An Interview with drummer Max Jaffe
Max Jaffe behind the drums

Max Jaffe is a drummer, improviser, and composer based in Brooklyn, NY. Armed with Sensory Percussion, Max is able to create musical tapestries that are beyond the paradigm of the modern drum set. His compositions are a kind of soulful noise music, where the avant-garde intersects with the dance floor, where kinetic energy turns to stasis.

Max is a longtime member of NYC art-rock collective JOBS, Amirtha Kidambi's Elder Ones, and Leverage Models. He has toured extensively with producer Chrome Sparks, utilizing Sensory Percussion to help realize his live shows. He has also toured and recorded with Rubblebucket, Cass McCombs, Peter Evans, Ava Mendoza, Normal Love, Gavin Gamboa, Delicate Steve, David Wax Museum, Landlady, In One Wind, Steven Lugerner, and many others.

Max is currently pursuing a Performer-Composer MFA at California Institute of the Arts and endorses Sunhouse, Paiste Cymbals, and Hologram Electronics.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician?

Music has just felt pretty central to my life for as long as I can remember, but there were a few factors that led to me pursuing it as my life's work. Through my mom and dad, I picked up piano and drums respectively. I gravitated much more to the drums, and I have been playing music in bands since I was in elementary school, though the first few bands weren't anything that anyone would want to hear.

By high school, I had met some friends who were equally serious about writing music and we started a band that played around the Bay Area, where I grew up. I had aspirations for that band to tour and do something outside of our local community, and so while that didn't happen for that group, I entered college with a real love for forming groups and making original music. However, in high school I didn't realize that music (outside of the Western European Classical tradition) could be an academic path, so I was initially a Film Studies student at UC Santa Barbara, which I felt was setting me up for a life of partying and watching movies (no disrespect to UCSB Film Studies grads).

I spent all my free time practicing drums, joining the school's jazz band, and gigging around Santa Barbara. I was extremely fortunate to make a few lifelong friends there, but for the most part I felt like I was in the wrong place almost immediately. That first summer after freshman year, my buddy Steven Lugerner took me to Yoshi's in Oakland, where I saw Jamire Williams playing with Kenny Garret. I was blown away by Jamire's playing, but for the first time I could also comprehend how he was blowing my mind. So I looked him up that night and found him on Facebook when only college students had Facebook. His network was The New School, where Lugerner was about to start. All of a sudden I felt like New York and The New School was the obvious move for me, and I've never really looked back.

How did you learn about Sensory Percussion?

I'm fortunate to have first heard about Sensory/Sunhouse straight from the founder, Tlacael Esparza, who I knew initially through the Brooklyn experimental pop scene that I found myself in after finishing at The New School.

One day he asked me to have some coffee with him so he could pick my brain about working with drum triggers (I had been using a Roland SPD in my band JOBS and was developing solo material for a hybrid electro-acoustic drum kit) and that's when Tlacael told me about his idea to change contemporary music forever.

I'm being grandiose for grandiosity's sake here, but that really is what I felt when I first saw the prototype video that T showed me. I was well aware of the fact that the SPD I bought second hand on Craigslist was about 15 years old, yet it felt like a step forward for me with respect to my music-making potential. So one of my first thoughts about Sensory was imagining 15 years from now, when these are sold second hand on Craigslist (for argument's sake), just how radically different a group of friends in a practice room can approach their original music, and thus, how radically different the whole musical landscape might look if Sensory became as ubiquitous as the SPD.

It got me extremely excited to get my hands on one, so I contributed to the Kickstarter, and when there was a slight delay in the manufacturing, I was lent a prototype so I could get started learning the program. That was 4 years ago, and just within the last year did I finally feel like I had the fluency with the program to develop music that felt personal, fully realized, and worth sharing.

What projects do you use Sensory Percussion on?

Because Sensory is such a game changer and has shifted how I see my role in ensembles, I continue to bring Sensory into as many situations as are appropriate. So beyond my solo work, I use it in live shows with Chrome Sparks as a more sophisticated and playable version of V-Drums since his music is very specific and the sounds need to be triggered pretty exactingly.

The craziest we get as far as exploiting Sensory's possibilities is probably using velocity-sensitive filters on hi-hats and snares (as a way to further emulate how live drums sound) or storing multiple samplers in one region (say, snare rim) and switching between them depending on the section of the song: using the floor tom shell region as a velocity controller to make the switch. But my goal with Chrome Sparks is almost to disappear into the music - if you're a Chrome Sparks head and you're at the back and can't quite see the stage, it should ideally sound to you like there is no live drummer.

But the most fun parts of those shows for me are the select moments when we make it plainly clear that this music is, in fact, being played live. I also use it extensively in the two bands I've been a longtime member of, the aforementioned JOBS and Amirtha Kidambi's Elder Ones.

Max playing a hybrid kit with Elder Ones

With JOBS, I started using it when we were writing material for our next record, but quickly figured out ways to adapt the technology to suit our older material (bringing my full four-sensor set up to DIY spaces has been an additional part of my learning curve with Sensory, and I'm consistently impressed with how reliably Sensory operates, whether I'm playing in a basement or at The Greek Theater).

On JOBS' next record, Sensory occupies such a large swath of the sonic real estate on nearly every track - it's become an essential part of our process and sound.

With Elder Ones, I tend to use it more as an additional effect in an otherwise normal drum set, primarily in more open improvisation sections. I only use two sensors in that group, one on an acoustic snare and one on a mesh drum. This gives me the option of having the snare playing its normal role within the kit but with occasional additional effects, plus one drum that purely triggers and controls sounds that integrate into the kit less naturalistically. I also ride a volume pedal pretty aggressively during that group's performances, so that I can gracefully get Sensory out of the way at a moment's notice without putting a finger on my computer.

Beyond that, I'm learning how to code now, and I'm eager to try and get Sensory integrated with physical objects, so that mechanized choreography may be an eventual part of my live shows.

A picture of a Sensory Percussion equipped drumset (silver shells) with a hi-hat and ride cymbal and an audio interface and a few other electronics
Max's Chrome Sparks Setup

Max's Chrome Sparks Live Setup:

  • Four Sensors
  • One Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 interface
  • One Macbook Pro
  • Four C&C Custom Drums outfitted with Remo Silentstroke mesh heads
  • Two Paiste Cymbals (hi-hat and ride cymbal)
  • One Roland RT-30K kick trigger + TM-2 trigger module sending MIDI Jeremy's Ableton setup (for automated pitched bass drums)
  • One Stereo Direct-Input boxs

What is your background in electronics? What DAWs/synths/other music tech do you use?

My background in electronics is less extensive than my background with music. But when I was a kid, I was the designated member of my family to wire up and configure any new home audio or video gear. I still play that role in many of my relationships actually, although now it takes the form of getting people's Google accounts to sync with their iCloud or something. I think it's somewhat natural when people are slightly intimidated by computers, especially in understanding how they work, but learning about coding is reinforcing my hunch of how dumb they actually are, and how literally you have to communicate with them.

But as far as electronics with respect to music, my introduction to Breakcore was maybe the best thing that happened to me at Santa Barbara. There was a whole scene of people making punk rock with their laptops, or at least that's how it registered to me. I was never able to get into electronic music before, as most of what I'd heard always felt too slick and party-oriented, like Daft Punk. I also had a friend group in high school that was more into punk/hardcore, so house/techno was strictly forbidden.

But through this Breakcore scene, I was introduced to Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares, and Squarepusher, and all of their music resonated with me in a way that all electronic music I'd heard before never had. On top of this, I quickly found myself improvising with DJs, either trying to emulate and play off of the breaks or freeing them up rhythmically to explore other textures. It didn't take long before this led me to buying my first sampler, a Roland SP-303.

When I got to New York, I brought this taste for Breakcore with me, and was fortunate enough to have a pioneer of live drum-n-bass, Amir Ziv, as my drum teacher. So a lot of my own time in that first year at New School was spent breaking down these grooves I was listening to, transcribing Squarepusher, stuff like that, while also experimenting with the SP-303 and a contact mic. I eventually added the SPD to my setup and I arrived at some early version of my solo set using a combination of the SPD, SP-303, and a crudely mic'd up kit.

However, this setup wasn't great for clearly expressing the dexterity and detail in drum-n-bass drumming, and while my current solo set doesn't include any drum-n-bass type moments, it was this search for clarity of percussive ideas through an electronic processing system that made Sensory such a game-changing revelation for me.

Currently, I use Ableton primarily to record Sensory performances using the streamer plug-in, and I'm learning more about how to use Ableton as a production tool. But my approach comes primarily from being a drummer first, and I didn't find a way into electronic music until I heard music I wanted to bash along with! Similarly, I didn't find a compelling way into electronics until I found the system that allowed me to be a drummer first.

In all, I don't have a terribly exciting setup if you're already familiar with Sensory Percussion - four drums, four sensors, an interface, a laptop, hella cables. Maybe add a couple pedals (the volume pedal and Infinite Jets by Hologram Electronics) for Elder Ones. It's the most sophisticated Sensory setup available, but also an incredibly basic setup in the realm of electronic instrument rigs. I'm not using MIDI at all right now, and all the sounds are coming from Sensory (as opposed to a few colleagues I know of who use Sensory primarily to trigger events in Ableton). When I advance a show, I just ask for a stereo DI and a vocal mic. Maybe a rug too. But while I'm eager to start integrating Sensory into a wider array of tools, I see the "limitation" of my current setup as immensely positive, and the record I made would not have come out of a more extensive setup.

What was the process for composing and recording Giant Beat?

The process for composing was somewhat lengthy if I trace it to the beginning, cause so much of the composing process of Giant Beat for me was also tied into learning Sensory. Each time I'd learn a new technique for how to harness more of the software's power, I'd get new compositional ideas based on those new techniques.

I did a studio visit with Steven (Zemanian, sound designer at Sunhouse) the summer before really starting to hone in on the Giant Beat material that was a big level-up for me in terms of understanding how I could push the software to give me more. For example, before visiting with Steven, I didn't appreciate the power of stacking multiple samplers on a single region, which I then used extensively to create variation on pretty much every track. The recording process was really straightforward by comparison -- I just used the Ableton Audio Streamer plugin that you guys developed, and did single takes of each song. Usually a couple takes of each, some required more takes than others. Matt Mehlan (Skeletons) mixed it in Chicago at his home studio. I basically want Matt to mix every recording I ever do ever again.

Playing electronic music but working without a grid is just not a thing people are super familiar with at this point.

How did you approach making Giant Beat a live show?

The live show developed pretty rapidly once I had the material honed in. I did one show about a month before starting recording, and that helped me pin down what the most successful pieces were. I really like performance as a part of the compositional process, where a certain performance is ideated almost as a workshop for the recording.

The recording actually came together because I was given the opening slot on a Chrome Sparks tour and figured I should have something for the merch table! I owe a lot to Jeremy (Malvin, aka Chrome Sparks) as far as the development of my Sensory work.

So I started thinking about his audience, what they expect, but where I might be able to introduce more experimental aspects to surprise them. With my background as an improviser, I felt it important to leave room to surprise myself as well, and Sensory allows so much freedom in that regard. Playing electronic music but working without a grid is just not a thing people are super familiar with at this point. So when I dismantle a groove on a dime, that element of surprise is palpable in the audience.

One of the things I really like about listening to your music is the smooth metric modulation you use in some of your pieces - to me it sounds kind of like slowly turning a knob between two feels. The piece, Harro Wood Block, is an example of this: the pulsing sub kick remains a metric center, while the fast-paced wood block sounds flow from in front of the beat to behind the beat. When and how did you develop that technique?

Thank you so much. That's a really important concept to me as a drummer, and has been for a long time. Where exactly is the line between a groove in 4/4, 5/8, and 3/4? What if you play a groove that lives right in between any of those meters? That's something I have been sort of obsessed with as a drummer since college.

And it's something I try to mess with in whatever musical situation I'm in, even if I'm not using Sensory. I mean, the flexibility within grooves like that leads to increased limb interdependence, so that becomes a basic building block you can throw into a fill.

I love Chris Dave, J Dilla, Greg Saunier, all drummers with elastic feels, and doing a fill that slows down just a little or doing a flam between kick/snare/crash instead of all in unison, those are effective little things that I love to mess with, again no matter the situation.

'Harro Wood Block' from Giant Beat

I really liked your use of delay throughout the album, especially on tracks like Harmonik, Parcel of Water, and Eleven Euro Steps. What techniques/controllers do you use on delays to create a dynamic environment for your pieces?

I love how using the delay on Sensory can give you all these additional rhythmic layers to play with and against, and yes Eleven Euro Steps and Harmonik in particular really rely on the delay for the sense of groove.

At first I would use the delays by ear, but then I started getting into using milliseconds as a route to a BPM. So 250ms is basically 8th notes at 120 bpm. I'll spare you the math on how that works out, but anyway exploring that definitely opened up avenues for how to further utilize the software and how to make strong use out of the effects in Sensory.

I think that's the crux of the breakthrough I had while working on Giant Beat, which was essentially how to squeeze the most out of simple limitations (ie honing in effects to be specific compositional support). Another technique I like with delay is setting a timbre controller to switch between two specific delay speeds (by changing the controller from Continuous to Button) so that it becomes more of a structural tool. Sometimes I find that if I give it a range instead of two specific speeds (achieved by changing the controller from Button to Continuous), it ends up being more of just an unpredictable effect that can sometimes be cool, but is less structurally integral.

You recently used Sensory Percussion to remix a recording of a string quartet, can you tell us about that?

That was so fun! Brendan Eder, the composer and leader of the ensemble that I remixed, hit me up out of the blue on Bandcamp after finding my record via Ramp Local, the label that put out Giant Beat. We had one phone call and an email thread that ended up numbering around 50, and I sent him a couple different versions before we both settled on the version that was released.

I went through a few different approaches, including some versions that were barely tonal and hardly resembled his original. Eventually I realized that, through the integrity of his composition, I could basically take loops from any moment in the track, play them on top of each other, and they would work.

So I took his stems and applied them to each drum, and gave each sampler a separate but mathematically related length. Since the length function on the sampler works on percent rather than milliseconds, I used "0.6%", "1.2%", and "2.4%" and just trusted that the math would link the samples. Then I set an LFO to randomly select the start point of each sampler, so every time I hit a drum, a new loop would begin. Then I just improvised and responded to the types of loops and harmonies I was getting. The version that's on Spotify essentially can't be recreated live, because of the random start times of the samples. But I like that about it.

Your solo show seems to change often. Sometimes the pieces are the same from show-to-show, but you've completely changed the sounds. The last time I saw you play you mentioned after playing the first piece that this performance was going to be like “opening a notebook” - do the live performances impact the composition of the pieces?

Yes, I believe that performance can be an essential tool in composition. Especially when you have the great blessing, as I do, of being part of such a supportive musical community that will come to a show and lend their ears. Certain shows, of course, the venue is big, the turnout will be good, etc, so you want everything to be just so. But other shows, they feel more appropriate to workshop.

Threes Brewing has become a spot for me that I will treat this way - friends come, the sound is good, but the room is small and it just feels appropriate to include an audience like that in this process. On top of that, I get bored easily and so I like the feeling of devising a new set and surprising a hometown audience that may have heard me somewhat regularly.

Have you discovered any techniques in Sensory Percussion recently that you are excited about?

Actually, the last time I came in for an office visit, I was asking about this idea I wanted to achieve, and you guys all helped me figure it out! Basically I wanted to have the option to hit a drum and have a trail of other hits follow.

So you guys gave me the idea to set an LFO to continuously strike a zone, and use a velocity controller to turn on and off the sampler that's being triggered by the LFO. It opened up so many options for having things happen without me actually hitting a drum.

I've used this a good bit in a lot of recent pieces, included some I did in my most recent solo set. It kind of enables turning the drumset into an installation piece, where I can fully walk away from the kit and observe a world of sound.

Do you have any advice for any drummers who want to produce a record using Sensory?

Hm, good question! I feel like it shouldn't be approached that differently from making an album, period. What kind of music do you want to hear?

That should guide the process more than anything. Go for something personal. In my case, that meant being restrictive about my sample sources, which were nearly all culled from friends and collaborators.

And you'd think Sensory would mean that you can just go for total drum craziness, but if you're trying to make a record that has harmonic and melodic elements as I did, you still want to consider your role as a drummer in an ensemble, except in this case you're also in control of the "ensemble."

And again, this is probably advice that is more compositional than anything, but restrictions and limitations are your friends. Make a whole kit using one single sample. How much can you squeeze out of it?

You mentioned that you are studying coding: what specifically are you studying at CalArts?

I just started in September at CalArts in their Performer-Composer program. They have a couple other degrees I considered, such as "Experimental Sound Practices & Composition," but ultimately I felt that "Performer-Composer" already spoke deeply to where I'm at and how I approach my solo music.

As we've discussed a bit now, I even see performance as a stage in the composition process, and when it comes to my Sensory work, the "compositions" or kits really don't exist without the performance of them. So Performer-Composer felt right.

Working with Sensory as a user really got me interested in wanting to learn more about what's under the hood as well. I'd also really love to start bringing in visuals controlled by Sensory, and having an understanding of coding will enable me to create unique visuals to bring into the shows. I'm also learning Gamelan, which is actually the hardest class I'm in, despite having no experience as a coder before.

Go figure. But yeah I'm in a few classes where Sensory would be like an A+++ final project for, and it's given me an even deeper appreciation for what a game-changing tool it is.

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