Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Kat Slootsky
As a drummer, Greg Fox can (and basically has) worked in almost every style. His latest record The Gradual Progression explores a variety of moods and feelings, as though he’s transcended style. And anyone who is at all familiar with his career will recognize the genres he spans as a drummer.
What may be less well known about Fox is that he has a whole separate musical career outside of drumming. He composes electronic music made with analog synthesizers. When I visit him in his home studio, his modular synth is set is set up behind his drum kit, and it has enough cords connecting its various synapsis that it looks like a map of the human brain. In fact, the way the synth is placed above the drum kit, it’s tempting to muse on a brain-body metaphor. Except that such a metaphor is now irrelevant, as Fox has embraced the new Sensory Percussion technology that dissolves the separation between creating rhythm on the drums and the exploration of synthesizer-based music.
So what is Sensory Percussion? To the naked eye, it appears to be nothing more than a modest little clamp, affixed unassumingly to each drum on the kit. Through the wizardry of Sunhouse, the company producing the sensory percussion technology, the sensors are able to pick up on the unique vibrations created when a specific part of the drum is hit in a specific way. These unique vibrations then communicate back to the computer, which expresses a pre-assigned selection from the library of sounds that Fox has created. This is how Fox describes the process to me: “I record the sounds and then put them in the computer and chop them up, and those chops end up being triggered. In this room, I spend a lot more time doing this [synthesizing] than doing this [drumming].”
When I arrive, Fox gives me a demonstration of one of the latest projects he’s working on for sensory percussion; it’s a violin riff that plays in a different key depending on which specific part of the drum head he hits. And I really can’t over-emphasise how specific the sensor is about knowing what part of the drum is hit. For Fox’s part, he seems to have total control of what key he will produce despite seemingly miniscule differences in his contact with the head.
This level of granular control is where the art begins to separate from the sciences. It is Fox’s skill as a drummer that makes the entire sensory percussion thing work. Even if I (or, perhaps, you) knew how to play the drums, it’s hard to imagine playing them well enough to sit on that drum throne trying to hit discrete parts of the drum to summon particular sounds while also keeping the beat, never mind the fully orchestrated rhythms that Fox is creating. This is why it takes a combination of daring, curiosity, and raw skill to enter this new frontier, and why Fox is in a very impressive peer group of Sunhouse’s featured drummers. Fox was one of the first of these drummers: “I got it in beta. That’s when I started messing with it. I’ve seen it grown and I’ve given feedback.”
Depending who you ask I’m a really well known drummer or I’m totally marginalized.