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Does a drum machine have a soul?

You’re midway through the second set of the night.

Your band just slayed the last tune, and you’re about to count in the next.

The sound man has everything dialed in perfectly. The bass is thumping. Your drums sound like the footsteps of God. 

Maybe this is your full-time project, or maybe it’s the trio you sit in with from time to time. Either way, you guys are killing it.

The lights are cued up, and you hear the hiss of the smoke machine from behind.

Here we go: “One, two, three, four…”

Can you picture it?

At the end of the set, the whole band feels electrified. That feeling of “electricity” is what happens when a group of people get together in a room and just wail. It’s the feeling of being completely in sync with other human beings. The guitar player takes a solo, and we follow. The bassist adds a syncopated lick that completely changes the groove, and we all go there.

It may only last for a few minutes at a time, but that’s as close to living entirely in the moment as most of us get.   

I experienced just this kind of night last week. I was playing with the quartet I sit in with occasionally. The band has two core members, and the rest is an ever-changing lineup of players from around the capital region of New York. I would argue that we played the best show we’ve ever played on this night. I stretched out and tried some new things, but more than that – I felt completely locked in with the other three guys. I felt like what I was playing really was a crucial part of what was happening.

Later that night, as I was driving home, I started thinking about how the nature of music is to change and evolve. I thought about how the rhythm section of so much of the modern music I’ve been listening to lately was either totally created with software, or was heavily sampled. I thought about how I had practiced earlier in the day with some friends, working on original material. And, I thought about how my usual modus operandi with those guys was to demo out my parts in BFD or some other drum program.

And then it hit me: Even though drum programming is a given in modern music, a drum machine absolutely could not have given the performance I had just given that night.

Which begs the question:

Why has drum programming become the norm in modern pop/rock music?

Is it because it’s cheaper than hiring a drummer, or “more convenient?” Maybe. At least that’s what people tell me.

But Is it really more convenient? The most experienced audio engineers know that the key to programming realistic drums is to try capture every nuance of a person’s playing. Except…it’s software. It can’t be done. And also, you’re trying to copy a real person’s playing.

I know drummers who can walk into a studio and knock out a keeper track in 1 or 2 takes and then go home. In and out in an hour. That’s faster than you could program a full song, and it will probably sound a million times better because those nuances are there.

Even in electronic music, where there are very few organic instruments – the drum track is crucial. There may not be a single acoustic drum in the song, but the sounds used are still meant to mimic a real kick, snare and hi-hat. Why? Because we need those sounds to be there. We’ve come to love and respect those sounds in our music – even when it’s not entirely organic.

Personally, I have nothing against the idea of drum programming. Software is an amazing tool – a means to an end – and it can lead to some truly creative music in the hands of a skilled user. Most times, though, I don’t think programmed drums make a great final product. It’s very easy to fool yourself when you’re programming drums, and that can be a dangerous thing – especially if you need to play those parts live later on.

For me, it’s all about context. If your goal is to essentially create what sounds like a real drum kit being played in a room….why not take the time to do just that? There isn’t a single program on the market that can nail the human aspect of a person playing. There probably never will be.

That’s what makes an amazing guitarist, or an amazing bassist, or an amazing vocalist unique. The fact that they have a gift that can’t be duplicated. The same goes for drumming. Every great drummer brings a certain nuance to their parts that can be imitated, but never duplicated.

Even if you’re not a drummer, take some time to learn about the art of recording drums. I guarantee it will make you better at recording your own instrument (or voice). Recording drums is a crash course in acoustics. It’s the most difficult instrument to record for a reason, but when it’s done well, it’s also the most rewarding.

People say rock & roll is dead. I disagree. We just have to decide how much humanity we’re willing to sacrifice in our music for the sake of convenience.