In Search of the Elusive Volume Control

Did you ever find yourself asking the question “How did I get here?”

The first pro-quality drum kit that I had was a Gretsch five piece with birch shells, Ludwig hardware, and Avedis Zildjian cymbals. It was purchased second hand in the mid 1970s. After being overly influenced by Bill Bruford, a set of six Remo Roto-toms was added a few years later. As much as I enjoyed the set there were two problems associated with it. First, in spite of some nice Shure and AKG mics, it was difficult to get a decent sound out of them in my home recording studio. Of course, being that the “studio” was a basement with scant acoustical treatment and a seven foot ceiling, the kit could hardly be blamed. The second and perhaps more confounding problem was the loudness level. In fair consideration to the rest of the family and neighbors, there were limits on when I could play. I simply could not afford any manner of “sound proof” room and unlike the ubiquitous guitars, basses, and keyboards that my friends played, there was no volume control on a drum kit. As I was finishing my degree in electrical engineering at the time, I was hopeful that there might be a technological solution down the road, something more advanced than the “beep-boop” Syndrums of the day.

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Opposite Foot Triplet

For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.

Ah, the myriad joys and accidental discoveries of symmetrical drumming. For those who read my continuing meanderings on getting my right side to behave just like my left, today we’re going to talk about triplets. Of course, these wouldn’t be your everyday, garden variety triplets ‘cause we’re too screwy for that here at The Chimp Refuge. No, this is going to be special.

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Bill Bruford The Autobiography

Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be).

What do you expect when you pick up an autobiography of a rock musician? Sex? Drugs? Rock-n-roll exploits with a chainsaw and a gallon of baby oil at the Ramada? Scandalous stories of band-mates and sundry hangers-on? You get virtually none of that in Bill Bruford The Autobiography. It’s much better. Insightful, entertaining, and well-written, Bruford gives the reader a unique view into his 40 year career as a drummer to see just how he got to where he is and precisely how this business works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). You don’t have to be a follower of his music or even a drummer to enjoy this book.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first cracked the cover, but then I’m not much of a fan of rock star or music biz bios, my only prior experience being The Real Frank Zappa Book. No, Bill is not Frank, although I have tremendous respect for both men; Zappa being the iconoclast composer/guitarist armed with biting wit and Bruford the pioneering progressive rock (and eventually jazz) drummer with a hunger for exploration and a thirst for improvisation. While Zappa’s book is filled with usually humorous and sometimes outrageous tales along with his own take on socio-political topics of the day, Bruford’s offering is comparatively understated. Nothing tabloid-shocking here. No confessions of drug-rehab, groupie orgies, or snippy gossip of former band-mates or associated rock stars, although there are some nice asides considering people like Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Phil Collins, and Tony Levin, to name a few.

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How Well Can You Count?

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school.

And now for something almost completely different on The Refuge: How well can you count? No, not like in grade school. I wrote and recorded a tune the other day. It’s called Timmy Umbwebwe Lights A Candle (yes, I have a thing for odd titles). The initial beat was composed on the drum kit. Not that I planned it this way, but it turns out that the main theme is comprised of three measures of 9/8 followed by a measure of 13/8. This counting is somewhat “plastic” though, and if you prefer you can think of it as alternating measures of 5/8 and 4/8 with an extra measure of 4/8 thrown in at the end. Any way you slice it, it comes out “odd”. Give it a try and see which way of counting it is more natural to you.
Popular Western music for some reason doesn’t really “go” for this kind of thing. Pretty much it’s all 4/4 with the occasional 3/4 ballad. Is it because people have a hard enough time dancing to 4/4 let alone 7/4 or 11/8? Is it because they were never introduced to it? I don’t know. But I do know of a few relatively popular tunes that were not written entirely in 4/4 or 3/4 (or an obvious derivative like 6/8). I’m thinking Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, and Sting.
Anybody care to guess the tunes?
(And to hear something that is a little closer to “normal”, try this, which is based on a melody I wrote for my wife while we were kayaking one afternoon)

Will Rock Band and Guitar Hero Foster New Musicians?

Well, at least Stevie Van Zandt and Britain’s Youth Music seem to think so. I’m skeptical.

Well, at least Stevie Van Zandt and Britain’s Youth Music seem to think so. A recent article in The Times refers to research by Youth Music indicating that the games have prompted upwards of 2.5 million children to take up musical instruments.
I’m skeptical. No doubt the games are a lot of fun for people who can’t play a musical instrument and they’re probably preferable to your average shoot-em-up. Further, it’s a decent wager that they do pique interest to the point where the kiddies bug mom and dad to buy them a guitar or a drum kit. But these games, while they mimic real instruments, are nothing like real instruments. It’s more like air guitar with props. This really hit home when I saw a video of the band Rush playing one of their own tunes on one of these games and not scoring particularly well.
I’d wager that once the reality of learning an instrument kicks in, junior’s new guitar will soon find a home in the corner gathering dust while waiting for the eventual indignity of placement next to an old stack of gardening magazines at the spring garage sale. Certainly, some kids will stick it out and eventually reach a level of at least modest proficiency, but how do we know that simply offering them real instruments at an early age wouldn’t be at least as effective? If all these games do is create a new generation of “table beaters” instead of competent drummers, haven’t we taken a step backwards?
There are few things that I love as much as playing musical instruments. I don’t know if other people get (or would get) as much enjoyment but there is something to be said for an artistic outlet that grows with you, challenges you, and allows you to express yourself (even if no one cares to listen) throughout your life. I always encourage people to give it a try no matter what their age.
I’m just not sure that pretending to do it is the best way of introducing it to people.

Fun Is Where You Find It: The Tune

Much has been written on the Refuge regarding what might be termed fine motor co-ordination experiments. That, and something to do with playing the drums in a manner that most drummers don’t, you know, like backwards. Some might ask “What is the point of practicing a double paradiddle on a bunch of left-side mounted toms for a right handed drummer?” I guess one could be philosophical and say “Because it’s there” but ultimately, doing something musical is what matters, at least to this little bonobo. Exercising your brain to perform unusual patterns at will simply gives the musician a larger vocabulary. You may never use it in casual conversation but it’s nice to know what “crepuscular” means (and perhaps more important, you get to make funny bastardizations like “crapuscular”).
In any case, for the curious two or three Refuge readers and the occasional demented passer-by, here’s a tune that recently emanated from the not-particularly-normal brain and appendages of yours truly. Yeah, this is the sort of thing I do on my days off. It’s called Fun Is Where You Find It. It’s about three minutes and 54 seconds of fun-finding, or approximately the duration of a world class mile race.
Some technical details. There are two basic tracks, electronic drums and bass. The synth pads are also triggered by the drums. The tune uses an ABACBA structure. The drums are panned as if the listener was sitting behind the kit rather than in front watching. Thus, you will hear roto-toms off the left and right as I have a symmetrical kit (three toms each side for this kit). For example, there is a little fill in the A section that sounds pretty standard as it moves across three small rotos, but they are played from center to the left in spite of the fact that the pitches are descending. This allows for a complementary fill later on the right side using more conventional sticking. The C section features marimba and xylophone parts, but like the drums, these are electronic instruments not the real thing (have you priced a symphonic marimba recently??)
One thing is certain after listening (well, besides the occasional sloppy playing and thrown-together mix): I rather enjoy dissonance and quirky rhythmic snippets. Hey, it’s just the way my brain is wired.
Oh, and happy Thanksgiving.
Update, Friday Nov 28, 9:40 AM Apparently the server where the tune resides is undergoing maintenance (link above), so here is an alternate link.

Humorous Signatures

Some people are like slinkies,
They don’t really have a purpose,
But they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down the stairs.

I visit certain message boards from time to time, including one called vdrums.com, a site dedicated to electronic drumming. While there’s a lot of useful info there and a bunch of friendly and helpful folks, there are also some entertaining end-of-message signatures that folks use. Here are a few examples:

Some people are like slinkies,
They don’t really have a purpose,
But they still bring a smile to your face when you push them down the stairs.

I have a mind like a steel trap: rusty and illegal in most countries….

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

And sometimes you get one that might take a little thought or research (especially as it ties in to the individual using it, in this case, a guy who shaves his head):

2 Kings 2:23

Granted, most of the folks on that particular site simply list their gear for their signature, but sometimes you run across a good one. Anybody have any favorites they’ve spotted or use?

Rock Drummers = Top Athletes?

So says the BBC. Researchers tested oxygen uptake and heart rate for rock drummers, including Blondie’s Clem Burke. They concluded:

“It is clear that their fitness levels need to be outstanding – through monitoring Clem’s performance in controlled conditions, we have been able to map the extraordinary stamina required by professional drummers.”

and further,

“It is hoped that the results could help develop outreach programmes for overweight children who are not interested in sport.”

Continue reading “Rock Drummers = Top Athletes?”

Fun with Resistive Position Sensors

So, how do these sensors work? Well, let’s go back to some basics. The electrical resistance of a material depends on the inherent characteristics of that material (its resistivity) and its physical layout.

As part of my continuing adventures in drumming symmetry, I have been working on a dual electronic hi-hat pedal. The idea is to have a single hi-hat pad respond equally well to either a left or a right foot pedal. It is similar to having both left and right kick drum pedals. For the hi-hat, this effect is sometimes realized through the use of a switch, but that requires some extra motion and it’s not possible to use both pedals at the same time. These pedals (both an FD-7 and an FD-8) are used with a Roland TD20 drum controller. The hi-hat pedal uses a resistive position sensor to indicate the location of the hi-hat pedal, be it fully up, fully down, or somewhere in between, to the TD20.
So, how do these sensors work? Well, let’s go back to some basics. The electrical resistance of a material depends on the inherent characteristics of that material (its resistivity) and its physical layout:
resistance = resistivity * length / cross-sectional area
In other words, if you take a certain amount of stuff and make it very long and skinny in shape, it will have a much higher resistance than if you shape it short and stout. Below is a photo of the sensor used in the Roland FD-7 (the FD-8 sensor is very similar).
HiHat_ResistiveFilm.jpg

Continue reading “Fun with Resistive Position Sensors”

Tongue Drum

And now for something completely different, the tongue drum:
TongueDrum.jpg
The tongue drum is also known as the slit drum or xylo-slit drum. It is the modern descendant of the ancient log drum. This is a large 14 key unit tuned to a pentatonic scale in G. It can be played with mallets or your fingers (with somewhat of a quick, snapping-back style). The sound is very mellow and pleasing. Organic might be a good term. This particular item came from here.
Besides the tone, what I find interesting about the drum is that unlike most musical instruments, it doesn’t have a “normal” orientation. That is, the instrument can be approached and played from any of its four sides. You just don’t do that with other instruments. Nobody walks up to a piano, lays across the closed lid, and proceeds to play with bass keys to the right and treble to the left. There’s really only one way to hold a saxophone in all practicality. While some people have been known to arrange drum kits in non-standard ways, I don’t know of anything as simple and direct as a tongue drum which exhibits this sort of free-wheeling, play-me-from-any-side nature.
Why would anyone care? Well, the way you interact with an instrument, the way it talks to you and you get it to talk, depends in part on the way you approach it, both figuratively and literally. While my first inclination was play it in the horizontal mode pictured above, it quickly occurred to me that a 180 degree rotation changed the locations of the notes and thus an identical hand pattern produced a different, though related, melody. It was a short step from there to a vertical orientation, more like a glockenspiel than a xylophone. It’s almost like getting four instruments in one.
And ultimately, this reminds of another useful thing about electronic drums, and that’s the ability to assign sounds and pitches anywhere on the kit. I think it’s time to create a few new kits where the tom pitches are lowest toward the front and higher off to the sides.

A Useful Techy Tidbit for Drummers

For years I’ve had difficulty keeping my electronic hi-hat pedals in one spot. They always seem to skate around the kit carpet no matter what I do. Nothing really worked except placing a several-pound block of steel in front of it.

This is for the faithful drummer-readers of the Refuge (uh, both of you), particularly those of the electronic kit persuasion. For years I’ve had difficulty keeping my electronic hi-hat pedals in one spot. They always seem to skate around the kit carpet no matter what I do. I’ve extended the steel spurs as far as they go. I’ve tried Velcro. The whole “tie a cord around it and attach it to the drum throne” approach is unappealing and presents positioning limitations. Nothing really worked except placing a several-pound block of steel in front of it.
Well, I came across the perfect solution. It’s called number 085 Carpet Anchor. It’s like the hook part of Velcro on steroids. It comes in a strip about an inch wide and features rows of plastic teeth with little T-shaped ends. Cut a couple of strips 6 inches long, glue them to the bottom of the pedal, place on the carpet, and bingo, sticks like glue. Unlike glue, you can rip them up and reposition them with little effort. Brilliant stuff. I highly recommend it. I found a number of places selling it on the inter-tubes but you may have to look around to find it sold by the foot.

DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments: Arm Circles

Here’s a fun experiment you can perform to test your coordination and, if you’re like a lot of people, experience the precise moment when your brain and muscles go off to la-la land.
First, stand up and extend your arms directly out in front of you. Rotate your right arm clockwise (CW) and your left arm counterclockwise (CCW) at the same rate. Maintain the rotation, and by pushing your elbows outward, begin to draw your forearms toward your chest until your fingers are pointing at each other. This should not be particularly challenging. Return your arms to the starting position and repeat the process, only this time have your right arm moving CCW and the left CW. Again, if you’re like most folks, this shouldn’t be a great challenge. So far so good, right?
OK, finally, return to the starting position and rotate both arms either CW or CCW. Chances are, when you get to around 45 degree of elbow angle, all hell will break loose! One of your arms will probably reverse direction. I don’t know why this is, but it has happened with virtually everyone I know who has tried it. I also know that with a little practice, you can learn to do this. You have to start slowly, but it will come eventually. I practiced this motion for a couple minutes a few times each day and within a few days I could do it passably well. In another week, it felt pretty normal.
Here’s a cheesy 10 fps AVI that I made with my digital point-and-shoot camera to illustrate: Arm Circles.

But Can Spock Do This?

Just how well-wired are your brain and muscles? Co-ordination and drummers is a common theme here at the refuge, but it’s time for something you can try at home with just your bare little fingers. We’re in the midst of an ice storm, so what better time to whip out the camera, put on some classic Kate Bush, and go one better than “Live long and prosper”? Give it a whirl:
Apologies for the 10 frames/second AVI file, but I don’t have a nice DV camera (yet). This was taken with my little Fuji point-and-shoot still camera in movie mode.
Click here for entertainment.

Recite Your ZYXs

Maybe it’s my musical training or my love of palindromes, but I have a habit of reading signs and whatnot backwards (right to left). Sometimes funny things pop up.

As readers of this blog may have noted, I have a thing for patterns and sequences. Maybe it’s my musical training (e.g., inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion of a motif) or my love of palindromes, but I have a habit of reading signs and whatnot backwards (right to left). Sometimes funny things pop up. The other day I was riding my bike (on the mag trainer, not in the snow) and sometimes I will count revolutions to pass the time. That gets boring so I might count “alphabets” (hey, it’s easier than counting to 26 over and over). I thought about reciting the alphabet backwards. This proved to be not so easy. I found myself reciting small bits forward, and then spitting them back out in reverse. Not very efficient. Then I hit on something. I discovered that if I created a mental picture of the alphabet, as if I was looking at it on a blackboard, reciting it backwards became much easier. I could “see” the letters in my head, so reciting them became much easier. Then, I started to link the letters to the familiar cadence of “The ABCs” that is taught in grade school (groups of 7, 9, 3, 3, 2 and 2):
ABCDEFG
HIJKLMNOP
QRS
TUV
WX
Y and Z
Now I’ve said my ABCs,
tell me what you think of me.

Given the way this is usually recited, I’d wager that half of all children think “LMNO” is a single letter. For my own part, I like to envision it as the name of a Mexican superhero from the 1800’s: “Why look! It’s El Emeno! We’re saved!”
OK, so apply the same cadence to the backward alphabet and you get:

ZYXWVUT
SRQPONMLK (roll that onmlk together)
JIH
GFE
DC
B and A
Now I’ve said my ZYXs,
tell me what you think of Texas.

Try it. It’s fun once you get the hang of it and people will think you have some kind of talent if you do it at parties because most people never ever try to do familiar things in alternate ways.
It also gives you a chance to make snide remarks about the Lone Star State if you so choose.

Cross-body Co-ordination

Readers of this blog know that, as a drummer, I am very keen on left-right symmetry of co-ordination. The drummer’s world is often filled with patterns (get the pun?) and being able to execute them equally well from the left versus right side opens creative possibilities. Time to get those mirror neurons up and running! Today’s question, how’s your co-ordination between hands and feet?

Continue reading “Cross-body Co-ordination”

Audio Island & Pattern Juggling

I have added two new categories to the refuge, Audio Island and Pattern Juggling, for the convenience of those interested in a couple of my “off the beaten path” jaunts. I have gone back and retagged a bunch of old posts and will use these tags in the future. Audio Island is basically a catch-all for audio/acoustics/electronics gear, new technologies, observations, and the like. Pattern Juggling is the location for my ramblings regarding the intersection of drumming, co-ordination, art and so forth (for example, the DIY Neuromotor Experiments posts). Audio Island is perhaps a bit obvious, Pattern Juggling less so. In PJ you’re likely to find a little math, maybe some neuro-science, music/art, fine motor control, limb independence and interdependence, and how it all comes together for the drummer or percussionist.
I don’t want anyone to think that Pattern Juggling is aimed only at drummers, though. Anyone, musician or not, can try some of the experiments and tricks that I have/will brought/bring up, and I’m interested in the results of your experiments and trials, musical or otherwise.
Granted, while I am not a renowned expert practitioner of the subject, I trust there will be items to stir your imagination. Who knows, maybe some day, a member of the highly co-ordinated set such as Bill Bruford, Joe Morello, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio, or Vinnie Colaiuta will be cruising the net, happen across our little discussion, and offer some kernel of insight. Well, one can hope anyway…

Audio Island & Pattern Juggling

I have added two new categories to the refuge, Audio Island and Pattern Juggling, for the convenience of those interested in a couple of my “off the beaten path” jaunts. I have gone back and retagged a bunch of old posts and will use these tags in the future. Audio Island is basically a catch-all for audio/acoustics/electronics gear, new technologies, observations, and the like. Pattern Juggling is the location for my ramblings regarding the intersection of drumming, co-ordination, art and so forth (for example, the DIY Neuromotor Experiments posts). Audio Island is perhaps a bit obvious, Pattern Juggling less so. In PJ you’re likely to find a little math, maybe some neuro-science, music/art, fine motor control, limb independence and interdependence, and how it all comes together for the drummer or percussionist.
I don’t want anyone to think that Pattern Juggling is aimed only at drummers, though. Anyone, musician or not, can try some of the experiments and tricks that I have/will brought/bring up, and I’m interested in the results of your experiments and trials, musical or otherwise.
Granted, while I am not a renowned expert practitioner of the subject, I trust there will be items to stir your imagination. Who knows, maybe some day, a member of the highly co-ordinated set such as Bill Bruford, Joe Morello, Chad Wackerman, Terry Bozzio, or Vinnie Colaiuta will be cruising the net, happen across our little discussion, and offer some kernel of insight. Well, one can hope anyway…

DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments: When the Left Hand Knows What the Right is Doing

In previous installments in the DIY NME series, I’ve looked at the application of symmetrical motor patterns using the drum kit. For this entry, the approach is a little different and says something about “handedness” as well. A few months ago I rearranged my semi-symmetrical drum kit into what I call the super symmetrical kit. The original semi-sym kit offered a centered hi-hat and three toms on each side, decreasing in pitch from front-center to rear. The remaining cymbals were arranged in a more-or-less typical configuration for a right-hander (ride to the right, crashes arrayed as desired, but split evenly on left and right sides). Here is photo of the new super-sym kit (either the wide-angle wasn’t quite wide enough or the ceiling wasn’t high enough to get the whole thing):
SuperSymKit.jpg

Continue reading “DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments: When the Left Hand Knows What the Right is Doing”

DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments, Part 3

Can the idea of visualization coupled with mirror neurons be helpful to someone learning a musical instrument?

“Visualize! Visualize! Visualize!” is a cry often heard by athletes. The idea is to picture a performance in the mind, and by repeatedly doing so, help insure a successful result when the times comes for the real thing. For example, as a runner I might try to visualize striding smoothly and powerfully mid-race so that hopefully, that image will become reality on race day. I have had some luck with this and recommend Running Within by Lynch and Scott if you’re interested. But these sorts of things are rather vague and rely on reinforcement of a positive self-image, of a confidence-booster. I’m more interested in something a little more concrete. If you’ve read my earlier DIY Neuro-Motor posts here and here, you know what I’m getting at. Can the idea of visualization coupled with mirror neurons be helpful to someone learning a musical instrument?

Continue reading “DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments, Part 3”