Interview: Graham’s O’Brien’s Drum Controller Video Series

Drum Controller - Graham O'Brien

Graham O’Brien is an exceptional and inventive drummer, composer, and producer. It has been my privilege to play with him at dozens shows and on at least five separate projects over the last eight years. His latest solo endeavor is a series of five videos titled Drum Controller. Graham had discussed his goals for the project with me, but when I saw/heard the videos I was immediately impressed. I wanted to know more about how he was able to trigger these beautiful and complex electro-acoustic arrangements without touching anything other than his minimal kit of kick, two snares, high hats, and a ride.

Note: Graham will be performing music with his Drum Controller setup and Thomas Nordlund on guitar at Honey in Minneapolis this Sunday, June 5, 2017. Read on for the interrview and a look at his video series.

Keston: Hey, Graham. You’ve come up a lot here on ACB and also contributed your own article, but could you please start by sharing a little bit about yourself and how you arrived at the concept for Drum Controller?

O’Brien: Hey John! First off, thanks for expressing interest in this project and inviting me to share some of my background and process with ACB readers. I’ve always looked at myself as a producer first and drummer second. In about 1997, the reason I started playing the drums was to add live percussion to the music I was making for my rapper friends at the time (sometimes it feels as if not much has changed since then…). This was in my basement bedroom during high school, we were using a program called OctaMED on my dad’s Amiga 3000 computer. Still miss it. My father, John O’Brien, was and is a brilliant composer/trumpet player and as such, there was a strong jazz/avant-garde influence early. I immediately liked the sound of acoustic drums performed over samples. Because of these converging household influences: tracker sequencers, avant-garde records, drum sets…creating music via sampling and drumming seems the inevitable result. From that point onward, the use of my drumming in my productions has become something of a compositional rule I have continued to follow. Looking back, my workflow has slowly evolved, and now includes the need for my production studio to also be a good drum tracking space. Recently, I’ve been looking at ways to base my entire workflow around the drumming itself. The Drum Controller video series is just an initial experiment around the idea: to compose electronic music via exclusive use the acoustic drum set. Instead of adapting the drums to existing melodic/harmonic elements of a song, the idea was to create by way of real-time drum rhythms; the samplers and synths’ behavior following each strike of the drum. (It’s not MIDI though, just normal drums with contact mics.) While still far from the goal of a reliable compositional technique, I’ve been excited by some of the results. These Drum Controller songs are some initial creations generated from this technique so far.

Keston: You explained to me already that you use two triggers: one on the kick and one on a snare (the second snare has no trigger). How are you triggering the samples and advancing the sequence in Ableton?

O’Brien: Right – two triggers, but really just contact mics. So far, I’ve been using two mics on my drum set: one for kick and snare. Each mic is sent into audio inputs 1 & 2 on my audio interface and routed into audio tracks in Ableton. Next I convert these audio tracks into real-time MIDI signals. To do this, I’ve been using a Max for Live“>Max for Live device by called It’s a latency-free, 2-part device comprised of a sender (audio device) and a receiver (MIDI device). I use sends on my kick and snare audio tracks, and receivers on any desired MIDI instruments. So at this point in the process, I’m firing a MIDI note each time I play my kick or snare. Your question about triggering the samples and advancing the counter/sequence is right on the money. Most of my focus has been in this area: with using what essentially amounts to a 2-note MIDI controller (i.e. my kick drum and snare drum), I’ve needed to experiment with ways of processing the MIDI notes to create variation in the sounds and arrangement. To vary the triggered MIDI notes and create arrangements, I’m using a combination of MIDI effects (that act on incoming MIDI) including step sequencers, note randomizers, scale filters, arpeggiators, etc., as well as clip automation and follow actions. Each of these MIDI effects acts only on the incoming MIDI from the drums. When I stop playing, the MIDI stops too. For most of these songs, if I don’t play the drums, no samples are triggered and it all goes silent. That was a nice feeling. Much easier to end songs now. It always sounds well-rehearsed… This composition process is mostly chance-based. For more control over arrangements I use MIDI clip automation in the session view. With this method I know which note/sample will be sounded if I were to strike the drum, depending on the Ableton playback cursor as the clip and note automation progresses and loops. Each of the Drum Controller songs was composed in ableton, through a sequence of clips (with automation), scenes, and follow-actions. I use the different scenes to alter the arrangement in ways such as muting/unmuting tracks containing different synths/samplers and automation of MIDI effects.

Keston: one of the things I noticed on Sudden Light and Sticks is that it sounds as if the smaller snare is going through some processing that creates a delayed set of filtered and chaotic repetitions. Can you explain what I’m hearing and how those sounds are generated?

O’Brien: That particular sound is the result of using a send from the snare drum audio track to a Max for Live audio effect called Rnd Echo on a return track. I will use clip automation to send to different effects during certain parts of the arrangement. One of the main reasons I was intrigued by using contact mics instead of simply acoustic drum triggers was so I could process the audio from my acoustic drums in interesting ways. Some of these contact mics have great fidelity too, so looping and processing the drum tones is doable. I’ve always been led by drum tones more than specific parts when making music. Getting the same quality of drum tones live (using effects, etc.) is where I want to be.

Keston: Are all of the electronic layers in the compositions triggered, or are you following along with a set of backing tracks?

O’Brien: As little as possible. In this set of songs, there are some pre-recorded sounds on a few of the songs, but not all of them. Brainbelt, for instance, is all live. I have found myself moving completely away from backing tracks for my current in-progress material for this project, because it’s more freeing. As was saying – I can stop at any time and the song’s over. That’s much more fun than following around a predetermined arrangement, and always needing to change the arrangement ahead of time, based on the gig.

Keston: I understand that you’re playing along with a click. What sort of control do you have over the arrangements? Can you extend them or rearrange sections?

O’Brien: Yep, follow actions (with a click track). One thing you’ll hear – because for the most part these tunes depend totally on my drum trigger input, I’ll set the final section/scene to repeat indefinitely. This way, I can keep on improvising for as long as I’m feeling it at the end of the tune, making the ending feel organic. So far, It’s been working to create a basic arrangement in advance and follow along. The music tends to be more on the ambient side, tonally, so it’s super easy to lose track of the arrangement. That’s actually worked to my benefit at times; when you have a sometimes spotty short term memory, everything’s a chance operation.

Keston: What’s the future look like for this process? Do you see it as a novelty or can this technique evolve into a long term exploration? If so, how do you wish to expand on what’s currently possible?

O’Brien: That’s a great question. Next step: more playable surfaces and i/o. Adding more triggers (contact mics) to the kit will help immediately with the musical flexibility of this rig. The more I can actually play two different triggers vs. programming one trigger to change sounds – the better. Getting to the point where I can just sit down at the kit, improvise, experiment and arrange is still the goal. Although I’ve produced all of my recent projects by use of a more traditional workflow, (this video series being my sole experiment with it), the experience of performing my first solo show after years of playing in ensembles has been a revelation and something I won’t resist pursuing. At this stage, I’m likely near the beginning of a process that will change a lot over the next couple of years. I see the Drum Controller series as a documentation of where I happen to be in my workflow at this point in time.

Graham O’Brien is a drummer and electronic music producer/composer from St. Paul, MN. His most recent work is focused on the interplay between his unique drumming and composition styles. Currently, he is performing new music written for solo live performance, utilizing a customized electro-acoustic drum set concept: “I’m exploring ways to perform my music – or rather, conduct it – via the rhythms of my drumming, in real-time. My performance concept is a practical way to extend the range of my drum set to include control of melodic and harmonic electronic instruments.” Along with his emerging solo efforts, Graham has produced/composed music for such critically acclaimed projects as: Moon & Pollution, Camp Dark, Mixed Blood Majority, No Bird Sing, Sadistik, & Kristoff Krane. His works have been released on labels: Strange Famous Records, Fake 4, Doomtree, Noecho, Magnature, Ambledown, F I X. —

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