When I first started seeing DJs play warehouse venues in the more run-down districts of Melbourne’s industrial areas, it wasn’t uncommon to see them adding to the turntables for extra impact. One device that continued to make an appearance on makeshift stages was the drum machine, most notably the TR range from Roland. In the techno scene, you simply had to have a TR-808 or TR- 909 or both as part of your setup. Some nutty enthusiasts, myself included, went so far as to chase down the whole set with the TR-505, TR-606 and TR-707 too. So, it’s surprising that you don’t see more of this in today’s DJ scene. When drum machine technology is at its greatest, why don’t we see more drum machines taking the stage? Or have we left behind the love of that trusty sidekick for the power and woes that come with a laptop?
The Inner Drummer
When all is said and done, it’s the drum beat that drives a dance floor, and it’s for this reason that the drum machine was always such a powerful addition to a DJ’s arsenal. Nowadays, I think we might be a little caught up with using our laptop and a vast sample collection to do the work for us. We end up forgetting about the visceral nature of that drum beat and remove some of the emotion from the sound. What we need to do is look back at what drove us to DJ in the first place, and what it is that continues to get us and our audience up to dance. That connection to a drum beat starts from within and ultimately ends within the audience, so there should be a need to have a more organic process of delivering that sound on top of the recordings we place back.
Understandably, the sounds that came from some of the drum machines I used to own were far from organic. But an analogue signal that is tweaked and filtered to sound like a drum hit and then sequenced for rhythm results in something that is, although rigid at times, quite unique with every performance and so quite special. Trying to tame this sometimes unwieldy technology was what it was all about to achieve a result that gave the audience something living, something they can connect with. This is why live drummers always bring a new edgy element to dance music, with added groove that a computer doesn’t deliver. So, bridging the gap between the two is the modern way of spicing up a DJ set with a lively performance that will strike a beat with the audience and keep them dancing all through your set.
To do so, the addition of any number of modern drum pad devices can really bring that edgy element to your performance and create new life in your music. The SamplePad Pro from Alesis is a great starting point for exactly this idea. It is not a set of small pads like what you might find on your DJ console, but eight large triggers designed to be hit with drumsticks, all mounted in a compact housing that carries the brain and sound engine, ready for you to mix in with your other tracks. Watching a DJ on the decks can be a bit tedious at times, and it’s worse still when all the DJ does is stare into a computer screen and click the mouse between tracks. If your audience sees you with a pair of drumsticks in your hands and hears the results of what they see coming through in the mix, you are sure to create excitement and better the connection between DJ and crowd. After all, it is all about the crowd, because if they weren’t there, you wouldn’t be there. You need to give them a show and connect through not only a visual, but musical sense too. What more could you ask for than a tribal feeling between all in the room driven by the beat of your drum. As a DJ, don’t forget that you can be a musician as well as a technician, and it doesn’t have to be all about console. Intergrade some variety and versatility into your set and I am sure both you and your audience will get so much more out of it. If I can make one small suggestion, keep the TR-606 at home and never try to integrate that with a modern DJ set. This is not a challenge; it is more of a common sense community announcement. Those little drum machines were cool once, but they are a bugger to sync to anything, they go out of tune and out of time and sound just plain dinky. But boy were they a lot of fun.