Matt Ingram - Dynamics
Today I’m going take time to pay tribute to what I feel is one of drumming’s more vital but less discussed concepts. Although not given the spotlight it deserves it is an attribute that’s arguably the single most powerful musical devise in a drummer’s repertoire. I am talking about dynamics.
In the world of drum education and press it is easy to see why dynamics get sidelined for let’s be honest, it is not the sexiest of concepts. Groove, feel, technique, speed, independence, these are (and excuse the pun) the big hitters and there are column inches and video content a plenty in their honour. Naturally, next to PLAY FAST SINGLES! and 5/4 LINEAR GROUPINGS! a video entitled YOU CAN ALSO PLAY QUIETLY! is never going attract as much youtube traffic. So dynamics have an image problem that I feel is an injustice to they’re importance in our art.
Putting my audio geek/slightly old man hat on for a second, we are currently not living in a time of dynamic diversity in music. I don’t know if you are aware of the “loudness wars” (if not here is a good article about it http://dynamicrangeday.co.uk/about/) but lately the modern music industry has become obsessed with a record appearing “louder” than a competitors because, well louder’s better right? As consumers our listening apparatus have a peak volume that cannot be exceeded and a lot of modern music production is pushed up to this limit, which results in a loss of fidelity and also a complete absence of dynamic range. More widely speaking I feel these trends in contemporary music in part inform our tastes and the choices we make as drummers *puts hat back in its felt box*.
On the drum set for me the concept of dynamics breaks into two groups, intensity and range. Intensity is an interesting one for it shouldn’t be confused with power. I define power as the emotional weight behind a performance whereas intensity is the physical force applied to the drum or cymbal. Sometimes the attributes of intensity and power converge in a musical style that players like John Bonham, Dave Grohl and Stewart Copeland would be good examples of. Here we have participants that aren’t afraid to spank the kit and whose efforts coincide in a thunderously powerful result. However Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Questlove, all players of real power yet they achieve this without the application of such force. To my taste, anyone of these last three players have a weight in their styles that’s absent in many who hit far harder.
We must remember that drums and cymbals have physical limits and increased force only results in more volume up to a certain threshold. Once this threshold is exceeded it will begin to have a seriously derogatory affect on the sound of the instrument, often producing a very thin, almost papery tone. I’ve observed many hard hitting drummers whose muscular approach takes the instrument beyond its limit and it seems a cruel irony of physics that such extra efforts are not rewarded with more pleasant results.
Because increased physical force does not equate to more expressive power, the intensity with which you strike the drum set must be considered alongside many other factors such as choice of drums/cymbals, tuning, internal dynamics, beat placement, genre, etc.
In this regard dynamic intensity on the drum set is a mysterious beast that can’t really be isolated from it’s surrounds. A much more straightforward concept is range. As you are all probably aware dynamic range is the possible volume of sounds that the drums can produce and friends, let us not forget that this range is HUGE. Consider this, the drum set has a dynamic range that is pretty much unrivalled by any other acoustic instrument. Not only are our dynamic possibilities wide, with the the use of mallets, brushes, hotrods and even our hands they are also very easily achievable. Yet, a lot us do not do not explore the full possibilities and take advantage of what I consider to be the trump card of our instrument.
Dynamic range during a performance is all relative. A sound only appears louder or quieter based upon what has occurred previously. Therefore if we are to utilise the dynamic possibilities of the drum set we must make choices that allow us to benefit from the volumes our instrument is capable of. In a nutshell, don’t start a gig or song at your maximum volume as it will give you absolutely nowhere to go. This particular trick took me many years to master but as we all know overexcitement, nerves and adrenaline can be arch foes of dynamic versatility.
Opening up your playing to dynamic possibilities can add a whole new creative dimension to your playing. If you are not already doing so then I have some great news for you; dynamic range is an awareness not a technique. There is no technical barrier in the way of you exploring it, you just need to think about it. For example, after the 1st chorus in that bit where the bass drops out and the singer starts whispering, drop out the bass drum, or go to side stick, or just play the ride, or do whatever the instrument allows you to heighten the drama of that moment. If you want the chorus to kick in harder, play less in the verse. You want the snare to come out more, don’t play the hi hats as loudly. Once you start thinking like this the creative possibilities in utilising dynamics are endless and it’s something that requires no special skills, just listening and awareness.
To conclude I will end with something handed down to me by my first drum teacher. Whenever I sat down to play he would always say, “Matt remember, don’t let off all your fireworks at once.” He was a wise man.
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