Rage against the drum machine

I am a drummer. We drummers are luddite sorts, acutely aware of our vulnerability. We fear machines because we fear that other musicians, not regarding us as real musicians, would sack us in a drumbeat and upgrade to something more metronomic. So we sit at the back in loud silence.

For drummers, the technological unemployment identified by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee happened in the 1980s. Echo and the Bunnymen had a drum machine as a frontman. Kraftwerk were all electronics, ties and standing still. People flailing about were surplus to requirements. The Jesus and Mary Chain sacked him from Primal Scream as their drummer and got in a machine instead. As modernism rationalised music, even those who stuck with drummers asked them to become more robotic. David Bowie led the charge, as ever. The gated snare drum sound on Low has dated almost as quickly as the Chariots of Fire theme. Bowie’s drummer was the excellent Dennis Davis, but it might as well have been Johnny 5. Nuances and dynamics were compressed out of existence.

Thankfully, we are rediscovering the value of real drums and drummers. So let’s take a moment to, as James Brown urged us, give the drummer some. First, Clyde Stubblefield, one of James Brown’s many, many drummers, proving that subtlety is the key to funk:

Elvin Jones, taking jazz to its zenith by playing everything except the beat:

Joe Morello, with almost the only drum solo in history that makes any sense:

Steve Gadd, the session drummers’ session drummer:

Keith Moon being, well, Keith Moon

The prodigious Tony Williams, here aged 19, breaking the cardinal rule of drumming by speeding up:

And finally Animal from the Muppets, in what I consider to be the funniest sketch of all time.

Samples such as the funky drummer have become the raw material for future generations. But we should not see them in isolation. The genius of these players was in their interaction with others. When big bands were first recorded, the rudimentary microphones could barely detect the drums. The whisper of Jo Jones’s hi-hats is only faintly audible. But you can hear the effect he has on Count Basie’s band. He is unquestionably in the driving seat:

Even electroholics now appreciate the tedium of rigidly sequenced beats. They are finding new ways to scuff the edges of their drum patterns to give them a more interesting feel. Might this be another nail in the drummer’s drum case? A new study suggests not. Science appears to be rushing to the defence of luddite drummers everywhere.

A paper in PlosONE claims that listeners prefer what the researchers poetically call ‘long-range correlated fluctuations’ in music. In the Herbie Hancock tune above, Tony Williams takes about six minutes to increase the tempo, building the intensity of the tune as he does so. No contemporary producer would have let him get away with it. But it’s great. And we like it because it’s human. It is very easy to replace a bad drummer with a machine. It’s almost impossible to replace a good one. At its best, drumming is as close as music comes to dance. It is about feel, touch, dynamics and movement. It resists automation and thankfully it will carry on doing so.

Sing with me…

“To feel The Rhythm Of Life,

To feel the powerful beat,

To feel the tingle in your fingers,

To feel the tingle in your feet”


PS: I love how abstract concepts are scientised in journal papers. The PlosONE paper has, in its methodology section, this description: “Each of the different drummers performed simultaneously with their feet (for bass drum and hi-hat) and hands”. Yup.


PPS: Don’t get me started on autotune…



About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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12 Responses to Rage against the drum machine

  1. …and you can hear Jack recreating some classic Phil Collins Christmas moments at the Bedford in Balham on the 7th December. Unless we manage to save up for a drum machine before then.

  2. Pete says:

    What a splendid post. You can only love amazing drummers. I also love pretty much all forms of noise making though. They don’t seem mutually exclusive. All means to make a noise just seem to me to be various tools for communicating something more or less effectively (like using different types of paint, or media). I think this applies to drums and drum machines too. I don’t necessarily see the value in judging one over the other unless one is presuming to impose itself on the other in some way. (Often the point is that it *doesn’t* sound like a human being playing drums – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is perhaps the best eg I can think of: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR2BFUkBLh4 )

    My first proper recording device was a Korg 16 track digital recording machine (I forget the make / model), and the most fun didn’t come from recording 16 tracks of my appalling guitar playing – although this was, of course, extremely fun – but from manipulating the many, many effects built in to make wondrously odd, strange or interesting noises. It seems like an extension of an equally unnatural act of stretching skin over a wood frame, or tightly winding strings over a neck and body of a guitar. New means of making noises to express something.

    Re: autotune – I kind of think that too can be a good tool for making fun or useful noises. It probably won’t be a replacement for the awesomeness of a human being able to make astonishing noises with their own throat and lungs.

    There’s maybe something more upsetting when technology allows people to parrot or recreate pitch-perfection / great drumming and pass it off as something it’s not – a bit like a stencil or paint-by-numbers picture. That seems to me different to using drum machines and so on as tools / brushes / new instruments. I haven’t the brain power to figure out exactly why. Or indeed to explain why I thought this comment might be relevant. I haven’t mentioned science, have I. Whoops. Erm, I’m sure science will figure it out.

    Worth pointing out that I am definitely not a musician.

    Also, without wanting to make this blog an advertising board, here is a sort-of-advert for something vaguely related to this post: everyone should sign up for Hometaping – http://www.hmtpng.com

  3. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks Pete. I completely agree. Horses for course and all that. My concern is that, as with any technology governance issue, we don’t realise the implications of innovation until it is too late. I thought it worth pointing out this particular and personal example of technology’s dehumanising implications. I happen to like music with what we would have called in the old days ‘soul’ – music where the humans are apparent. The worrying trend I would point to is the technological unemployment of drummers because producers feel that audiences won’t notice the difference. This is a different motivation from that held by those who produce electronic music.

    And another thing. It’s not just drummers. West End musicals are downsizing their pit bands in favour of things like the Sinfonia (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/jan/21/arts.artsnews), presumably because they think audiences won’t notice.

    Incidentally, Sinfonia is exactly the sort of name I would give to a smooth-voiced female robot whose intentions start off as benign but who slowly takes over a theatre as she aquires sentience… A sort of sci fi Phantom of the Opera. I’ll jot that one down.

  4. Pingback: Science explains why you hate techno « Make Fresh Beats

  5. Fantastic video selection Jack! Us scientist-musicians need to stick together…

  6. Andrew Maynard says:

    Late to the conversation here, but great post. I suspect the adoption of the drum machine and it’s (not always) musically immature use is reflected across many technologies where tech leads to a dramatic lowering of the cost of doing something while at the same time there is a naive understanding of what that “something” is. A good drummer is a musician – using their instrument in a very sophisticated, nuanced and complex way to connect through the medium of sound using an near-infinite combination of timing, dynamics, pitch, timbre and texture. But if all a musical Luddite hears is the beat, that’s all you get when they get their hands on a drum machine – the communication and much of the value is lost. Wonder how often this happens elsewhere when technology enables capability without understanding!

  7. Jack Stilgoe says:

    Thanks Andrew. Really interesting. You speak like a true drummer. The dynamic you’re describing is a sort of lock-in. The technology is initially designed to fill a musical function, but then it ends up defining a musical function – so electronic music is born. This is fine, but the lock-in happens when the machines are used for more than their intended function, closing down options for creativity and innovation. And we are left with Kenny G.

    Another interesting angle is that machinisation obviously intends to mimic the best available human practice. Steve Gadd, as well as being the preeminent session drummer of his time, gave his distinctive Tom-Tom sound to the early drum machines, which went on to use it ad nauseam. Gadd, thankfully, changed his sound over time, but the machines did not.

    • Dave says:

      Interesting, but there’s absolutely nothing about industrial music, techno, or electro (I’m talking about the real stuff, not what 90% of Americans think it is) that even remotely attempts to “mimic the best available human practice.” Replicating the sound of a drummer has zilch to do with it.

      There are some forms of music that simply can’t be created with live instrumentation. This isn’t to say that they’re better or worse, they simply exist within a distinct aesthetic.

  8. Pingback: Science explains why you hate techno

  9. Big Chris says:

    Don’t now how I got here – a Google search for The Jesus And Mary Chain and drum machines, along with too much vodka during a mixing session I suspect – but glad to see a drummer who appreciates why some of us choose the machine over a human. Sometimes I want a machine that sounds like it’s playing acoustic drums, but in perfect time, and sometimes I want a machine like a LinnDrum or Boss Dr Rhtythm that sounds unlike anything a real drummer has ever played. As long as that’s what I really want, that’s great. As long as I remember that if I really want the added dynamics of a real drummer, I better find a real one in human form …

    And now, once more unto the mixing desk.

  10. Pingback: Science Shows Why Drum Machines Will Never Replace Live Drummers – Mic | Music Connection- Dayton

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