FEBRUARY 2008 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Rock Band and the Rock Drum Set

A hit video game is boosting the electronic drum set.

The video game is the MTV/Harmonix game Rock Band, in which video game players have to become players of another kind — musicians. Perform accurately on the buttons of a guitar-shaped game controller and the pads of an electronic drum set, and you hear the cheers of the crowd.

The guitar controller in Rock Band is no substitute for a real musical instrument, but the drum set is very nearly the real thing. It is scaled down and simplified but works essentially way the same as a regular electronic drum set.

In this game, as in the three Guitar Hero games, players experience firsthand how difficult it can be to play music. The beats and riffs are simplified as much as possible to put them within the reach of non-musicians, but can still take hours of practice.

One effect of these musical games is to strip away the myths surrounding musical instruments. Players find that it is the player who makes music, and not so much the instrument.

And this could lead to a broader acceptance of electronic drum sets in rock music.

The fact is that the familiar sound of the rock drum set is electronic. Ever since recording studios could afford the equipment to put a microphone on every drum in a drum set, drum sounds have been electronically isolated, altered, cleaned, and reassembled to create a beat that is twice as compelling as the acoustic sound of a drum set. The modern drum sound really got going with the Beatles hit “Hey Jude” in 1968 and within five years was used on virtually every record you were likely to hear, if it contained a drum set.

And so, except for the very early years of rock, the rock drum sound has always been electronic. The drums you see serve only as the starting point for the drum sound. In many cases, the drum microphones serve only to trigger pre-recorded drum samples, a trend that got started with the Steely Dan Gaucho album in 1980. The drums of a drum set are, in effect, very expensive props for a sound that they don’t actually produce. The simpler, more direct way to create a rock drum sound is with the electronic drum pads and sample-playback devices that make up an electronic drum set.

Electronic drum sets have been widely available for 20 years, yet they still meet resistance among many rock fans because of the myths surrounding the drum set, so musicians tend to keep them under wraps. But if enough rock fans play Rock Band, that could change, and we might start seeing as many electronic drum sets as we are hearing.


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