Between Zero & One from ApK on Vimeo.

What does it mean to be human in a world of drum machines?

Not just whether drum machines have soul – how do you define your soul?

Drummer Jojo Mayer doesn’t shy away from the deep issues around digitality in the brief film meditation that is Between Zero & One. He reflects on the states of being that the computer and machine represent, and then he does what any great drummer would do. He doesn’t get mad. He gets even. He refines drum technique to play what a drum machine can’t, framed all the while by gorgeous, blinking images of robotics and binary states of light and electricity.

I’m not even sure what yet to make of the film, other than I love listening to Nerve’s Jojo Mayer speak and watching the gorgeous imagery of the short (director Travis Satten, cinematographer Adam Donald, and composer Jay Wadley making a beautiful experience).

But I know this: it makes me want to get programming drum patterns, just as it may make drummers to itch for their sticks.

And with drummers increasingly finding ways of being both more human and more machine – augmenting their playing in such ways that the technology demands even greater shows of fleshy drumming skill – it’s the perfect time to launch this conversation around digital drumming on CDM. I’d love to know what you think.

Jojo at the Regency Ballroom, via Facebook.

Thank you, Marco Tempest – now at the MIT Media Lab.

  • Chris Faux

    I hate this guy,
    What are you talking about?

    Zero and One?
    This is used for note ON and note OFF.

    You do the same thing when you play acoustic drums:
    ON = when you hit the drum
    OFF = when you don’t hit anything

    Have you ever heard a beat played through Ableton Live or something similar?
    There’s no limit about putting steps across the time.

    Have you ever heard about Control Voltage, Lfo, Envelopes?
    Now you can do pretty anything with Computers!

    The only limit that you have (for now) is the MIDI protocol that has “only” 128 steps for velocity, but anyway you can assign any parameters to hundreds of steps to emulates acoustic feelings, but usually nobody do that cause is pretty useless,
    Human ear can only feel a maximum of 12 Intensity and Tone variations,
    Anyway you can also change the position of each step.

    Nobody wants a real drummer for some type of music.

    Please try to replicate the awesome static sound of sequencer, or try to play a beat at more than 180 bpm for an entirely show, you can’t, cause drummers get tired after 10 minutes!

    Maybe you are talking about old Drum Machines from eighties, but whatever….

    Modern Drum Machines, Sequencers, DAW’s, Technology, Digital and even Future Wins against you!

    At last, I think Virtuoso playing is really bad for music, it is more like doing Sports. And music is an art, it is NOT a football match.

    Sorry for my anger and my bad english but I REALLY Love Electronic Music!

    • Peter Kirn

      I love electronic music, and I still enjoy this video.

      I agree he’s not quite summing up what it means to be digital. But I think it’s an interesting challenge to the humanity of music – including, yes, us humans programming the machines.

    • Chris Faux

      yeah I agree, after all I liked the video, in fact I would spend hours talking about these topics.

      I think we are at the beginning of the drum programming yet.
      Maybe one day we will leave the midi protocol for something much more accurate and closer to the human way of playing instruments.

    • Observer-A

      You just got me thinking about the possibility of a brain-to-DAW interface…

      It is probably closer to reality than I even realize.

    • Observer-A

      I think this is less about competing with technology and more about learning to work with it to elevate his art. I agree that live drums are not always appropriate but it is amazing to see how people like Jojo, KJ Sawka and Michael Schack are embracing the tech.

    • Ezmyrelda

      Thank you for name dropping Michael Schack. I am familiar with KJ.. I’ve met him multiple times and had the privilege of experiencing his drumming from less than 5 feet away for all of them.. This was my first time hearing Jojo, and now I have another badass funk soul drummer to look up..

    • Sequadion

      I agree that the usual rhetoric about computers only being able to deal with zeroes and ones gets old really fast. It’s a lazy and misleading argument against digital technology.
      However, I feel that this video does not try to mock digital technology, even if the first part starts off on a bad note. The drummer is clearly very talented and has a weird obsession with drum machines. What’s not to like? :)

    • Peter Kirn

      Yeah, exactly – I think this was more to do with how he thinks of himself as a human, and that I found moving.

    • Ezmyrelda

      I think that imperfect fluency in english has colored your interpretation of what he was trying to convey.. I don’t know if english is your first language but it doesn’t seem to be his.. Thus he wasn’t perfectly eloquent in stating his views.. But possibly you missed something in nuance as well.. I think simply put.. Humans exist along various spectrums.. We are never black or white in any characteristic.. However.. Computers (currently) only have off/on states and many of these on/off points are required to create a simulacrum of a spectrum.. Humans may not be able to sense the specifics of intensity or tone but we are very good at feeling nuance and vibe.. I feel like you deliberately miss the soul of his virtuoso technical ability.. It was technically proficient to be sure but I felt an amazing level of soul and funk coming out of his solo.

      I also feel that you possibly miss the talents of people like KJ Sawka.. I have on multiple occasions watched him drum DnB speed intricate breaks for far longer than 10 minutes at a time.

      Art isn’t a competition despite the interesting comparisons we might make in videos like this..

      At the end of the day when it comes to music the only thing that matters is pure creative ability.. Accordingly.. Many people.. Most people I would even go so far to say.. can program a decent house beat.. A smaller amount of people can program a moving and evolving breakbeat.. But people like Richard D. James and Squarepusher will always be in a microscopically small community.. No matter how far technology has advanced.

    • Musician

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. First of all, Jojo Mayer doesn’t hate electronic music. Secondly, you totally missed the point of the video and what it is to be an actual musician on stage reacting to your musical surroundings, i.e. improvising. When he talks about about ones and zeros he’s talking about binary code. And the point being that with a computer everything is reduced to choices, yes or no, at an infinitesimal level. As a musician, there comes a point when you loose that level of conscious decision making. There is no on or off, or yes and no anymore, it becomes about a subconscious reaction. Using the language of the drums and of music to create a dialogue between the instruments.
      There are many more ‘limits’ to computers than just 128 steps or velocity (and, yes, I understood your sarcasm). Do you understand the concept of improvisation? I think if you did then you wouldn’t be expressing such an uninformed opinion. I’ve seen that you replied to another post talking about ‘programming drums’ – if it’s programmed, then it ceases to be an improvisation. Which is what Jojo is talking about in the video.

    • Fyrd Instruments

      The problem does not come from the 0 and 1 in computer but rather from the 0 and 1 in nature: do we live in a discrete or continuous environment? If you think we live in a discrete world, then a computer (big enough) can reproduce perfectly any phenomenon (even music, drums or whatever). If you think we live in a continuous world well… then a computer (big enough) can also reproduce ‘almost’ perfectly any phenomenon (the question becomes how much accuracy is enough?). Taking the problem this way (imitation) lead to a very poor understanding of the way “computer” and art interact.

      From my point of view, there are better/other ways to consider the problem:

      The ability for a computer to re-create a pattern is (at least almost) perfect. But what about the facility for anybody to create such patterns using computers? Think of how much complexity a computer can handle and how poor are the interfaces to communicate with it. The problem is not “what can do a computer” but rather “what can we do with a computer”.

      More: the interface is a way to reduce the possibilties of actions to achieve them faster/better. The interface is a choice. A choice of what subset of words will be used to communicate with a computer. This choice can’t be done by a computer: how can it perceives the relevance of an interface for a particular purpose (the musical relevance of the grid of buttons for instance)? I think that is what Jojo Mayer was trying to tell us: when he choose this particular drum set or when he choose the musical style he’s gonna play, he is between 0 and 1. Between is not the best word to describe it, maybe beyond or below would have done a better job…

      I fully understand how frustrating it could be for an electronic musician to hear all day long that electronic music feels cold and non-human, too repetitive, too “perfect”, without a soul… And I hear you when you say: “hey! I can do nuances! I can play 128 different (actually 127, since 0 velocity means note off) nuances of loudness! Ask any non electronic musician to do that!”. But, at the end of the day, I think we shouldn’t try (as electronic musician) to compete with other (“classical” ?) musicians about how subtlety we can play music. We have too much structures and patterns to explore, to much sounds to find, to much interfaces to create!

    • Peter Kirn

      Nicely said.

    • Jojo’s son

      Sorry but what a load of bull!

  • Guillaume Lectez

    I need pad

  • Foosnark

    I was just reading this article this morning:

    While I’m not fond of automatic “humanization”, this did have me contemplating the way I record drum parts. I work in a pattern-based way, even if I’m playing them myself. The wider scope of variation in timing isn’t there. Granted, the track evolves or switches gears over time anyway and this might not matter… or it might and I’ve been missing it all this time. Food for thought anyway.

    The “drum machines have no soul” thing is an old meme, and while it’s true in the context of trying to replace a human drummer with a lazily programmed drum machine that doesn’t groove at all, it does not necessarily apply to all forms of electronic music.

    Sometimes “human” is overrated, I think. Sometimes perfectly on the grid is part of the aesthetic you want. Sometimes, going off the grid in an “unnatural” way, or automating tempo to generate a non-human sort of groove, can be musically rewarding.

  • Frank

    Uhm, so wtf is his point ? So he can play like a drum machine, wow big deal.This video contains a lot of hollow and pretentious blahblah that tries to come across as something meaningful when there is just no actual point this guy is making.

  • Aaron

    There are cracks in both arguments, but what it really comes down to is an appreciation for both arts. The opening statement in this clip was unfortunate, but the rest of the material is spot on. The title is also unfortunate as it comes off just as reductive and dismissive as “Drum machines have no soul”, or “F*ck Drum Machines” bumper stickers. Though, if you listen to Jojo talk, thats not what he is getting after. He’s not a hater. This is less anti-drum machine snobbery and more future-looking thought about drumming from drummers for drummers who listen and hear techniques in programmed music that should and can be approached by drummers but often isnt.

    There are alot of great drummers who embrace drum machines and techniques that’ve spawned from it. The most obvious succesful/impressive examples that’ve been around for awhile would be those such as David King (The Bad Plus), John Herndon & John McEntire (Tortoise), Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin, and Wood), etc. the list would be really really long .. and lets not forget the human drum machine himself that inspires a good amount of these people – Jaki Liebezeit (if you havent heard the work he’s done with Burnt Friedman over the past 10 years, get on it).

    In the end, with a clear head.. both the drummer and the addicted drum programmer would both agree to an excessive appreciation and love of rhythms of all types and origins.

  • Postman

    I wonder whether one can really say that real-life drumming is more natural or human compared to cutting up drum loops or programming drum machines. Both drums and computers are tools that humans use to make music, based on human decisions. Humans can reach this trance-like flow he describes with many tools and through many means.

    I guess this makes some sense if one equates humanness with improvisation. The response/feedback of a physical object to the human hand is arguably more immediate and nuanced than that of any kind of computer input and may therefore offer more possibilities for improvisation. But then even the standard drum kit falls short of this ideal because people mostly beat it with sticks :)

  • Jesse Engel

    The emphasis on binary misses the point of what he’s saying. You have to look at it more in the context of where technology is headed (machine learning / artificial intelligence / ‘expressive’ statistical algorithms)

    When it comes to art (expression that can reflect and alter the zeitgeist), I think digital culture is always a compromise. If we surrender the thing that separates us from machines, we will be replaced by machines. And the more advanced the machines will be, the more human we will have to become.

    It’s a very forward looking perspective. He appreciates the avenues for new expression that digital media have provided: That humans were faced with limitations of their tools (playing the drums) and found new expression in digital forms (drum machines) that used physical instruments as their jumping off point. But now that drum machines have become the norm, and the ways of programming them have become very codified in general, he’s reflecting back on how he can create new expression by using physical drums in a way they weren’t previously used (before drum machines) inspired by drum machines.

    The point is, in each cycle, their is still this ambiguous entity called human expression underneath. It’s hard to capture the unique and messy aspects of human playing with deterministic algorithms, but there is and will be a rapid increase in the ability to do so with ‘smart’ statistical algorithms.

    His perspective is the importance of keeping the human in the loop for art: That art is fundamentally about humans communicating with eachother, reflecting back to eachother what it IS to be human, and perhaps move towards what it COULD BE to be human.

    Music is powerful and can shape the way we view ourselves and eachother in our place and time. In each cycle of stretching the boundaries of expression and technology, people were trying to use the tools available to them to break out of the box of yesterday, and find ways to create new expression of what it means to be alive today.

    Regardless of whether music comes from a physical drum or an electronic one, it can do this, or fail to do it. The challenge that he alludes to is as automated expression becomes easier and easier, it will be ever more important to use it as a mean for HUMAN expression, and promote a zeitgeist of human communication and connection, rather than the dehumanizing zeitgeist that values the medium more than what is communicated through it.

  • shoutcacophony

    Once I got past the zero/one framing, I started to think about what he’s saying as being more like a basic waveform. Map the positive/negative poles of the wave to programming and performance respectively, with the “between” being infinite variations. It maps performance as a dialogue with technology, with the transversing through the wave as conversation and improvisation, instead of good/bad. A contrasting example to what he did in the video:

  • molotovbliss

    I’m not sure if Jojo realizes Jazz was a huge influence on breakbeat/jungle drumming. I can definitely appreciate his talent in the same breath, however. Personally I think the two worlds of Analog/Digital will always have their differences. In the end they are both tools to create a sound that moves us in some way. I much prefer seeing a live drummer at EDM events than some static 4/4 exactly timed beat. The sheer entropy of an analog drummer breaths a bit of life into the cold and abstract digital realm. Making you feel more in touch with the digital elements. There are a number of drummers who realize this, Adam Deitch for one in Breakbeat Science and Pretty Lights. More Live Drummers at Festivals please! :)

    As far as the absolutes he speaks of for 0 and 1, everything is in space and time. Embrace the toolsets available. It reminds me in the Tattoo industry how the old school guys saw no point to using Photoshop to help aid them in visualizing and execution of their crafted Art. Mike Devries realized this and even released a line of videos to help kick the old notations and habits aside and focus on whats important. The Art.

    “Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”.

    With that said, I’ll leave this here:

  • alpha omaga

    A machine is a Immulation by human design… the human soul evolves machines only mirror what has been designed.

  • Roger Dat

    Suppose you ‘program’ 16, or more different measures of fills within a piece of music. Then you ‘program’ the fills to randomize at the changes between the verses, bridges and choruses. It’s still predictable ‘programming’. A computer cannot accent a solo section spontaneously. Nor can a computer FEEL the nuances in a crèchendo. You electronic musicians and audiophiles are contributing to the demise of human musical creativity. Lastly, if you can’t whistle it, it ain’t a song.

    • Derp

      Ah, yes, whistling, the one and only defining aspect of music. Also, how do you whistle chords, idiot?

    • Roger Dat

      One note at a time professor. Ever heard of this thing called a melody? How about harmony, heard of that? Can’t have chords without the notes 1st, or didn’t they teach you that in your masters degree program?

  • sawbuck

    drum machines are great for what they can do. i use them to write, record appropriate tracks, augment live drums, etc. what they will never be able to do is improvise, jam, interact with live musicians in a meaningful way, change stuff on the fly, or respond to a look, hand signal, etc. i can’t imagine a drum machine replacing mitch mitchell with jimi hendrix, tony williams with miles davis, or keith moon with the who. besides, where would the band put its logo??