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Artist Spotlight: M-Powered Drummer Doug Yowell

Artist Spotlight: M-Powered Drummer Doug Yowell
Learn how multi-talented drummer Doug Yowell uses M-Audio gear and Ableton Live to create music in the studio and on the road

Long-time M-Powered artist Doug Yowell has toured and recorded with Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik for the past four years. While not on the road, he keeps busy in the New York music scene, having worked with artists such as Sophie B. Hawkins, Gerry Leonard (Spooky Ghost), Donna Lewis, Mark Plati, Chuck Rainey, Samantha Ronson and Phoebe Snow to name a few. Yowell sat down with us recently to discuss how he uses M-Audio gear and Ableton Live on his latest project—the Dragonflys, as well as on the road with Duncan Sheik.

Tell us about Dragonflys, and why you’re so excited about this project.

The Dragonflys is a group comprised of individuals from two different bands—and two different ends of the musical spectrum. Rob Barraco (keyboards) and Jimmy Herring (guitar) are part of The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends. Jimmy also plays with The Allman Brothers, Aquarium Rescue Unit and was a part of Jazz Is Dead with Billy Cobham. Jeff Allen and I are from the rhythm section of Duncan Sheik's group. The fifth member is Rob Friedman, who plays guitar and did a beautiful job producing the record.

The songs were written mainly by Rob Barraco, with lyrics from the legendary Robert Hunter who wrote lyrics for many of the classic Grateful Dead songs. The music itself is extremely diverse and reminiscent of The Dead—but with our own twist on it. It's been an incredible experience and we've all learned a lot from playing with one another.  

For those who haven’t heard the band yet, what is the music like?

It is essentially a jam band that has the ability to take a song and turn around the feel, time, dynamics, chord structure—you name it—and allow the songs to morph into one another. When Rob Barraco explained the concept he said, "We don't always have to end a song. We can go into another song and maybe come back to the ending later in the show. In fact, we might not end the song until several nights later because these fans are going to come to many shows in a row and they will understand it."

As you can imagine, this really opened my mind as to how elastic the music could become. On the tour, every night was an adventure and I literally couldn't wait to play and see where it would take us.  

What M-Audio gear have you been using for the tour, and what are you doing with it?

On this tour, I am using Live 5 going out of my FireWire 410 and manipulating the audio using a UC-33e controller. I needed to create a percussive drum loop for a song called "Cats and Dragonflys" where I could trigger the loop during the performance—matching the tempo we were playing—and create a very trippy space jam by changing the sounds on the fly. The UC-33e, FireWire 410 and Live worked flawlessly.

While recording a new record for Donna Lewis in upstate New York days before the tour, I took the opportunity to record my drums and other percussive elements using a single M-Audio Solaris microphone going through my FireWire 410 and into Live. The groove was essentially a figure played across the toms with some additional percussive ideas over the top.

With Live, I was able to record several bars of each part and pick the ones I liked the best, cut them and make the loops I needed. After multi-layering the elements, I attached Live's effect devices to each individual track to create a new sonic space that would give me the ability to change the dry sound into something with delay, distortion, resonators, etc. We created an entirely new sonic atmosphere by increasing or decreasing the various filters, feedback and delays of each effect.

I assigned these various filters to the control surface of the UC-33e that was mounted on the left side of the kit next to my G4 laptop. My goal was to find the spot in the song where the band breaks down and continue playing elements of the drum kit with the right hand while setting up the loop with the left. For this, I assigned the tap tempo feature of Live to a key on my laptop that I touched four times in tempo—this would both trigger the loop and capture the current tempo we were playing. Once the loop was going, I was able to control the various parameters.  

Where can we find the Dragonfly CD and tour dates?

The Dragonfly's CD is available through our Web site: http://www.thedragonflys.net

You’ve been playing with Duncan Sheik for over four years. What’s the chemistry of that band like?  

This particular band with Duncan is really special. We are all listening very respectfully to one another and making sure that first and foremost the song is what's important. We've all played together a lot over the years in different musical situations and have all grown to a degree where we don't have to talk about the right thing to play. We talk more about the dynamic arc of the show, which is pretty wide.

I couldn't be happier to hear this sound every night. When I take myself out of it—meaning "me" the individual—and listen to the collective sound, I can hear the sum rather than the parts and that excites me. Duncan is an incredibly gifted songwriter/musician and I count myself lucky. It's a collective effort and a good practice in selflessness.  

Are you using Ableton Live onstage with Duncan?

We are running Live 5 with Duncan and we actually use it on quite a few songs. He got me very involved in the idea few years ago and it's been interesting to see how far it's grown. We are able to run many different parts, such as the strings from the Daylight album as well as some of the keyboard parts that he has created for the new record, White Limousine. There are a total of 11 songs that use Live in different ways.

For example, "Half Life" starts out with Duncan's voice and acoustic guitar and has strings coming in on the chorus without the band. Duncan has to play and sing for a long time before the strings come in, and there's nothing holding the tempo. In this situation, Duncan would normally be anchored to a click, so that when the strings do come in everything is perfectly in sync.

With Live, it's possible for me to adjust the tempo of the audio to the tempo that Duncan is playing and have the strings follow him. When the band finally does come in, I stop tapping in tempo and Live stays right where I am. That becomes the new tempo for us to play against. I am always learning as much as I can to increase flexibility and discover new paths that inspire new ideas.  

Do you make music while you're on the road?

When I am on the road with Duncan, we have our laptops and headphones for the long drives. We generally create things separately using Live, Reason and the Oxygen8 and then at some point have a listen to what each other is working on. For example, I did something on a layover in Hong Kong using Gerry Leonard's Spooky Ghost loops with my own drums and had a ball with it. Duncan has his own way of using Live and Reason along with plug-ins, which I find very inspiring—it gives me a whole new perspective on what is possible. Together we have certainly pushed the envelope to see how far we can grow.

I am continually studying to see how we can improve the performance aspect of things using Live. Duncan and I sometimes talk about things in theory, and then see how we could go about implementing them in an organic way. The next thing I want to try is to take the jams that we've been doing during sound check, record them and put them into Live so I can mess with them in there.

Every combination of creating music, mapping the triggers off the laptop, reconfiguring outputs, adjusting the individual tracks of audio and so on are things I do on a daily basis. Recently we got very into watching the movie "Anchorman" with Will Farrell. We loved the dialogue so much that I copied about 40 different parts from the movie and cut them up so I could trigger whatever I wanted as clips in Live. So as you can see, we are using the gear very creatively.

Is there any new gear that you’re having fun with out on the road?

Thanks to you guys, we are now using MicroTrack 24/96 digital recorders to capture the tour. Duncan and I both have our laptops on the road, along with an Oxygen8 keyboard. We were traveling the other day and started getting into the Trigger Finger and once again found many ways to use it for recording and performing.  

I can't thank M-Audio enough for being so enthusiastic and for providing us with all of their love and support. It's way beyond the gear and it is truly inspiring. My musical perspective has widened as a result and taken me in directions I would have never imagined possible. I am forever grateful and hope to show my appreciation through the music.