2 Discoveries That Improved My Virtual Group Drumming Programs

Helpful tips for Drum Circle Facilitators, Music Therapists, Drum Teachers, Movement Instructors or anyone interested in providing innovative music based virtual programs.

Embracing the transition to virtual programs from 2020 into 2021 and beyond

by Phil Didlake – September, 2021

I will never forget how in March 2020 during the pandemic shut down, our business Rhythmic Innovation LLC closed our doors to students, music therapy clients, and drumming events here in the Bay Area. It was hard seeing all our in-person drumming events disappear off our 2020 calendar. However innovation is derived out of necessity and I was determined to find a way to stay in contact with our clients and community. 

In response to the shut down, one of my mentors Christine Stevens pulled together a Zoom call. Music therapists, teachers, and healers from all over the world joined to discuss what was possible through Zoom music making (rather than focusing on its limitations.) We also discussed group facilitation ideas that work well on Zoom including: call and response, soundscapes, and the wonderful ability to move and dance together. 

The first virtual drumming program I hosted and facilitated was in April 2nd, 2020. I was extremely nervous because a few of my colleagues and teachers showed up across the globe. However that day I discovered drum facilitation IS possible on Zoom. 

However to be honest…. Some of my first virtual programs were rough around the edges. This included sound quality issues as well as not being able to deliver fully engaging activities or programs. 

Through trial, errors, and hours of research this last year I have successfully pivoted my in-person drumming programs to online platforms. I have had the opportunity to facilitate virtual drumming programs for up to 275 individual screens on Zoom and led remote song building programs for corporate teams such as Autodesk.  

My hope is to continue providing resources that will inspire other teachers and facilitators to try new activities and provide better quality virtual programs for teams and communities. That is why I would like to share the 2 discoveries that were influential and key to improving my virtual programs.

1) Improve your Audio

For as long as microphones have been around, drums have been one of the most challenging sounds to capture on a recording. Drumming over Zoom has presented its challenges. However Zoom has made adaptations to make this possible which I will go over. 

Basically Zoom is optimised to capture voice frequencies. Therefore Zoom’s audio thinks that drumming may be an air conditioning fan or some kind of background noise and automatically eliminates this sound. This is bad because if you want to hear someone play a drum, Zoom will remove the drum’s sounds entirely. So for everyone else on the call…even with your mic on…Zoom will cancel out the sound and it will look as though the person is playing in silence. 

To overcome this you will need to change the settings in the “Advanced Audio Settings” menu. You can learn about how to get this set up on Zoom here

Before I start a Zoom drumming session, I spend time with the group to make sure their settings are correct so we can hear each other. I look forward to the time when Zoom makes original sound options easier for users to access.   

If you want to capture good sound quality of a drum over Zoom, I recommend a microphone with a USB that connects directly to your computer or device. Otherwise traditional mics require an audio interface. 

An audio interface is a hardware device that connects mics, audio equipment and speaker monitors through a USB port to your computer. There is also a software driver that you will need to instal on your computer. 

I recommend that you either have some audio engineering background or have some support to help if this is your first time using this type of equipment.

Personally I have used a number of different audio interfaces with Zoom and have had the best results with the Clarett Focusrite.  

Another audio challenge with Zoom is that the program only has one audio/mic input. So technically you are not easily able to run multiple audio sources into Zoom. For example if you had multiple mics running through an audio interface and you also wanted to share music from your computer, an app, DAW, or web browser… you would run into problems.

I know there are many work-arounds, however as of now I found the best solution is a one time $100 purchase for Loopback, an app by Amoeba for Mac. This allows you to map, route, and individually control the sounds from all your apps, DAW, browser (YouTube), and even bluetooth mics (like Air pods) into Zoom (and most virtual platforms). I spent 3 days researching and testing out alternatives. After using Loopback during each Zoom class and call, I have to say it is one of the best $100 I spent last year.

I found this resource for Loopback alternatives for PC users.

This is what Loopback looks like

2) Incorporate Music, Drum Loops & Samples

In April 2020 I went on a quest to try and re-create a drum circle experience in quarantine with all the drums and recording equipment I had laying around. So I started recording and looping all the drums and instruments I used at my drum circle events.

Around this same time Logic Pro came out with a 10.5 update that included a new Live Loops feature as seen in the picture. This upgrade also allowed old midi controller hardware devices to be used with Logic.

For the first time this included Novation’s first Launchpads that I just happened to have collecting dust in my closet. It’s interesting because this midi controller was originally designed for Ableton but this update allowed me to control Logic Pro and trigger each loop individually or collectively without having to touch my computer. 

I used the Novation Launchpad to trigger Logic Pro’s new 10.5 update including Live Loops

So I use the Novation launchpad to trigger specific drum loops live during my Zoom session. This provided me the freedom to teach and model movement while drumming along the live loops and music. For example I can layer in different rhythms, drums, and percussion sounds as a way to teach the names of rhythm or facilitate group orchestration. 

I believe there is untapped potential in using loops for engaging music, interactions, and in-the-moment learning online.

Most DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) systems such as GarageBand have loops integrated in the program. There are also many different hardware standalone loop stations available. If you have not had any experience with loops, a cheap and easy way to get started is using a fun app called Loopy.

Please note that before using recorded music in your virtual programs you need to have permission from the publisher and/or artist. It also depends on the type of event (public or private) that you’re facilitating.

That’s why I have provided this 120bpm drum circle loop pack I’m providing as a free download. I hope that you will be able to experiment and use these loops packs in your virtual programs. Included in these loop packs is written permission to use these recordings at your online events. 

Thanks for reading. If you found something inspiring or resourceful, please leave a comment below. 

This blog was inspired by and pictures were taken from Phil Didlake’s presentation at the Drum Circle Facilitators Guild Conference in February 2021.

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