KJ Sawka: Smashing Electronica

KJ Sawka: Electronic Drummer

This is an excerpt from the “Get Good: Electronic Drumming” feature that ran in the February 2011 issue of Modern Drummer.


Capturing the drum ’n’ bass aesthetic as exemplified in the music of Squarepusher, Amon Tobin, and Plug, KJ Sawka plays some of the rawest drums around. And that’s before he adds electronics. On acoustic drumset he creates the whirs, delays, effects, and sonic dislocations of electronic music. Adding an arsenal of devices further broadens his palette, providing an atmospheric bed for his extremely visceral drumming. “I really try to re-create the drum machine beats of electronic music with an acoustic drumset, simultaneously triggering the actual snare, kick, and hi-hat sounds,” Sawka explains from London. “I try to sound as electronic as possible. I become the machine.”

Employed by Ableton to create the signature Mad Beatz loops and samples package, Sawka sometimes plays his acoustic set with his right hand and manipulates electronics with his left. He kills on acoustic drums, but he’s undoubtedly trigger-happy.

“I make a huge bank of sounds, kicks, and snares,” he explains. “That’s what I’m triggering. Then I mix it up like crazy on the fly. I have the mics on my kick and snare going through my computer. I can reverse-engineer the acoustic sounds live as well. It’s a combination of triggered sounds and beats from my acoustic drumset, which I then put through all kinds of processing.” Advertisement

How does Sawka go from chopping and loading samples to performance? “First I multitrack my acoustic drums at 80 bpm in five- to ten-minute segments,” he says. “Then I ramp up the bpm, 90 to 110 to 200. So I have an enormous amount of material to chop up in Ableton’s Sampler. I chop all the beats into four-bar segments. I usually record the beats in Pro Tools. Then I take all the files and chop them into Ableton. I’ll listen back and start putting markers at every four bars, finding the best beats. Then I add compression and EQ, getting all the volume levels correct, and I start mixing like an electronic engineer. I bring the kick and snare forward and push the cymbals back, like mixing to a club crowd.”

Side-chain compression is an important element in replicating the brittle, often hallucinogenic atmospheres of contemporary electronic music. “Side-chain compression is where you turn down the threshold and raise the attack time,” Sawka explains. “You put hi-hat or cymbals into the compression chain, so when the kick drum strikes it compresses all the cymbals. So every time the kick drum hits, the cymbals go a little quiet. That makes it sound like the kick drum is being pushed forward, but actually everything else is being pushed underneath it. I do that in Ableton. What’s so great about Ableton is that you can combine effects and create your own compressor sounds. And you can remix a tune in twenty minutes; you can cut and import audio and import any sort of wave form or MP3. It’s very fast.”

In performance, Sawka controls electronics with a push of his finger on a Korg Nano controller or an Akai APC. He can trigger loops, keyboard sequences, drum sounds, even voices and effects.

“The Korg Nano controller is the size of my laptop,” KJ says. “It’s got sliders and buttons and knobs. If I need to change the kick drum sound, I just reach my finger over and turn the knob to scroll through my stored kick sounds. You can assign anything to the controller. It starts the click, switches keyboard patches—anything.” Advertisement

Sawka also extends sounds, loops his drumming, even reverses his drumming, all in the moment, all in real time. Is it insane? Yes, it is! “If I want to extend a section using Ableton,” he explains, “I’ll grab loop markers with my knobs on the controller. I’ll insert loop markers on the fly from bar 32 to bar 40. That will create an eight-bar loop. I can do MIDI loops for my kick and snares on the APC40 as well. I have a MIDI loop-enabled button switched on. The green light shows that the loop is playing, while the loops that are ready to record are shown with a red-lighted button. I just hit that red button and it begins recording what I’m playing. I also have MIDI quantize on, so when I hit the red button again it produces a perfect quantized loop. I can tweak it with effects or change the tempo or fade it out with a lowpass filter. It’s endless and insane!

“I approach it like a band or DJ set,” Sawka adds. “I mix the songs together seamlessly. My goal is to smash the crap out of the audience with electronic music.”