Buying Guide:Electronic Drums
Electronic Drums Buying Guide
Table of Contents:
Electronic drums allow you to tap into an endless variety of sounds; incorporate phrases and songs into performances; easily add effects processing like reverb and delay; and play anytime, and anywhere, with headphones.
Electronic drums include two main components: the electronic drum set, usually consisting of four or more pads, and a drum module that produces sound in response to triggers that are activated when the pads are struck.
Electronics mean that today's drummer is no longer limited to playing conventional drum and percussion sounds. Now drummers can trigger funk bass, screaming lead guitar, thunder and lightning, a Brazilian percussion section—all with a pair of sticks and some electronic drum pads.
The only limitations are the sounds in your chosen drum module, also referred to variously as a sound module, percussion module, or "brain." Through MIDI, it's also possible to trigger sounds from any MIDI-equipped sound module or keyboard.
In the recording studio, electronic drums let you plug directly into the mixing board, making it quick and easy to get a good drum sound without setting up a single microphone. Imagine, not having to arrive hours early at the studio to work with the engineer on getting a good drum sound—instead you can focus on playing the drums.
Electronic drums have come a long way since they first appeared in the '80s, when playing them felt a lot like playing on a Formica tabletop. Playing these early e-drums was very fatiguing to the hands, wrists, and arms over the course of a long gig. Electronic drums today offer much improved feel and response, using either rubberized pads or mesh heads.
Pads or mesh heads can be either single- or dual-trigger. Single-trigger heads trigger a single sound, while dual- or double-trigger heads can trigger two sounds, usually one from the center of the pad and another from the rim.
The rubber pad variety feels similar to a traditional practice pad.
A mesh head uses a firm woven surface that responds more like an acoustic drum, albeit with slightly enhanced rebound that arguably makes them a little easier to play than real drums. Many mesh heads can be tuned to different tensions with a drum key.
Electronic cymbal pads are usually shaped like real cymbals or, in some cases, like a portion of a cymbal. Some recent innovations, such as Roland's most recent V-Cymbals, offer swinging motion, inertia, and the ability to choke the cymbal. Dual-trigger cymbals with separate ride and bell sounds are another innovation that allows a more realistic playing experience.
Electronic hi-hats have also recently made great strides. Dual-cymbal models are now available that produce a great range of nuances and sounds by varying the hi-hat from open to closed position.
The drum module is the brain, heart, and soul of any electronic kit. If the kit doesn't include the sound module, it is up to you to complete the kit by adding the module of your choice. Modules vary in the type, number, and quality of the sounds they include, and most have a variety of instrument and special effects sounds as well as drum and percussion sounds.
To be heard, the sound module must be plugged into a mixer or amplifier with an audio cable. Especially when playing with other musicians, it's vital to have monitor speakers located close so you can hear yourself. Roland and Yamaha both offer complete self-contained sound systems especially made for electronic drums.
Headphone compatibility is another advantage that electronic drums offer, allowing you to play anywhere, anytime without disturbing others. This is a great feature for drummers who live in close proximity to their neighbors.
Another option for the acoustic drummer who wants to get into electronics are drum triggers. These small electronic sensors attach to the rims or heads of your acoustic drums and let you trigger sounds from a drum module without electronic pads.
Drum machines enjoyed a rocket-like ascension in popularity in the '80s and are by definition quite different from electronic drums. A drum machine is an electronic module that is generally not played with sticks like an acoustic set, and instead features small pads on its surface that are tapped with the fingers. Alternatively, one can program a drum machine by entering note values manually.
Most music artists have returned to using real drummers in the studio for the feel that only a human can provide. However, some musicians continue to use drum machines as part of their sketch pad for composing songs. Drum machines are also used in cutting-edge genres like techno, jungle, and drum 'n' bass for playing extremely fast beats that are beyond the abilities of mere mortal drummers. They are also an important component of computer-based digital studios due to their ease of programming, their vast number of drum and percussion sounds, and onboard rhythms and grooves.
The '90s saw the rise of rhythm programmers such as the Akai MPC and Yamaha QY series that combined the features of a drum machine with sequencing and sampling capabilities. The cut-and-paste aesthetic of these souped-up beatboxes inspired a whole generation of artists. Trip-hop artist Tricky produced whole albums using little more than a Yamaha QY-22.
Besides full-on electronic drum sets, there are also a great number of percussion controllers today that allow you to trigger sounds from a small module or pad set that in many cases can be played with the hands. An electronic percussion controller makes a great addition to a drum set for players who want to use electronic sounds without changing over to an electronic set.
The Roland SPD Series of electronic pads has proven popular with drummers for their ability to easily integrate percussion and sampled sounds into performance.
To plug in or not to plug in
Few musicians would contend that electronic drums will ever replace acoustic drums. However, their huge sound sets, sequencing capability, and many other benefits ensure that they're here to stay. Whether you're just starting out on your drumming journey, an intermediate player honing your chops, or a full-on pro drummer, you'll find that electronic drums have a whole lot to offer.