Saturday, July 18, 2009

Drums and Traps

Today we will take a break from the music columns. Instead, we have a reasonably long article by H. F. Hoffman on the role of drumming in the picture house. Though a drummer himself, Hoffman is somewhat ambivalent about how the art is being practiced in movie theaters. (This ambivalence would come out even more forcefully in the illustrations he drew to accompany Louis Reeves Harrison's "Jackass Music".)

Hoffman understands the role of drumming in general and sound effects in particular as serving the needs of the story. This has an important ramification: sound effects, he thinks, should be chosen to illustrate the main point of the story rather than on the basis of the fidelity to the image. This will become the classical paradigm that determines the practice even in sound film: clarity of the storytelling trumps fidelity to the scene depicted. In particular, Hoffman makes this statement:

It is almost funny to observe the diligence with which some prop-workers watch a horse when he comes into the picture. Every step is caught with a keenness that soon attracts the attention of the audience to the horse’s feet and way from the actors. The lover may be pleading with the Squire’s daughter to elope with him, during which the horse is grazing in the background, but nevertheless every step that horse takes must be faithfully recorded by the loud pop of a cocoanut shell, without regard whether the horse be walking on ground, gravel or granite.
Although the criticism ends with a charge of infidelity (the indifference to the surface on which the horse is walking), the main thrust of the Hoffman's remarks in this passage has to do with the way synchronizing the hoof sound draws attention to the horse, which is incidental to the story, and away from the discussion between the lovers, which should be central. In that respect, Hoffman is pointing out that, all things being equal, the appearance of synchronization has the effect of marking whatever is synchronized for foreground attention. This will prove to be an important principle for musical accompaniment as well.
"Drums and Traps"

I’m going to take a fall out of the man behind the drum to-day. Some weeks ago I took a fall out of the operators and they have never forgiven me. I do not despise the operator, because I have been one myself and know the ups and downs of it. Neither do I despise the trap drummer, because I am one myself. It was the drums that gave me my start in the amusement world, and it is to them, directly or indirectly, that I owe many fond memories and some knowledge of the world, both at home and beyond the seas. There is nothing I love better than to sit in a big band and go through a heavy overture, but I always seemed to be able to make more money doing something else.

The advent of the moving picture theater brought the services of tympanists into very sudden demand. The demand was greater than the supply, and consequently, to full up the gaps, many raw recruits were pressed into service. Most of them served their purpose by making a noise of some kind, and it is barely possible that among the lot there may be a certain percentage who will in time become first class performers. Therefore, in case this article is scanned by the old-time drummer, whatever I may have to say of an instructive nature is put down for the benefit of this new crop of tympanists and not to demonstrate any superior wisdom to the oldsters, although some of these, too, have their faults which may be mentioned therein.

There are two general classes of drumming; the regimental, or military, and the professional, or band and orchestra. For the purposes of this article we may as well dismiss the regimental in a few words. While it is the lower of the two classes of drumming, it is the best training school for future professionals that I know of, so far as technical skill is concerned. It does not make a musician of a man, but it teaches him how to handle his sticks. It teaches him the various beats and rolls, from the five to the eleven stroke, and other tricks that a man who considers himself a full-fledge should know, but at the same time a regimental course is not absolutely necessary. The close roll is the easiest to master and if you get that down fine you have your start for indoor work.

In drumming, as in every craft, there is a right and wrong way. It varies from the laborious thump to the skillful and sympathetic touch of the artist; the difference between the employment of mere muscle and brains. The drummer who executes well but does not know his notes is almost sure to be a thumper, or “athletic drummer,” as the wise ones say. The kind who imagines that the audience came to hear him and him only. His object is to drown the piano player and prove his worth by the amount of noise he can make and he always succeeds. Later, when he learns his notes, his noisy fault is apt to abide with him, and that is why we have so many irritating men behind the drums at moving picture houses. This is particularly true when he comes to playing the bells. On more than one occasion, in some of the biggest and best houses, I have listened to the most ear-splitting hammering on bells, ranking second in noise only to the circus calliope.

All this noise is unnecessary. The drummer must learn that he is only a subordinate item and should keep his proper place. The singer who yells his lungs out and the cornet player who blows his head off are much scarcer than the drummer who drowns out the pianist. The skillful man with the delicate touch can put life into a show that the other man would kill. The real drummer knows that a drum tap carries very far and he does not overdo it. If you watch him you will notice that his elbows never move; he can play for hours with nothing but the motion of his wrists, and his clean, even roll is like the patter of raindrops on a tin roof. He also knows the value of accent and is always playing with light and shade; short crescendos are his stock in trade and occasionally he gives his bass drum a moment’s rest instead of pounding straight through like a machine from start to finish.

When the finished player handles his bells he gets the sweetness out of them by his lightness of touch, and if he can keep the sound down to the tinkle of a music box the effect with the piano is very pretty. In like manner he handles his triangle, clogs, castanet, tambourine and all minor accessories, which are very musical if they are kept down below the battering point.

Sound effects come in for some of the most stupid handling of all, both by professionals and novices. The most abused of any is the horse-hoof imitation. It is almost funny to observe the diligence with which some prop-workers watch a horse when he comes into the picture. Every step is caught with a keenness that soon attracts the attention of the audience to the horse’s feet and way from the actors. The lover may be pleading with the Squire’s daughter to elope with him, during which the horse is grazing in the background, but nevertheless every step that horse takes must be faithfully recorded by the loud pop of a cocoanut shell, without regard whether the horse be walking on ground, gravel or granite.

[185] Without judgment in the use of sound effects they are worse than none at all. Where a sound will have a direct bearing and effect upon something that is happening in a picture, such as the ringing of a door bell, the shot of a gun, wind in a storm, etc., then by all means come in with it strong, but on the other hand, when you see a calf in the background of a pretty farm scene don’t detract from the acting by jangling a cow bell when it has no bearing on the picture. If your bass wants it, muffle it inside a box and you will get the right effect. The horse-hoof his all right for a run-away or exciting gallop, such as a fire apparatus in motion, but don’t overdo it. If you stop to think, a man walking on a pavement makes nearly as much noise as a horse and you do not think it necessary to imitate him at all.

I was lecturing once at a large theater that held a thousand people on the ground floor and it required some vocal effort on my part. Behind the screen they had a prop-worker who felt the importance of his position, very much to my discomfort. He never missed a horse’s step; every time a door closed he would rap on a box; the waiter’s tip always jingled on the table; the chickens out-cackled me; the cows “mooed” me into silence, and I was lost in the ocean’s roar. I said nothing to him because he was peevish and very jealous of his play-things. One evening we had the interior scene of a peasant’s cottage, and a painful parting between two lovers was taking place. All at once a bird began to sing with great violence. I looked at the piano player in wonderment and found him looking the same at me. “What’s that for,” he asked. “You’ve got me,” I replied, “I’ll go and see.” I found my friend with his cheeks and his eyes bulging out, blowing for his very life. “What’s the trouble?” says I. “The bird! The bird!” says he, without removing the whistle. “Where?” says I. “There!” says he, pointing triumphantly with a stick to a diminutive canary in a tiny wooden cage on a top shelf at the far corner of the room. “Good boy!” I cried, giving him a wallop on the back that made him almost swallow his blooming whistle.

If you err in sound effects it is better to err on the side of silence. Do not pay so much attention to trivial things just because they happen to be in the picture. Get in with the sound that ought to be there and play good drums for the rest. Furthermore, I notice that while many drummers imitate objects and animals very commendably, they seldom think of imitating a man. Whether they are afraid of the sound of their own voices or not, I cannot say, but there are many cases where a shout, a laugh, a command or a sneeze could be put in with the voice that are not taken advantage of at all.

In every craft the workman should have the best of tools and take the best care of them, but it seems to be the fate of drums, especially bass drums, to be at upon, rained upon, worked upon, generally abused and left to shift for themselves. Some of the drums I have been listening to at picture houses could be replaced by butter tubs and the audience would never know the difference. You may have noticed that musicians on all other instruments take special care of them and are ofttimes inclined to brag a little about the rarity of their particular one, which means that they have tried a good many before they were entirely satisfied that they had selected the best one that could be had. This is particularly true of violinist who guard their violins with jealous care and seldom trust them to other hands than their own for any reason whatever. Drummers are not usually so particular in this respect but the fact remains nonetheless, that the best results cannot be obtained with poor drums. It is not so much a matter of cost as in the constant trying out of different ones until the rare one is found. There is not one drum in twenty that is worth owning.

Bass drums in particular almost always escape proper selection, being often ordered by mail to be of a certain height and depth in inches, instead of being personally tested for the deep toned vibration which carries that resonant musical boom to the farthest corners of the auditorium, no matter how lightly tapped. Needless to say, that the bigger the bass drum the better.

There is a wide different of opinion as to the relative merits of single and double headed drums, among professionals, but in the last analysis I believe that it all depends upon the many who uses them. The two headed drum has a softer and more musical quality and is much the easier to play upon. The single headed drum is harsh and you have to change your style to get anything out of them. There is very little bounce to them and therefore to get a rebound it is necessary to strike hard, and in striking hard to much noise is made, so it really require muscular control and more skill to get music out of them than from the two headed kind, but they are fairly satisfactory when one gets used to them. The single headed bass drum is an atrocious failure. In the single headed tenor drum the vibration is small, but in the bass drum it is practically nil. One may as well have a barrel hoop with a skin stretched across, for al the sound you will get from either will be a dull, sickening thud.

By his cymbal you will know the drummer. After going the rounds and hearing the miserable chinkety-chink of the $1.50 brass cymbal it is a pleasure to come across a man who uses the real Turkish. The Turkish cymbal quivers and shivers for a full minute after being struck. It sings like a human voice and its song carries with a musical sweetness to the farthest corner. One of these coupled to a deep, full toned bass drum means a quality of tone that cannot be surpassed. One 12-inch Turkish cymbal will cost you in the neighborhood of $10, but you have my word for it that once you buy one you will cast away your brass or German silver, and love the song of the Turkish.

Pedals. There are many varieties, the principal fault of the majority being lost action. Nearly all of the knuckle joint pedals have this fault. One of the most reliable pedals is the old-time top rigging. There is no lost action to it and it answers the lightest touch of the toe with the most delicate response. On account of its bulk it is not used as much as formerly, but many old-timers still cling to it. A drummer must know his pedal as a mother does her child. There are no two in the world alike and it is difficult to get used to another man’s apparatus. The principal sin in the use of the pedal is that of smothering the drum and cymbal. As with the piano key, the reaction should be instantaneous so as to give them a chance to vibrate. The moment your beater strikes the drum and cymbal get it out of the way and let them sing, otherwise you get the same old chink-chink-chink that is the sure sign of a careless drummer.

Source: H. F. Hoffman, “Drums and Traps,” Moving Picture World 23 July 1910, 184-85.

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