Roland Users Group
Bashiri Johnson, Brad Dutz, Luis Conte, Richie Garcia, and Taku Hirano — five hand-drumming masters who know how to platinum-plate a track. They’re the ones who put serious spice in the groove, the extra-bold exclamation point on a song, and they each do so in a unique, inimitable way that has kept them in high demand around the world.
Graciously, all five superstars put their busy schedules aside to gather — three on the west coast, two on the east — and talk about one of their favorite topics: percussion. Specifically, electronic percussion, and how Roland instruments have impacted the way they perform and record music.
What follows are some of the highlights of this extraordinary gathering.
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Considering the state of the music industry, how have things changed for working percussionists over the past few years?
Brad: Looking at studio work, there are fewer large orchestras and more visits to home studios. It’s more personalized. You’re not going to the big studios so much anymore, and a lot of times they might not have a cartage budget, or they might not have much room. And that’s why, for me, it’s great to know about the HandSonic. I can use it to cover the four udu drums, for example, that I didn’t have along with me because the cartage case wouldn’t fit into the guy’s living room. So that’s one big difference for me — working in homes instead of big studios.
Richie: Speaking of the cartage situation, you’re right… they don’t want you to bring 18 cases of stuff, so having the HandSonic gives you the access to some of the things that you weren’t able to bring. They might ask if you have a particular instrument, and you’ll say, “Yeah, but it’s in Case #15 back in storage.” So it’s definitely a big plus to have a unit like this.
Luis: It used to be that you could go to a major studio like the Record Plant in L.A. on any day of the week, any time of the day, and every room was working. I was just there last week for the whole day, and I asked, “Who’s in Studio B” and… “Oh, nobody today.” And it’s because so many people are working in homes. And it’s true that everyone’s asking about cartage [fee] these days, and nobody used to ever ask about cartage.
As the balance continues to shift toward home-studio production, and as more do-it-yourself composers are programming the drum and percussion tracks themselves or using loops, a “live played” overdub from an instrument such as the HandSonic can make a big difference.
Luis: Definitely. A lot of times nowadays they might not ask me to play a lot of stuff, because they’ve already got a lot of it sampled. They’ve got their loops. So they’ll have me add just a few small things to make the track sound more alive.
Brad: …to give it a human element. A lot of my work is coming from the place of… they have five tracks of sequenced, dense percussion, but they need it to be more human.
Bashiri: I’ve definitely noticed a change in the business of music and the production of records — how they’re being made. There’s been a serious revolution in the way things are being done. It’s affected me, as I’m sure it’s affected everyone. One thing I’ve noticed specifically is that when I get hired, there rarely are times when I’m playing in a group situation now. Normally it’s just me in the room with the producer and a digital recording rig. That’s how it’s being done 95-percent of the time. If I’m in a situation with a live band, it’s a rare moment. Everyone has their cameras out, taking pictures, and it’s like, “Wow, man. I haven’t seen you in ages.” So what that means for the percussionist is that you have a little more time now, and a little more focus on just the percussion, and what you can bring to a track and a situation. Since it’s just you spending three, four, five hours with the producer — just you — it enables you to bring a lot more varied stuff to the table than you could in a group situation where you might not have an opportunity to overdub. And that gives me more of an opportunity to use the gear and do more in terms of programming.
So when it comes to the HandSonic, what types of sounds do you get asked to play most often?
Richie: Most often they’ll just ask you to play whatever you think will go with the track. They won’t say, “I want Tin Drum #5.” They usually want your creative and rhythmic input. Maybe I’ll just go through the sounds until they hear something they like, and then I’ll play whatever I feel will work rhythmically with it.
Luis: Or maybe they have a tabla thing already programmed in their track, but they want you to replace it so it feels human. So you grab a [real] tabla, but maybe the pitch is the problem. It doesn’t quite match the track. That’s when you get the HandSonic and tweak the pitch any way they want it right there on the spot. Even woodblocks or whatever can be tuned to make the track sound nice.
Bashiri, you’ve been using the SPD-20 extensively. What types of sounds do you use the most?
Bashiri: There are some shows I do — some TV shows and gigs — where I’ll only have an SPD-20, so I’ll have to use all the sounds in it. And I often will edit them, tweak them, to make them fit into whatever the situation is. There are other times where I’ll have other instruments to pull from, but usually I just have an SPD-20 as my sound source. With Whitney [Houston], the SPD sounds I tend to use most often are the claps, finger snaps, shakers, tambourines, chimes, triangles, timpani — the typical sounds that you would tend to hear from a percussionist. The electronics give us the freedom to do things with our hands and feet to do things and play certain things that we wouldn’t normally be able to if we were just using two hands on acoustic instruments.
What electronic gear do you use in your studio and/or live rigs now?
Richie: Just the HandSonic. I don’t need anything else.
Brad: Me too.
Luis: Me three.
Brad: There are 600 some sounds there, and when you start altering the patches. …I have a little quartet that’s just guitar, bass, vocals, and HandSonic. And then at home, it sits right next to my computer. I’ve sold my samplers, because with the HandSonic, my library is big enough. So for me, the main advantages of HandSonic are having a lot more sounds at my fingertips live, and, at a recording session, in case something is forgotten, it’s right there.
Richie: I use mine as an extension of my percussion setup. I put it up high by my congas so I can play it as if it were another conga, or if I need another sound, a clap or whatever, it’s right there. I’ll use a pedal with it, as well, either for a bass drum sound, snaps, claps, cowbell, etc. It’s the icing on the cake; it gives me all of the stuff that normally I couldn’t carry or that I couldn’t reproduce other than electronically. It’s definitely given me another voice.
Brad: I subbed with Hiroshima once, and I needed Udus, tablas, and tuned gongs. That’s the kind of stuff that you can never get right unless you’re traveling with a soundman who really gets it. You know, it’s not always practical to take 12 tuned gongs with you on the road. They’ll never be able to mic it right anyway on a live gig, and they don’t travel well. So with the HandSonic, right there you can have 12 tuned gongs, or 15, actually, or six udus and five tables, which is really great.
Luis: I’ve always been an acoustic guy, but it changed over the years. The first time I started using electronics was with Madonna. On the first tour it was a lot of acoustic and some electronics. On the next tour it was acoustic/electronic. And then the tour after that it was mostly electronic. These days I use electronics mainly in the studio. I have the HandSonic with me all the time. I used it yesterday, actually. I used the tabla; I use that patch a lot. I created my own patch I call the Arabian patch, with frame drums and things like that. I’m not a tabla player, so HandSonic saves me. I mean, I can take real tabla and get a sound out of it, but I’d be embarrassed to play in front of a real tabla player, so I can take the HandSonic and get something that sounds decent using a hand or finger technique I’m comfortable with.
Taku: For the Fleetwood Mac tour I’m using two SPD-20s, six 2-zone PD-7 pads, and two pedals. The electronics are completely intermingled musically with what I’m playing. A lot of times I’ll be playing traditional acoustic percussion sounds from the pads because I can’t physically get to the real instruments at that moment in the song, or because I have my hands full. I might trigger a wind-chime run with a footpedal, for example, while I’m doing a suspended cymbal roll with one hand and playing a shaker with the other hand. Or I might be playing congas, and won’t have time to physically pick up a stick for a bell-tree gliss or whatnot, so I can assign that sound to a pad and easily trigger it with my hand.
In the studio, the biggest advantage is being able to tweak sounds and get them exactly where I need them to be. Being able to pitch an instrument higher or lower, adding effects, and things like that… That gives me the flexibility to hear a sound in my head and tweak it on the spot.
Bashiri: I wouldn’t want to do a show without my SPD-20 and at least a couple of pads. I’d feel like there was something missing from my arsenal, from what I had to offer and present, if I didn’t have them. To give you an idea of how I use them… on the Whitney tour, there are some songs that are fully electronic, except for some simple cymbal swells or chimes, so in that instance I’ll have hands and feet covering whatever the pattern was on the record. Some songs are acoustic-based, and I’ll blend the electronics in to give me some shaker, finger snaps, claps, or a sample of something I’ve made. And now that I have the SPD-S, I look forward to using that to sample my own playing and having that incorporated into my setup.
So is it safe to say the SPD-20s are staples of your live rigs?
Taku: For me as well. It’s on my rider. If it’s a rental gig, I must have at least one SPD, possibly two, and a couple of pads as well.
And how well has the gear held up for you on the road?
Taku: Mine has held up great. I carry two SPD-20s onstage, and two backups, but I’ve never had any problems. Everything has held up really well.
Bashiri: The roadworthiness of the Roland equipment is stellar.
Technology has certainly come a long way. It wasn’t that long ago when the first crude electronic percussion instruments were considered cutting edge.
Richie: And it wasn’t that long ago when guys had these refrigerator-size cases full of instruments. Now you can just take a HandSonic, plug it in, and play.
Bashiri: Ultimately a percussionist wants to be able to execute the music he or she hears in their head, and technology is bringing us closer and closer to that goal. There will always be plenty of room for it to grow, to evolve, but having said that, I’m very happy and pleased with the technology I have at hand. If there’s something I have to recreate for a live gig, I can do it with the SPD-S, the SPD-20, or the HandSonic. With the Roland stuff, you have so many different options, so many possibilities of what you can do. I think the readers of this article should welcome experimentation, and to get into it and try to take their music to a whole other place, but at the same time I encourage everyone to build a foundation of rhythms that are true to the continents from where they came.
Taku: I applaud what Bashiri said. It’s great to have all of these sounds at your disposal — Indian sounds, West African sounds, etc. — but if you don’t know what to do with them, they’re going to be completely out of context. A great thing about Roland is that you’ve brought a lot of the drums that people would not have even thought of using or have even heard of before, and that may form an interest in all these great new sounds and their heritage. So as technology advances, one of the great things about instruments like the HandSonic is that you’re bringing it back to a hands-on, musical place. You’ve really married the best of both worlds.
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