View From the West: Beating Up on Drum Machines



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

I hate drum machines.

This is purely subjective and I’m sure that there are many whose opinions on the matter, pro and con, are intense and inflamed, but I, for one, hate drum machines. Why is it that some composers are using those annoying drum pads?

A number of my current and former students have been bitten by the techno bug and have supplied me with their tapes, CDRs and a few CDs released by honest to goodness indie record labels replete with drum machines. And not all of them are jumping on the trance dance bandwagon, rather they include serious composers who are using musical materials of their culture. A number of CDs featuring drum machines by professional composers have made their way into my mailbox as well.

Perhaps part of the problem for me resides in the purely mechanistic, identical sound of the synthesized or sampled drums sounds as they are looped. That there is little sense of breath, nature, or humanity in such loops may contribute to my misgivings. That being said, I think it is essentially the timbre, the sound, that I find so disagreeable.

I know that I am on thin ice in terms of making a case for my contempt. In fact, I am really not making such a case, rather I’m just grousing, but hopefully considering the implications of my position.

As much as I admire and continue to be challenged by John Cage, his statement—that the music he enjoys most is that which occurs when he is very still and listening—remains a gauntlet thrown down that I have a difficult time picking up. There are simply some sounds that remain unappealing if not entirely objectionable. I really do not care to hear my dishwasher in action. I find it unbearable to hear the dishwasher running when I am eating a meal and I avoid the kitchen whenever it is on. The dishwasher is not and will likely never be musical or music for me, at least when it is running in my home. The same goes for drum machines.

Preferences regarding timbre are perhaps entirely subjective. There is the old saw that orchestrating for a single trombone is a gaffe. In his Treatise on Instrumentation, Berlioz asserts that trombones are “group instruments.” Chopin included a single trombone in his piano concertos and has suffered the slings and arrows of smug critics ever since. Could it be that writing for a single trombone is inherently bad? It seems hardly possible, yet there it remains in the orchestration textbooks.

To shoot even more holes in my argument, Philip Glass used Farfisa portable electric organs extensively in his early days. The instruments were very cheap, both in terms of cost and quality. The Farfisa had a wheezy, reedy, buzzing and ultimately cheesy sound that was most often heard in bubble gum pop, some quarters of psychedelic rock, and in a host of garage bands (my own junior high rock band had one of ‘em). Though the sound was crude and chintzy, it became emblematic of Glass’s music and he has since sampled the Farfisa which remains in his arsenal of digital keyboard sounds to this day. While the sound can be annoying in some (most?) contexts, it now sounds great in Glass’s work. Using a “better” electric organ, such as the classic Hammond B3 would sound out of place and inappropriate in Glass’s music, though rock, R&B, funk, and the classic jazz organ trio would be much the worse in its absence.

I recently heard the Philip Glass Ensemble perform along with the film Koyaanisqatsi. As he has been doing for years with this piece and many others, Glass has re-orchestrated it for live performance. Instead of using acoustic instruments found in the original film score, many of the instrumental sounds have been sampled and are played back on keyboard instruments. No matter how good the current technology, the digital trumpets of “Clouds” and the voices, especially in the a cappella portion of “Vessels” do not sound authentic (well, the ensemble’s soprano sings one of the parts live). The attack/decay envelopes and the basic timbres are simply not right. It did not sound bad, but live performances on acoustic instruments would unquestionably sound “better.”

In the jazz world, fusion was/is controversial and rejected out of hand by die-hard jazzers. How could the electric bass compete with the good old acoustic double bass? The timbre of the acoustic instrument is far more complex and much more sensitive to adjustment and control by the players touch. On the other hand, the electric bass can be tweaked with sound processors and a plethora of electronic gear. Is jazz all the worse for the incursion of the electric bass?

This is a typical old guard/new guard conundrum. What is the value of tradition and what is the value of the new? Should the new replace the old or can they co-exist peacefully, even synergistically? It’s a tough call, certainly in the world of classical music. The number of rebec, crumhorn, viol, clavichord, and hurdy-gurdy players is tiny in comparison with violinists, bassoonists, pianists, even those poor marginalized classical guitarists, and the like. And this is even in light of the renewed interest in early music in the past forty years or so.

When playing recordings of authentic baroque violins and oboes, or fortepianos, my students, especially the music majors, have a hard time accepting them. The violins, they say, have less resonance and brilliance, a fuzzy, imprecise attack, and a crude sound. Baroque oboes sound thick and dull. The fortepiano has that brittle tone, thin rather like that wretched instrument that languishes and rots in grandma’s basement. Of course, I tell them that they are not worse, just different and that composers wrote with these instruments in mind, with all of their potentials, limitations, and foibles taken into account. By listening to performances on authentic instruments, we have the opportunity to possibly catch a more precise and accurate glimpse of what it was that the composer intended. Still, there is no rush to equip music schools, orchestras, and concerts halls with period instruments. Rather, prevailing taste regarding instrumental sounds rule the day.

Sometimes, there are musical dead-ends and cul de sacs, and it is my hope that the drum machine is one of those. Remember Third Stream music? Brilliant idea, but there was no real pay off, at least in its hey day. Certainly John Zorn and the Rova Saxophone Quartet, among a host of others, found exciting ways to create a hybrid of music that derives from both the classical and jazz traditions, but one could argue theirs is far from the Third Stream aesthetic espoused by Gunther Schuller. What about disco? While it has been reincarnated, in an odd kind of way in contemporary dance music, including the multitudinous variants of techno, it is hardly a revival of the old ’70s style. In any event, you might recall rock musicians giving disco a shot, including the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart. Sometimes, it’s just best to leave certain things alone. My guess is no one thinks of “Miss You” as one of the Stones’ crucial songs.

In the same way, it could be, and it is my fervent hope, that drum machines are part of a fad that will simply pass and vanish. I could happily live without ever hearing another synthesized drum effect, electronic drum, (well, some electronic drums are ok in the right context), or drum pad again.

While I will freely admit that I have not made a much of a case against drum machines—I have only offered my opinion based solely on my own preferences—I still can’t stand the buggers. Any thoughts?