Most drummers manage to survive on the thrill and satisfaction of beating on drums, with an occasional feeding and just a bit of personal hygiene. There are plenty of guides out there on the proper care and feeding of drummers, though, so we won’t get into that here. What interests us here is the occasional drummer who needs more than just a traditional, acoustic drum set. Does your drummer seem to like technology or music with an electronic edge to it? Maybe you like having a drummer, but don’t always like the loud drum sounds, especially late at night. Maybe you live in a no-pet kind of apartment and are trying to keep your drummer a secret. This isn’t easy when he wants to jam at 3 AM. Maybe your drummer is shy and likes to practice without making noise (this last one isn’t too common). For whatever reason, it might just be time to consider an electronic drum set.
While electronic drum sets reproduce much of the drum playing experience, there ARE some differences. Since the sound is no longer being produced by the simple physics (let’s not worry about whether or not “simple physics” is an oxymoron) of a pointy thing hitting a resonating thing, an experienced percussionist might be in unfamiliar territory at first. The sound is now produced by a small computer and sent through an amplifier (or headphones). This results in a slight delay (also known as “latency”) and has the sound coming from somewhere other than where the pointy part (or “drum stick”) is hitting. Of course this also provides almost infinite flexibility in the type of sounds being produced.
Long-term, this can save huge amounts of money. Instead of purchasing different drums for each type of sound, a few button-presses can change the sound produced by each instrument. This can range from subtle differences to complete changes. The same drum pad can be a medium tom in one song and breaking glass in the next one.
Once you’ve decided to get an electronic drum set, the next question is which one to get. If you ask your drummer which one to get, you’ll likely get a shopping list that would set you back as much as a reasonably priced used (or even new) car. If you don’t know what to look for, then you run the very real risk of not getting a good drum set or breaking the bank getting an unnecessarily expensive one. Do not despair! This guide will help you learn about the different features offered by today’s electronic drum sets and help you pick the perfect one for yourself or your loved one.
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Anatomy (and physiology) of an electronic drum set: The electronic drum set typically consists of several striking surfaces (pads), a drum sound module, and hardware to hold it all together. The pads are held in place (with bits collectively known as “hardware”) in positions that mimic the locations of their counterparts in an acoustic drum set so that the drummer will be in familiar territory when playing.
Finally, since we need something to keep the feet busy and produce bass drum sounds, an electronic drum set should include something to replicate the kick bass pedals. Read on to see what kind of form these should take and make sure you pay attention to what you’re getting there. Although all electronic drum sets can be disassembled and transported, some are designed for portability and quick assembly / disassembly. Will the set be used in a studio / bedroom, or will it be going to live performances?
Pads / Heads: These are like the heads of normal drums. In a normal drum, hitting the tightly stretched drum head produces the drum sound. In an electronic drum set, hitting the drum pad triggers a sensor (or sensors) in the pad and produces a signal that gets sent to the drum module. Better pads are able to measure how hard the pad is being hit and cause the appropriately loud sound to be made.
Most pads come in two basic flavors. The first is similar to a rubber practice pad. Beating on one of these with sticks will feel similar playing on a practice pad. This may take some getting used to. The other type is the mesh head. A mesh head is more like a “real” drum head and adds some realism to the experience. Mesh heads can also be adjusted and tuned and are more sensitive to striking in different areas of the head, just like a real drum. Mesh heads can mean increased complexity and cost, so may not appear in the most budget-minded electronic drum sets.
Drum Module: Sometimes also referred to as a drum machine, the drum module is the part with the buttons and flashy lights that creates the actual sounds, based on the signals sent to it by the pads and pedals. Since this module could be considered the brain of the electronic drum set, it’s understandable how much of a difference it can make. A good drum module will include a wide variety of drum sounds.
Many companies include a smaller set of the sounds from their more expensive drum machines on their budget models. Some drum modules include a sequencer that can be used to record what’s being played and play it back. Many include the ability to connect to other instruments via MIDI. Some have USB connectivity to connect to a computer and be used as a controller with desktop music applications. Also found on many modules is a USB port to connect a thumb drive to save recorded patterns or import patterns or sounds created or downloaded from the internet. A good drum module can offer the beginning e-drummer coaching and practice modes to help with the learning process.
One thing to note is that most electronic drum sets will require an amp to actually produce sounds. For practice, headphones can be used. This is something to keep in mind when considering the purchase. If you don’t already have a suitable amp, then one will be needed.
Pedals: As with “real” drum sets, hi-hats and bass drums are played with pedals. The electronic versions of these pedals can be as simple as a pedal (look for words like “kick trigger pedal”) or a more complicated setup where a pedal has the same sort of mechanics as an acoustic one and strikes a pad, simulating a more realistic feeling action. You may also see electronic drum sets that come with a “kick pad” simulating a bass drum head, but no kick pedal — if you already have a pedal to use with an acoustic bass drum then this can be used. If not, then you’ll need a kick pedal.
Look closely at what is included in each electronic drum set to avoid disappointment when opening the boxes. Nobody wants to be around a drummer waiting for the part that keeps him (or her) from enjoying a super-cool new electronic drum set. Again, if budget is a concern, consider the simple “kick trigger pedal” type setup.
Some electronic drum sets can now bring you closer other drummers around the world. For example, Roland’s V-Drums Friend Jam connects your Mac, PC to a compatible Roland V-Drum set and allows you to download practice songs in a wide variety of genres and skill levels. Learn to play these songs and monitor your performance and progress on-screen. You can also compete with other e-drummers around the world and compare scores and standings. Healthy competition can be a great tool to encourage learning. Roland even offers a version of V-Drums Friend Jam for iPhone which also works on iPad and iPod touch.
When deciding which electronic drum set is right, consider the starting point. Is this a first time drum set? If it is, look for a set with everything (or be sure to add the missing parts to complete the set). Look at expandability. Can you start with a kick pedal and expand to a kick pad and traditional pedal later? Can you add sounds to the drum module? Will you (or your budding young e-drummer) want to connect the setup to a computer, phone, or tablet? If computer connectivity is important, make sure to pick an electronic drum set that includes USB or MIDI connectivity. Almost all modern computers offer USB connections, but unless the drum set is being added to a dedicated music workstation computer setup, MIDI connections may not be available.
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Here are some links to the best places we have found to purchase the perfect electronic drum kit: