One of Europe’s leading drum and bass drummers, Michael Schack is at the forefront of the use of electronic drums. His main job is drumming with Netsky Live, the band fronted by Belgian DJ Boris Daenen, but for many years he’s been helping Roland develop its electronic drums. Last year, readers of DigitalDrummer Magazine voted him E-Drummer of the Year. When Michael came to Brighton to give a masterclass at GAK, BN1’s Gary Marlowe caught up with him to find out more about electronic drums and more about the man himself.
Whilst we see many drummers using an electronic pad, it’s still rare to see any play a fully electronic kit. Why do you think that is?
Michael: You’re right, the Roland SPD-SX sampling pad — which does everything from loops to triggering backing vocals — is something you see as part of many acoustic kits. And whilst you may not see that many full electronic drum kits on stage, lots of mainstream acts use them, but you don’t always see them. Take Metallica, their kick sound is actually a triggered sample. Lars Ulrich uses an acoustic kit because he believes it looks better for rock music.
So it’s down to the appearance?
Michael: I think that still plays a big part. A lot of drummers think it looks cooler to be behind a big kit. But we’ve played huge rock festivals like Germany’s Rock am Ring, which we did last month, with electronic drums. Even bands like Muse now use a hybrid kit.
Presumably technology is having a big effect?
Michael: Yes it is. Advances in technology have resolved the biggest issue with electronic drums — that the processing wasn’t fast enough to play high tempo music. Also with the increasing popularity of electronic music and EDM, the drum sound can only be created by electronic drums where the key of the bass drum can be changed — it’s very common now to have the kick drum in the key of the song. Both allow artists to take advantage of all the things electronic drums can offer. So more and more drummers are incorporating electronic drums within their set up. It’s the same story that happened with guitars. Guitar players have been combining acoustic and electric guitars for years.
How old were you when you started playing?
Michael: When I was seven my parents bought me a snare drum. As soon as I had that I added other things from around the house like washing powder boxes to make a kit. However, it wasn’t until I was eleven that I got behind a proper drum kit for the first time.
Was it always your dream to become a drummer?
Michael: Not for a long time. In fact, not until I went to university. Back then I was planning to work in finance and had no ambition of becoming a professional drummer. I got my degree in economics, but whilst studying I hooked up with a band and when we started to have some success in Belgium I had to choose between a tour bus or an office. For three months I was an apprentice at a bank and that’s the only office job I’ve ever done!
How did you go from playing drums, to touring the world with Netsky?
Michael: Actually, I was touring the world as a Roland drum demonstrator well before Netsky. That started in 1992, twenty-three years ago! In 2001, Roland asked me to start doing drum festivals and tours around dealers. These were mainly in Asia. That’s how I built up my name and ironically it’s also how Netsky found me, even though Boris and I lived just 2 km from each other in Antwerp!
What does being a Roland ambassador involve?
Michael: I’m what they call a consulting artist. When Roland first started designing electronic drums, they contained sounds made for their two biggest markets: Japan and the US, But by the beginning of the 2000s, Roland realised they needed to make their drums appeal to a worldwide audience and that’s when they found me and a couple of other drummers and we helped them develop new pre-set sounds. Then I started assisting Roland in making their sampling pad more professional. The result was the TD-20X percussion sound module which came out in 2009. Today, as well as myself, Roland have different consultants who specialise in different genres of music.
You’ve described yourself as being “sound-freaky” what does that mean?
Michael: Even for this event today, I spend a lot of time soundchecking so that it sounds as good as possible. I’ve even brought my own sound system with me! Remember, with electronic drums what you hear are just sounds triggered from pads. But they need to come through speakers, so the PA system is a more determining factor in electronic drums, in the same way it is for electronic guitars.
When you’re playing live, how much of the drum sound we hear is your live playing and how much is recorded?
Michael: Everything. Well, everything except the effects. In drum and bass you have a lot of effects going on, but all the kicks, snares, toms, cymbals and hi-hat is played live. But we do use all the sounds from the album. The toms and the cymbals are coming out of the V-Drum, the kicks and the snares are layered to specific sounds made on the album and I trigger them live from the sampling pad. The only sounds that are on the computer are some of the effects and the bass which is programmed. We’re not just recreating the music from the record, it’s much more powerful live.
Last weekend you were in London playing in front of thousands at Wireless, today your audience is less than fifty. What’s more daunting?
Michael: Wireless was a really stressy gig as we were playing two new songs for the very first time, one of which was sung live by Emeli Sande, something no one knew about! These events have a much smaller audience and it’s my responsibility to show them what you can do with a Roland kit. Both are daunting in their own way. But that also triggers the adrenaline you need. I love playing live on stage, for me, it’s an adrenaline addiction!
Netsky has played in Brighton a couple of times, have you had any time to look around?
Michael: We’ve played Brighton three times. To me it’s one of the most beautiful coastal cities in the world. It has its own architecture and lots of good restaurants. Brighton reminds a little of De Haan on the Belgian coast which has a similar vibe.
Who are you drum heroes? The drummers that influenced your playing style?
Michael: Many. One of my early influences was Billy Cobham. Another was Dennis Chambers who played with Parliament/Funkadelic. But perhaps my biggest influence however was Stuart Copeland of the Police, one of my absolute heroes. I was a fan of the Police when they were doing punk music. For me, he was the ultimate punk drummer and he had a reggae groove.
Which contemporary drummers do you admire the most?
Michael: The fact is there are so many good drummers around today, but if I had to pick one it would be Dave Grohl, he’s an amazing drummer. Absolutely amazing. Taylor Hawkins is also a very good drummer, but Dave is spectacular.
Looking ahead, what can we expect from electronic drummers in the future? What kind of advances do you envisage?
Michael: I think at some point the laptop and the drum module will become one and the same. I also use the laptop to trigger sounds and it won’t be long before the latency is totally gone. Latency is the time difference between hitting the pad and the sound coming out of the speakers. It’s the reason why Roland is the best, because they have the fastest processors.
When you’re away from the drums, what do you like to in your spare time?
Michael: I don’t really have any! When I do, I tend to visit a different city. Unlike some musicians about flights and travelling, I really love the travelling. When I’m at home I also enjoy cycling and I love fast cars, especially Porsche.
When can we expect to see you back in Brighton with Netsky?
Michael: It really depends on when the album is released. Our new single ‘Rio’ has only just come out, so we’ll have to wait for the reaction to that and whether it gets played on the radio. I believe the album is due for an October release. Until then I’ll be working with Roland doing more masterclasses around Europe. Inbetween, I have some festivals with Netsky Live and then we’ll be on tour. Hopefully, one of the dates will see us back in Brighton.
By Gary Marlowe
Follow Michael at @michaelschack
Follow Netsky at @netskymusic
Netsky’s new single ‘Rio’ is out now
Portrait by Images Out Of The Ordinary
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