February 2014 Article reproduced with permission from Digital Drummer Magazine (http://www.digitaldrummermag.com)
Most people may know Mario J DeCiutiis as the driving force behind Alternate Mode and its KAT products, but the inventor is also an accomplished musician who has a regular gig at Radio City Music Hall. He shares the KAT story with digitalDrummer's Allan Leibowitz
digitalDrummer: How did you get started as a percussionist?
Mario DeCiutiis: My entrance to music was when my uncle gave me a drum set while still in grammar school. I fell in love with drums then and knew from that early age that playing music was going to be my life's occupation. By high school, I was already playing in garage bands, and by junior year, I was coaxed into learning to play vibes so that I could audition for college as a music major. I got a partial scholarship to NYU, studying classical percussion with Morris Lang from the New York Philharmonic. Not long after that, I wanted to get into the jazz world. I switched to Queens College, took up jazz performance and electronic music and studied vibes with David Friedman. In 1979, Radio City Music Hall was revamping its orchestra, and was looking for young players. The contractor got a tip about a band called "Good Vibes". That night, he heard us and contracted the entire band for the rhythm section for Radio City. I have been there ever since, playing thousands of shows - an amazing experience for sure.
dD: What prompted the move from performance to invention?
MdC: Playing funk in those days was a frustrating experience for a vibes player. My fingers would literally bleed, trying to keep up with the volume of the screaming guitars and saxophones. But I loved the music. I was learning about Musique Concrete, real tape looping and control voltage using Buchla and Moog synthesizers in college, and I wanted to apply that technology to my playing. Back then, all I could find was Electro Harmonix gizmos to hook up to the vibe pick ups - fun, but not entirely satisfying.
dD: That leads, no doubt, to the KAT story. How did that begin?
MdC: Enter Bill Katoski. Modern Drummer back in 1984 ran an article about this guy in Massachusetts designing an electronic mallet instrument, pre-MIDI. I called the magazine and they gave me his number (different times). I drove up and we became instant friends. I was the first percussionist that he met who knew about synthesizers and what was needed to make a great mallet controller. Within a year, the first malletKAT was born, and Bill, Maria (his wife) and I started KAT Inc from our basements. We did that together for 10 years. In 1995, KAT Inc hit hard times due to manufacturing difficulties and bank loans. Essentially, the banks killed KAT. We were all heartbroken. Luckily, Bill (being the genius that he is) immediately landed another great job, but not in the music business. For me, the malletKAT was glued to my hip. It was my instrument for expression. I negotiated with the banks and created Alternate Mode. In 1996, I decided that I didn't want Alternate Mode to consume as much time as KAT did. I wanted to play more - way more. So I made the scary decision to get rid of distributors, reps and stores and just sell direct. For me, it was the absolute best decision as I managed and continue to dance between both the music playing and business worlds.
dD: Can you run through the product evolution: what did you start with and what did you add to the line - and when?
MdC: The malletKAT came out first in 1985. Then, the drumKAT in 1988. We started to sell tons of electronic pads and triggers, selling Dauz Designs and Drumtech and Trigger Perfect. This gave rise to the MIDI KITI, a powerful trigger to MIDI interface. The malletKAT needed major overhauling as new technology became available, so the malletKAT PRO was born, maybe 1990. The last major KAT product was the trapKAT. Alternate Mode for the first 10 years or so was just riding on the waves of KAT. We did, however, introduce the drumKAT Turbo, the malletKAT Grand, malletKAT Express and trapKAT PRO. I managed to keep the software engineers working part-time, so all of the KAT products continued to get software upgrades. That's what was so special about us. You didn't need to buy a new instrument. All you needed was a software chip. Several years ago, I decided it was time to shake things up in the drum world. Frankly, all of the technology that was coming out of the "big boys" to me was boring and recycled product. I wanted to make major significant changes to the electronic percussion community. I couldn't do it alone. I needed capital and an engineering team. So for the past five years or so, lots of new technology has been under development. Finally, we are getting close to letting it all rip!
dD: Before we talk about new products, it's worth noting that KAT creations have found their way into the hands of some of the biggest names in drumming and percussion and people get a special glint in their eyes when you mention them. How did you manage to interest so many people in the products of a tiny company?
MdC: I believe it's because of the detail of the programming and the willingness to use more expensive, expressive FSR technology. Every software feature was decided not because of the ROI, but because of the desire to make the world's most expressive musical instrument possible. I consider myself a player first. I needed an instrument that would be capable of producing the widest vocabulary for expression. Honestly, I did it for me first, and then hoped others would get it. It's because our controllers are so full of the capability to capture nuance that they have attracted the world's greatest players all of these years.
dD: It's been said that if anything, the KAT products are too sophisticated and too powerful for the mass market. Have you ever thought of dumbing down the gear to appeal to a broader market?
MdC: It is true that power demands some responsibility in how to use it. Yes, it is also true that one sometimes needs a thick skin to really dig into the software. I really apologise for that. I wanted maximum malleability and didn't want to be restricted by someone else making the rules to make it easy. But, that being said about these legacy products, I have learned that there is a way to make it incredibly powerful and easier at the same time. Remember the early microwave ovens and how hard it was to program? Not anymore, and they are way more powerful. There is an entirely new line of product that will soon be released that will be the most powerful AND the most intuitive to use.
dD: Let's talk about inHEAD and onHEAD. Why did you feel the need to go in this direction?
MdC: Several years ago, I partnered with the inventor of FSR technology, Frank Eventoff. We created a company called MIDItroniX. Our first real product together was to develop the inHEAD/onHEAD - along with Aquarian Drumheads. I have always felt that many drummers didn't like electronic drums because they needed to move air when they played. They wanted to have real drums around them when they played. They wanted to hear acoustic drums when they played. Many of these drummers don't like the feel of mesh heads or rubber pads because they have to dig in when they play. The inHEAD fills this need and opens up the electronic drum world to a whole new set of players. The benefits for the inHEAD should be apparent. It is the world's first true electro-hybrid drum. In a studio, the drummer can feel totally comfortable playing on the acoustic kit, but in the recording room, MIDI is being recorded. This allows for editing and sound replacement, etc. On stage, the musicians could be hearing the acoustic kit, while the house gets a reinforced drum sound without any need for micing because the inHEADS are controlling a VST plug-in drum synth. The onHEAD or PED (portable electronic drum) is just the logical extension of the same idea. Use your own acoustic drum set, but enjoy quiet playing while sending out MIDI. You save a ton of money also because you already have your own drum set as the stand! Both products are using FSR technology, so there is total elimination of crosstalk and false triggering, a problem that plagues piezo-based products (the rest of the world). The other interesting thing is that soon there will be multi-zone inHEADS and PEDS. This will be another major leap in electronic drumming evolution: multi-zones on a single playing source with superior triggering and no crosstalk.
dD: Both those products have been really slow to get to market. Why is it so hard to get them up to full production when you have clearly managed to get your previous products out quickly?
MdC: Believe me, if it was easy to do, it would have been out years ago. On a surface like a drumKAT, there is a hard metal substrate that limits the amount of excursion to the sensor itself. The magic in the inHEAD is the FSR, which is essentially conductive ink. Yes, ink! Now imagine a drumhead bouncing in and out, over and over. New ink technologies needed to be created that could withstand the terrible beating of drum playing. Same for the mylar. Besides sounding good, it needed to bond with the FSR. We managed to make it work great for the snare drum because the head is nice and tight (limited excursion), but on a loose tom, the wide movement caused unacceptable breakdowns. This has led to delays, but the good news is that we have learned volumes, have created new patented technologies that make it work and this will soon be just a hiccup of the past!
dD: What's the thinking behind the new collaboration with KMC for KAT Percussion - and what do you actually contribute to that arrangement besides the KAT name?
MdC: Licensing the KAT name to KMC is the most exciting opportunity for me yet. For over a decade, I have wanted to make cool new products but didn't have the corporate muscle to pull it off. KMC now gives me that chance to develop new products for them. They have the funding and marketing to make this happen, plus a sales force of a superpower. Soon, you will see new powerful, creative and innovative products coming from KAT. The Alternate Mode influence will be obvious!
dD: When you started out, electronic percussion was quite rare - now, there are scores of offerings from players big and small. Do you find it easier or harder to do business in this more competitive and aware market?
MdC: I have to stick with the formula. Make the absolute very best product that I can. Make decisions that favour the product, not the price. I ask myself: 'what do I want it to do for me as a musician?'. That's all I can do. There is a reason why the malletKAT has been around for over 25 years!
dD: It's interesting that despite all the work on the Alternate Mode side, you still have time for a professional performance career. What are you doing at the moment performance-wise?
MdC: I believe that staying in touch with my playing roots helps me make better products because I really know what's needed. I don't need a marketing survey about a product, I already know. Playing a gig like Radio City Music Hall really cuts into Alternate Mode time, but it's too important a gig to let go. Working there was like getting a master's degree in performance because of the wide range of music we were hired to play. For the first 28 years, it was all acoustic percussion. Now, they are using malletKATs, panKATs, drumKATs, Receptors and Mac laptops for percussion. The orchestra continues to be a learning tool for me as well as a great playing experience.
Playing local jazz gigs is another important part of my life. I would be a real grumpy guy if I didn't have time to play and improvise.
dD: Any last thoughts about electronic percussion?
MdC: Things have really changed recently regarding electronic percussion. For starters, computers are now starting to replace drum machines and hardware synthesizers. That means gigabytes of sounds instead of megabytes. That means unbelievable realism. That means unlimited potential. Controllers are getting more sophisticated. That translates into a richer vocabulary for expression. The use and manipulation of loops and loop control is a paradigm shift for drummers. Young drummers are learning to play with loops and interact with them in ways the older generation of players have no experience with. New territory is upon us. Finally, the DJ world is a unique opportunity for electronic drummers. The technology available for drummers today enables them to DJ as a drummer. That means work again for musicians! If musicians can't get work, making cool instruments no one can afford is not going to do anyone any good!February 2014 Article reproduced with permission from Digital Drummer Magazine (http://www.digitaldrummermag.com)