Letting the Drummer Set the Pace

16 January 2011

Interview with 

Andrew Robertson, Queen Mary University of London


Chris -   Now traditionally, the drummer in a band is there to set and to maintain the pace of the music. But if pre-recorded samples and backing tracks are included in the performance instead the drummer now has to try and keep time with them.  Now though, a new computer programme, which has been developed by a musician and researcher, Dr. Andrew Robertson at Queen Mary University of London could hand control back to the drummer. To tell us more here is Jane Reck from the EPSRC.

DrummerJane -   Like a lot of bands, Dr. Andrew Robertson's group uses a mix of live performance with pre-recorded backing tracks and synthesisers.  But Andrew's band is different because he's made it possible for the drummer to set the pace of the music.  If the drummer wants things to speed up or slow down, everything else follows the pace they set.

Andrew -   I designed a drum tracking system that's called B-keeper to take in microphone input from the drums and to control sequencers in terms of their tempo to stay in time even though there are slight fluctuations in tempo.  One analogy is, if you're on a motorbike, and you are on a motorway, and you're trying to catch up with a car that's ahead of you, all you have to do on the motorbike is accelerate. Then as you're approaching the car, you need to actually go off a bit, and sort of slightly slow down from the speed you are at, so that you're exactly the same speed as the car, and that you're at the same side of the car.  You know, you look to your right, and there's the driver's seat.  So, you're trying to be at the same speed and actually at the right place as well.  There's no point being at the right speed and being half a beat ahead of the car.  I see the drummer as the car.  He's kind of just cruising along and the system is effectively more of the motorbike because it actually has the ability to zoom up and catch up, or put on the brake and slow down slightly.  So, I've made that system for music.

Jane -   Andrew is a researcher at Queen Mary University of London.  He says it's the first software of its type for drummers.  The drums are linked up to the computer software by microphones.

Andrew -   We just pop a mic in the kick and one in the snare put it out to this computer.  This is analysed for something called onset detection.  So, when they hit that drum, you get an event and it's sent to you as a bang or it's a hit.  So it's analysing a sequence of events.  This is done relative to a click track that the sequencer's using.  The computer uses its metronome.  It's got its own idea of bars and beats, of what it's doing.  So you send out on the one hand, the computer's click, on the other, the kick and the snare from the drummer.  The software is making the best adjustment to align the two, so the best adjustment in tempo, so you're at the same speed and the same exact place as the drummer.  It's also got a nice count-in where you can count in with the sticks and that initialises it ready to go.


Jane -   This is the drummer playing live with backing from a synthesised baseline.  As the music progresses, a robotic xylophone is also brought in.  The software controls the speed of the baseline and the xylophone to keep up with the drummer.  You'll hear different parts of this track so that by the end of the piece, when the drummer has gradually built up to a much quicker speed, you'll be able to hear a real difference in the tempo with everything, following the lead of the drummer.


Jane -   So the music goes from this to this...


Jane -   And finally, to this....


Jane -   Drummer David Knox says the software makes a big difference to a performance.

David -   It's something that I can interact with.  So, this computer responds to me like another musician.  I interact with it as I do with the bassist and the keyboardist, and the singer.  In a live situation, if the audience is enjoying it and I'm enjoying myself, and there's a buzz going on, I can go there.  I can speed up.  I might find that this chorus, I really want to kind of give it a bit of extra energy, and I know the machines there.  I go for it, it listens and away we go, you know.

Jane -   Andrew's work is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering.  So it's UK-funded research that's helping to keep this country ahead of the game in the music industry.  Nowadays, a lot of musicians make more money from live performances than music sales.  So Andrew says it's vital that these musicians are able to offer more spontaneity in their performances to keep people coming back for more.

Andrew -   It's very difficult for musicians to actually sell hard copies of their records, so they don't see the kind of revenue they used to see when they had the vinyl and CD sales.  Actually, it's in the live arena that a lot of things are happening.  Given that, when you look at the bands out there that are exciting, a lot of them are using technology.  They're bringing technology into the shows.  If bands take this up and start using it, I think they benefit from it.

Jane -   You can find out more about the software at B-keeper.org and Andrew's band is called Higamos Hogamos.


Chris -   What a fantastic invention.  That was Jane Reck from the EPSRC and she was talking to Dr. Andrew Robertson from Queen Mary University of London.  And if you'd like to catch up on anything we've covered so far this week, the references and the transcripts for each of the news stories we've discussed are online at thenakedscientists.com/news. 


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