Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Alternative Drummer Profile: Alain Levesque

Alain Levesque is a drummer, film composer, and founding member of the electro-prog band, Voice Industrie (who has been performing since 1989), as well as a Simmons drums fan and just all-around cool dude from Edmonton, Alberta Canada. 

I first started noticing Alain on videos about the Simmons SD2000, and SD1200 on the official Simmons Drums YouTube channel, as well as his own channel. Since I had been in contact with the good folks at Simmons for the past year or so, I asked them if they would mind hooking me and Alain up so I could learn more about him. 

What I got was a great written interview to be posted here on alternativedrummer.com, as well as an hour and a half of some great interviews over Zoom!

Did you have a hand in helping develop the SD2000? Yes indeed! There’s some of me in that kit. Shortly after the kit was released for sale, I had the honour of working closely with Dave (Simmons) to test and evaluate the kit for the purpose of exposing firmware bugs and OS issues and to get a feel for the controls and user experience all the while filming the SD2000 product videos. We put it through many rigorous hours of patch editing, function tweaking, sample loading and dumping, custom kit creating, MIDI testing… we left nothing untouched. The videos were produced and published soon thereafter, however we continued to test and suggest revisions be made to improve the kit’s functionality, controls, kits and overall playability. A few weeks and several firmware versions later, I was called on to evaluate and tweak the onboard factory patches to “dial them in” a bit. This included making changes to drums and samples that were used in some kits, slight adjustments to EQ, velocity curves, panning, drum and cymbal volumes, applying subtle velocity controlled pitch and volume envelopes, panning, etc. These were not major tweaks for the most part, but once applied we believed the kit sounded and played better… there was more “realism” and randomness to how the drums sounded and behaved. The final firmware revision I had a hand in included the newly tweaked set of factory kits, a more stable OS capable of lower latency, improved cymbal decays, and hihat playability. To this day, it remains my favourite kit in the new line of Simmons kits… mostly because of the look I think.. lol. I’m a long-time fan of the hex pad design, and I love how Dave integrated that unmistakable 80’s shape into the SD2000 pads, giving them slight curves. I thought this was a brilliant design, one that bridged the 80’s hex shapes with the modern round pad shapes. I absolutely love playing on any drum… electronic or acoustic… that looks and sounds different, and the SD2000 fit the bill nicely. :-) 

Why do you think it failed? Sales figures and market acceptability dictate what is deemed a success or failure… the harsh truth in today’s highly competitive ekit arena… whether a new kit is great or not and we as drummers like it or not. To be honest, I never envisioned the SD2000 failing, but rather the opposite. I truly believed this was a kit that modern electronic drummers and especially those fans of the 80’s Simmons kits would welcome and endorse. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be the case. Based on numerous comments, discussions with drummers and feedback gleaned from social media, it appears the unique look of the kit itself was enough to scare many away. Some arrived at their decision to snub it based on images seen in magazines and online ads, never actually seeing it up close or playing it. Some suggested the sounds “sucked” despite not actually having even heard them… true story! Some suggested that Simmons was desperate and attempted to revive their hexagonal shaped past with the design hoping to cash in -- this apparently a travesty serious enough to warrant keeping people away from it! Some stayed away fearing embarrassment if seen playing it, let alone on a stage. Of those that actually did sit behind the kit, some felt the drum sounds and sample sets were lacking realism; some felt the pad and cymbal feel and response wasn’t right; that the console operations were clunky, complex and difficult; that the pad tension-lugs heads were not seated deep enough in the rubber rim, and so on. Were opinions and comments such as these frequent and deemed valid enough to influence drummers to ultimately pass on the SD2000? Who knows… But, I imagine there continues to be negative chatter online pertaining to the SD2000… some claims perhaps more valid than others depending on what the individual’s needs for an ekit are. Personally, I find the kit and pads quite nice to play. I love the unique look. Like many other ekits both past and present, the SD2000 has a personality of its own and is at times temperamental… some things need to be done in a certain manner for it to behave. (Side note: the Simmons SDX comes to mind… it is a gumpy old beast that needs to be pampered and coddled, otherwise one is left having to deal with the equivalent of a 30+ year old child throwing a tantrum). It has limitations and is no way a “perfect” substitute for an acoustic kit, nor should it be. I always shudder when I hear drummers comment on an ekit that doesn’t play or sound like traditional drums. Nor should they. My belief is that ekits are their own breed, and while manufacturers strive to design and produce ekits that come closer and closer to sounding, looking and behaving like acoustic drums, they are still electronic instruments meant to stand on their own, much like an electric and acoustic guitars do. With ekits and electronic instruments in general, anything is possible… including new designs, new looks, new sounds, new geometries, new concepts… but at the end of the day, a community of musicians ultimately dictates what manufacturers are forced to produce in order stay in the game. 

What got you interested in playing electronic drums? Perhaps it was the percussive and melodic sounds produced by banging on pots and pans with a wooden spoon when I was 4 years old? Lol. To be honest I don’t recall ever being completely satisfied with just “drumming” as it were. After having worn out my Pink Floyd records from playing along to and learning to maintain robot-like meter from Nick Mason, I soon came upon the music of Yes, Genesis, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre and numerous other lesser-known but synth-laden electronic and prog groups. I was captivated by the sounds of the electronics in the music and sought to discover as much of it as possible. Then along came Gary Numan and things got real serious. I was now determined to create and produce my own electronic music, somehow, some way. I would skip school with a mate every so often, opting instead to visit the local music shops. Keen Kraft Music, as it was called back then had a “new” monophonic Moog synth that indeed produced many of the sounds and noises that I had heard in all those albums. I needed one of these! Then the ARPs showed up and they were pure magic but like the Moog completely unaffordable. Eventually, as technology evolved and the prices on electronic instruments became less outrageous, I was finally able to buy a Synare3 electronic drum, the black saucer shaped one, and proceeded to extract every possible inch of sound the thing could produce. With the Synare synth now at my disposal, the bandmates and I recorded a plethora of mostly noise and poorly written tracks and ideas to an old semi-functional reel to reel machine. Great fun! In addition, we fashioned a makeshift voice box using a horn speaker element and washing machine hose that produced a guitar-vox sound similar to the real thing Peter Frampton used in the day. We were truly an electronic prog band, lol. King Crimson – Discipline, Three of A Perfect Pair, Beat -- everything changed yet again for me when I first saw “that” ad in Modern Drummer. You know the one... it featured a picture of Bill Bruford sitting behind some hybrid looking monstrosity of a kit complete with these yellow flat plastic hexagon things posing as drums. Everything Bill did with Yes, but especially in King Crimson on those three albums in particular and on the first Earthworks album was simply brilliant. He showed us how a drummer can be more than just a beatbox or time keeper -- that, with the electronics, the drummer could also contribute melodically to the overall sound of the group. The Simmons electronic drums allowed us to do this! We could play melodic polyrhythmic patterns or harmonies along with the guitars and keyboards using our hands while keeping time with the kick on the right foot and a Simmons bass pad on the left foot triggering an electronic snare-like sound. This was fantastic!! I had to own this! I was eventually able to afford an SDSV kit with yellow pads (of course) and try this very thing myself. I’ve never looked back. 

What e-drums do you currently use in your studio setup? Over the years, I was fortunate enough to accumulate a decent assortment of Simmons gear. Much of it remains racked to this day and used in my live rigs and some of it is safely packed away. Some bits never leaves the safe confines of the studio for obvious reasons, including my coveted and very grumpy SDX #177 and Simmons SD1200 kit #0001. Various other Simmons racked bits include three fully loaded SDS7s, two TMIs, two MTMs, an SDE, an SPM 8:2 and three SD2000 modules. Recently I was fortunate enough to review and add the new and impressive line of Simmons amplifiers to the list. The kits never sounded better! I guess you could call me a Simmons ‘keener’ because I never strayed from the brand. The Simmons modules and instruments delivered all I needed to pursue my goals as an electronic drummer and electronic music creator. I played the Rolands, the Yamahas and others belonging to friends and fellow drummers, but I never once felt compelled to abandon the Simmons. While they might have offered a more realistic emulation of acoustic drums, never once did I want… nor do I want my e-drums to sound like acoustic drums! (I’ve got acoustic drums that do it very well already). I especially dig the analog uncertainty of the Simmons V’s, and the graininess, grunge and filtering offerings of the SDS7. For me, these represent what ekits are all about…. trying new and uncomfortably non-traditional things, pushing the envelope, triggering unconventional sounds…. because we now could and still can. As mentioned, I never considered replacing the Simmons gear with anything else, but I did however add a few pieces by way of a Nord Drum v1 and v2, a Nord Pad, Zildjian Gen16s, and subscriptions to a few of the more functional and creative VSTs including the Aly Labs VSDS-X in order to trigger their sounds from the studio rigs. Beyond that it has been strictly Simmons the entire way. Currently, my “go-to” live rig for Voice Industrie consists of the following bits: 3 x Simmons SDS-9 dual-trigger pads 2 x Simmons SD-2000 dual-trigger pads Simmons SD-2000 Controller Console The occasional SD2000 Cymbal pad or two, depending on the gig Simmons SDS-7 Brain with 12 Cards of "assorted" sounds Simmons MTM Simmons SDE Nord Drum v1 Nord Drum v2 Nord Pad Access Virus TI Polar Gibraltar Rack And, depending on the gig and stage, I will sometimes opt to include my Brufordian ‘wall of SDS9 pads’ in the live rig 

Do you prefer hardware over VSTs for drum sounds? I don’t really prefer one over the other per se, but I find myself using predominantly VSTs for writing and producing tracks on the DAW, while opting to trigger the hardware in live situations. I think both methods serve us equally well. Both platforms can offer great sounds and interfacing flexibility and be chock full of available features and functionality. However, I personally don’t fully trust a Laptop to deliver triggered VST sounds efficiently and consistently during the course of a show. I see and read about other drummers successfully triggering VSTs from a Laptop live but I’m not as confident yet, lol. More on Laptops in a bit. :-) 

What do you think is different about performing music today compared to the 90s? For me, not much has changed in how we deliver our live performances. I say that because since 1989, Voice Industrie employed electronic instruments and a MIDI sequencer and DAW to deliver a live performance. Triggering sounds residing on the voice modules, synths and samplers over MIDI was on stage was how we did things then. For as well as it worked for us in the studio, it became challenging at times to keep it all together in live situations mainly due to the vulnerability of the computers and some of the gear. Bad or noisy stage power was always a concern, which typically resulted in gear rebooting mid-song, MIDI patch changes not being sent or received properly… I recall once a power surge caused my stage mixer power supply to burn up moments after we finished an out of town show. Had it occurred during the course of the show, we would have been forced to stop, pack up and go home. Technically, we were literally at the mercy of the machines. Suffice it to say that I always had a feeling of great relief nearing the last few minutes of the final track in a set, especially one that went the duration without any technical issues. To this day I still breathe a sigh of relief at the end of shows, but issues such as those back in the early years are less likely to occur due to more robust gear, Uninterruptable Power Supplies and high quality Surge Protection Bars. Modern day performers have a reasonably easy time of it now, generally speaking. Musically, anything goes now. I recall having an informational disclaimer printed on the poster of our first ever live Voice Industrie performance that read something like ”all electronic dance music band” to inform but also discourage anyone from expecting to see a conventional guitar/bass/drums/vocalist offering take the stage. I recall a post-show review in a local paper that described the smoke drenched stage with our massive amounts of gear idling on it prior to the show as “ominous and alien-looking with computer screens lit up and hexagonal pods waiting to be struck to life”. Lol. Fast forward to 2022 and this type thing would be deemed pedestrian. I think also that there are fewer clubs to play at now compared to back then. Locally anyway. And the ‘core’ offering of musical genres that existed back then have morphed and spawned a multitude of sub-genres that exist today. As such, local clubs now are less likely to discern between who can play what and where, unlike in the 80s and 90s where the genre pretty much dictated this. Obviously, there were and are exceptions. Performing is easier now, especially with the help of affordable in-ear monitoring systems, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and reliable instruments and tools that implement the latest advances in technology. I think that generally speaking musicians and audiences are more technically savvy now too. It is now completely acceptable to have one or two people, musically trained or untrained, take to a stage with a Laptop or pad controller and deliver a machine assisted hybrid-live performance. Now, one would not bat an eye at seeing a ‘band’ consisting of a DJ and electronic drummer on a stage pounding out the beats. Next up, how about a drummer duo performing room shaking electronic rhythms and ethereal melodies? Why not! Anything is possible especially now thanks to the creative minds of visionaries and pioneers like Dave Simmons. In my opinion as a drummer, to not take advantage of and explore those possibilities at least once is limiting oneself to being a mere timekeeper. 

 What are your musical plans for the future? Currently, I have several studio projects on the go at various stages of completion that include film soundtrack works, drum and bass tracks and new material for an 8th Voice Industrie album. We are doing a show in December, our first since 2019 so I have a bit of work to get that prepared. I’ll be using a new Laptop to manage the sync’d video, the audio beds, dynamic mixer levels and MIDI for the first time so it’s always a bit nerve wracking to rely on new but “unproven” gear for a live production. I may have to spin up an old and temperamental but proven DAW to use instead, lol. Many of the tracks we perform were released in 1989, so I like to change them up a bit every so often just to keep things fresh and different from the album versions. When time allows, I continue to rummage through hours of raw footage taken at our shows from 1989 to 2019 to ultimately produce the “Voice Industrie 30-years live” video. I also plan on writing a few tracks and performing them with select members of a Taiko Drum outfit using my Simmons rig. We had this Taiko trio perform a few Voice Industrie tracks with us on stage live in 2019 and I absolutely loved how the Taiko drums and the electronics blended together. Pure, thundering magic! There never seems to be enough hours in a day, but I look forward to taking advantage of the time I do have to explore what may be possible from my perch behind an electronic drum kit. :-)

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