Whether you’re a fan of electronic music or not, there’s no denying that the work Zildjian Artist Zach Danziger is doing with his new group Mister Barrington will make it into the musical history books as game changing technology. And whether you’re a fan of electronic music or not, you have to admit, this work is pretty awesome! (Watch Video)
At this recent TEDx conference, Zach and former Roots bassist, Owen Biddle, pre-recorded their speech, and set out to challenge assumptions about live electronic music. Far from being canned, they improvise a series of pieces enabled by elaborate MIDI architecture. No click or backing tracks were utilized in their performance. Their presentation culminated with the duo triggering rapid-fire video clips in real time using note data generated by the bass and drums to create a living multimedia experience.
We sat down with Zach and talked to him about his role as a drummer on the forefront of music technology; forging new ground in live performance and in the merging of acoustic and electronic drumming.
What other instruments do you play? Do you consider your computer to be an instrument?
I’d have to say that I can’t really “play” any other instruments in the sense that I can’t sit behind a piano, or guitar and make a pleasant showing. I know enough of what I want to hear melodically and harmonically to play keys into a computer and generate songs. I definitely consider the computer to be a musical instrument. A lot of music these days is written and produced on a computer.
Talk to us about your recent TED Conference appearance at UMass Amherst in April.
Wow, that was one of the toughest experiences of my career. We started to prepare for it three weeks in advance. It was pretty much 16 hour work days in the studio trying to get the technology up to speed. It was the first time we ever tried to incorporate live video triggered off of our instruments. The underlying theme of our presentation was to illustrate that computers can be an organic tool and you don’t have to resort to using it to play static backing audio and video tracks. That said, if we had any technical malfunctions during the performance, it would have been a failure of epic proportions!
At TED, you’ve added a completely different visual element to playing music. Did people comprehend that you were NOT playing along to those closing videos - that the video was playing along to you?
I can’t be sure if everybody knew exactly what was happening, including ourselves for that matter! Our hope is that they enjoyed it beyond the technicalities. Seems like they did...
What EXACTLY is it that you are doing – are you now triggering a video clip as you would a sound sample?
Yep, that’s pretty much the basic idea, although it’s a bit more involved in how to make the clips follow the harmonic structure of the music. At the TED performance, Owen Biddle triggered spoken word video clips of himself from his bass. He’s able to improvise a video melody based on the notes he plays on his bass. Getting that to work was a bit of a programming nightmare! We’re still tweaking and optimizing the concept.
How did you get to this point in challenging the convention of acoustic drumming? You obviously started out playing a traditional kit like many drummers – at what point in your career did you turn off the mainstream road?
I’ve always been into computers as a music making tool, going back to when I was first starting to play drums. I bought an Alesis MMT-8 sequencer when I was 15 and used it to program various vamps to practice along to. I preferred to play to that way more than just a metronome. I eventually bought a Mac LCIII with various software sequencer programs which made things easier. I’ve always been interested in music that had lots of computer generated/electronically altered sounds. Eventually I became interested in finding ways to re-create these production aesthetics live.
Do you feel that in this day and age, to be a professional drummer, you need to learn to incorporate electronics into your playing, to some degree?
Hmmm, I’m not so sure if one needs to go as far as to incorporate electronics into their setup.. What I can say is , much like the way we try to absorb different styles of music, I think it’s beneficial to at least be aware of the role of electronics in music. In this day and age, having this awareness will probably give you a leg up on those who don’t as music technology continues to move forward.
Do you think drummers are hesitant or afraid to incorporate electronics into their playing?
I think that it can be a bit of an undertaking and sometimes a bit costly which may scare some away. I’ve always been too interested to not have taken the plunge.
If someone were interested in “dipping their toe in”, where would you suggest they start?
Good question. There are so many facets to this. I started from more of a production angle and started to program drums with a computer mouse or keyboard controller. I wasn’t hooking triggers to my drums when I first started. I just wanted to figure out how guys were producing the tracks that I was listening to. I think a good start would be to get a computer and DAW like Ableton Live and try to embody the essence of computer music. Later, you can port that knowledge to the drumset which I think has richer implications than just buying a set of electronic drums and setting up pads around your acoustic set. The latter approach is sort of the equivalent of wanting to expose yourself to jazz and thinking that buying a “jazz ride” and 18” bass drum is enough to do the trick. There's much more to it than that. I’d probably start by listening to Elvin Jones.
What is your set up like and how important are your cymbal sounds to you, given you have the ability to change them to any sound you want?
My setup is still pretty much rooted in acoustic drums. I’ve always preferred the feel of hitting real drums and cymbals over pads. The way I go about getting a more electronic sound is by processing the miked sound in the computer and by using pickups on the drums and cymbals which allow me to trigger other drum and synth sounds from the kit. Cymbals are very important to me in this setup, sound and feel-wise. I try to use cymbals that have a presence but blend well with whatever electronic sound I might trigger from it. I also try to generate more “synthetic” cymbal sound effects by stacking combinations of cymbals.
Have you experimented with, or considered incorporating Zildjian’s Gen16 Acoustic Electric Cymbals into your set up?
I've only tried the Gen 16 cymbals briefly when I visited Zildjian last year. Been wanting to give them a closer look as I think there's a ton of potential for them in my setup.
There is so much going on in your music…what do you do to stay focused on your parts? Where it’s not just a straight groove, or verse/chorus, do you ever get lost in it, so to speak?How much of what you’re playing is improv and how much is planned?
With Mister Barrington, we’re very tuned into each others musical approaches.We’ve played together for a while now. Lot of sections within our music is improvised. Very rarely do I think we get lost, and if we do, we just try and make music out of those unknown moments. Some of our favorite tracks have come out of sheer confusion! it’s what keeps things inspiring for us.
Do you feel there is more preparation that goes into a show of this style vs. playing in a traditional band?
I’d say on a technical level, absolutely! Most of our rehearsals seem to be spent troubleshooting and augmenting our respective rigs. When that’s done (which it never is!), we squeeze in a song or two. We keep telling ourselves that eventually we’ll be done finalizing our computer setups and can just focus on playing. This hasn’t happened quite yet...
Do you enjoy blowing people’s mind?
I actually enjoy getting my mind blown more (wait, that came out a bit lewd!). I wouldn’t be making music like this if it wasn’t for me seeing and hearing stuff over the years that totally blew me away. I’m just hoping to inspire those to dig a little deeper as artists and not be afraid to venture away from the norm.
To learn more about Zach, visit his Artist Profile page.