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[Premiere] A Psychedelic Light Show Bursts from Sample-Based Drums

The sample-based Sensory Percussion drum set is the center of a Ian Chang’s multimedia performance in “Spiritual Leader”.

Since the advent of electronic music, percussion has been more or less split between mechanical and human rhythms. Son Lux drummer Ian Chang, however, manages to fuse the two types of percussion, making it rather pointless to fixate on whether the drums are human or mechanical at all.

In a new video for track “Spiritual Leader,” directed by Endless Endless, Chang puts this electro-human drum fusion on full display with the help of Sunhouse’s Sensory Percussion set, which allows him trigger various samples that allow him to make each hit sound electronic. The set also integrates each hit with lights and projections, creating a hypnotic, rhythm-based multimedia experience.

Chang tells The Creators Project that Sensory Percussion allows the drummer to “teach” each drum to recognize various types of hits. It can learn, for instance, to recognize the difference between a hit on the edge of the drum head versus its center, and and learn up to ten different hits per drum. To trigger the samples, this completely non-acoustic set sends MIDI notes (as triggered by Chang) to Ableton.

“With that training in place, you can assign different samples to each type of hit, and control effects and other parameters with velocity, speed or timbre,” Chang explains. “As an example, you could set up a timbre knob to move left to right as you move from the center to the edge, controlling the level of reverb on a sample.”

The samples Chang uses in “Spiritual Leader” include voice, Palawan bamboo flute, and a variety of both acoustic and electronic drums, with almost every sample heavily manipulated. Beyond reverb, Chang incorporates effects like grain delay, filters, pitch manipulation and saturation.   

Screencap by the author

For the video, Endless Endless’s Sara and Adam Heathcott designed the lights and projection patterns, with Chang offering input as far as the big picture. Each light and projection is triggered, as Chang explains, by a corresponding MIDI note or group of MIDI notes coming from Sensory Percussion.

“I had the initial concept of making a sound and light performance video using this technology, but I knew I could not do it on my own,” says Chang. “Adam and Sara were really excited about the idea, so I let them run with it. They made the art for the projections, arranged and programmed the lights, set up and executed the shots, and edited all the footage.”

Chang wanted the visuals to emotionally mirror the arc of the performance. For example, he knew he wanted the visuals to begin in darkness with flickering lights, so that when the flute and vocal samples were triggered the corresponding projections would feel like big surprises.  

Screencap by the author

The Heathcotts tell The Creators Project that they built the multimedia set around a demo track given to them by Chang. They created “light envelopes” in Ableton to match the characteristics of each of Ian’s samples and converted these to DMX signals (digital communication networks).

“After setting up a basic test, we watched a bunch of households bulbs blink and flash, recreating Ian’s performance purely in light, and confusing neighbors who saw our whole house rhythmically blinking through the windows,” Adam and Sara remember. “Then we realized it wouldn’t be that much harder to trigger animations—so we spent a few days making those and figuring it out. Our thought: make something that feels like it’s being conjured by Ian.”

“The piece has two distinct tonal and rhythmic approaches, and the first section felt almost tribal in its slow but fast (fast but slow?) hypnotic build, while the second section feels like the product of that build,” they add. “That and the presence of the word ‘Spiritual’ in the song’s title definitely pointed our minds in one direction: a psychedelic, geometric laser wolf.”

All three agree that the light and projection setup impacted Ian’s performance. Chang insists that the entire kick drum breakdown in the middle section wouldn’t exist if he weren’t also thinking about the look of the lights.

“We watched as his pauses got milliseconds longer, waiting for the last light to decay before storming back into a flurry of epileptic micro light blasts,” the duo says. “Ian’s movements, the legion of shadows and flares, the projections bending across cloth and chrome, the exposed wires and the 'over-the-counter' lights, the stop-motion wobble of simple geometric shapes, or a momentarily-paused Ian just hovering in an endless dark—it was beautiful and entirely practical, programmed for results and only needing one magic variable: Ian Chang.”

Click here to see more of Endless Endless’s work.

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