Studio Night

The V-drum experiment (part 2)

V-Jim on the V-drums

In part 1 I explained the circumstances behind the way we wound up deciding to use a Roland V-drum kit for some drum sessions for the first time.  So, with the electronic kit set up and somewhat (I thought) dialed in, Jim Evans arrived for the session and we got down to work.

Jim seemed to feel comfortable with the feel of the mesh heads, which generally get high marks in reviews.  They’re certainly better than the 20+ year old MPC pads I borrowed from my friend Tom a while back, which are akin to hitting a small wooden table top.  Adjusting the physical placement of the cymbals and drum pads was very simple with the rack setup and the clamps that hold the kit pieces in place.  There was a lot of flexibility as far as positioning and angling the kit pieces, and Jim had his preferred setup happening very quickly.

I opened a Pro Tools session of one of the songs we would be working on called “Good Times”. I already had an instance of the BFD2 plug-in on the track, and the MIDI out of the V-drum brain was routed through my (ancient) MX-8 MIDI patch bay through the Digi-003 interface to PT.  It was pretty seamless as far as the mechanics of communicating between the drum kit and the plug-in went, so we ended up spending an hour or so auditioning BFD drum kit samples for the various kit pieces.

I learned a few things about BFD2:

  • It has three different kit sizes: 10, 18, and 32 piece kits. Since we had four toms we wound up having to use a stripped down version of the 18-piece kit.
  • There are default mixer presets that are dry and/or flat. That made a big difference when we were listening to sounds.
  • It is a very complex plug-in with a steep learning curve.

I was trying very hard to avoid the “technology limits music making” phenomenon. You know, the thing that happens when you sit down to write some music and wind up spending so much time twiddling knobs, checking the manual to figure out how to do a particular thing, and then trying to undo the shit that you just did, that you forget what your creative idea was in the first place.

We almost made it.

Not a V-hat anymore

The big stumbling block was the hi hat. The V-drum TD-20 hi hat is physically an analog of a real hi hat, except in virtual drum rubber format. So to speak. It’s got a top and bottom, and the brain can trigger MIDI continuous control info as well as capturing hits on the edge or body of the hat.  When you set up the virtual hat, the first thing you do (as J had patiently explained to me) is to calibrate the hi hat offset. As I understand it, that gives the brain a baseline for the entire kit (maybe) and lets you adjust the hat to the player’s preferred physical setup (allegedly).

Well, we spent another couple of hours (like two monkeys trying to f#ck a football) navigating through menus in the V-drum brain, and then through BFD’s customizable hi hat trigger settings, looking through multiple manuals and scouring several websites in an effort to get the hat to respond the way Jim wanted it to. I don’t think the equipment was the problem – it was our unfamiliarity with all of the settings and configurations that was most likely our undoing.

After all that time spent trying to make the virtual drum work, we pragmatically decided that it would be easier, faster, and better-sounding if we just set up Jim’s actual hi hat and threw a microphone on it. So we did.

Finally, we were off to the races.

It was strange to hear the tracking in the room at that point. The pads are very quiet, making the real hi hat sound insanely loud in comparison. KB came by during tracking and had a kind of incredulous look on his face until I threw him a set of headphones and he could hear the rest of the kit.

I was a little concerned that it would sound unnatural – and there is a slight element of that going on as I mix the drums because the hat doesn’t fall into the same realm as the rest of the BFD drums. The BFD kit occupies its own virtual room, with overhead, room and ambient “mics”, so I need to find some way to pipe in a little bit of send from the real hat track. Or I might just drop the whole drum buss into another reverb. In any case, it’s not likely to be highly noticeable in a full mix. And with the hat blended in nicely it’s hard to tell real from virtual.

We managed five songs that day, and don’t let the “virtual” drum thing fool you: Jim was just as tired from playing the V-drums as he would have been from playing acoustic drums for 6-8 hours. The cleanup was just a lot easier.

I’m looking forward to finishing these mixes for our upcoming untitled album (fourth one already, far out man) which we are planning to release on June 9, 2012.