Sensory Percussion In The Studio
A few months ago, we posted a spotlight of several Sensory Percussion home studios. While the at-home setup is probably the most common application of Sensory Percussion, it's also used by many drummers in a professional recording studio environment. We spoke to two Sensory Percussion users who have done exactly that: Wout Arets for his album 'Bathhouse' and and Antoine Pierre for his album 'Vaague'. They were kind enough to share what they learned from taking their home setups into the studio, and how their approach differs between the two.
Antoine Pierre is a prominent figure on the Belgian jazz scene, having played with acts such as TaxiWars, Joshua Redman, and Ben Wendel, as well as leading his own group Next.Ape. Now, with the help of Sensory Percussion, he is stepping out as a solo performer with a self-titled EP under the moniker Vaague.
I built my solo set around the acoustic drums. I’m originally a jazz drummer so I spend a lot of time figuring out a way to design my own personal acoustic sound. I usually like to play on a lot of different drum kits so I can adjust my touch to any situation and try to find that sound I like.
My core kit is really simple: I wanted to use the silent tom with a mesh head to control all the harmonic and sometimes bass material. It quickly made sense to put it on my right-hand side (I’m right handed), right below my flat ride. Therefore, I could keep on playing the beat while my right-hand would travel on that silent drum.
Quite naturally, my left-hand started to work on its own, playing both the hi-hat and the snare, a bit like Deantoni Parks would do with his Technoself project.
Once songs started to emerge from my experiments, I needed a way to travel from one kit to another. I bought this Keith McMillen Bop Pad to be able to switch from one kit to the next. The Bop pad allows me to activate drones or longer samples as well.
After a while I could see these skeletons of songs emerging from [my] experiments. It was really gratifying to actually experience these songs come to life.
I started by creating a sample bank that I could pick material from. I sampled note by note in every register for every sound! I used the same process for chords, lead sounds, pads and so on. I also sampled some extracts of classical or jazz pieces that I loved. I then built my kits using this sample bank.
I only use SP without Ableton or any other external DAW. I wanted to have the most simple work flow. I would drag some chords and drop them here and there on the kit and see how the improvising would go. I would experiment with chord cycles, distributing bass notes to the silent drum or the bass drum, modulate the tonality with the velocity.
After a while I could see these skeletons of songs emerging from these experiments. It was really gratifying to actually experience these songs come to life.
It took some experimenting to find the best way to go about recording SP. At first, I recorded the songs live in studio, with no click, as if it was a live performance. At that point I wasn’t too happy with the result: although it was really warm and had that nice "live" vibe to it, it was a bit too much info and I feel like I was a bit too inexperienced to nail a good take.
Later on, I tried the rigid approach which was going into the studio again and layering everything from scratch. But then it sounded a bit too square or systematic; I didn’t get the excitement from it.
Eventually, I decided to go a third time into the studio and do a mixture of both. I basically played the songs in their most simple form (drums, bass notes and some chords) on a click-track. I’d choose the take that sounded the best and started the producing aspect of it: layering melodies, vocal samples, additional vocals, atmospherics and field recordings and so forth. By doing so, I could go deeper into the elaboration of the songs and the editing got easier.
Afterwards, I re-built all my SP kits to be able to play off the studio version of it. It’s funny because, now that these songs are actually out and are a thing on their own, it’s way easier for me to imagine new ways of playing them or even doing my own remixes.
I use SP with my acoustic kit (a Sakae Trilogy). The triggers are on my kick drum (18 or 20) and my main snare (Ludwig Acrolite). In the beginning I used the SP triggers on my rack and floor tom as well but my biggest change has been that I got two 12’ DW piccolo toms with mesh heads and am really loving those. They’re steel drums and I learned the triggers respond very well on those. Plus they are 2.5” which makes it super easy to use them as a second tom or as a second snare. This is the configuration I’ve been using a lot.
Hardware-wise, I have a Steinberg interface with 4 ins/outs. When playing in my practice studio I have just one overhead mic for my acoustic kit. I stream SP to Ableton and mix in there. This works fine for practicing. When I’m developing SP kits or playing around with it, I’m not even using Ableton but just use the SP software.
What works well for me is to design all my kits in the same way, so it doesn't get too complicated.
What I love to do is just start with my two mesh heads and a kick pedal and no acoustic drums. It’s the easiest to find sounds and program kits. So ideally I could play a set with only this set-up. Then I take this set-up to my acoustic kit and start playing around to see what works.
The way my SP kits come to life can be different. In the beginning I used a lot of stock Sunhouse kits, but now I’m more looking for sounds and samples, or making them in Ableton. I use a lot of digital synths (for example a Roland Juno) and when I’ve found a sound that I like I always make samples of a full octave. In this way I can make all the chords in SP and play melodies. It happens a lot that I play a melody on my midi keyboard, sample all the notes, and put them in SP to play that same melody on the drum with SP with the notes in order.
What I then love to do is start playing around. Play the same rhythm but random the samples of that melody. Pitch them up and down, add FX etc etc etc. And then I start finding new sounds, grooves. I really love this process. So then my composing shifts more to composing with SP in stead of composing in Ableton.
What works well for me is to design the SP kits in the same way, so it doesn't get too complicated. I almost always use stickshots and rim shots for triggering longer ambient samples or chords. The center and edge are used for melodic playing, rims (shoulder and tip) for percussive sounds such as claps, claves etc.
Recording in the studio was a more complicated story. My Steinberg interface didn’t have enough outputs so I borrowed another interface (Motu) from a friend. Also my two toms go via another line out into an effect pedal (a Hologram Electronics) that goes back into the interface. In this case I can manipulate the sounds from the two piccolo toms with mesh heads.
For the "Bathhouse" recording sessions, I had SP as an output streamed to Ableton. And from there all the four triggers went into the mixer through a DI. Then one line for the two mesh toms into the fx pedal and then into the mixer. I tested this at home days before recording, but we still had some delays in the studio setting up the DI’s and all the different outputs. If I weren’t using Ableton to loop the SP sounds, I definitely would have taken Ableton out of the process to make the routing easier.
One thing I learned is that I don’t like to interact with a computer while playing drums. I want to focus on the music and the groove, which is harder when I also have to deal with a computer. So I have to make sure I have everything right before I start recording.