Uses for old socks

Andrew Booker 2009-07-07 23:16:38

On 01 July 2009 we played our last in the series of Improvizone gigs we had scheduled for the first half of the year. I'd just done two or three gigs with the acoustic drums, so I used them for this one too. Also I brought some old socks. Mike brought his lead-lined Rivera amp. Os brought his EWI and a Juno 6. Nick stayed at home to look after his ill wife. Thus, as the trio, we were basically a souped-up Darkroom for the evening.

This lineup worked pretty well. I had been looking forward to Nick's expansive grin as he locked in with the more muscular and dynamic possibilities of the acoustic drums, and we clearly did miss him on this one. However, I remember some subtle, engaging and... difficult-to-describe sections during the evening. If ever I looked forward to receiving Os's DVDs of the audio through the post, it is this time. Meanwhile, once again Os videoed us, so I've been enjoying that. You even get a glimpse of my heavily pregnant wife Rachel moving across the shot about 50 seconds into part 1.

I was looking forward to this being a completely non-electronic gig for me. Too bad I still needed a hold-all full of cables, mics and short stands and other bits for recording. I started setting up a good hour before Os and Mike arrived. If I used the acoustic kit all the time, in the same configuration, it would take me 10 minutes to set up. But knowing me, even if I used the kit all the time, I would constantly be changing it around and trying new setups. I would never get the assembly under half an hour. Ever.

I don't mind this. A chilled and unhurried setup is a pleasure, however complex, especially when the rough plan is to spend the evening playing semi-chillout music at 30 degrees in an airless room. As well as the drums, I had to position a few mics around it for recording. I used two Rode NT5s for overheads, an AKG C1000 on the snare, and a Blue Kickball (actually red) in the bass drum. We normally use the Kickball to mic up guitar amps. It's a dynamic phantom-powered mic (I believe Blue are the only people making those), which makes it good for close-mic-ing but with a flatter frequency response than typical dynamics. I like it because it's weird looking, like some 1950s sci-fi orb suspended in the drum, with a red LED that glows through the clear double-ply head. You can just make it out in the picture below, and in Os's videos. I'm not really sure what I think of it as a bass drum mic. But then partly the problem is I'm not sure what I think of my bass drum. My kit is a 1967 Ludwig Gold Badge, whose age I know from its date stamps. It was my first acoustic drum kit, bought second hand in 1987, and is the only acoustic kit I have ever had. The drums are aging very well, and sound big and boomy whenever they get new heads. This, in my case, is about once every decade.

The thing is I don't really want big and boomy. I want deep and clipped. I've been thinking for a few of years now of buying a new kit that makes sounds I actually like. I don't want to have to put tape all over the heads before I can use them. I don't want to have to use a wrench to tighten the rack tom fixing to stop it drooping after 5 minutes. I want a bass drum with proper adjustable floor leg supports, with a narrower, longer shell that I can fit through the hatch into the attic. Right now I have to extend my house just so I can store the kit. Much as I'd love to own modern drums, so far in the last 12 months I have used my acoustic kit on only three days, and all of those within the last fortnight.

Worse, when I do use them, I feel I don't know how to play them any more. Difficult playing quietly. Difficult getting an interesting palette of sounds. On the electronic drums I'm used to being able to change sounds at the push of a button, and go back to playing with exactly the same technique, with exactly the same feel as on the previous setting, just making a whole load of different noises. To do that on acoustic drums, you can have an enormous kit with different types of drum, or dampen some of the drums with some soft material (I used a few old socks), or you can get some different sounds by hitting the drums in different ways, or with different sticks. I brought several kinds of beaters. Soft mallets, hard heavy mallets, wire brushes, thick plastic brushes, plastic hot rods, wooden hot rods... None with anything like the bounce or control you get from using regular pieces of wood. And with so many types of sticks to rummage through to get the right pair, and given that I wanted stop and start on sensible cycles of four or eight bars, it was taking forever to change over. I even taped a couple of old socks over one of my bass drum beaters. Sounded great until I wanted to flick a few double-beats and found I had lost all the bounce. Spent about the next hour trying to rip them off again. It needed scissors.

I'll definitely bring the acoustics to another Improvizone gig, especially to give them a bash with a bass player. Maybe not so many cymbals next time. Interesting, perhaps predictably, the most effective item this time seemed to be the very cheap 14 inch Stagg china type, positioned above the snare. It sounds so nasty I have never used it before, but it seemed to work well here. Whereas my favourite, the little 12 inch Alchemy splash, hardly got a look in. I also don't need two 18 inch crash/rides. The old Avedis and newer but rarer Zanki are completely different cymbals, and I love them both, but in a gig like this they do basically the same job. For the drums, the rototom was good, but I might dig out a smaller one as well (I have five, somewhere). And I'll see if replacing the horrible double-ply pinstripe head on the bass drum with a good single ply doesn't improve its sound. I won't be buying a new kit yet. That can wait until we're so well established we get at least ten people turning up to our gigs every time.

As for the next gigs, we don't have any more planned right now, and if you've been reading this article carefully you will have sussed out why. Hopefully we'll be back playing again, somewhere, in August or September. Until then, I've got masses of timelapse video, visuals coding, drum synth coding and plenty of unedited and unmixed downloads to catch up on.

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