One of the digital tools I threw in the mix of my new record is SSD4, the drum sampler made by Slate Digital. It was the first time I used something other than an electronic drum machine to program drums. The closest I’d come to fake “real” drums was the time we sampled a drum fill I played on a true kit for the Folk Implosion song Chained to the Moon. Our engineer loaded the simple fill into his sampling keyboard – we were recording on tape – and then I stood at the keyboard and pressed one key to trigger during each chorus. It was kind of comical at the time to be standing there and press one finger on one key like a robot. But it seemed to fit the nature of that particular fill, which hit each drum or cymbal once in a four beat sequence like a sample of a simple fill from a Tom Petty song. I thought of that song as the most realized version of a formula I alluded to when I put a collage of Thurston Moore and Tom Petty on the back label of my 7″ EP R.I.P., D.I.Y., which came out on Shrimper in 1993.
I used the SSD4 sampler three times for this current project, twice on the same song, and was very happy with the results. I also used it for the two Kickstarter singles I did to support the project. I used the jazz sticks kit every time. There are a lot of kits on there, but most of them sound too mersh to me, except for the recreation of vintage Led Zeppelin kits, which simply sound so much like those classic records that I would feel embarrassed to use them. I wouldn’t want to use the SSD4 or any other virtual instrument to program something with steady eighth notes on a hi hat or ride cymbal. For that, I’d rather have either a “real” drummer or a drum machine, like the Roland one I used for the part that comes in at the start of Chained to the Moon. But the SSD4 fit parts I wrote for it that were more diffuse. One was heavy on the toms, another was an accent layered over that loop with cymbal crashes and a rim shot I ran through UAD replica of the RE-201 Space Echo.
I particularly appreciate how the drums are panned in the stereo field. You can adjust all that in the built in mixer, but there’s something about the way that kit is balanced from left to right that I adore as it is. We can’t keep that configuration on one of the parts because we’re going to keep each of the individual drums on different tracks to run them through outboard hardware effects, but I will be referencing the original one track loop to check that the flavor of what I liked about the original balance is there. When I hear the tracks all panned to the center they just don’t have the same magic that they do when they’re all playing within the virtual instrument at the same time.
The SSD4 helped me keep this project on budget because recording drums was the most expensive part of the process. Being able to do a few songs without going to that expense helped leave more room in the budget to hire musicians to play other instruments in places. In that way I didn’t see using it as a choice of virtual over real. My basic philosophy of using digital tools, especially when you are looping the parts you create with them, is to blend them with live playing to the point that their repetitive nature ceases to become a problem. Trying to track that lack of flexibility is like trying to tail someone in a crowded subway station – you lose track of them. The swirl of the crowd takes over.
Using Slate tools to keep an indie project affordable might seem a bit odd. The company projects a very mersh image. They tout their products being used to create hit records for the likes of Taylor Swift. All of the music used in their demos are super slick and air-brushed sounding. Their HQ is located on Laurel Canyon, which fits a very West LA vibe. CEO Steve Slate waves this vibe back and forth like a Super Bowl champion running a victory lap high fiving fans who hang over the railing as his company ascends to the height of the plug-in heap among today’s in-the-box gear connoisseurs, who seem to view Slate and UAD as in a class by themselves when it comes to bringing the idiosyncrasies of analog gear into the Digital Audio Workstation Age.
Unlike UAD, Mr. Slate takes great pains to project himself as the public image of his company. I’ve become kind of obsessed with his image as an oddity in itself. I’ve come to see him as one of the most sincere and devoted figures in music today, despite the fact that everything about him seems so artificially tuned to the look and manner of post American Idol pop culture that he comes off at times as a Computer Generated Image in motion. (An impression that Slate himself references in this self-mocking video.) He has perfected the art of keeping a constant stubble on his face that somehow seems to always be the same length, a la Ryan Seacrest or West LA hearthrob Adam Levine, possibly the worst musician in the world in my opinion, one to whom Slate bears a striking physical resemblance. He butts into online audio forum discussions threads to chat up his products and refer to himself as “CEO” with an almost embarrassing frequency. It’s as if he can’t stand to let any criticism of his products go unanswered by himself, personally, anywhere within the online universe. This has drawn a fair amount of backlash and criticism on websites like Gearslutz, where people make fun of him with an almost embarrassing frequency. A recent article about him in Forbes magazine wrote that “because of the style and gusto with which he stumps on behalf of his products, there is perhaps no more polarizing figure in pro-audio than Steven Slate…(that’s why he says) “”When people love Slate, they love me, when they hate Slate, they hate me.””
What fascinates me about Slate as a public figure is that he shows no sign of adjusting his public persona to protect himself from this ridicule. Instead, he plows right ahead with the stubborn persistence of a true salesman. If anything, he seems to show up more often on threads where he’s being torched, trying to make his case for his products with a sincerity in the face of mockery that seems to be able to take as many blows as it takes to make a sale. Perhaps there should be a Broadway play staged about him entitled Life of an American Salesman.
As a result, I can only conclude that this seemingly plastic WWE style persona is not calculated in the slightest bit. It’s who this guy is. He can’t help it. His staying power strikes me as a symbol of this brain dead phase of American pop McCulture that seems to have no end in sight. It marches on like the post 9/11 wars alluded to by the body tag Slate wears around his neck. Like digital plug ins and the body of the man who makes them better than all comers, the wars seem exempt from the eternal laws of decay.