In the beginning there were drums, and for a while, drums were good. Then came technologies like sequencers, synths, and pads. Built to mimic the drums and long considered novelties, those devices and others like them piggybacked on advances in hardware and software to achieve a quality many in the music production business today consider “good enough” to replace not only physical drum kits, but the musicians who play them.
“I’m over here trying to play acoustic drums with triggers and trying to incorporate all these things and the result is just so limited,” said Tlacael Esparza, drummer and co-founder of the family-owned music tech company Sunhouse. “Nothing compared with what people can do with a laptop when they’re unencumbered by an actual instrument and using tools that were created for that environment.”
As a recent graduate of New York University’s music technology program – where he researched music information retrieval and machine learning – Esparza was uniquely qualified to address his problem.
That’s where Sensory Percussion comes in. The system is made of up to four clamp-style sensors, each with the ability to map 10 separate timbral zones onto a single drumhead. The user can then assign (through a simple drag-and-drop interface) samples or effects to each zone.
This alone wouldn’t be revolutionary, but Sensory Percussion stands out by giving drummers the ability to blend those sounds and effects smoothly and in real time, depending on where and how they strike their instrument. You can take reverb, for example, and assign its intensity to the distance from the center of the drum to the edge, or link pitch to how fast you’re playing.
Or as Esparza put it in a phone conversation earlier this month: “You can take all the different parameters of drumming and create these really expressive ways of interacting with sound that are tied to the musicality of your playing.”
The musicality of a talented artist’s efforts on an acoustic drum kit is what separates Sensory Percussion from the drum pads and sequencers others have been using for decades. Those tools, once programmed, make the same sounds each time you hit them. They take the information you as a drummer put into them and distill it into a sterile electronic noise.
In creating Sensory Percussion, Esparza set out to capture the infinitely more expressive qualities of the acoustic drum in a way that would translate a drummer’s skill into the world of electronic production.
“Drummers already know how to play the instrument,” he said. “When they hook up Sensory Percussion, suddenly they also know how to play electronic instruments, because it’s mapping directly to their skills on the drumset.”
This was important to Esparza, because he says musicians and especially drummers have lost much of their footing in the music production process. Today a producer can build a drum track on the computer and, if they really want to splurge, hire a drummer to recreate it in the studio later. Sensory Percussion is Sunhouse’s attempt to turn the tables, just a little.
But first, the company needed to raise money. In 2015, Esparza, his brother Tenoch (the other co-founder), and sister Tonantzin, put together a Kickstarter campaign. Esparza was nervous about asking people to pay for something that didn’t exist yet. Some who saw the video there doubted the product was real. That campaign netted the team their first round of press and, more importantly, more than $94,000 in funding. That – and a lot of hard work – was enough to make Sensory Percussion a reality.
“I never considered myself the kind of person who could do something like this,” Esparza said. “Sometimes it surprises me that it works at all.”
Watch the videos online though, and you’ll see that it does work. It works in polished promos. It works on showroom floors. It works in the cramped bedrooms and messy jam spaces in which excited customers shoot their own demos. Some huddle around a snare and kick drum, made to sound like a bigger, funkier kit through a single Sensory Percussion sensor. Others spread four sensors across their own massive kits, playing fully acoustic lines around electronic beats from their altered equipment.
You can join them, for a price. Sensory Percussion is sold in four tiered kits. A basic “Starter” kit containing one sensor will set you back $699. “Duo” and “Trio” kits run for $1,025 and $1,315. The four-sensor “Complete” kit costs $1,575. Each includes the necessary software.
Working musicians have been experimenting with the technology from the very beginning. Esparza counted drummers like Marcus Gilmore, Kendrick Scott, Greg Hutchinson, Chris Dave, Greg Fox, Ian Chang, Kiran Ghandi, and Harvey Mason among Sensory Percussion’s stylistically diverse stable of early adopters.
Now he can’t wait for people to hear what they’ve been working on.
“We designed it very open and very broad, so it very much inherits the personality of the drummer,” Esparza said. “The most exciting part to me is to see them making music.”
The personality shines through in that music because it’s expressed through the sweat and skill it takes to play drums well. It’s not a feeling you can capture by lining up lights or pecking at a computer keyboard.
“This allows you to explore and very natively use electronics as a drummer,” Esparza said. “The goal in the end is to give the keys back to the musicians.”
Find Sunhouse online at sunhou.se.
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