James Blake? It rings a bell…
Of course it rings a bell. We’re talking about a genius of our time. He has been put, by critics and listeners, in the mixed bag of pop, downtempo, dubstep, ambient, R&B, post-dubstep and soul. Although, like all greats, James Blake doesn’t fit into any one of these categories completely, his music – and his statements – are closer to the last two genres than to any other. The Brit has once said that he only tries to make normal songs with complex technology. His thing is throwing Portishead, Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Jamie Lidell, Brian Eno, Antony Hegarty and Nina Simone in a blender and seeing how it sounds. Blake undoes the puzzle and reassembles it, redefining and re-contextualizing it. Someone once said that this was precisely the definition of art. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Actually no, it doesn’t. Tell me something concrete about this guy!
Any music lover has heard, at the very least, the name James Blake. His name came to the fore ten years ago, when he released his first single, Air & Lack Thereof (hear the song HERE).
A year later he released his first, and self-titled, album (2011, Polydor) and expectations were met: this Londoner, who was barely over 20, had a stroke of genius. With his second album, Overgrown (2013, Polydor) he wins the prestigious Mercury Prize and consolidates himself as a reference in the world of electronic music. Since then he has released another album, The Colour in Anything (2016, Polydor) and just released Assume Form (2019, Polydor) last month on January 18th.
Enough about his career, we’re here to talk about another matter.
Since its emergence in the last third of the last century, electronic percussion has caused controversy. Although it has quickly adapted to the requirements of certain avant-gardes, in popular music their use was scorned and, whoever dared to use them, was branded as tacky or worse. Well, let’s be honest: several records from that time are inaudible today precisely because of the electronic drums. Some sounded just horrible. But as time goes by, bodies get uglier and technology advances and this is where, in the second decade of the 21st century, an English genius named James Blake comes in. It is not only that he uses electronic percussion pads for a logistic or versatile component, Blake uses these combinations as yet another tool, a different nuance to add to his musical discourse. The shift is gigantic: from being the laughing stock of musical gear, to being totally normalised as one more instrument, with its limiting factors and characteristics. Blake is not the only one, of course, but we refer to him as the leader of a musical movement. So… let’s talk about the gear!
Tell me about the gear already!
James Blake mainly uses Roland pads. The Japanese brand, one of the great pioneers in all that refers to electronic musical instruments, offers a wide range of pads of a professional level at prices – for professional pockets – not too exorbitant. In particular, the Brit is comfortable with the SPD units. In this video, for example, we can see him using the SPD-S (no longer in our shop)…
The jewel in the crown
The jewel in the crown, with which we will have the best time, is, however, another model. This is the Roland SPD-SX…
What makes this model so entertaining is that it gathers the qualities of all its predecessors and, in addition, practically eliminates all their flaws. On Roland‘s website they call it “the perfect addition to any acoustic or electronic drum set, percussive configuration, DJ or keyboards”. Despite the obvious commercial character of those words, we have to say that…they are right. We said earlier that the SPD-SX brings together all the qualities of its predecessors, and that is not entirely accurate, because the truth is that it elaborates on them, takes them to another level: there is the possibility of triggering several samples in a single hit and the looping of phrases of accompanying tracks with total fidelity. We are talking about an instrument that uses state-of-the-art technology and that combines versatility, practicality, speed and precision. No messing around!
The “Percussion and Sampling Module” concept – unprecedented arrangement and sensitivity in the sampling pads – makes the SPD-SX a unique instrument in the world. In addition, there are inputs for external dual sensors/triggers, three multi-effects units, with two real-time control knobs and four buttons dedicated to the effects, Pad Dynamics indicators that report on the status of each pad, expanded USB functionality, backlit LCD screen, audio capture and assignment through the Multi-Pad Sampling and a 2 GB internal memory, allowing about 360 minutes of autonomous sampling. In this respect, SPD-SX comes with the SPD-SX Wave Manager program, which allows you to manage the sample library.
In this video you can see, at around 36:25, the drums that accompany James Blake. That’s Ben Assiter, using the combination of an SPD-SX and acoustic drums:
Very impressive, anything else?
Alternatives, as always. Bearing in mind that the SPD-SX costs 679 € and that most Roland models oscillate around the sensational SPD-SX Sampling Pad SE (which costs 100 €more), you have to look for other options in the market for tighter pockets. But good news, don’t worry: there are alternatives. Many, in fact.
The first device we find as soon as we lower the price is Clavia Nord Drum 3P, a percussion modeling synthesizer with six channels, integrated multipad and input for drum pad and a library with eight banks (including 50 programs, each).
In a similar range, between 400 and 600€, we find the Yamaha DTX-Multi 12 Drum Pad Bundle or by itself as the Yamaha DTX-Multi 12.
There are also very interesting alternatives between 100 and 300 €. There is, for example, the Alesis Samplepad Pro, the Roland SPD::ONE Wav, the Alesis Samplepad 4, the Alesis PercPad Percussion Pad for 89€ and one of the most popular options on the market, the Millenium MD-90 Mobile Drum.
We are talking about a device with 7 drum pads with dynamic sensitivity, 265 drum and percussion sounds, 45 drum kit presets, 5 user-programmable drum kits and 100 memorisable song presets. All this for only 98€. Check out a full demo in this video:
At the beginning we said that electronic percussion has gone from being the laughing stock of drums to a considerable tool when it comes to making music. On the one hand, there is the technological variable, the unquestionable advance that the technique has undergone in these decades and the fact that nowadays we find much more versatile and enriching drum pads. On the other, and perhaps more important, is the process of how musicians have been digesting the possibilities posed by electronic instruments and have contributed to their artistic discourse. James Blake’s is perhaps one of the most paradigmatic examples. A great student of popular and avant-garde music, as well as a musician almost from birth -he has played the piano since he was six years old-, he has shown that technique is nothing without a mind, without a human element, behind it. The degree of excellence he has achieved with his music is proof that technology will always be the means, never the end.
Hello, I dig the article but I find it slightly misleading.
James Blake doesn’t actually use the Roland drum pads or SPD units. He doesn’t use any drum pads for that matter.
He has stated that he does all his percussion work in the box with the drum sequencer/sampler plugin “GEIST”.
The drums pads are merely used as an expressive sample device for live performance.
It’s misleading to suggest that these devices account for the unique James Blake percussion sound because they are completely excluded from his production process. None of the stock sounds on these units will have anything inherently James Blake-esque about them.
He bounces the processed drum samples out of his sessions and his drummer triggers the sample on stage with the drum pads simply because he is a drummer and prefers the feel.