From Blue Man to Producing: An interview with drummer Kyle Harris
A photo of Kyle Harris

Kyle Harris is a Boston, MA based drummer, producer, rapper, and sound designer focused on creating modern electronic music. Kyle Has worked with the Blue Man Group, Youtuber Ben Levin, has performed with art rock band Bent Knee at Berklee College of Music and has created albums with Tsubaki, Goody Bag, That One Eyed Kid and Ben Levin Group.

From 2018-2020 he toured internationally playing drumset for the Blue Man Group in China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Europe, North America, and Russia. Kyle also works as a session drummer with Boston studio Plaid Dog Recording and runs the drum school Boston Drum Lessons.

What's your background as a musician?

I've always played drums since I was a kid and drumming has been my main focus for most of my life. But I took a slightly different route than a lot of my friends and collaborators. I didn't study music, I studied business. But, at university I played in drumlines and went on to compete with drum corps and indoor drumlines. Those experiences really acted as my primary music education since I didn't have a traditional conservatory experience.

I always loved focusing more on timbre, feel, and dynamics in my drumming, so Sensory Percussion just seemed like the extension of that.

After graduation I moved up to Boston, which is where I grew up, because I wanted to keep playing and meet musicians to collaborate with. It was a great choice for me, and I found an incredible community of musicians and artists who are all hungry to create. It's a really inclusive and supportive environment.

I lived the life of the hustling drummer juggling teaching, weddings, bar gigs, passion projects, session work, you name it. But in 2016 I auditioned for the Blue Man Group and got hired to play drumset in the show. I even got to tour internationally with the company for a year and a half prior to the pandemic, which was really special.

Now my main focus is on production, composing and sound design. I still drum constantly but have lately been feeling most excited programming synths and creating my own sound worlds. Funny how much your interests and direction can change and evolve over time.

How did you come to start using Sensory Percussion?

I actually first discovered Sensory Percussion before a Blue Man show in 2017. I watched Ian Chang's “Spiritual Leader” video and just got super excited about the potential. I had never heard anything like that before and had no idea where the sounds were coming from and how everything was programmed. The sound design potential seemed infinite, and it had this air of mystery that really resonated with me. I always loved focusing more on timbre, feel, and dynamics in my drumming, so Sensory Percussion just seemed like the extension of that.

At this time, I had also started playing in a project called Goody Bag. It's an electronic rap duo and I was trying to figure out how to create and perform electronic productions in my own way. Sensory Percussion was the answer, and it really was my gateway into producing in general. Learning production is like learning an instrument all over again but with heavy paradox of choice because of how many directions you can go. I'd get stuck producing often when trying to take a layered approach, so Sensory Percussion allowed me to more freely get ideas out and just trust my drumming instincts when I was just beginning.

Kyle performing 'Split' & 'Crashing'

What was the recording process like for Frames?

I've found my workflow is best when I can clearly identify or restrict the samples and sounds that I use. So, most of the songs were started by either finding samples I thought were cool or pulling samples shared with me by friends and seeing if I could make them more interesting, or my own in some way. I use the Sensory Percussion plugin with Ableton for my workflow and took a few different approaches. On songs like Void Screamer, Flood and Crashing I built my arrangements in session view in Ableton and used automations to cycle different samples, FX and move through the song arrangements. So, when it came to record, I would just do full takes until I got a few I liked and then combine sections across takes as needed. I wanted these songs to have a human, improvised feel to them and I really do think this workflow captures that.

For the rest of the songs, I used a more layered approach combining takes of Sensory Percussion with other programmed synths, percussion and textures. With this workflow I could just track myself playing the kick and snare pattern with Sensory Percussion for instance. I'd do this when making textures, hi-hats, or just sketch rhythms too. A great technique with Sensory Percussion and Ableton is to record midi notes using Sensory Percussion for a synth or some other virtual instrument or sample and then move the midi notes around after to determine what the melodic development should be. I think drummers are super melodic with their playing so typically what can come out of this approach is really musical and inspiring. Plus, it really helped me to not overthink what I was making. That's definitely been one of the biggest benefits to working with Sensory Percussion.

The Frames album cover
The album cover for 'Frames'

You sing/rap on some of the tracks -- what was that like? Is that new for you? The world can always use more singing drummers!

Oh man, this was one of the scariest things I've ever done musically. I got to a point where I had un-mixed, mostly done instrumental productions of half my songs and in my mind, they were basically done. I shared them with my close friend/producer, and she heavily encouraged me to rap over them. I wasn't sure at first but gave it a shot and am super grateful for that push because it allowed me to discover a whole new side to my musicianship that I had never considered before.

Writing lyrics was scary. Putting my voice out there was scary. I definitely grew a lot through the process and am pretty happy with how it came out. I'm planning on singing and rapping on more songs in the future and would really encourage any drummers out there to try and sing if you want to sing or play piano even if you don't know much about theory. It's freeing, healthy and will make you a way better musician in the long run.

Kyle's setup:

  • 3 sensors
  • Roland KD7 kick drum
  • I use 3 snare drums with remo silent stroke heads
  • Pintech rubber rim covers
  • Roland Octacapture interface
  • Ableton live & Sensory Percussion plugin

A photo of Kyle's home studio setup
Kyle's home studio setup

Do you have plans to tour the album?

Currently, I don't have plans to tour the album. Things in the US are just coming back to some semblance of normalcy, so I'm mainly focused on getting my live show put together and booking some shows to hone the set and make sure I have all the tech dialed. But this fall or in 2022 I'd love to take my set on the road.

What else are you working on? Anything else you'd like to share?

Lately I've been doing a lot of writing with my close friend Courtney Swain, who sings and plays keys for the band Bent Knee. We're working on a duo EP that should come out this fall. Other than that, and a few more collaborations, I'm beginning to work on some new songs to slowly work towards a new release at some point. I'm really excited about sound designing at the moment as well and have been getting into modular lately. Basically, just trying to continue pushing on all my projects and keep creating.

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