How to Choose an Electronic Drum Kit
Electronic drums can add substance and versatility to any studio or live drummer’s arsenal. This Sweetwater Buying Guide includes information that can help you choose the right electronic drums for your needs – whether you’re a drummer, or simply want to be one! Since there’s so much to consider when purchasing electronic drums, don’t hesitate to call (800) 222-4700 for more information.
How Do Electronic Drums Work?
The operating principle of an electronic drum is really quite simple. It consists of a rubber pad or a mesh head, underneath which is a sensor. When the pad is struck, the sensor relays a voltage value to a sound module (sometimes called a brain). The sound module translates that value to trigger a particular sound, whether it’s a drum, a cymbal, or just about anything else, depending on the module’s features. The module also translates the velocity of the strike into a dynamic value so that it can reproduce softer or louder articulations that are part of the drummer’s performance.
Some electronic drum and cymbal pads have two or three sensors underneath the surface. This gives a single pad the capacity to produce more than one sound. That allows, for instance, a snare pad to produce both a head sound and a rim shot, or a cymbal pad to deliver the sound of a bell, a bow, and an edge hit.
Acoustic Drummer’s Introduction to Electronic Percussion
Classically trained percussionists may encounter a number of issues that required adjustments in their playing style. Electronic drumming is different in many ways. But there are ways to minimize the differences to make your transition easier. Here are five top issues:
One thing that throws acoustic drummers off balance when they approach electronic percussion is the fact that the sounds they make emanate from a distant source, whether it’s a stage monitor or the house sound system. When you sit at an acoustic drum kit you’re right on top of the drums and cymbals, with the sounds “in your face.” With electronic percussion you’ve joined the world of amplified instruments, and while keyboard and guitar players are old hands at hearing their output come from a speaker that’s often several feet away, it will be new to you. One of your most important tools is a good monitor system that can return a sense of presence to your ears. It doesn’t need to be especially loud – in fact, a pair of small monitors work great because they fit into your setup and can be stand mounted.
MIDI is capable of handling several hundred notes per second. Still, you might experience a sensation of delayed response when you play an electronic pad. Part of this is psychoacoustic (the presence issue we discussed above) but there is a delay of a few milliseconds between attack and sound. This just takes a bit of experience for your ears to make an adjustment.
Rubber pads and mesh heads definitely have different attacks, rebounds, and general stick response than acoustic drum heads, cymbals, or percussion instruments. But rubber pads have a familiar “practice pad” feel. They do require you to make some adjustments in dynamics, and their identical rebound characteristics from pad to pad aren’t like the changes you experience, say, in toms, where head tensions can vary.
Mesh heads, on the other hand, can be tensioned to different degrees and offer more “give” when struck. They can also present some additional creative options.
Percussion instruments can be whisper-soft or deafeningly loud. Translating this dynamic range to electronic pads has always been difficult. This is actually an issue of the sound module’s ability to deal with the signal coming from the pads. Most modules restrict dynamic range to the MIDI standard 0 (silent) to 127 (maximum velocity). What many drummers never explore is the ability of most modules to be adjusted both for sensitivity and velocity curves. This gives you a much more playable kit.
This particularly affects percussionists. There’s no real commonality between playing a conga drum with your hands and striking a pad with a stick. Playing a guiro, for example, involves sliding a stick over the notches at varying speeds and tensions. It can be disorienting to strike a pad once and hear the entire envelope of the guiro sound play back. There are alternative controllers that offer a surface for easier hand playing.
So are electronic kits different from acoustic instruments? Of course; so are MIDI keyboards and wind controllers. But with a little adjustment time and the suggestions we’ve made above, you may just find that you prefer the advantages of your electronic percussion kit to the limitations of “real” drums.
The Difference Between Rubber Pads and Mesh Heads
Since the pre-MIDI days of Simmons electronic drums, the prevailing design of most pads followed the rubber “practice pad” paradigm. Then Roland introduced mesh heads that emulate acoustic drum heads. There are plenty of applications for both types. Here’s a rundown of the qualities of rubber pads and mesh heads.
Sweetwater offers a kit with pads for less than $500. And with dual-trigger pads available for less than $100, you can add on to your setup with a minimum investment.
If you’re adding electronic sounds to your acoustic kit you may feel a bit space challenged. But a pad can slip into the smallest spaces – and even fit discreetly over the rims of your acoustic drums. And a compact kit fits in an apartment or dorm room.
Many players prefer their controllers to have identical response and rebound as they move from pad to pad, as opposed to the varying tensions of acoustic drum heads as they move from snare to toms. When using percussion controllers for alternative sounds, including triggering sustained tones or loops, often a pad is more appropriate. The consistency of rubber pads is a plus in these situations.
Better than ever
Years ago many pads felt a little hard and didn’t offer the rebound that drummers expected. But improved pad designs with reformulated rubber offer more “give” when struck and have a much more natural bounce.
For emulating drums, you can’t beat mesh heads. They’re remarkably close to traditional drum heads in feel, “give,” and rebound.
When used with a module that supports these features, mesh head controllers offer a wide range of sound responses based on the location you strike. Some models produce different sounds based on where you strike the head. Depending on the sound module, you can even play brush sweeps on some heads.
One of the immediate advantages of mesh heads is the ability to adjust their tension to achieve a feel and rebound that suits you. This allows you to have, for instance, a fairly tight, bouncy snare head even though the sound you’ve selected is a 1970s style slack-tuned, heavily muffled deep snare.
So there’s room for both in the electronic percussion world. As we often say in these situations, the “best” choice is the one that fits your needs, your expectations, and your budget.
Triggers mount on the rims of acoustic kits, resting against the heads, and transmit hits to a sound module. They offer you a virtually unlimited choice of drum, percussion, and other sounds while allowing you the familiar feel of your own drums. In the studio, using triggers allow your performance to be recorded as MIDI data so that later on in the mixing process, sounds can be changed as needed for both corrective and artistic reasons.
Drum Machines Examined
At this point in music technology, the days of hardware may seem to have given way to software. But there’s still a demand for drum machines. They’ve been a staple of Hip Hop and Rap for 30 years. They also provide the rhythm section for one-man-bands. Another scenario for using a drum machine is for the singer/songwriter who wants to record or perform music and has no interest or desire to learn how to program drums. A lesser-known use for drum machines is as a practice tool for bass players, guitarists, and keyboardists.
Five Benefits to Owning an Electronic Drum Kit
Keyboard players and guitarists long ago embraced the technology that’s allowed them to take their music in new directions. It’s time for drummers to recognize that they have the same potential. Here are some points that illuminate the advantages of owning an electronic kit.
Nothing beats the ability to dial in just the right drum kit sounds to suit the music! If you’re a working drummer, chances are you get calls for gigs that cover a number of different styles of music. Tonight’s pop singer might turn into tomorrow night’s jazz trio, with a 1970s cover band rehearsal in between. Instead of having to carry and maintain a collection of acoustic kits you can stick with the setup you like while delivering the appropriate sounds for the gig.
Live Gig Convenience
From small clubs to churches to concert stages, an electronic kit can solve many problems associated with live playing. In environments where you’re frequently pressured to play quietly, you can do so easily – thanks to the near-silent performance of the pads – while still getting the sounds you want from your module. And on the large stage, you’re able to play without requiring mics, which means no feedback, no bleed from other instruments, and no jumble of stands around your kit.
An electronic kit gives you the power keyboard players have had since the early days of MIDI sequencing – the ability to play your track and then edit individual notes or instruments to your liking. That allows you to capture the groove you want but still be able to nudge a late hit into place or balance the velocities of a tom fill.
Freedom to Practice
If your neighbors were reading this, they’d buy you a kit! All drummers have encountered complaints and resistance when they try to practice. An electronic kit gives you practice-pad-quiet volume while you can hear yourself through headphones. Plus, most modules feature built-in metronomes and practice songs so you can play along to actual music> Many include auxiliary inputs so you can plug in a CD or MP3 player to practice to your favorite artists.
No matter whether you’re on the road or practicing in your apartment, you can’t beat the compactness and portability of an electronic kit. Even a big kit fits into a soft case or two! These kits weigh less and require less space in the van than acoustic drums. And at home, when you’ve finished practicing, your kit folds down to take up minimum space in a closet.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Sweetwater carries a whole range of electronic drum kits from Roland, Yamaha, and Alesis. No matter what your budget or your musical style, we’ve got you covered. So check out the options and call Sweetwater at (800) 222-4700 to get the full story on any kit you see!