How I use e-drums: Nick Roberts

Solo musician Nick Roberts uses electronics to layer virtual instruments over the drum kit.

I use the stage name Chordsplitter for my solo performances of songs in which I layer up virtual instruments all over the drum kit and sing along to produce synthy soft-rock music. My arrangements feature overdriven guitar chords on the crash cymbals, washy sustained synth arpeggios on the ride, staccato synth chords on the hi-hats, rubbery synth bass on the kick and a whole manner of different instruments/textures across the snare and toms. These are all combined with my vocals, vocoders and harmonisers while I drum live.

I am part of that cult-like community of Sensory Percussion drummers. What drew me to the technology was the advanced positional sensing capabilities and the complete range of different drum techniques the triggers can detect. However, if I were to be put in a box, I’d most likely fall in to the Ableton Drummer category of e-drummers, as that’s where I mainly sculpt my sound.

What motivates me is to record and perform in such a way that I avoid playing along to traditional backing tracks: every note I play on the drum kit produces the music itself dynamically in the moment. In Ableton, I pre-sequence a skeleton MIDI chord track and a MIDI baseline. I then use MIDI translator software so that when I strike an e-drum, the chord at any given moment in the song is then fed into virtual instruments at the velocity that I hit the drum. Likewise, upon striking the kick, the note from the MIDI baseline at that moment in time is fed into a synth bass.

Initially, when writing an arrangement for a song, I use pads on the Roland SPD-SX while jamming the song to turn instruments and FX on and off to mould the track into shape; for example, turning a guitar on in the chorus, or turning a piano reverb off in the verse, etc. A bit like a conductor of an orchestra! Once an arrangement is more structured, I then automate some of this process in Ableton which mentally frees me up to focus on the drumming and performance aspects of the song.

To sculpt the sounds and textures of the virtual instruments via my drum performance, I use velocity data from the drum kit to modulate parameters – eg. attack and release times, filters, cutoff frequencies, drive or pitch, etc. For example, the louder I hit a drum, the quicker the attack time on a filter envelope becomes. I also shape interesting velocity-sensitive envelopes which can be triggered by a MIDI note to modulate synths to create very expressive sounds. Another example is hitting the edge of a crash cymbal to pan a synth to swoosh from left to right dramatically. Instead of using the hi-hat pedal in the traditional way, I use the CC data from the pedal to modulate synths to create sweeping crescendos in the song, like leading up to choruses.

I have been told that the result of all of this makes for some unique music. I hope your readers will agree!

Nick’s gear:

Roland VH-11 hi-hat

Roland CR-15 ride

Roland FD-7 hi-hat controller

Roland SPD-SX (used as midi controller)

Roland TD-6 (used as midi controller only for FD-7 pedal)

Gretsch Catalina with Remo SilentStroke mesh heads (18” kick, 12” rack, 14” floor, 14” snare)

Sensory Percussion v1 triggers

Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 audio interface

Porter & Davies monitoring throne


Sensory Percussion software

Ableton 11 Suite including Max4Life

Mason Self’s MIDI Sample and Hold Max4Life devices

Bome MIDI Translator

Third-party Virtual Instruments from Native Instruments, Soniccouture and Teletone Audio

Waves & Fabfilter plugins