How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Drum Machine

Almost every musician I know has made the ‘I’ll just get a drum machine’ joke at one time or another. If you haven’t heard that one, you probably need to get out more.

Even though we joke about it, in reality, people fear drum machines. And I guess on the surface the fear is reasonable: lots of today’s pop music uses samples, loops, and drum machines for rhythm tracks rather than a real drummer. And that makes drummers fear for their jobs.

I spent a few hours yesterday programming a drum machine that might end up replacing me on tracks – might cost me some of my work. And even though that sounds a little crazy, when it comes to software instruments, us artists ought to keep in mind what our goals really are. We all know that drum machines can work remarkably on a track when used properly. So why fight them? They’re a means to an end. And if this particular means will get your tune a licensing deal, or get you some airplay, or sell some records, who are you (A lowly drummer! That’s who!) to argue with it?
If you’re a drummer, your skills are unique and valuable regardless of whether or not you’re actually playing. Ever watched a guitar player try to program a compound meter traditional Ghanaian groove into a MIDI/sampled track? Not a chance. They don’t know how.
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So fellow drummers: don’t fight the drum machine. Embrace it as a subset of your percussion skills. You didn’t fight when someone asked you to learn to play the glockenspiel for your (progressive!) indie folk grunge fusion band. Why fight this? In the end, if we all made careers out of programming drum machine plugins on sessions… well, things could be worse. You could be schlepping a hundred pound bag of hardware up a narrow staircase into a filthy club to set up your beloved vintage Radio Kings. Playing a gig for sixty bucks. I think I’ll take that comfy control room chair whenever I get the chance.
-Duncan
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