Some people think of Jimmy Bralower as the enemy. Why? Because the man makes his living programming drum machines for records. This is the guy who’s putting drummers out of work.
Or is he? Jeff Porcaro once remarked that he looked forward to the day when, instead of hauling a drumkit around from studio to studio, he could have all of his sounds in a briefcase, which would be much easier to carry. Bralower is already doing that. Some drummers use Gretsch and Zildjian; others use Yamaha and Paiste; Bralower uses Linn and Simmons. Is there really a difference?
Opinion is divided. Many feel that the relationship between drum computers and acoustic drums is comparable to the relationship between synthesizers and acoustic pianos. Others feel that drum computers represent machines taking over from humans, and if civilization is to survive, the machines must be destroyed before they destroy us.
At any rate, the machines are here, and they are being used on a great many records. Jimmy Bralower is one of the people who is using them, but before you dismiss him as a drummer’s natural enemy, read what he has to say about the work that he does.
RM: Perhaps we should begin by establishing the fact that you started out as a drummer.
JB: You can trace me back, like a lot of other people in your magazine, to the era of the Beatles. 1 started in ’64, while in junior high school. I studied drums for five years, was in a few bands, and had a record out when I was 15 with my first band. We were an instrumental band very much influenced by the Ventures and the Shadows. We learned to play fairly efficiently from those records, because they were technically more proficient than some of their pop counterparts.
After I left high school, I stopped playing for a couple of years when I went to college and studied business. I found that there was a great void there musically, so I came back to New York and joined a band. I was trying to make it. I spent the early ’70s in search of nirvana, so to speak, and found out the hard way that it just wasn’t going to come that easily. Then, in the mid-’70s, the session scene became fashionable. I started pursuing session work, and more than anything, found out that I wanted to be in a band more than I wanted to free-lance. I found a couple of musicians, we formed a band, and got a record deal. The label folded a week before we were supposed to record, and I found myself back on the street again doing sessions. Then rap music came in, and a couple of people I worked with got involved in that. I started working with Kurds Blow, who was one of the originals in terms of recording rap music, and we had a string of hits with that, including a gold record for “The Breaks.” It was really the major success I had as a player.
Throughout all that time, I really started seeing that what I really wanted to do was produce records, more so than simply play drums on them. At that point, I decided to slide away from doing the sessions and start pursuing production work. It was a difficult period of time. During that period, I got a hold of a LinnDrum, as much to protect myself as anything else, since all of the writers I worked with were coming up with rhythms on their little drum machines that were humanly impossible. As a drummer, I guess I felt a little intimidated about the fact that people who knew nothing about playing drums could outperform, in a technical sense, all the things I could humanly do. So it got to the point where I bought the machine for my own protection, and it turned out to be a Godsend, because there weren’t many drummers who were willing to put their energies into the new technology. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was not necessarily going to play drums for a living anymore, but I would play drums because 1 enjoyed it, rather than because I had to.
At the same time, the Linn machine was something new for me to play with. There really hadn’t been a whole lot new in terms of drums, since maybe the hi-hat was invented. I found that this was like a fresh start in a lot of ways. I got involved in electronics, working with synthesizers, and all the new technology. It’s a very fertile area—very much untapped. I guess that brings us to where I am now, which is doing sessions on the LinnDrum.
RM: Do you remember the first time you ever saw a drum machine or heard about one?
JB: I saw an advertisement in Billboard magazine for the Linn LM-l drum machine. All it said was, “real drums,” and there was a picture of a box with a lot of buttons on it. It described the fact that it was studio drum sounds recorded digitally on chips, and you could program it to play anything you wanted it to with the sound of real drums, as opposed to the old piano-lounge beat boxes from the old days—the Rhythm Aces. I was intrigued by it, primarily because I was working with an artist named George Wallace who played all his own instruments, and he had a peculiar drumset. There was no bass drum. He would record all his tracks playing a hi-hat, snare drum, and toms, and overdub his bass drum with a synthesizer, playing with his fingers. He was able to (a) concoct patterns that counter rhythmically were things that I had never been able to perform, and (b) superimpose rhythms over other rhythms that made sense but weren’t necessarily something that one person could perform at the same time. I found it was very difficult to translate his demos into a live performance. So I was pretty intrigued by the possibilities of the technology.
When I started doing the rap music, it became even more of a prominent factor to me, because people were coming in with very complicated bass drum patterns—once again heavy on the 16th notes—and seven minutes worth of the same thing, which, to me, wasn’t what I considered to be playing anymore. It was executing. About that time, I was firmly convinced that I needed to have something in my arsenal that would allow me to keep up with people who were coming up with ideas about drum patterns that I, as a drummer, couldn’t play. Eventually, I became more intrigued by it and wound up buying a Linn, after waiting many months. I was ready to hock whatever I had to to buy one of them, simply to maintain a position with the people I had been working with.
RM: So you saved up and bought one. Then what?
JB: Well, I had been hanging around the Power Station, because the last recording project I had worked on with George had been sent there to be mixed. Being that I was very interested in getting into production, I was very curious about the inner workings of that particular studio, because so many great records have come out of there, and they’re renowned for just making records, as opposed to doing jingles or making demos. I was really thrilled to get in the door. The owner and chief engineer, Tony Bongiovi, took me under his wing and allowed me to come into his sessions just to watch, with the hopes that ultimately my production chops would grow.
It was during that time that I bought the Linn. I was at the studio all the time, and just looking for a slot for myself. I realized that nobody was pursuing electronic drums seriously, and there was starting to be a demand for them. So what I was able to do was start steering sessions that I was going to be working on with the drum machine into that studio to get the visibility. It was somewhat calculated. There was a little bit of luck, but there was also a little bit of self-made luck. Gradually, all of the engineers in the studio began to know my work.
Also, there was no competition. Nobody else was doing it. For the first time, I found a special niche for myself, and in this business, it’s very important to have something unique about what you do to make you stand out from the crowd. As a drummer, I certainly felt that I was competent, professional, and more than adequate, but the desire that’s needed to maintain that high profile in making records was something that I didn’t have. My energy was more into making whole records than simply playing on rhythm tracks. This was a great opportunity for me to get inside the control room, as opposed to being in an isolation booth, and to get more of a taste of the inner workings of how a record is made rather than simply being almost a distant bystander who comes in, cuts a track, and goes home. You don’t know what you’ve just done, or what it will turn into.
The drum machine has created a whole new line of work. Aside from simply cutting tracks, there’s a whole overdub business that has evolved, where suddenly people are calling drummers in to enhance tracks, whereas the drums were usually finite. The minute they went on tape, they were the one thing that had to be perfect right from the beginning. Suddenly, there were options to go back and change parts if the track was warranting a change. The more I did it, the more I saw the possibilities. 1 just kept pursuing it, buying more equipment, and getting the reputation along the way.
RM: Where was the initial demand coming from? Did you have to approach artists and convince them to use this machine instead of a drummer, or were artists com- ing in who wanted to use the machine and you happened to be the person who knew how to use it?
JB: Pretty much the artists were aware of the new technology. The people I’ve been working with are not the obvious users of the machine. I do some dance records, which is the primary use of the machines these days. But at the studio where I was working, there were more mainstream artists who wanted to keep their material fresh and updated. Even though they didn’t know exactly what this gear did, they were intrigued enough to want to have it on their sessions to keep their stuff contemporary. Oftentimes, there was no real use for them, when there was a live drummer on the session and I would be in the control room looking for something to do. But with the advent of the Simmons, I found that I could enhance the sound of a live drummer. As well as doing programming, there was yet another avenue to pursue, and that was sound enhancement. On those initial dates, some people would cut their tracks with the drum machine just so they could feel that they were staying hip. It evolved. Some people were ready to take a chance and some people were afraid. The ones who took the chances were the ones who really gave me the opportunity to get creative and to get my work heard.
RM: Could you be specific?
JB: I guess the first major artist I worked with was Carly Simon, on her Hello Big Man album. Her tracks were already cut. I came in there to do some sound enhancement. Ultimately, I got together with her to do some programming for a ballad she was working on. This was a case of somebody who was just getting her feet wet with the technology. As a result of that, the engineers I had been working for on that session turned me on to some other work. That led me to working with Nile Rodgers, who was in Chic and who had just finished doing David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album. He owns a LinnDrum, and he writes amazing programs on it. He’s so busy as a producer that he found it helpful to have a specialist to help get the ideas down and to get any complicated programs done without him having to do it himself. I met up with him on a Thursday, and the following Monday I was doing a Southside Johnny & The Jukes album, Trash It Up. I think five or six cuts were done with the drum machine. The drummer in their band then did overdubs on that. That was really the first pop artist’s record that I worked on.
Following that I worked with Meco, who is famous for his Star Wars disco record from the mid-’70s. We worked on an album called Ewok Celebration. That opened up some doors. Suddenly, my name got around and there was a windfall of activity. From the Southside Johnny record, I began to work with Jim Steinman, who was affiliated with the same management company. He, too, was riding a hot streak with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and an Air Supply record, which were numbers one and two in the country. We recorded two songs for the movie Streets Of Fire. So that was a new credential for me that was real helpful. Meanwhile, Nile was working with Hall & Oates. They were having trouble filling in a two-bar gap in the middle of “Say It Isn’t So.” They wanted some sounds they had never heard before. Nile referred me to them, so I came in and did some sound effects and sound enhancement on that record. They called me back the next day to work on a track from scratch with them, which was the tune “Adult Education.”
From there it really started to snowball, and my name really started to get around as a specialist in the drum machine business. I’ve been able to work with an elite crew of people—Peter Gabriel, Jeff Beck, Diana Ross—doing different things with each of them, but mainly being there to either enhance their records or to create the foundation for their records, which is something that I certainly had never been involved with on that level before. The opportunity was there and I took it.
RM: When you talk about going in to enhance a record, can you give specific examples of what’s already there, what you do, and how you do it?
JB: Okay. On “Say It Isn’t So” with Hall & Oates, the drums were already recorded, played by Mickey Curry, who’s a drummer I truly respect and got to know in the course of those sessions. There were some blank spaces in the song. What I initially did was fill them in with sound effects on the Simmons and the LinnDrum. Enhancement-wise, you can take a drum sound on a tape and trigger the Simmons sounds with it. This gives a slight electronic feel to a live track. The benefits of that, of course, are that without using a drum machine per se you can get some of the contemporary drum sounds. The closest thing I can relate that to is a group like Def Leppard, whose sounds are pretty much a combination of real drums and electronic effects—very subtle, but a major difference in sound when you’re in the studio. I’ve gotten pretty good at hearing missing elements in drum sounds, and have been able to dial up those elements through my equipment to enhance sounds that either just want reinforcement, as in the case of the Hall & Oates record, or in some cases to improve sounds that were recorded poorly.
I’ve done some work with some rock people. Lita Ford, who was in the Runaways, had an amazing drummer named Randy Castillo playing on her record. They just wanted to get a little bit of the electronic edge on it. I simply came in, took what he did, plugged it into my equipment, and was able to turn it into something that was a little more dynamic than what it already was. It already sounded excellent, but the potential is there to make it sound amazing. I did the same thing with Joan Jett. This has nothing to do with programming. This is simply triggering the sounds of the Simmons and the Linn from the drums on tape. It can make an amazing difference. Once again, a sense of good taste must prevail here, and sometimes it’s very subtle. Nonetheless, it’s been a sideline of the work I’m doing that has not only been interesting, but lucrative as well. It’s something that did not exist three years ago.
It’s done with triggering devices. I have a box called the MX-1, which takes an audio signal and converts it into Simmons trigger pulses. So any sound that’s on a tape can be made to trigger the Simmons drums to its maximum impact.
RM: Are there any particular things that you find have to be enhanced more than others? Are you generally looking for a stronger bass drum, or a stronger snare drum, or just a little of everything?
JB: It’s usually with the bass drum and snare drum. The amazing thing about the Simmons is that you can get into a subsonic range in terms of bottom. You can fatten up a bass drum and make it sound like it still has the front head on it while maintaining the attack of the initial sound. Many times, people muffle the bass drum and stuff it with blankets or whatever just to get the punchy sound. Even room ambience doesn’t give the same impact that a little “thump” from the Simmons can add to it. It doesn’t sound electronic if you do it right. It just sounds like an amazing bass drum.
It’s a similar thing with the snare drum. The white noise available on the Simmons can give the illusion of some loose snares, so that in the studio the drummer doesn’t have to keep the snare drum strainer too loose. You have to keep the snares tight so that they won’t rattle every time you hit a tom. You can enhance the snare after the fact and create the illusion.
It’s all a business of creating illusion essentially. But if done tastefully, you really don’t know that there’s something overtly electronic on it. It’s the equivalent of adding echo, EQ or any kind of effects in the studio. It’s just another box that can help make a record sound better. I tend to use it very subtly. I bring it up on the fader just to the point where it’s making a difference, as opposed to overtly affecting the sound of the drum, unless it’s called for in that way. But it makes a big difference in the record. Because the drums are cut before the other instruments, it’s very hard to project what they’re going to sound like in the final analysis. The illusion of a big drum sound sometimes is misleading, because the deeper the sounds, the more likely they are to get lost when other instruments are added. Many times, the drums are the only things that are kept from a rhythm track. So isolated, you can have a massive drum sound. Put a bass, a guitar and a vocal on top of it, and suddenly it’s lost in a wash of bottom.
So with this equipment, I’m able to add any of the elements that are missing in those sounds to help bring them out in the record, short of recutting the track. It’s been an effective tool. Mainly that stuff is done with the rockers, who have absolutely no use for the LinnDrum. It’s like it’s against their religion and it has nothing to do with their music. It’s a vicarious thrill for me to be able to go in on a session with someone like Ted Nugent or Stevie Nicks, and be able to help create sounds for their records, which is something that I certainly wouldn’t be doing as a drummer, since there are drummers already working on the session.
RM: Have you gotten animosity from any of those drummers?
JB: Initially, there’s a bit of a negative reaction on the part of some people. Part of my job is not to intimidate those other people on the session, specifically the drummer in the band. I’ve chosen to pursue the electronics, and they haven’t. I don’t want their jobs. They don’t want mine necessarily. The main thing is that, if you show them you’re doing something valid to help the music they’re working on, the professionals will see that you’re not doing it to steal their jobs. You’re doing it simply to fill a void. If they could do it, they would be. But doing it the way I’m doing it is almost a full-time job, just as playing the drums is a full-time job. You’re sacrificing one thing or another by trying to do them both as your career. Cetainly, anyone can dabble in drum machines, and virtually everyone does. But on the level that I’ve been working, it’s a specialty.
Initially, I felt intimidated myself being on someone else’s session with the drum- mer looking over my shoulder and breath- ing down my back. I could feel bad vibes in the room. I learned to communicate right off the bat with the people I’m working with and put them at ease. If they are receptive, which they have been for the most part, it can be a very positive thing for everybody, because they can learn something from me, I’m learning some-thing from them, and by the end of the sessions, normally, I have a good relationship with every drummer I work with. Occasionally, some drummers have an attitude that I’m going to put them out of business, or they just don’t like the idea of these machines. But it’s the ’80s and things are changing.
Certainly, the drum machine is not going to replace the drummer as we know it, but because of all the technology, there have been new genres of music created and there’s room for both, and for combinations of the two. For example, “Adult Education” with Hall & Oates is a combination of the LinnDrum, the Simmons, and real drums. Mickey Curry has done a lot of work playing to tracks of LinnDrums. “Man-Eater,” for example, starts out with a drum machine. The real drums come in and there’s almost a back-and- forth-type of give-and-take between the real drums and the machines. It can’t help but create interesting tracks, if you’re inclined to work with the technology rather than fight it. For myself, I saw the writing on the wall. I saw it coming. I had to come to grips with the fact that, in order to make the record business my career, I could not be a traditionalist and expect to stay contemporary, because the kids who are buying records today weren’t born when I started playing. That was a realization it took me a long time to come to, but when I did, I had no trouble adapting at all. It’s usually the people who are very protective about their traditionalist stands who have attitudes about the drum machines. I’m the first guy to tell artists that their songs do not need the electronics if I feel that real drummers are going to do a better job than the machine. However, there are enough times that music is being written by a writer who owns a drum machine, and the original grooves of the songs are actually coming from these boxes. You find that live drums don’t always translate the songs as well as the initial medium on which they were written. So there’s room for it. Those who see the future have no problem with it. Those who want to wear blinders are going to have trouble with it. It’s not going to take the place of drums, but it is here and it’s part of the percussion family now. Certainly, I would suggest that drummers see the machines as their friends instead of as their enemies.
RM: Let’s talk about the machines themselves. There are basically two types of things that we’re talking about: There’s the Linn/Oberheim side of it, and there’s the Simmons side. Let’s talk about the Linn side. What can you say about what that involves?
JB: Well, the Linn is a computer that is as amazing as whoever is pushing the buttons. It will create rhythms for you. It can store, recall at any time, and play back any ideas you may have in your head absolutely the same as it did yesterday or the day before. To me, it’s an idea box. You can have a concept, store it in the memory and retain it. Unlike sitting down at a drumset, coming up with an amazing groove one day while you’re jamming, and then forgetting it completely, with the machines you can actually maintain a library of your ideas. In terms of writing songs and coming up with grooves for songs, it’s an amazing tool. It not only has a drummer in it, but a few percussionists hanging out as well, which allows you to get into counter-rhythms beyond that of the drumset itself.
Probably the main difference between myself and many of the other people I know who fool around with drum machines, is that I’ve read the manual that comes with it. It makes a big difference. I find that many of the sessions I get called for are with people who own the equipment that I have but they simply haven’t taken the time to study it. It will do whatever you want as long as you and it are friends, and you can understand the fact that it knows nothing and you have to tell it everything. It becomes an extension of you with absolutely perfect time and execution.
The other advantage of the Linn and the Oberheim DMX, for me, is the availability of swapping sounds within the machine— especially with the Linn. At a moment’s notice, I can create any number of different-sounding drumsets in the machine, depending upon the kind of music I’m working on. It makes for a very flexible unit, as opposed to carrying ten drumkits into a studio. In one little suitcase, I can carry around 100 different sounds. At a session, it can be very handy if the engineer says, “Have you got a snare drum that has a little more top to it?” Rather than having to retune and tape your drum up, simply take another chip of a prerecorded, studio-quality drum sound, pop it in the machine, and you’re in business. In lesser-quality studios, it’s an amazing device, because chances are that the sounds coming out of the machine are light-years better than what the studio is going to achieve with its live drums.
RM: What are the basic differences between the Linn and the Oberheim DMX?
JB:The LinnDrum, for my use in the studio, is a little bit more flexible in terms of the fact that there are more sounds available from the manufacturer, and it’s very easy to change the machine from being a drumkit to being a total percussion box. The DMX is the favorite of a lot of people. It’s very attack heavy. It’s got a lot of punch—a lot of snap—but I find it has less potential than the Linn. Being that I work on all different kinds of records, I need a machine that’s going to be a virtual chameleon for me—that will be able to slide into any style of music and be able to create its own sound for that particular artist. With the Linn, I’m able to do that. The DMX has its sound and the Linn has its sound. The Linn is just a little bit more flexible in terms of programmability, for me. I find that it will do anything I want it to do. I run into DMX fans; I run into DMX haters. I run into Linn fans; I run into Linn haters. I’ve gotten chips from the DMX and the Roland 808 drum machines, and I have them available in my Linn. I can pretty well simulate the sound of any of the major drum machines with the equipment I have, short of buying all three of them and having to sit there and do multiple programs of the same piece of music. The Linn will do what I want it to do quickly, and I try not to make it sound like a Linn. I tend to try to make it sound like a special drumset for whoever I’m working with. I try to feed off of the music the artists are putting forth and create sounds that make sense for their records, rather than using simple stock sounds for everything. That’s where the Linn has the advantage, to me. They’re both amazing machines; I just find that one is more effective for my purposes.
RM: Have you got your own custom chips for the Linn, or do you just use what they have available?
JB: They have over 200 sounds available from the factory now. They’ve covered all the bases as far as I’m concerned. You always run into a problem in terms of converting analog sounds to digital chips and having them come back analog again. Sometimes you lose some of the sound that’s really on your tape. You have to understand how a sound translates when it gets burned to a chip. Decay time, for example, is limited. With this technology, you can only put so much length on a chip. So a big, ambient drum sound, for example, is really not available in terms of sending them a cavernous drum sound and expecting it to come back to you that same way. It’s going to clip before the sound has finished its cycle. I’ve found that what they offer at Linn is very functional.
That brings me to another point: A lot of people take the sounds in these machines as finite. If you find an engineer who’s willing to work with you on sound, you’d be amazed at how one chip can sound like ten different chips. It’s a matter of how creative you get with it—not taking things at face value. I probably break all the rules with the machine and do all the things you’re not supposed to.
With all of the sounds available from Linn, I’ve found that I haven’t needed to send them anything, except in one case. A rap record that I did with Kurtis Blow was a song about basketball, and we thought it would be an interesting idea to have the sound of a basketball programmed into the machine. So we sent them a tape of a basketball being dribbled. They sent it back and it turned out to be an amazing bass drum sound. On that record, we were really able to put a lot of punch into the kick drum. I was also able to use it as tom-toms. By tuning it differently, it created new sounds. It didn’t really sound all that much like a basketball when I would tune it up or down, but it created a unique kind of tom sound. That was the only time I ever sent them my own sound.
I’ve been using the factory-made chips for virtually everything. They now have over 30 snare drums available—everything from the biggest, fattest snare drum you’d want, to a rimshot, to that clean, crispy, snappy, L.A. sound, to something that might have come off a James Brown record, and everything in between. Between all of those sounds and being creative with the recording equipment available in the studio, the sky’s the limit.
I think the future with this stuff is being creative with it and not just accepting it at face value, which is why I’ve been pursuing it on a full-time basis, as opposed to simply dabbling with it as a sideline. There’s a lot of room today for this type of equipment to be put in the hands of people who really know what to do with it and who really want to work with it. It’s a little difficult at times, because being a drummer by trade, I have to reconcile myself to the fact that here’s a roomful of musicians and I’m standing there pushing buttons. Yet at the same time, I look around the room and see the musicians that I’m working with, and suddenly it’s not that difficult anymore. Having wanted to make really good records all my life, I’m finally able to involve myself in that end of it, and it’s been the electronics that have helped me achieve it. I certainly would recommend it to anyone who is even in the slightest way curious about it. If you simply look at it as a box that’s knocking off beats, that’s all it’s going to be, but it can be a very dynamic machine.
RM: Whenever I’ve played with a Linn or an Oberheim, I’ve found that my tendency is to program in every possible sound that’s available. I lay down the basic drum track, and then I want to throw in some maracas, a conga drum and some handclaps. I always end up with this multi-layered track. Do you find that to be a common problem with first-time users—that they want to put too much into it?
JB: Yes, it’s equivalent to walking into a 24-track studio, seeing all of these available tracks, and feeling obligated to use them all to fill up your record. There’s a discipline involved, but certainly the initial response is to play everything. I got over that pretty quickly when I realized that hearing cowbells, handclaps and Cabasas over every imaginable kind of groove is not the answer. In fact, the first few months, I think, I used a Cabasa on almost every program, along with the hi-hat. I started hearing back the tracks I was working on and I realized there was an incredible sameness to the things I was doing. I was letting the machine dictate what I was doing, rather than the other way around. It’s similar to working on a computer where, if you’re in control, it’s your best friend. If you let the machines control you, you’re in big trouble. You have to listen to the music you’re working on and determine what it needs.
That’s where my experience as a drummer came in. I always like to think I’m a tasteful player, and by that I mean I like to fit into the record. As opposed to being a showman all the time, I really believe the drums in a pop record are there to propel the song and make it feel right. That’s what I use the Linn for more than anything else. If I need any of the elements that it has available, they’re there. If I don’t need them, I don’t use them. It’s a similar thing to multi-track recording. Sometimes after you’ve filled up 16 of the tracks, the record is happening and overkill can set in. A lot of potentially good records have been destroyed by lack of discipline—people not listening to what they’re doing. It’s the same thing with a drum machine. Just because there’s a tambourine available doesn’t mean that it should be shaking for the whole song.
Sometimes I’ll get rid of all the drums in a Linn, make it just a percussion box, and set up grooves that way. It’s the equivalent of having ten musicians with maracas and congas in a room together playing, except you’re in control of the whole thing. Once again, you have to reconcile the fact that it’s your friend and it’s there to help you, as opposed to something totally intimidating or a big toy to play with. If that’s the way you’re going to use it, then it’s very difficult to go in and make records with those machines. But if you want to use it professionally, it’s sitting there waiting to do whatever you want. I’ve been able to work on records in genres that I possibly would never have gotten involved with as a player because of physical limitations. With the machines, there are no limitations.
RM: That leads us into the whole artistic question of the relationship between ideas and technique.
JB: For me, it’s been a major breakthrough. If you’re sitting around with ideas but you have no means of executing those ideas, you’re out. There’s no room for you. At least for the first 15 years I was involved in music, that was pretty much what it was, except at the beginning when I started out in the mid-’60s. If you knew three chords on a guitar, you could be in a band. You could play music.
I think people making music sometimes is more interesting than “musicians” making music. On an aesthetic level you can argue it either way, but in terms of selling records I believe that ideas are what really count and that you shouldn’t be left out simply because you are physically incapable of playing a particular instrument. With a synthesizer, obviously, the world has become available to virtually anybody and I think we have already seen a lot of great ideas coming out of all this technology.
I know a lot of song-writers who own drum machines, and who come up with amazing rhythms. It doesn’t always sound like drums as we know it, but it’s one person’s idea of what rhythm is. Who’s to say it’s not valid? By the same token, I have a lot of melodic ideas. I’m not a versatile keyboard player, but with a synthesize] and/or a sequencer, I can actually take the concepts I have in my head and turn their into reality. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an amazing breakthrough. It’s going to allow a lot of people who are very capable idea-wise to put their ideas across.
RM: On the other hand, we all know musicians who don’t have any ideas, but they ‘re famous because they’ve got chops They’re the fastest drummers, or the fastest guitar players, and they dazzle people with their technique.
JB: There’s music for all kinds of people and I found that as I became more involved in music, I started making music for my peers—for the musicians I worked with. That was directly against the concept of making records for people. Most people are impressed if a musician is playing real fast. But I would say that the majority of people are into songs that move them. It’s something beyond the technical.
Why does a group like Kiss sell more records than the Mahavishnu Orchestra?l It’s not an aesthetic question at that point; it’s a business question. I like to make records, and by that I guess I’m saying that commercial music is something that doesn’t rub me the wrong way. In fact, I think that it might be one of the more difficult art forms to really master. A lot of people tend to write it off as selling out. etc., etc. But when you really get into it, there’s an aesthetic there. To succeed or that level has its own artistic elements that are equally as valid as playing 32nd-note paradiddles across the kit. I was never particularly into that for myself, so it hasn’t been a major adjustment for me in dealing with all this technology.
I’m into songs. To me, a three-minute record is one of the great art forms. I don’t feel compromised by doing that. There are some people who are musicians’ musicians and just love to make music. I found that having a career in the record business and having a career just playing music were two different things. If you’re going to be an “artist,” you’re going to have to reconcile the business aspect of what you’re doing in order to sell records. If you just want to make music, fine, but be prepared not to make a whole lot of money doing it and to have a lot of the survival problems that we all know. I’ve always been geared towards the hit record. I’ve always been turned on by great, tight, little tracks. That’s what my pursuits are, and there happens to be a bag of gold at the end of that rainbow if you connect, which is also intriguing to me.
That has nothing to do with aesthetics. That has to do with survival—making a living. Sometimes being the artiste has nothing to do with that. So there’s justification on both sides. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Having worked with someone like Peter Gabriel, who I consider to be a real artists’ artist—he has been able to reconcile his art and the business. He’s found a niche for himself. It’s more difficult for a new artist today, possibly, to do that, but the business ten years ago was a little more fertile in terms of developing talent, and you find that most of the aesthetic artists who are around in pop music today have been around for quite a while. There aren’t too many new ones coming out, although occasionally somebody cuts through. The business has really tightened up. If you want to make records, the minute you’re done with the recording process, like digital clocks or blankets or anything else, you’re just product. That’s the hard, cold fact of the record business, and it has nothing to do with how great a player you are necessarily.
Although good music and good playing are real critical to the success of a record, you have to sublimate your technique into the making of a particular song, as opposed to wanting to find that little hole where you can show off. That’s not what it’s about in the terms that I’m looking at. There’s a discipline to making records that maybe doesn’t exist in certain other areas of playing music, and you have to be focused on what you’re doing. If you’re playing in a club and jamming, you can do whatever you want. But if you pull the same thing off at a pop session in the studio the next day, you’re going to be in trouble. I don’t care if you’re the greatest virtuoso in the world, you’ll be out the door. So you have to understand the dynamics of the business and just where you see yourself fitting in.
RM: A little while ago, I made a distinction between the Linn and the Simmons. Now, let’s go back and pick up the Simmons. With the Simmons, we’re actually talking about two different things too—the ability to trigger Simmons sounds, which we talked about, and the aspect of the drummer playing on the Simmons.
JB: Simmons seems to be the drumset of the ’80s. Drums have not changed very much over the last 40 or 50 years. Ever since the big band era when the drumkit came into being, it’s been that way. Once again, I think it’s breaking the traditionalist values that those of us who have been doing this for a while have about our music. Rock ‘n’ roll is not a traditionalist kind of music to begin with, yet here we are 15 or 20 years later sort of protecting our old ways of doing things. The Simmons is allowing drummers an option for the first time, in terms of what they’re actually playing on and the sounds they’re making.
The new Simmons that is out now has finally tightened up the one real problem of the Simmons, and that’s the response of the pads. Enough people are walking around with broken forearms from playing a pad that’s as hard as a tabletop the same way they would play a real drum. Also, it’s a little strange at first hearing the signal coming from a different place than the source. There’s something very organic about playing the drumset, and of course, the Simmons sort of takes you a bit away from that. However, there are a number of options it makes available to you sonically, technically, and in terms of a live performance—having the drums run directly through a PA system, as opposed to being miked up and getting somewhat lost in the caverns of a live arena. Now, suddenly, you have the technology working for the drummer.
Once again, new genres of music are being created around it. Young people who are coming up are the pushbutton generation. They are used to things just happening at the touch of a button. This is an extension of that. I think it’s worth while for individuals who are pursuing music as a career not to turn their backs on it, but at least to understand it and not develop negative attitudes about it simply because it’s different. The potential is there for creating new ideas, such as the idea of plugging your bass drum pad into a snare drum module in the Simmons and suddenly reversing all of your patterns. There are so many creative things you can do that can break the stereotypical drumkit sound, and possibly evolve new rhythms. It’s untapped territory.
I’ve been mainly working in the studio, so I have a set of suitcase Simmons—a little attache case with seven pads in it that allows me to do any kind of overdub work in the small confines of a control room. I can keep my Simmons brain handy and actually hear what it’s sounding like through the studio monitor, rather than being out in the room with the kit and having to guess at the sounds I’m getting. It’s been great and they work great triggering off of real drums as well.
RM: Do you get called on to program Simmons sounds for drummers who are actually going to be playing the Simmons pads?
JB: Yeah, I’ve done that occasionally. The Simmons is a pretty expensive item. Your average person on the street is not going to be able to drop $3,000 or $4,000 to have this available. There are occasions when I’ll bring my pads in for somebody else to play. This is yet another kind of work that has evolved from all this equipment— helping them achieve the sounds they’re looking for. Simply grabbing hold of a set of Simmons for the first time in the studio does not equal getting all the sounds. It takes a little time to know how it works. Once you understand it, though, it’s pretty easy to just dial up any of the real signature Simmons sounds, and then there are loads of sounds that people aren’t using that are available. Certain sounds are pretty fashionable with the Simmons right now, and most people seem to want those as opposed to sort of drifting into the unknown a little bit and trying to come up with something new, which, once again, is another thing I like to get into. If somebody is doing A, I want to do B—not to turn my back on what other people are doing, but seeing how far I can take these things.
I know for myself, as a drummer, it was very difficult to find a special niche, and now with all these new options available, I’ve found one. People will call me to help them achieve what they want without having to go to school on this equipment. It’s sometimes easier to pay somebody to come in and do it efficiently with you than to be the real trooper and say, “I’m going to rent a set of Simmons and a Linn, and I’m going to do it all by myself.” Getting too possessive can sometimes backfire. I’ve been lucky to work with people who happen to have the budgets available to indulge themselves by hiring somebody to do this work for them. On other levels, it’s very difficult. It can get expensive. This is not cheap equipment to own or to maintain. To stay on top of the technology means constantly throwing your income right back into your business.
I have the equipment that these people need at times, and sometimes I wind up doing Simmons overdubs to drum tracks that other people played. They might want the sound of Simmons toms along with the tom fill on their tape. The problem with toms on tape is that usually they’re mixed in stereo, and if you have more than one drum on a track of a tape, it’s impossible to trigger the Simmons drums individually. So the only way to match the sound is to play them manually.
Sometimes I’m called upon to do that, but primarily my work is programming the Linn and Simmons and creating sounds or maybe percussion effects, as I did on “Say It Isn’t So.” There are some sound effects on that record that were done by taking some stock Linn sounds, detuning them, putting them in the wrong modules and doing things that were just basically gambles on my part just to see what would happen if . . . . The potential is unlimited. I imagine there will be work available for people doing this, unless every band eventually has its own specialist, which remains to be seen.
RM: How much should drummers know about these machines?
JB: I think, at the very least, they should know enough not to be intimidated by them. By that I mean get some hands-on experience, even if it’s with the less expensive models—your under-$1,000 drum machines—that essentially work in the same manner as the DMX and the Linn, except there are less features.
It’s really something that’s becoming a part of the drumming business. You have two options: You can turn your back on it and watch other people get the work, or you can involve yourself in it a little bit and, at least, be able to take the jobs that come up for this work. I often see keyboard players coming in and being the drummer on a session. I’d much rather see a drummer earning the dollars for doing drum programming than a guitar player, a song-writer, or a keyboard player. It’s protecting your own interest. To that extent, I think, it’s healthy to have a basic knowledge of how to program beats and maybe even construct a song in the machine. If you have no interest in it, then certainly there’s no need to deal with them, but expect to see other people taking potential jobs away from you with this equipment.
There’s been a bit of an overkill on the drum machines these days in terms of the kind of music that some people are making with them. If some people had their way, the drum machines would be dead and gone within another few months. If the same kinds of music keep coming out of them, they very well could, except for the fact that there are people who are taking this equipment a step beyond the obvious. If you turn on a drum machine and plug it into a synthesizer, you’re going to get pretty much what you hear on a lot of records today, which is 16th- or 8th-note pulsing—straight “boom chics” on the drums. It’s fairly uninspired stuff, except for the fact that it’s precise and it sounds real good. You can go so far with it though, that I think that, when really creative people get their hands on the drum machines, coupled with the synthesizers, coupled with guitar—who knows? It’s unlimited.
I think it’s here to stay. People are starting to realize its capabilities more as a creative tool than anything else. The machines tend to sound better on songs that were created around them than bringing in a live section to play. By the same token, a heavy metal band is going to sound a lot better playing their music than a bunch of machines. So I think you’ll start finding a delineation and possibly a bit more of a cross-pollinating of the live players and the new technology into some form of music that might not even exist yet. It’s worth it for you to know about it enough not to let it put your mind out of whack. If it intimidates you, then all the more reason to know something about it, because you’ll find that it’s very handy for a drummer aesthetically to have this knowledge.
It can help someone’s drumming too. It can help your playing and time by allowing you to break down what it is you do and analyze it a little more—coming up with ideas in your head, putting them in the machine, and trying to re-create those ideas on your kit. You can create your own challenges for yourself, and there are any number of applications.
There’s a lot of technology coming around that’s being focused on drums and percussion. I really feel that people who want to use it can make a real difference with it and can help to create sounds and ideas that until now have not existed. I think that’s what it’s all about—finding new territory to roam in. That’s how music is going to grow. Even though it’s changing, look at the world around us and look at where it was 20 or 30 years ago. Everything is changing and by holding onto traditional values to the exclusion of everything else, you’re running the risk of being left in the dust.