Who Puts The Soul In A Soulless Drum Machine

Programmed drums, I don’t use them very much when I write and record.  There primary use for me is a click track.

Back in the eighties when drum machines first started to take off I was concerned about my profession as were a number of drummers.  At first these drum machines were nothing more than a glorified metronome with simulated drum sounds.

Then they were able to take samples of actual drums that sounded great and came up with a flawless, tireless, attitude less, always on time drummer.

But it was also a soulless drummer.

Well with technology being what it is they soon overcame that flaw by adding swing factors and programmed flaws.

Before they made all of those advances and overcame the many hurdles to getting a “real” drum performance out of a machine I was out of the business and lost most of my connection with music.

When I got back into music and started discovering the years of music I missed, I made a point of reviewing album credits to find out who played what and with whom they were playing.

Anytime I saw drum programming credits I tended to shy away from those albums.

I got a copy of “Pilgrim” by Eric Clapton and I back burned it for a while in lieu of his many other albums.  Why, because it was all programmed drums.

Then one day after I had gone through all my other Clapton albums and after reading his autobiography I decided to finally give “Pilgrim” a serious listen.

I was amazed.

The grooves achieved on this album using programmed drums just astounded me.  To this day this is one of my favorite Eric Clapton albums.

How could this be?  How could I, an old school drummer get off on these songs with programmed drums?

Next my wife got me a copy of Glenn Frey’s “Strange Weather”.  It was one of the many yard sale treasures that she has found for me over the years.

I opened up the CD case and read the liner notes and it was all programmed drums except for the very final song.

At least I was primed to give it a listen right away, and like “Pilgrim”, “Strange Weather” became one of my favorite albums.

It has a different feel from “Pilgrim”.  It is more rock and roll but still the programmed drums work for me.

A few weeks later my wife brings me some more yard sale finds.  This time it’s two Michael McDonald CD’s, “Motown” and “Motown Two”.

First thing I do is pull out the liner notes and check the credits.

The first album “Motown” is mainly programmed drums and I was OK with that until I gave it a listen.

If it weren’t for Michael McDonald’s vocals this would be one of the most soulless soul albums I ever heard.

I was so disappointed.

A soul album with Michael McDonald, what could be better?   How about some soul in the drums.

So I go to “Motown Two” and look at the liner notes and I am disappointed to see more programmed drums, but there is a bright spot.

There are a number of tracks with “real” drums.  And the real drummers playing those real drums are Vinnie Colaiuta and Abe Laboriel, Jr..  OK now we are talking about some “real drummers”.

On “Motown Two” the programmed tracks were more of the same soulless sound.

The real drummer tracks were great!

The difference was vast and wide.

I wondered, how could this be?

All three artists (Eric Clapton, Glenn Fry, Michael McDonald) are experienced, top notch performers.  They know the groove, the sound, the feel.

My first thought was maybe the difference is in the technology, but the “Motown” album was made in 2003.  Pilgrim was made in 1997 and Strange Weather in 1992.

My conclusion is it must be the programmer and the producer.

Drum machines really are soulless.  It’s up to the programmer to put the soul into the performance and it’s up to the producer to make sure the programmer does it.

By the way I accept the technology and work with it but I’m still not a big fan of it.

© Otis P Smith and About the Groove, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Otis P Smith and About the Groove with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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