Drums vs Technology (feat. Justin James)

I happened to stumble upon Justin’s instagram account and was instantly impressed with his musicianship and creativity. Fortunately, he was kind enough to share his experiences regarding his incorporation of using Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers and Ableton Live with his acoustic drums.

Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?

I stopped playing in bands and hired gun gigs a couple of years ago and I just didn’t enjoy it anymore and it really became a dead-end for me musically in the ways that I wanted to grow. The only music that I’m working on now and for over the past two years is my solo project Cyclop Toad but I’d love to collaborate with another keyboardist/synth player you know, that would be way more fun but solo works for now and I’m definitely enjoying the creative process.

Can you share approximately when you started playing the drums?

I began playing percussion through school at age eleven and bailed out of school band a couple of years later and hopped onto the drumset and took private lessons for another five years.

What sparked your interest in creating your first hybrid drum setup?

That would definitely have to be the sampled sounds on the hybrid setups that lured me in and hearing that being performed with bands that I would see.

How long have you been using Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers?

Two years exactly. What a journey that’s been.

Had you used other companies drum triggers before? If so, can you share the biggest differences between them and the Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers?

Actually no I haven’t, but the biggest difference that I can recall for regular trigs was the sure simplicity of them and their modules, and two zones per trigger per drum at maximum. Verses ten zones with Sunhouse, that you can blend per drum from simple to as complex as you could imagine. And of course, the software that comes with sensory is very enticing as well.

Are you using Ableton or any other DAW in addition to the program that comes with the Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers?

Yes I actually purchased Ableton right along with the Sunhouse triggers so I could learn how to use them in accordance with each other and talk about the unlimited creative ability. It’s amazing.

Has your approach to the drumset changed in any significant way since adding new technologies and the Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers to your music making?

The muscle memory and the techniques of playing acoustic drums are still very similar for my trigger setup, but mentally and you could say soulfully, it’s a pretty drastic change. Say, for example, you drop a walloping synth bass sample on a “rim hit zone”, that fluctuates pitch depending on where you hit it with a stick is sure to make you think differently about how you’re expressing musical ideas when playing the drums. It feels almost like I’m conducting an entire group of instruments that I have designed and I really enjoy having that birds eye perspective too.

How long did it roughly take for you to feel comfortable using the Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers in a practical yet functional way?

Considering I’d really had no computer, DAW, software of sound design experience, it took me a couple of years to figure out all of the programming parameters and the audio semantics and language you know. There is a whole other aspect to it too and that, of course, would be your playing style and gestures that you would do within a normal kit. With the deep possibilities of sensory percussion controllers and samples and the sound design process.

Are you currently performing live using the Sunhouse Sensory Percussion triggers?

Live in my bedroom yes (laughs), for now. In this whole process with songwriting, learning Ableton, the production etc, I always had this lingering question in my head and that is how am I going to do this live? It took a couple of years but I feel like I’ve finally “widdled” it down with a solid workflow too. Thanks to some particular tutorials especially from Mason self. He’s got awesome sensory percussion tutorials on youtube. So anyway I’m going to take the next month off my Valle job that I do to complete the full set list. It will be about ten songs or so. Lyrics and all, and see how people react to this solo set up cause I’,m used to playing with people. Then get a solid recording done after that.

What’s the most unconventional drum set up you’ve used so far? (eg: Guitar pedals, keyboards etc)

I’ve had the korg minilogue or the korg volca fm hooked up as an additional sound source. Also as external midi controllers to sensory percussion. I also tried running sensory percussion output through guitar pedals, but it was just way too an inconvenient for me. I just didn’t want to troubleshoot any pedals any signal flows so I’ve consolidated it down to one midi foot controller and that’s the Keith McMillan instruments soft step two. It controls my open close hi hat and song selector buttons and any effects pedal chain you could imagine through the DAWS software and plugins.

Do you have a hybrid set up you’re particularly fond of and use more regularly than other hybrids you’ve created?

Well I think I “widdled” it down the set up to be completely software generated. There are no cymbals, I am using silent mesh heads with the triggers, Keith McMillan instruments soft step, a vocal mic through Ableton.

Do you have any “go to” musicians you follow and believe are leading the way with creating hybrid drum sets?

Yeah definitely. I got started watching Toby Hunk, he did abletondrummer.com. He’s constantly building Ableton Max for Live patches and tutorials especially great for drum pads, samplers and hybrid kits and Mason self. Follow that guy! He does really cool stuff too with sensory percussion, external modular synths and vice versa. His sensory percussion tutorials are mind blowing and get you to think creatively with all kinds of natural drumming gestures and the programming that comes with it. Definitely, my favourite guy to follow.

How long have you been using Ableton to supplement your music making on the drums?

I’ve only been messing with Ableton for a couple of years. I’m pretty much new about all this stuff.

Can you share your approach to using Ableton as a part of your live setup?

So currently I have Ableton working mainly as a midi continuous controller, control chain sent through IC driver on a MAC to sensory percussion. So Ableton to sensory percussion. So it’s selecting which sample on sensory percussion is being played within the grid through the automation that I draw in on Ableton. That sort of thing. Again follow masons stuff and his youtube tutorials if you’re interested and you’ll see more in-depth what I’m talking about. Other than that I just have different vocal chains on a track that are armed for my mic. Of course, that’s not to say that will all change, but this is the formula that I’ve come to really like and it works amazing.

Do you have any experience as a keyboardist/pianist or do you approach the keyboard as a controller to produce more detailed sounds beyond the drums?

I have a little bit of experience on the piano. It was my first instrument but as bored as I get, I never really practised much or progress but not being very good with the piano I can play enough to write and that I do adore. Also, of course, programming hardware and software synths is a blast as well and is just a part of the musical progress as the actual chord structures and songwriting.

What advice would you give to a young drummer interested in exploring technology and how to incorporate it into their drumming?

I feel like the hybrid and midi electronic drum world is a very niche craft and you’re going to have to find out what works for you and your band etc. Whether it be triggers that you incorporate with your acoustic drumset sound or separate drum pads on your kit. If you’re like me and you’re completely new to e-drums samplers and audio in general and you wanted to take things deeper, I suggest taking a basic sound design course. I took a course online through syntorial.com since it was right up my alley with understanding all of the basics of synthesiser parameters, signal flow and that whole audio language. Which is pretty universal to your DAW or audio and sampler world. In some cases, you’re also going to have to sacrifice the acoustic drum feel for the expression. Just like the piano to the synthesiser or acoustic guitar to an electric guitar. I use mesh heads with sensory percussion triggers because I don’t want drum noise and for me, the feel of that real plastic drumhead verse the mesh head and the ungodly expression comes with it, that I get to experiment with are a no contest between expression and the feel you know.

If you saw someone on stage playing one of the sensory percussion preprogrammed acoustic kits, I can guarantee you, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if it were an acoustic kit or a sensory percussion triggered kit. From the rim shots to a dampened sound of that drum. So anyhow, that’s probably more for the purest drumset player, which I’m all too familiar with and with all that being said have an open mind and try all the different options out there. All of it can be a bit overwhelming at first, with the decision of what product to purchase and also the learning curve of that technology. With the deeper programming and setups with the DAW’s and the plug inns and such, as daunting as that sounds, you have to really one step at a time. Really enjoy that process of learning the unknown you know. It can be pretty time consuming too but also keep in mind the asset you’re becoming.

Where is the best place for people to go in order to hear your music?

As of now I just post stuff to soundcloud.com/cycloptoad. Looking forward to scraping all of the old material and replacing it with this new album that I can really get behind and perform as well.

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