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The Death of the Drummer Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

When anyone can program a brilliant beat in 30 minutes, will the already undervalued drummer throw in the sticks?

It’s not easy being a drummer. Your empty wallet hates you. Your annoyed neighbors hate you. Your jam-packed sedan hates you. And despite performing the Herculean duty of keeping your band in time, unless you’re Travis Barker or Danny Carey, you get the least amount of attention.

However, the one asset we drummers have always had is our demand. For every capable cadence commander, there are 10 guitarists who can play “Smoke on the Water” and want you to join their band. But that’s increasingly changing, and now that anyone with GarageBand and a working keyboard can program an impeccable beat in under 30 minutes, will the already undervalued drummer throw in the sticks?

Just the opposite, according to Jonathan Haas, principal percussionist of the American Symphony Orchestra and percussion professor at the Juilliard School. “Drummers aren’t endangered, as long as they’re willing to embrace the new technologies and innovations,” he says. “Like any new innovation, the innovator moves forward in the progressive challenge of being heard and seen in the global music marketplace. The stalwart traditionalist remains both the historian as well as the keeper of the musical faith. The new music generation must have both in their collective musical DNA and toolbox.”

If anything, that means the mass appeal of drum machines and flawless, computerized beats are pushing drummers to drum harder and faster, not cower in fear. And for years, passionate drummers have been incorporating electronics into their otherwise analog setups and pushing the boundaries of what drumming can be. They’re not neglecting their chops, either: In 2013, Canadian drummer Tom Grosset beat the record for world’s fastest drummer, playing a supersonic 1,208 single strokes in 60 seconds. And just watch Juan “Carlito” Mendoza, below. He incorporated electronics in his winning Guitar Center Drum-Off 2012 set, but he really wowed the crowd by flipping his snare drum upside-down and turning the wire into a DJ scratch:

While the proliferation of constantly advancing electronics may sound like a slippery slope (the bottom of which is an entirely digital rhythm apparatus, no human necessary), people will always be an instrumental part of making music. “Analog drummers can’t be replaced, because ‘digital drummers’ lack the ability to create instantaneous spontaneity, along with the ability to improvise as a result of input transmitted through hearing, brain function and problem solving at a speed that computers are unable to achieve,” Haas explains. “The human brain still exceeds processing times greater than most powerful supercomputers — at least today.”

Similarly, as jazz drummer and “reaction” YouTuber Andrew Rooney explains, “There’s also a ‘presence’ with acoustic kits,” or a sort of delicate craftsmanship that requires sensitivity and dynamics, something machines can’t quite reproduce. Therefore, he argues, “I personally think there’s a place for the copy-paste-style pop music we’re used to these days. I like a lot of it. But, in my opinion, it doesn’t and won’t have the legacy that real musicians playing real instruments had.”

From an audience’s perspective, there’s even the possibility that people will be more interested in live, human-made music after the Age of Coronavirus, something that could re-popularize the “raw” drummer. “I’ve heard economists talking about the potential for a Roaring Twenties-type scenario, where countries and societies coming out of lockdowns really celebrate, spend money and want an experience,” Rooney says. “There’s something magical and authentic about a live band playing acoustic-style instruments. There’s an energy and undeniable ‘human’ characteristic.”

And from a drummer’s point-of-view, even if audiences round the world increasingly prefer programmed drums to live recordings, remember, music isn’t always about the end product — it’s about the relationship between the musician and the instrument, so whether machine drums can do anything and everything human drummers can or not, players will still want to play. “My students, including the younger ones, are often amazed and impressed when they start discovering older music and the ‘four dudes in a room playing’ approach, as opposed to the ‘copy-paste, record individually and quantize every note’ approach,” Rooney says.

So, will drum machines spell the end of drummers? 

“People were saying [that] in the 1980s,” says Rooney.

After all, drums are arguably one of the most innate instruments. We’re introduced to our first beat in the womb — the beat of our mom’s heart — and those who choose to sit behind the kit spend the rest of their lives building upon it. It’s why we spend all our money. It’s why we annoy our neighbors. It’s why we lug our drums around to each and every gig. 

And of course, it’s why we keep drumming even when a machine says it can do better.

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