Thump those tubs yourself
At the start of most fledgling musical careers the age old question reappears: where are all the drummers? Naturally, guitarists are ten-a-penny, while singers and frontmen/women can be relatively straightforward to source. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find someone who can do both. Plenty of people start out on the piano, making it simple enough to find someone who can play keys. And, without wanting to generalise, bass players can often be found in guitarists who fancy travelling down a slightly different path.
But finding someone who can keep time, lay down a nice beat and keep the whole thing moving along? Not so simple. You see drums are one of those deceptive instruments. To the untrained eye, you’d imagine if you can count to four and hit things you can play drums. This, friends, is absolutely not the case.
The best way I heard it described is this. Imagine counting to four and, in time, tapping your right hand on your lap. Now hit your left hand on the two and the four. Now, with your left leg, double tap the floor on the first beat. And, with your right leg, tap it evenly eight times. Four different limbs, each with their own unique instruction. Add in things like expression, velocity and feel, and you can see how drumming is not as easy as the good ones make it look.
So you reach a point where you accept you can’t do it all. You’re going to need a drummer. But what if, for love nor money, you can’t find one? Or perhaps you’re a solo artist just looking for something to practice along to. What are the alternatives? Let’s take a look.
A solid option for both practice and performance, a loop pedal will deliver a whole heap of amazing creative potential. In its simplest form, a basic looper like the Boss RC-1 allows you to record parts and then overdub new arrangements over the top.
The interesting part here comes in the way many modern loopers, like the venerable Boss RC-3, enable you to transfer pre-made loops onto the unit. So you could, without much effort, source a selection of drum loops and use them as your basis for performance. Simple.
Hardware drum machines
External hardware drum machines are pretty commonplace in electronic music. The often form the backbone of house, techno, hip hop and experimental electronic tracks thanks to their ease of use, tweakability and reliability.
For more traditional musicians, an external drum machine is a great alternative to a (boring) metronome. Often, in the right hands, they become a pretty powerful instrument in their own right.
We’re particularly fond of the Roland TR-08 and TR-09 reissue models, which packed a tonne of cool features and original sounds into tiny, highly portable packages. Going even smaller, the Korg Volca Beats is a superb little beat machine which could easily fit into a performance situation.
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)
Perhaps more suited to studio situations, digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Ableton Live, Reason and Pro Tools all come with exceptionally versatile software drum machines included.
While these could theoretically be used for live performance, you’d need to be confident in taking a laptop into a stage environment which is, as you can imagine, fraught with danger. But, for studio applications, there are few more versatile, professional and all-encompassing options than using software.
As a hybrid between DAWs and external hardware devices, Native Instruments’ Maschine straddles both world with ease. You get the benefits of hardware – pads to ‘play’ the drum parts – with the visual and efficient benefits of using software to power the brain of the unit.
We’ll give special mention to a particular favourite piece of software of ours; Toontrack’s amazing EZ Drummer plug-in quite literally changed the way we looked at software drums. Well worth a look.
Last but not least, let’s give a little shout out to the humble metronome. Realistically, it’s not something you’re going to take onto a stage with you, but as a stop-gap to at least ensure you’re practising in time, it’s worth considering.
Use it each time you practice, and learn to keep time perfectly, and then when a ‘real’ drummer does come along you’ll be good to go. We’ve got a selection of metronomes to help in the meantime.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.