Friday, November 18, 2011

Thought Experiment: Live Drumming Happycore

Here's a musical experiment which simply should not ever happen, and my plan for making it happen.

Happycore (aka UK hardcore) is a rave music subgenre which takes the cheesiest sounds of original late 80s / early 90s rave music and amps it up to around 200 beats per minute. It sounds like this:

It is easily the least respected form of music on earth.

What would it take to perform happycore live, using a digital drumset? This song would make a great example:

The first thing you need to do is reverse the usual layout of kick and snare. Digital drums allow you to connect any sample to any drum trigger. Here's a cheesy explanation from the 1980s, when the technology was first invented:

I think it's the technology which powered the synth sounds at the climax of this incredible classic drum solo by Neal Peart of Rush:

And I know it's the tech which enabled Rick Allen, drummer for Def Leppard, to remap a ton of drum sounds to various pedals after he lost his entire left arm in a street racing accident.

Allen sat down with some engineers and started to design a drum set to assist Allen's drumming... he could still play some drum rhythms with one hand, using his left foot (typically for hi-hat pedals in common drumsets), to play the snare drum... they designed an electronic kit Allen could play using only one arm.

As you can see, it worked out just fine:

Anyway, context over. Back to the thought experiment. Again, this is the song to copy, in live-drumming format:

I've chosen this song because it has no lyrics, only a vocal sample, which means recreating the samples would be a lot less work; and because, even for happycore, this is a track with no artistic merit at all. (You could argue that it's an ironic satire on the raver stereotype, but it'd be an uphill battle.) But taking the artistic aspect out of the equation makes it really easy to approach this as a purely technical exercise. Happycore might be cheesy and awful, but performing it live with MIDI drums is a real technical challenge, especially for a dude who just bought his drums maybe a week or two ago.

Step one, as I said, is to switch the usual mapping, where a kick pedal powers the bass drum (also known as a kick drum, for obvious reasons) and you hit the snare with your right hand. It's just easier the other way around, especially for me, as I'm working with a cheap drum kit which would probably fall over, or fall apart, if I hit the kick pedal four to the floor at 200 beats per minute.

Step two is to actually make an unusual "bass drum" sample. I think the bassline in this song only ever plays one note, and always plays it right after the bass drum. So you make your "bass drum" sample by actually recording a bass drum and a bass note which occurs an instant after the drum. You could throw the open hi-hat on top of that bass note for the same reason.

For the other drum sounds, you have two options. Your first option is to simply place samples on the other drums. You could put the main melody on a tom, the pad on a crash cymbal, etc., and go from there. The tricky part there is you'd have to get your drumming timing exactly right, because working with melodic elements as samples means cutting them up in very precise lengths.

Your other option is to cheat a little and set the non-percussion elements up in Ableton Live as loops, and then go into Ableton's MIDI mapping. Find out the MIDI note and channel for the bass drum sample on the actual snare drum, or at least, on the digital drum which is set up in the snare drum's traditional position. That is to say, figure out which MIDI note gets triggered, on which MIDI channel, when you hit the snare "drum." On my crappy V-Drums Lite setup, that's channel 10 and note 38. Then set Ableton Live to receive tap tempo on that MIDI channel and note number. (This is trivial to do; Ableton permits nearly any MIDI signal to control nearly any element of its interface.) Now every time you hit the snare to trigger the bass drum, you're also triggering tap tempo, which will keep your Ableton loops in synch with your drumming.

I should emphasize that this is a thought experiment, and I can't guarantee it's going to happen.

(Update: OK actually when I say happycore has no artistic merit at all, I'm kinda being a hipster dickhead. There's singing and melodies and substantial production skills involved.)