Pro File: The Digital Drummer

Omar Hakim has gone from banging on a toy drum as a child to mastering a Roland V-Drums kit in his adulthood, never missing a beat. How has the jazz and pop percussionist kept on top of things as the music world has gone increasingly digital? By keeping an open mind and being willing to try new things. "The drummers that embrace this are going to discover a whole new palette available to them, sonically and creatively," Hakim says. This approach to change has certainly paid off for Hakim: he's played drums for an eclectic roster of musicians including Sting, Miles Davis, and David Bowie. And whether he's playing drums or producing records, Hakim never strays far from his 500MHz Power Mac G4 -- a machine that helps him make beautiful music.

Q: How did you get started with drumming?

A: I started playing drums when I was very young, like four or five years old. It started out as a gift from one of my uncles, a toy drum, and they noticed I had a natural affinity to rhythm. I immediately started playing a march cadence I had heard on television or something. My father [Hasan Hakim, a trombonist for Duke Ellington] eventually got me a real snare drum. I started playing with my father professionally at 10. I did my first road tour at 15 years old. I'm 42, so I've been a pro for 30-some years now. It's been a long love affair with music.

Q: At what point did computerized music enter the picture?

A: The computer entered my life via a friend of mine who was a recording engineer and who is now one of the technical directors for CBS television, a guy named Fountain Jones. In the seventies, we were kicking around with the home systems available at the time, which would have been the Tascam, TMX four-track and eight-track machines, also machines by Atari. In the seventies and early eighties, Tascam came out with the cassette decks you could multi-track on. They got a lot more portable, and then around the mid-eighties, people started writing software for MIDI sequencing on the computer. It allowed me initially to multi-track myself because I play drums and keyboards and guitar, and I sing. So I was able at that time to record a drum track, overdub myself playing keyboards, overdub myself playing guitar. It was my home exercise for songwriting. Now I'm able to plug in my keyboards and actually create a whole orchestra of music by myself. In 1986, when I got Mark of the Unicorn Performer on a Mac Plus, that's when I really started to get some work done. Back then we would record SMPTE time code on one track of our multi-track machine and then get the computer slaved to the time code. Then we'd record our guitars and vocals and that sort of thing. The only problem is that you couldn't edit the tape as easily as you could edit the MIDI data on the computer. A few years later, hard disk recording [came along]. Mark of the Unicorn Performer eventually became Digital Performer, allowing you to record audio to your hard drive. That's when the whole industry changed over. In fact, these days most of the recording sessions I do as a professional involve recording tracks directly to hard disk.

Q: What else are you up to?

A: I've been experimenting with software synthesizers recently, which is very cool. In other words, you could have sampling and analog synthesis, with your computer as the tone generator. The complete virtual studio that lives inside the computer is fast becoming a reality. Audio recording, MIDI recording, and synthesis are all possible from your Mac.

Q: How important has the drum machine been to your musical development?

A: The drum machine came into my personal usage as a survival means. There were a bunch of drummers when drum machines came out in the early eighties who felt very threatened by the whole thing. Once artists got their hands on drum machines, there wasn't such a demand for drummers, particularly in pop music. So I said, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." I thought, "Who's better to program a drum machine than a drummer?" Immediately I went out and purchased the most popular drum machine and learned how to use it and marketed myself around New York as a programmer. Then the machines evolved into drum devices that could be played with sticks -- the Simmons electronic drum set and the Roland OctoPad, the Dynacord Add-One. I experimented with all these drums at one time or another while I was drumming for Sting.

Q: What do you use now?

A: Right now I'm using a product from Roland called the V-Drum, which is an amazing product because it allows me to create virtual drum sets. Drummers finally have an instrument that kind of puts them in the same league as keyboard synthesists have been in for years -- the ability to create more than one sound on the instrument. The V-Drums allow me to have a wider percussion palette than ever. I'm not limited to just the traditional drum set sound with synth. I can have a drum set of industrial construction sounds. I can have a drum set of exotic Asian instruments.

Q: What do all these changes mean for drummers?

A: It does a lot for drummers if they're willing to open up their minds and move past the traditional aspects of drumming. There are a lot of drummers who are very attached to "Well, it doesn't sound like a drum. It doesn't feel like a cymbal." That's something that a lot of drummers will have to work past. What we're going to see is a whole generation of electronic drummers and it's probably not going to be that much different from the generations of electronic guitarists and electronic bass players we've seen the last 20 or 30 years. There are guys that play electric guitar and electric bass that don't really deal with the acoustic version of the instrument. I guess that's no different than keyboard players in the sixties and seventies. You probably had your diehard guys saying, "It doesn't sound like a piano." But then you had a few artists -- like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Weather Report -- who decided to take these electronic instruments and make them their own. The drummers who embrace this change are going to discover a whole new palette available to them, sonically and creatively.

Q: What other tools for drummers are you hoping to see?

A: I can honestly say that right now my hands are very full with the tools I have available. If you had asked me this question three years ago, I could have given you a really long list. But with the advent of Pro Tools and Digital Performer and all of these third-party developers that create these wonderful software plug-ins for equalizers and reverbs and effects boxes, and the guys who are developing software synth, my hands are full learning.

Q: What do you think about Napster?

A: The fact that Napster has identified a user base out there that is interested in downloading music is a positive thing. I also think that what's come out of all of the hoopla and the negative press and everything is that it's forced everyone to organize ethical ways of selling intellectual property. Maybe it took the Napster incident to push down the accelerator pedal. I don't support copyright infringement, as a musician who actually feeds his family from my intellectual property. We can't forget the importance of supporting the arts in America.

Q: Have you ever used Napster?

A: I've gone to the site, I've checked it out, I've seen the list, but I don't use Napster. I'm one of those guys who goes to the record store and looks around. I actually make a list of CDs and DVDs in my Palm Pilot whenever I hear something. I like the process of buying CDs.

Q: Do you think new services like iTunes, which help people to organize their music digitally, change how we consume music?

A: No, it doesn't. It's no different than 20 years ago when people went out and bought their favorite 45s and arranged them on the spindle in the order they wanted to hear them.

Q: What's up next for you?

A: Because of my love of the technology and engineering, I'm going to be moving my career more into the production roles. I'm actually looking for artists. I spend a lot of my time in clubs looking for young talent. I just finished [drumming on] a very interesting album for an artist called Cheb Mami. He's famous in America for singing on Sting's Desert Rose. We tracked that whole record with the Pro Tools system. I'm going to start a record with Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea on keyboard, Richard Bona on base, and myself on drums. I'm also about to start tracks on an album of my own.

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