BY MIKE SNYDER
You’re ready to buy your first e-drum kit – you know you want one, but not much else. Before pulling out your wallet, you need to ask yourself some questions. Think about what you want to do with the kit. Is the kit primarily for practice, so that you don’t disturb your family and neighbors? Do you plan to use it in music production and recording? Do you want to perform live with it? Or is it possibly all of the above?
When considering these questions, don’t just think about your immediate needs – think about how your needs may change and grow in a few years. This planning might help you avoid a premature upgrade, ultimately saving you money.
Buying e-drums is similar to buying a computer; don’t wait to buy until the next new “new thing” comes out. There will always be something better on the drawing board. Years ago, with regards to computers, a friend at Apple said, “If you can buy it, it’s one of two things: a prototype, or obsolete.”
1. WHAT ISN’T INCLUDED IN THE PRICE?
This is an important one. Not every e-drum kit includes everything you need to start playing the kit right out of the box. While every kit will have a sound module, rack, pads, hi-hat controller, and cables to connect the pads to the module, it may not include some essential items like a kick pedal, drum throne, hi-hat stand (if needed), headphones, and sticks. These essential add-ons can be costly, easily adding hundreds to the purchase price. Of course, if you already have them all on your acoustic drums, you can use them on your new e-drum kit, saving a little money.
You are more likely to find some of these items included with low-end kits, as companies target these kits to the new player who is less likely to have any drum gear. Mid-level and upper-level kits may also require a snare drum and hi-hat stand. By the time we drummers have played a few years, we tend to be fussy about the sticks and pedals we use. Once we reach this point, chances are the included extras like pedal and sticks wouldn’t live up to our standards. We’re a finicky bunch, aren’t we?
Having the e-drums sound as good as possible when you’re playing them is key to maximizing your enjoyment. If they sound awful to you, you’re not going to want to play them as much. So do yourself a favor and buy a pair of good-quality, professional headphones, like those frequently found in recording studios. Think about it: You’re going to spend a lot of time wearing these headphones, so you want them to sound and feel great. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Sony MDRV6 and MDR7506 (newer model) headphones; I began using the MDRV6s in the mid-1980s when they were first introduced, and still use them in my studio to this day (see Fig. 1). I cannot stress this enough – the sound of your e-drums will only be as good as the headphones you use. I can’t count the number of times I have seen a $7,000 e-drum kit displayed in a store with cheap $10 headphones. All I can do is shake my head. That’s not the way to boost e-drum sales.
If you are going to perform live with an e-drum kit, you’ll also need to have amplification appropriate for the venues where you’ll be performing. Not every venue has a P.A. suitable for e-drums. This is an entire article unto itself. Suffice it to say, buy P.A. gear that has a reputation for being reliable and sounding great.
2. DOES THE KIT’S FOOTPRINT FIT YOUR SPACE?
Before shopping, think about the space that you have to dedicate to the e-drum kit. Some of the high-end kits have a footprint larger than an equivalent acoustic kit, problematic if you live in a small studio walk-up in the city and plan to have a bed in your space. Many e-drum kits with a moderately sized footprint have a “full drum set” feel. Determine your available space before you go shopping and make sure to figure the drum throne into that measurement. If you need a kit that is too big for your space, you can save room by mounting some (or all) of the pads on traditional hardware instead of the included rack. I often set up my six-piece e-drum kit as a little four-piece bebop kit, with one crash and a ride (Fig. 2). Not only does it save space, but also my approach to playing it is very different, much more like an acoustic set – I know, weird.
3. IS THE SET QUIET ENOUGH FOR YOUR SPACE?
Yes, we all know that acoustic drums can be very loud. The same is true with electronic drums. While playing acoustic drums in an urban setting will likely attract unwanted attention and quite quickly bring the wrath of the authorities upon you, depending on the setting and kit type, an electronic kit can do the same. It’s just a different kind of loudness. Electronic drums, to varying degrees, emit an annoying clatter, punctuated by the low-end of the kick pedal resonating through the floor. My mother at one point told me that she could handle the sound of the acoustic drum set, but the incessant “thwack” of my acoustic-headed, tunable practice pad about drove her out of her mind (at times to the point where she wanted to bring bodily harm to me – you know, that kind of annoying).
Pad volume is solely dependent on how the pad is made. Pad construction falls into four different categories (listed from soft to loud): mesh-headed, closed-cell foam/silicone, rubber over steel, and acoustic-headed with dampening inside. The first two – mesh-headed and closed-cell foam – are by far the quietest. The common rubber pad design has a rigid plate onto which the sensor attaches. Commonly, the plate is made of steel because it helps to evenly dissipate the energy of stick strikes and protects the attached sensor from damage. Because of this steel plate, the pads will become quieter as the rubber gets thicker and softer. Pads with acoustic heads, inner dampening, and steel hoops are just plain loud – there’s no way around it. I’ve heard these pads top 85 decibels with just normal play, which is a level your neighbors still might easily complain about.
With regard to loudness, the kick pad with an acoustic kick pedal attached is by far the most problematic part of the electronic kit. This is especially true if you play the kit anywhere above the first floor of a building. This is because low frequencies are much harder to isolate and stop than high frequencies. Since standard 6″—14″ wall and floor construction doesn’t easily absorb the energy from the long sound waves, the energy from low-frequency sound easily passes through floors and walls. On the other hand, the extremely short waves of high-frequency sounds are easily stopped and absorbed by common building materials used in wall and floor construction.
There are some rather involved ways to stop low frequencies, but most people are not going to go to these lengths. Most involve 2x4s, plywood, and lots of sand. That said, there are a few new products that can help if you have this problem: The KT-1 low-noise kick pedal from Roland substantially reduces this type of sound transmission. Additionally, Roland’s new Noise Eater products adapt to your existing gear to help reduce the transmission of low-end frequencies. They’re a bit on the expensive side, but less than the cost of an eviction!
4. DO YOU LIKE THE FEEL OF THE PADS?
Each of the four pad types discussed in #3 feels very different from the others. This one is easy: What pads feel best to you? There is no right or wrong here. If you like the feel, great! As an aside, years ago I really liked the feel of the inexpensive Roland PD-5 pads. They were super hard, with just a thin layer of rubber covering the steel plate. However, most people I talked to didn’t like the feel! Go figure.
5. DO YOU LIKE THE SOUND QUALITY?
Sound quality is so subjective. Not only are we each listening for different things sonically, our subjectivity with regard to sound is based on how we have (or have not) trained our ears to hear sonic subtleties, the styles of music in which we’re involved, and the physical condition of our ears, to name just three. If possible, audition the the e-drum kits you’re interested in buying next to one another in the same room. Make sure the modules have been reinitialized to factory specs, this way you’ll hear what the manufacturer has intended. Play the first ten kits on each drum set – this will most often give you a good representation of the module’s sonic character. Make sure to listen for the change in sound character as you play the sound assigned to each pad from soft to loud. Also, listen for how natural the cymbals sound. On an instrument-by-instrument basis, cymbals consume the largest amount of flash memory. This is because of the inherent long length of cymbal sounds. If the designers have taken shortcuts on the sounds to save space, this is where you most easily hear deficiencies. Do the same for each voice of the drum set. Resist the urge to just bash and crash. Take time to methodically go through each instrument and give it a critical listen; repeat for each available drum set.
6. CAN YOU LOAD CUSTOM SAMPLES INTO THE MODULE?
An increasing number of e-drum modules are able to access and play back custom sounds. The The 2box DrumIt Five, Pearl r.e.d.box, and Alesis DM-10 modules are sample based. You can load in custom sound samples formatted for the specific modules, and the samples will remain even when powered down. The 2box module has PC and Mac software so you can load your own individual samples and create your custom multi-sampled kits – this is a plus! The Yamaha DTX900, DTX700, and entry-level DTX502 modules let you load samples via USB into volatile memory for access like any other factory sound. Even the new Roland TM-2 trigger module lets you play back sounds streaming from up to a 32GB SD card. (A minute of stereo CD-quality sound is about 10MB in size. 32GB of flash memory will hold around 53 hours of stereo sound! That is a lot of drum sounds!)
Let’s geek out on sound and memory formats for a second. Two different technologies are used to generate sounds in e-drum modules: sampling (PCM) and sound modeling. By far, sampling is the most commonly used format. Roland uses sound modeling in high-end drum modules, and so do a few software-based sound libraries. A module’s factory sound set usually resides in flash memory (AKA flash ROM). Flash memory doesn’t require power to retain written data. USB thumb drives and SD cards are examples of flash memory. Volatile memory requires power to retain the data it holds. The memory on your computer that holds a file you are actively working on is an example of volatile memory. If your computer loses power, the data in its volatile memory is gone forever. Keep in mind, there are many subtleties to how each manufacturer handles loading and playing back user samples. If interested, dig deeper to discover more of these specifics.
7. WHAT IS THE MANUFACTURER’S REPUTATION FOR DURABILITY?
There is a simple test for durability. Walk into a store that stocks many of the popular manufacturer’s e-drum kits. For some 364 days of the year, customers play – and sometimes abuse – the display kits. Take a gander at the physical condition of the kits. Look at what is missing, is not working, has fallen off, or is simply just broken. This will give you a sense of how the kit will hold up under your personal use. In my experience, you’ll find most of the carnage on the less expensive kits. At low price points, manufacturers sometimes cut corners to keep costs down. As you move up the product line of the different manufacturer’s e-drum kits, you see better, more robustly designed components, almost without fail. Companies that have been designing and making e-drums for decades do extensive destructive testing of components. They break stuff so it is less likely that you will.
8. ARE THERE ENOUGH AUDIO OUTPUTS TO MEET YOUR NEEDS?
The number of audio outputs is an important consideration if you want to record or perform in large venues. Most often, the need for multiple audio outputs alone will dictate the e-drum kit you’ll wind up buying. Check the drum module’s specs for the number of outputs (they will generally range from two to ten). If you don’t see yourself performing in venues big enough to have separate front-of-house and monitor mixers, stereo outputs will probably function just fine. There are some lower-priced modules that have four individual outputs, like the Alesis DM-10. The 2box DrumIt Five, street priced at $1,099, has six individual audio outputs! Just remember: It’s better to have too many individual outputs and not use them than to need more outputs than your e-kit offers.
9. CAN YOU FEEL ANY SOUND LATENCY?
The amount of time it takes for a sound to appear in the module’s audio output after a pad is struck is referred to as “latency.” This is time needed for the signal from the pad’s sensor to reach its peak amplitude, be read and processed by the module’s software, then play the assigned sound. It is measured in milliseconds. Ideally, all this would happen with no delay whatsoever, but such is not the case – 2—12ms are the normal delay. Companies don’t publish or talk about this data point, unless the latency is very small (remember, small is good). The salesperson at the store will more than likely not have the answer to this question. Latencies are getting smaller with each new generation of electronic drum modules. The best you can do is to rely on your ear. Fig. 3 shows the latency inherent in an e-drum module. The top track is the audio of a triggered drum captured by a microphone. The bottom track captured the audio output of the module triggered by the drum. You can easily see the lag time, or latency, between the two.
10. ARE THERE ONBOARD TOOLS OR EXTERNAL APPS AVAILABLE?
The trend for the last few generations of entry-level e-drum modules has been to include onboard training tools. Almost every entry-level module has these tutorials, many coming from dedicated electronic practice pad tools like the Simmons SD1 and the Roland Rhythm Coach. The newest trend is for your e-drums to access training apps on mobile devices. Yamaha has a number of training related iOS apps available, including Song Beats 2.0, DTX400 Drum Lessons, and DTX400 Touch (an excellent graphic editor for the display-less DTX400 module). (Fig. 4) This is the future of learning drums – and is so exciting. Ask if the set you want has or can access any of these tools.