Early in the evening on Wednesday last week, a crowd packed into the pink-and-blue confines of the Elvis Guesthouse, a narrow basement bar in New York’s East Village. They were there to hear some drums.
The kit had been set up in the far back corner, adjacent to the disco ball. Each drum — snare, bass, two toms, hi-hat, ride — had a small, glowing piece of plastic clamped onto its rim, and each of those clamps was hooked up to a laptop nearby. Otherwise, it seemed like any normal drum set.
Then the show began, and Kiran Gandhi, a drummer who's toured with M.I.A. (and just graduated from Harvard Business School), started to play. Too many sounds — way too many sounds — began coming out of those drums. The snare crashed with a digital fizz, the tom sounded like an 808, the bass drum like a mallet bonging on the side of a grand piano. It sounded like a free jazz solo version of the beat behind a studio-produced dance banger, and it looked like magic.
The snare crashed with a digital fizz
This was the Kickstarter launch party for a new drum system called Sensory Percussion, created by a drummer and programmer named Tlacael Esparza who, along with his brother Tenoch, founded a company called Sunhouse to develop this technology.
"We’re trying to bring back the intuitive physicality of music making," Tlacael said, "but bring those skills to electronic music." In other words, he wants to make it so that a drummer hitting real drums can play any kind of electronic beat out there, no matter how complicated, just with the sticks in their hands.
Tlacael came up with the idea when he found himself confronted with one very particular challenge: "There's this Nicolas Jaar song called 'Why Didn’t You Save Me' that has this just amazing drum part," Tlacael said, "and when I heard it I thought: I want to do that."
But he knew it was impossible with the existing technology. Jaar is a producer and a DJ, and that drum part was the product of complex sampling, pitch shifting, and other radical changes in the basic sounds being played, none of which a drummer can do while playing, sticks in hand. "All of that desire fed into building this," Tlacael said, "to just allow for that kind of control over sound."
Drummers are stuck with technology that doesn’t match their skills
The gap between the beats coming out of studios and the physical capability of drummers has been growing for decades. Drummers today are stuck with technology that doesn’t match their skills: fiddling with knobs and laptops and sample pads doesn’t draw on any of their training as real drummers. Meanwhile, electronic drumkits lack the nuanced sound of real drums. They are essentially buttons that trigger preset sounds. They’ll play louder or softer depending on how hard you hit them, but that’s the limit of their expressivity.
"I love electronic music, but playing a keyboard or a pad to make a drum beat does not make any sense to me," said Kiran Gandhi, who’s been beta testing Sensory Percussion since she encountered it at Sunhouse’s demo studio during South By Southwest this spring. "To able to sit down and write a beat using my drum set is revolutionary."
Unlike electronic drums, Sensory Percussion picks up on the actual sound coming out of acoustic drums, and then uses that to form its digital output. It allows drummers to capture all the subtleties that analog drums can produce while playing digital music.
The process transforms physical drums into virtual spaces
Here’s how it works: those glowing clamps contain two small microphones that pick up the analog audio signal from the drums, and the Sensory Percussion software translates the sound into a manipulable digital signal in real time. After a brief training session in which you teach the program what different parts of your drum sound like when played, the program's audio processing and machine learning algorithms can tell where and how you’re is hitting the drum, whether that's in the middle of the drum head, the edge, or somewhere in between, or if you’re hitting the rim with the tip of the stick or the middle of the shaft — all told, it can separate the sound coming out of the drum into eight separate zones. You can then assign different samples or effects to each zone, and blend between them (by physically playing somewhere between the center of those zones) with as much nuance as the analog acoustics of the drum allow.
This is easier to grok when you see it in action, but that process transforms physical drums into virtual spaces, capable of playing effects and sounds on the fly. You could make one zone control reverb, another play a drum sample, and the rest play sounds you recorded around your house, all on one drum. Technically, the sensors can process any sound input as a "zone," so you could tell the program to use your laptop’s built-in mic as the sensor input, and play your desk like a drum kit. The program can also record all the information on where you’ve hit the drum during a session, and you can then swap out the samples and effects assigned to each zone after the fact, keeping the same underlying performance intact while changing the sound completely.
"You’re always kind of envious of a guitar player."
Sterling Campbell, a drummer who’s played for David Bowie and David Byrne and who got a chance to test out Sensory Percussion at Sunhouse’s office in Queens, compared it to an electric guitar. "Just from a creative side, you’re always kind of envious of a guitar player, because there’s so much you can do with pedals, looping, an iPad — you can sonically do anything on a guitar. So playing with this system was really like, 'Wow, now I can do all that.'"
"The possibilities are pretty insane," said Ian Chang, the drummer for Son Lux, who’s also gotten a chance to beta test Sensory Percussion. "It makes me think about playing the drums differently and how the whole kit can interact. It’s like playing with a different part of the brain; it’s totally crazy."
Those possibilities do come with a learning curve, though. Sensory Percussion is not for the weekend DJ, unless that DJ is already a drummer. Tlacael mentioned the possibility of using it to help teach the drums to newbies, by giving more feedback on how their hits are landing, but for the most part his system adds complexity. The initial setup process — training the program to recognize the different sounds of your own drums, slotting in some samples and effects, and starting to play — isn’t particularly time-consuming, but the potential for customization and miniscule tweaking could lead to hours (or more realistically, days) lost down experimental rabbit holes.
These possibilities do come with a learning curve
A week in, the Kickstarter campaign has raised over $60,000 of its $80,000 goal, and the Esparzas say that the first wave of production units should ship by January of 2016. Right now, the program can feed into MIDI-capable production software like Ableton Live to control samples, but by the time it ships it will come bundled with its own sampler system that doesn’t rely on MIDI, since, as Tenoch says, "we have to kind of dumb the signal down to go through MIDI, so we can do a more sophisticated kind of signal processing with our own protocol."
And already, Tlacael has gotten to prove that his invention works like he originally intended — earlier this spring, he brought the Sensory Percussion prototype on a short tour with Nicolas Jaar and got a chance to test out his invention live.
"He was able to do everything," Jaar said. "It feels like cheating, honestly, because a huge part of what I do live was taken off my shoulders. It was basically a dream come true."