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Michael Schack

Interview by Sean Mitchell // July 17 2014
Michael Schack

When the drum computer came along and took over the studio in pop music as it did in the 80s, most drummers were totally hostile towards this, but those who at that time actually did see the positive effects of this evolution became the better, more consistent and super tight playing drummers.

Michael Schack is an anomaly in the drumming industry, but by no means a strange man in a strange land. In fact Roland's Belgian uber drummer can easily be considered a drumming pioneer. For Michael, the edrum world does not consist of sounds that emulate an acoustic set up, but rather, the digital drum era has brought about an instrument that has yet to be fully discovered. 

When did you begin your drumming studies? How did you discover drumming? 

I actually didn’t study drums as in having completed any official drumming education or anything. I discovered drumming through my parents support, as they saw I manifested a very strong feeling for rhythm when I was about three to four years old. At age five, I constructed my own little drum set with some cardboard boxes. My mother took me to an afternoon concert of a famous French artist when I was about six, which I still remember very well as I mainly had my eyes on the drummer. When I was seven, I got a pair of bongos and an old snare as a Christmas present. By the time I turned 11, I had a first drum set and even ended up on stage playing a cowbell at a Les De Merle clinic in Belgium. But even during my high school years, no full focus on drumming. I actually have a bachelor degree in economics. 

Yow grew up in Belgium. What were the musical influences that affected you most? 

My parents were music fans with a nose and broad taste for jazz, soul, even P-Funk and classical music. Especially my father did bring some very inspiring vinyl albums into our home at that time. Music was always on, including some cool radio stations. So as I started out playing drums, I was playing along to the music of Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, lots of Motown releases, Miles Davis, Parliament Funkadelic, Bob Marley, and some more rock oriented artists like Led Zeppelin or The Police. Also, a DJ neighbour of ours produced his own nearly monthly compilations of current radio hits, which I consumed like candy. But in the end I mainly totally loved “The Funk” in its different musical forms. 

How did you get into electronic drumming? 

As I was getting my name around Benelux as a young drummer playing with this Blues Funk band called Blue Blot, one day I received a phone call from one of the managers at Roland Benelux, the distributor of Roland instruments for Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg. His first question was, “Can you speak French?”; his second, “We’re releasing this new electronic drum set, the TD-7. Would you be interested in checking it out?” A couple of days later, I had one of those first TD-7K drum sets in my room and started preparing a try-out demo, after which I got hired as a freelance demonstrator spreading the word all over the Benelux. After this, I evolved along with the continuous development of these drums, right into today’s TD-30 era. 

With the technology advancing as fast as it has, how does a drummer like yourself keep up with the changes? 

Well, I naturally have to in the sense that I actually have experienced these changes first hand or "pole position" as I’ve been building up a professional relationship as an external consultant for  Roland’s Digital Percussion Department. Especially since the release of the TD-20 V-Drums set at the Winter NAMM Show in 2004, I’ve been invited to contribute to nearly all major drum set and multipad releases ever since. Combined with my travels to the Roland HQ in Japan, the trial-and-error process when contributing sounds and user interface, which triggers continuous back-and-forth communication with the engineers over there, I’ve been lucky to automatically learn and train myself in how things should be done. 

In order to reach the users and face the competition, I also need to listen to many new music releases and its evolving drum sounds. It’s most important to keep up with the evolution of music and sound technology in this case, as today electronic music is connecting to so many people and young musicians as well and has crossovers with so many other genres. 

Many acoustic drummers fear the change that electronic percussion has brought to the music industry. Where do you think that fear comes from and what would you say to convince them that e-drums are a necessary tool in today’s industry? 

Well first of all, this still ongoing fear shows how much more conservative and discriminating drummers sometimes think and live the instrument, compared to pianists or keyboard players for instance. We have all been playing along to great tracks written by the Chick Coreas, the Herbie Hancocks, the George Dukes and Joe Zawinuls of past times. And there’s also hip hop beats and other more electronically generated rhythms. But even 30 years ago those keyboard artists had synths and effect units setup on top of or besides their classical piano. They made music with it and came up with their own “hybrid” or blended sounds, combining their main acoustic instrument, an electric Rhodes piano or Yamaha CP70, with mainly electronic synths and tricks. 

When the drum computer came along and took over the studio in pop music as it did in the ‘80s, most drummers were totally hostile towards this, but those who at that time actually did see the positive effects of this evolution became the better, more consistent and super tight playing drummers. Now, even four decades after keyboard players started using synths only on the live stages without having a piano next to them, many drummers still think something like a combined electro-acoustic drum setup is mainly experimental. It is not. In the mean time, the laptop or desktop computer brought the recording studio into the hobbyist's or professional musician’s bedroom so to speak. The main question now is if I, as a clinician or e-drumming demonstrator, really need to convince those drummers of the necessity of e-drums, or do most of them need to open their eyes and ears? 

Anyways, with the rise of electronic music on the festival’s main stages, and the concept of DJs meeting live musicians to enhance their performance, I think it’s very clear that now is the time to have an electronic drum set on the live stages, instead of seeing this as an experimental setup with “huge potential.” They said the same thing about the electric guitar in its very early years. But look at where this instrument stands now. And the acoustic guitar never went away either. 

Do you find time to connect to acoustic drum and cymbals? Has being a primarily e-drummer changed the way you approach playing? 

I still play acoustic drums and cymbals in the recording studio and occasionally on live stages as well, depending on the musical genre and concept. I have an actively played collection of acoustic drums, including a Ludwig Vistalite, more old school Ludwig maple and Slingerland Studio King sets, combined with a full battalion of Meinl cymbals. Playing e-drums a lot though has helped my acoustic playing tremendously. Especially when recording, it appears that my hits on acoustic drums have become much more precise and consistent compared to my pre e-drums years. 

You are very much a pioneer in our industry. How does one stay the course with their own art and not get wrapped up in being awestruck by Terry Bozzio’s ostinatos or Virgil Donati’s foot speed? Seems to me that those players didn’t spend time talking about how good other drummers are but spent time forging their art. 

First of all, I don’t see myself as a pioneer at all. There have been many other drummers going full electronic on the live stage way before I did, like Bill Bruford for instance. But to be honest, I also don’t have to think or stress about ostinatos or double foot speed, as it doesn’t make today’s festival or dance music audience dance. I do love the challenging awesome drumming which drummers’ drummers come up with and which also triggers me to try out some new things that push me to a higher level of drumming, but quite often, the occasional time investment into more drummers’ drummer things is  more of a workout for me than something I need to do in order to function and shine on the live stage. On the other hand, sometimes really inspiring “stolen” bits always end up in my performances in my own versions, especially when I play clinics and V-Drums demos. I love incorporating new things on those occasions, as they also clearly help me to demonstrate the quality of the drums themselves while connecting to a mainly “only drummers” audience. 

Let’s talk a bit about your projects. Who are you currently touring with? 

I’m currently touring quite intensively with Netsky (Live), playing concerts and festivals in Europe, U.S., Australia and New Zealand. In between those dates, my own duo project SquarElectric is doing quite well. We’re mainly performing in Benelux and Spain at the moment, but as soon as I’ll be on a longer break from Netsky, we’re planning to play other countries as well. 

You are a very physical player, how do you stay in shape to play at the level you do? 

Well, not smoking and no alcohol is a first. It’s not an effort to me, as I never smoked and also never actually started drinking alcohol. I don’t like the taste. Apart from this, I do practice sports to keep my breathing and heart performance in shape. Mainly some jogging, riding my bicycle and in case it does rain too much outside, you’ll find me on a cross trainer in the morning before breakfast. Just 20 minutes, to wake up those muscles, which heart and lungs actually are. Real fitness workouts actually don’t work for me. I prefer running or riding in open air. 

Where do you draw inspiration for your own compositions? 

Beats and fills I come up with after watching concerts I go to, live DJ sets I might check out on festivals, sometimes even just watching a movie and hearing parts of an action scene soundtrack might trigger some pattern ideas or riffs in my head. I’ve never had a fixed inspirational routine or had to listen for hours to other music to be able to come up with something. I’m quite lucky. And I love silence as well, as it clears the head. 

Where do you see the future of e-drums headed? How far can we go with this instrument? 

It will go as far as music will evolve, which is totally correlated with the existence and design of instruments and sound on one hand and the presence of an audience on the other. These days, computer software plays a big role in this as well. No computer nor electronically generated device can replace the human factor in music production, nor the ability to play an instrument, but all those live played electronic and more precise digital instruments can sound even better when played live, as dynamics are fully coming in at that point. But they do need CPU processors to make this work. 

More CPU power under our hands and feet means more possibilities in bringing latency to an absolute minimum, pushing sound layering and virtual sound design to the max, dynamic response and “feel” to unknown levels. We will still need to play or hit something in order to generate rhythmic sounding patterns. I’m absolutely convinced that e-drums in the end will receive the full attention or appreciation of many more drummers like the electric guitar did from the majority of guitar players. 

When many drummers talk about e-drumming, it seems to me they are approaching e-drums from the aspect of emulating acoustic sounds. However, is there not a benefit to being able to play sounds that a synthesizer could play? As a drummer I think we have the benefit over a keyboard player, as they only have two hands and we have four limbs that we can make music with. It seems to me that we shouldn’t limit what “sounds” we can achieve with e-drums. 

Exactly. And here we come back to the concept of sound design. Much of today’s music on the radio also has multiple kick sound layering, with for instance an added sub sinus wave underneath an acoustic kick sound—or a clap on top of a snare. So it’s not even a benefit; it’s simple reality. If you need to sound more powerful and stand out at a summer festival, you will need to continue to tune those acoustic drums, of course, but also enhance the sound with an extra element or sound layer. No discussion. And when you need to play an electronic beat live, you need to be able to play those exact same typical sounds the audience likes. Then from these basics on, you start experimenting with the extras which make the difference and the show (for instance, playing bass and synth generated melodic sounds from the live electronic drum set, etc.). Using all four limbs indeed! 

What is your current Roland setup for your clinics? 

For clinics, I mainly play the TD30-KV with live triggered loops and music from the SPD-SX and live improvised loop phrases from the SPD-30. I also always incorporate the HPD-20 Handsonic and TM-2 Trigger Module. 

What’s the role of the click during your live performances? 

During a Netsky concert, the click is my best friend. As he’s also the virtual bass player. Quite important in Drum ’n’ Bass! During my solo clinics and SquarElectric gigs, I don’t use a click but do play on top of the samples which I specifically pre-produced and EQ’d in function of what I will be playing live. This way, sampler and drummer can become one and 128bpm will be those 128 beats per minute people want to go totally crazy on. Such a nice powerful feeling when you see everybody dancing and shaking on top of your moving limbs. I love it. 




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.



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