Electrifying the drum circle

E-drum technology is taking the drum circle into the 21st century, as Allan Leibowitz reports.

While the drum circle is not new, a Los Angeles producer, composer and performer is taking the concept to the next level, thanks to electronics.

The eDrum Collective is the brainchild of Vinnie Corbo, who came up with the idea of an e-drum-based drum circle about 10 years ago.

“It took quite a bit of experimentation before I had something that truly worked well. Since then, I have been adapting and expanding on its capabilities. Each year, I discover new and unique ways to use it with different groups of individuals,” he says.

Corbo opted for electronics because the technology provides considerably more options than acoustic drums. “Users can experience an endless array of sounds. I am able to create a revolving door of changing and morphing sounds and tones that perfectly match with the tracks that are playing as well as the other sounds on the other stations,” he explains. “Everyone’s station has different sounds and can contribute something different to the overall performance. I have the sounds change … frequently through each experience. One minute you’re a percussionist, the next you’re a marimba player.”

The eDrum Collective uses Dauz drum pads which Corbo says are “the best drums I’ve ever used for rolls and dynamics”.

Another benefit is that they come in various colours which Corbo uses to colour-code the various “stations” during his events.

He combines the pads with software including Reason, Ableton Live, Logic, Tracktor, Massive “and a ton of plugins”.

“I have written some code and created some complex MIDI routing to get everything to work together. There’s a ton that goes into getting this all to work. Getting something to appear fun and easy often requires countless hours of work, planning, experimenting, and it’s expensive to make,” he notes.

The eDrum Collective in action

Corbo runs his drum circles around individual stations, each one a different colour. This saves him learning the names (often difficult to pronounce) of the participants who are instead referred to by the colour of their station.

The programs average about eight stations, but he has had sessions for up to 16.

“There is an overall music track playing that is in constant flux. It includes a combination of my own compositions, loops, recognisable beats and actual clips of popular songs. As the music changes, the sounds on each player’s station change as well. It never gets boring or redundant,” he explains.

The eDrum Collective runs several different programs. “The first is a guided rhythm experience. This is where I stand in the middle with two or three pads in my left hand and tap patterns that the players need to mimic. Sometimes, I substitute a cowbell. This is usually a ‘call and response’ style interaction. I will also put completely different instruments on each station and conduct the players to create a composition under my direction. This requires them to pay attention and work together – great for team building.”

In another program, the players get to jam along with a DJ. “The DJ performs a consistent but evolving musical performance and the players contribute. This requires everyone to find their place in the music and work with others to make it sound good. I also provide free-form improvisation time at some point in the program so players can space out and trip off the vibe they are creating,” he says.

Where acoustic sound levels are an issue, Corbo has a program in which participants all use headphones. “For example, if someone hires me to run one in their booth at a convention, we can’t be disturbing the neighbouring booths. The Dauz pads reign supreme for this. They make practically no sound at all.”

The headphones allow each person to only hear their own sounds and no sounds from any other station. “This works well if I am at an event where there is a constant changing flow of people. There isn’t time to get them acclimated and everyone’s skill level is different. Plus, it eliminates the ‘embarrassment’ factor that someone may feel. People can become intimidated if they know other people can hear them. This is the e-drum equivalent of singing in the shower,” he adds.

One of the new additions is the provision of camera phone holders “so the selfie generation can be sure to get their content”.

“I find that once they are confident in the knowledge that they can show off to their followers, they are able to relax and truly enjoy the experience.”

Corbo says he tries to provide an experience where people who do not know each other and may not even speak the same language can communicate and collaborate to create something exciting, amazing and pleasurable for all.

“My main clients are corporate events where an ice-breaker or a ‘moth to flame’ attraction are needed,” he says.

But it’s not just the big end of town which benefits from the eDrum Collective.

“I have a degree in Special Education and have spent my entire life working with children with disabilities. For almost 20 years, my wife and I have put on free events for these kids and their families through our organisation, Multivium. These events have a giant ice cream buffet, carnival games, arts and crafts, story time and a bubble wrap stomping area. Each kid gets a very nice plush toy and their photo taken with a popular character.

“There are lots of fun and cool things to do and everyone has a blast. But the one thing I found that everyone likes more than anything else there is the eDrum Collective. These kids are so sweet and really get into it. How can I say no? So, with funding from generous donors, we have been able to do these events and have the eDrum Collective be a part of it.”

As for the future, Corbo would like to reach more people with his concept. Because of the large quantity of equipment required, the eDrum Collective is limited to servicing Corbo’s home territory of Southern California.

He has had to knock back requests from other cities, but is now contemplating expansion. “It would be great to set people up with equipment, provide them training and get this happening in more locations,” he says.