From the January 2017 issue of DRUM! | By Christopher Kelley
Electronic drums and percussion have evolved considerably in the last several decades. It wasn’t that long ago that many drummers eyed electronics with suspicion, or even outright hostility. In that view, drum machines, samplers, and other electronic instruments were an existential threat to “real” drummers who played “real” drums. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it’s now difficult to find a professional drummer who doesn’t utilize at least some electronics in his or her percussive arsenal.
This is especially true in the studio, where loops, samples, and programmed beats are blended seamlessly with acoustic instruments, and where live, human drummers have their playing tracked through drum triggers for editing in DAWs. In the live setting, many drummers use similar technology, blurring the line that used to exist between “real” drumming and electronics.
It’s one thing, though, to avail yourself of electronic drums and percussion in the studio, where the possibilities are virtually limitless; it is another thing entirely to use electronic percussion on stage, where every piece of gear you add to your kit also adds to the amount of equipment you must transport, load in, set up, and tear down each time you play a gig. Adding new instruments can also mean changing the ergonomics and layout of your kit, which may have repercussions for your playing. And regardless of the choices you make about electronic instruments, you will need some way for you, your bandmates, and your audience to hear them. If you’re ready to add electronics to your acoustic kit, there are practical implications you should consider before purchasing any new gear.
Devise Your Kit’s Architecture
There are three primary ways to add electronics to your acoustic kit, and three primary reasons for doing so. The first, and probably easiest way to develop your hybrid kit is by adding a multipad. Roland’s Octapad series, Yamaha’s DTX Multi-12, and the SamplePad series from Alesis are all examples of such instruments. They generally contain onboard sounds, and in some cases, you can also load your favorite sounds, samples, and loops into these devices. The second way to incorporate electronics is by using a sound module or sampler with trigger inputs and adding pads or triggers to your acoustic kit in much the same way as you might add cowbells, woodblocks, or other auxiliary percussion. The third way to turn your acoustic kit into an acoustic/electronic hybrid is by adding triggers that affix directly to the rims, shells, or heads of your acoustic drums. Which of these approaches you choose will depend on your specific needs, goals, and reasons for adding electronic sounds to your kit.
One of the best reasons to develop your hybrid kit is that you can play sounds and instruments that simply aren’t available on a conventional drum set. If you want to play steel drums on one song, and congas and timbales on the next, you can either lug around hundreds of pounds of additional percussion or you can use electronics to approximate those instruments. Some drummers just want to beef up their existing drum sounds, and with electronics it’s possible to virtually “swap out” your snare drum from one song to the next, change the tone of your toms from tightly controlled to big and open, or blend in the chick-chick of a tambourine on the 2 and 4 of the snare beats. And some drummers may be perfectly content with the sounds of their acoustic kits, but would like to play along with loops and samples on stage, making it possible to re-create complex studio performances and mixes in a live setting. If you take the time to identify your current needs as well as your goals for the future, you will have a much easier time deciding what gear to buy for your new hybrid kit.
Multipads Make It Easy
Each of the choices you make in gear will have pros and cons. The multipad approach is fast and easy, but comes with its own limitations. Some multipads, such as those in Roland’s Octapad series, contain hundreds of onboard sounds, but don’t let you add your own sounds. If you’re looking for a comprehensive library of traditional percussion sounds, the Octapad may work well for you. If your goal is to sample your collection of snare drums and switch them out from song to song, or to trigger loops and samples, Yamaha’s DTX-Multi 12, the Alesis SamplePad, or Roland’s SPD-SX Sampling Pad may be better choices.
Multipads have the advantage of being easy to set up: attach them to a stand or your drum rack, plug in the power, and send the stereo output to your monitor or PA system. One potential downside, however, is that the individual pads on the surface of these devices are fairly small. If you’re a power hitter with a wide swing, you may have to adjust your playing style when using the multipad. If you’re a precision player who’s used to playing a tighter configuration of drums and percussion, the small size of the individual pads may be just what you need.
One last thing to keep in mind: unless you plan to remove one of your toms, cymbals, or other components of your drum set to accommodate your multipad, you will almost certainly have to mount it off to one side or the other of your kit. This could have implications for the ergonomics of your kit configuration and your playing style, and may take some getting used to before it feels natural and comfortable.
Pads & Triggers Provide More Options
If you like the idea of having more surfaces to hit, and a wide range of sounds to choose from, but don’t like the limitations of multipads, you may want to add pads or triggers to your acoustic kit. Electronic drum manufacturers offer a variety of trigger types, from those that mimic the size, look, and even the feel of conventional drums and cymbals, to smaller triggers that can fit neatly into the tight spaces between your toms and cymbals. Most of the widely available multipads also contain inputs for external triggers, though the number of inputs is usually limited to only three or four at most. That may be suitable for your needs, especially if you already see advantages in also utilizing a multipad.
If you need more trigger inputs, or have no interest in the multipad approach, there are various sound modules (“brains” in drummer parlance) designed specifically for electronic drums, and most complete electronic kits come with brains that can also be purchased separately. One of the advantages to this approach is that you can typically connect a dozen or more triggers to the brain, and these triggers can be placed in and around your kit in whatever ways work best for your playing style.
A possible downside, however, is that each trigger must be wired to the brain, which can lead to a spaghetti-like tangle of cords as you set up and tear down your gear. Some manufacturers, including Roland and Yamaha, have begun marketing “hybrid kits” that include a drum module and a few acoustic drum triggers, although these are limited in the number of triggers that can be connected, leaving little room to expand should you decide you want to add more triggers.
Both approaches to setting up a hybrid kit are particularly useful for drummers who want to play electronic sounds or loops alongside the sounds of their acoustic kits. But what if you only want to beef up your acoustic drum sounds, or blend conventional and unconventional sounds together each time you strike the drums? If that’s the case, drum-mounted triggers may be the answer. Such triggers are generally small and unobtrusive, and work by transferring the vibration of a drum hit to your sound source.
There are two main types of mounted triggers: those that adhere to the drum shell, and others that clip to the rim and make contact with the drumhead. Functionally they’re similar to external triggers and pads, and connect to your sound source with standard quarter-inch cables. They can be particularly useful for gigs where drums are miked and fed to the PA, as the house mix can contain more or less of the electronic sound and the miked sound as needed.
Like other external triggers, however, they come with the same challenges involved in wiring up the triggers to the sound source; the more pads or triggers you use, the greater the number of cables and connections you will need. Adding triggers to your acoustic kit almost always means adding to your setup time, so keep that in mind as you decide what works best for you.
If your goal is to play along with loops and sequences, but you don’t need many (or any) additional triggers or pads, you have several options. A multipad with sampling capability is still a viable choice, as the pads on the surface make good on/off switches for loops. You can assign different loops to each pad, and turn them on and off by striking them with your drumstick. Even multipads that don’t allow you to load your own sounds can still work for you; connect the multipad to your laptop or hardware sampler via USB and you can easily start and stop loops and song parts as you’re playing.
Finally, if all you want to do is control loops and sequences, it may be easiest to set up your hardware sampler or laptop next to you and fire off your song parts with the press of a key or button. This option works well only if you have loops and song arrangements of predetermined length that won’t require your attention once you begin playing the song. If you want real-time control over starting, stopping, and arranging loops, and don’t want or need to use a multipad, there are a number of devices, such as ddrum’s DDTI Trigger Interface and the Alesis Trigger|iO, which allow you to connect multiple pads and triggers to your sampler or laptop via USB or MIDI. If you already own a reliable computer or sampler, adding triggers and a trigger interface may be a less expensive option than purchasing a multipad sampler.
Now Hear This
No matter what approach you take to developing your hybrid kit, you will need some way of hearing your electronics. This issue is often an afterthought for many drummers, as it’s a bit less exciting than the shiny new multipad or the rack of triggers you’ve had your eye on. You should, however, give at least as much thought to how you will hear your electronic instruments as you’ve given to what you will hear from them.
What you choose for monitoring and amplifying your electronics will be dictated by your specific circumstances. Do you typically play (and rehearse and practice) through a full PA with stage monitors or in-ear monitors? If so, you can send the stereo output of your sound source directly to the mixer, and monitor your sounds through the same speakers in which you hear the other players on stage. Keep in mind, though, that if you rely on this option, you will need access to the PA system any time you want to play your acoustic kit and electronics together. You may quickly discover that you need a separate amplification system for your electronics, for several reasons.
The best argument for purchasing your own amplification for your electronic percussion comes down to physics. Acoustic drums are loud, and the sound waves they create move a lot of air. Electronics, meanwhile, lack the same physicality, and are only loud — or audible at all — when played through adequate speakers.
This has ramifications both for your fellow musicians onstage and for people in the audience. On the stage, your bandmates may hear your drums through the stage monitors (if you use drum mikes), but they also hear the direct sound of the drums as you hit them. This is especially problematic if you use in-ear monitors, as the sound of your electronics will be heard only through the earpieces while your acoustic drums are generating their own sound waves from your positon on the stage. This leaves the electronic sounds feeling “detached” from the rest of the drum sounds, and can be quite disconcerting onstage.
A similar phenomenon happens for audiences: In all but the largest gigs, the crowd will hear some of the physical presence of your acoustic drums, even if the drums are also present in the front-of-house mix. If your electronics are playing only through the PA, and don’t have their own stage volume (either through stage monitors or your own drum amplifier), the front-of-house sound can have the same “detached” quality it has on stage. You will notice it yourself on stage if you use in-ear monitors only; your acoustic drums will generate vibrations that you can feel as well as hear, while your electronics will lack the same physical presence. So, if you plan to move to a hybrid kit, you should also plan to purchase a powered stage monitor (preferably with the largest speaker you can comfortably carry) or some other amplification system that can handle the wide range of frequencies and SPLs produced by your electronic drums and percussion.
In a perfect world, we would all have an endless budget for purchasing gear and a capable stage crew to transport it, set it up, and tear it down. In the real world, however, most working drummers must choose wisely when making purchases and haul their own gear to and from gigs. If you’re thinking of expanding your acoustic stage rig to include electronics, take the time to ask yourself what it is you really want to accomplish. Do you want an endless supply of unusual sounds? Do you want to fatten up your kick drum or augment your snare? Do you want to play along with loops and sequences? Do you have the inclination and the patience to deal with a new world of cables and power supplies, and drum programming and sample editing? And perhaps most importantly, do you have an effective way of ensuring that you and everyone else can hear your new sounds? How you answer these questions will help you decide what configuration of acoustic and electronic drums is best for you.