To V-Drum or Not to V-Drum: That is the Question by G.E. Pedretti

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To V-Drum or Not to V-Drum: That is the Question by G.E. Pedretti

"Can you tell the difference? Can the general public?"

The general public can't tell the difference between anything. Drummers, musicians, and engineers can. Who is your audience?

"What do you think of the technology? Is it close to sounding 'real'?"

High quality drum samples are great for the bass and toms. They will not sound completely real because they have the same attack, volume, and tone every time. Don't get me wrong, I understand the concept of the pressure sensitive trigger, and using it to play different samples dependent on the stick's touch. However, this technology will never be as mature or infinitely variable as a real drum.

Most would argue the snare is a special case, as its namesake is very sensitive. If all you need is a solid whack on 2 and 4, samples are OK. Obviously, if you play sidestick, with brushes, or play jazz in general, forget snare samples, and forget any kind of triggering.

Only an idiot would argue for the realness of cymbal samples. Yes, we've come a long way with sampling, but you will NEVER simulate the sound or response of a real cymbal with current sampling/triggering technologies. My recommendation to all v-drummers: use real cymbals. I understand there are 'v-cymbals' that can be choked with the hand. When the sound isn't there to begin with, who cares if you can choke it?

"And aren't most of the 'natural' drum sounds we hear on albums processed unrecognizably anyways??"

Yes. I would attribute this to two things mainly, though there are many offshoots on these processes: hitting analog tape hard and the use of unnatural reverbs.

Hitting analog tape hard has been the backbone of the rock drum sound since the advent of multitrack machines that had enough tracks to record drums separately (with some left over for those guys with strings on their instruments :-). It is the quintessential rock snare sound, and is used heavily on toms as well. The jury is out on whether to run red with the bass drum, some people love it, some claim it removes too much beater attack. Which brings an interesting point: attack is important on the bass and snare, as they are the main timekeeping elements in rock. Running red on analog tape actually removes a lot of attack, producing a smeared sound. Analog tape compression has to do with a lot more than just volume compression; it has to do with compression AND the skewed frequency response of the tape when hit hard. Volume peaks are tamed, highs are smoothed, the low end is beefed up, harsh sounds are just generally more pleasing, and the sound is just BIG (I am paraphrasing Andy Hong's review of the Empirical Labs FATSO Jr. Model EL-7 here, from a recent TapeOp magazine, because he sums it up so well). Digital proponents harp on the transient and attack advantages they have, but the bottom line is drums are still tracked analog in the big leagues of rock, metal, punk, etc. more often than not. Metallica's work with Bob Rock is a perfect example: mostly digital, but the drums and some other tracks analog. Analog hit hard is most definitely a colored sound, but it is one people have known, loved, and expect.

Unnatural reverbs: where to begin? Probably with Bonham and the infamous castle turret reverbs (think 'When the Levee Breaks,' among others -- I don't know if Led Zeppelin IV was done in Crowley's castle or not, but this is the drum sound we're talking about nonetheless). Yes, I know these were done with mic placement, but I don't think we'd argue they were natural sounding drums, unless you happen to live in a huge cave!

Next we have the gated reverb sound, usually attributed to Hugh Padgham (engineering Phil Collins on "Intruder" from Peter Gabriel III) or Peter McIan (producing Men at Work's Business as Usual). Run a separate channel for reverb on the snare, run that reverb through a gate, then key that gate with the original snare sound. You get BOOM for a duration much longer than any real drum, then a quick cut of that explosive reverb, maintaining the timekeeping element of the drum (you want it to boom for a long time, but not touch the next beat). In short, a controlled cannon blast -- not a natural sounding drum. It was used ad nauseam in the 80s, but hasn't died yet -- it's just been toned down and used more 'tastefully.' Tony Visconti had a similar (though more robotic) sound during David Bowie's Low, but he made his cannon by applying a harmonizer to Denis Davis' snare.

Your question touches a very important point: these sounds have become the 'natural' drum sounds of rock, as unnatural as they may be. If these are the types of sounds you're looking for, I would actually recommend drums sampled from analog tape. Has anyone done this yet? The advice on the cymbals still stands: they are never pushed into the red (smearing is not good in this case) and gated or other unnatural reverbs are only used on them for special effects.

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