would make a great primary drum. I'm also considering bongos because, while I like congas better, bongos would diversify my drum collection a tad more.

Eventually I'd love to do a combo electronic and acoustic percussion environment. But that will require a more open-minded audience, more equipment on my part (at least amplification), and also a good sound engineer that can mix electronic and acoustic effectively.


Josh,I overcame this dillema years ago,playing in 2 churches Sunday Morning,the digitals were a shoe in once the church leaders heard how good they sounded,and how much control the sound people could have,and the nasty plexiglass can the acoustic drums were in dissapeared,as far as looks--the pastor may simply remind hisself&the congregation that as members of a praise team, we are worship leaders,and the look of the equipment is unimportant in true worship leading,the music is there as a vessel to the emotin,and the reception of his word.Also,have you used any of the modules versus the soft synth?Thoughts?peace and great drumming!-DrumMan

Thanks very much for your comments. Most of the people I've met that don't like electronics don't like them because of prior experience. But in all cases, that's with drummers and sound techs that don't know how to use them well. I've seen churches with fancy v-drums that sound terrible because nobody calibrates the pads or mixes the kit right. My frustration is only partly due to the technology (which gets better all the time). Largely it's with ignorance.

Just a quick update since my original post: I have seen *one* church that used v-drums well, and they sounded terrific. On the software side, Reason 3's "Combinator" rectifies a lot of my frustrations with Reason 2's lack of flexibility in MIDI routing and instrument arrangement. A new version of Reaktor is out, too. I'll have to check out its sampling abilities.

On the hand drum side, I did wind up getting the LP Giovanni Requinto. It's an awesome drum. The sound is terrific, and the range of tones you can get from that one drum is impressive.

Hi Josh, Sorry I haven't talked with you in a while. I just recently read this and had to comment. I too have put together a small acoustic percussion set up. However, I seemed to have leaned the other way. Back to electronics. I agree very much the problem with electronics is ignorance. Sad really. A friend said to me once,"If you want to know where the church is today, look at the world 50 years ago". We have really set into mediocrity. No one seems to be even a little forward thinking. I have pretty much quit playing cause I can't deal with the stupid politics and bad leadership from churches. I'm certianly not giving up on God however the church leadership really needs an overhaul.
In the meantime, I'm focusing on my songwriting and playing with friends who are willing to let me be creative. It has actually been refreshing to step out from the mundane. So far I'm still sticking with hardware modules. I have started dabbling in software but it still has a long way to go to make it reliable. I understand totally your frustration with software. It is getting better though. Just don't give up on the electronics yet. There is still some forward thinkers out there. Cheers, Steve

I'm a big fan of both Reason and Reaktor though I also feel that those programs can help me accomplish only a portion of what is I wish to achieve in my compositions and performances. Obviously I cannot blame the software for my occasional bouts of writer's block but being an "old school" musician, I sometimes get put off by the overheard of sitting down and assembling a set of decent drum ,bass, and keyboard samples just to get down some ideas and musical motifs that sound somewhat organic. I guess this is why some samplists spend months looking for the right set of sounds. In the end I still seem to have much more success playing my guitar against some preprogrammed drum loops and later replacing the drums. I find that something like ProTools is great for this as along as I resist the tempation to use Beat Detective to "lock" everything to a grid.

I do love the technology as it does enable the home based musician to record, mix, and master to a reasonable level -
certainly good enough for demo quality but the software still very much is most easily approached by the electronic/dance musician who typically doesn't seek to record guitars and bass. I'm not at all saying that the electro musician has it easy - after all its hard to come up with good sounding stuff regardless of your background. But I do think that we need a new generation of technology to
adequately address the needs of the more traditional musician. A good, reasonably priced Guitar-to-MIDI controller would be a start.

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