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Basic electronic drum set made by Pintech.
An electronic drum, also known as electric drums, digital drums, or electronic percussion, is a modern electronic musical instrument, a special type of synthesizer or sampler, primarily designed to serve as an alternative to an acoustic drum kit or other percussion instruments. An electronic drum consists of an electronic or digital sound module which produces the synthesized or sampled percussion sounds and one or more electric sensors to trigger the sounds. Like regular drums, the sensors are struck by drum sticks or by the hands (depending on the type of drum pad) and they are played in a similar manner as an acoustic drum kit.
Strictly speaking, sequencers playing pre-programmed electronic drum tracks and electronic or digital drum machines are not electronic drums, because a drummer or other musician is not triggering the sounds.
The electronic drum (pad/triggering device) is usually sold as part of an electronic drum kit, consisting of a set of drum pads mounted on a stand or rack in a configuration similar to that of an acoustic drum kit layout, with rubberized (Roland, Yamaha, Alesis, for example) or specialized acoustic/electronic cymbals (e.g. Zildjian's "Gen 16"). The drum pads themselves are either discs or shallow drum shells made of various materials, often with a rubber/silicone or cloth-like coated playing surface. Each pad has a sensor that generates an electric signal when struck.
The electric signal is transmitted through cables into an electronic or digital drum module ("brain" as it is sometimes called), synthesizer or other device, which then produces a sound associated with, and triggered by, the struck pad. The sound signal from the drum module can be plugged into a keyboard amp or PA system for use in a live band performance or listened to with headphones for silent practice. Since digital drums have become more popular, companies have started selling digital electronic drum files, referred to as drum kits. While electronic drum kits are typically used to trigger drum and percussion sounds, a MIDI-equipped electronic drum kit can be used to trigger any types of MIDI sounds, such as synthesized or sampled piano, guitar, or any other instrument.
In 1967, Felix Visser, a drummer playing with the Dutch pop band the VIPs, modified one of the pre-Roland-era Acetone electronic rhythm boxes, which was intended to play simple pre-programmed rhythms, so that it could be played as a live instrument. The Acetone rhythm box was designed by Ikutaro Kakehashi, who later founded Roland Corporation Japan. As with all rhythm boxes and later drum computers, before a "human feel" was developed by introducing subtle variation and "swing", the Acetone rhythm boxes had a metronomic, machine-like sound.
In Visser's modification, the Acetone box was extended with a large flat board holding 12 printed circuit boards of approximately 4 × 4 inches, with the copper traces intertwining like forks. The copper traces formed the touch surfaces for the sounds generated by the Acetone box. Each touch pad was sensed by an electronic circuit driving high-speed Siemens computer relays he found in surplus shops. These were connected to the drum and percussion sounds of the rhythm box. Although it was a crude way of playing electronic drum sounds by hand (like a percussionist playing bongos and congas), it worked and added a "human feel". Visser's approach enabled drummers to have new type of virtuosity (e.g., rolls on electronic bass drums could be played with sticks). The unit was used in Frans Peters' studio in radio city Hilversum, Netherlands.
The system was over-sensitive to humidity:
"The circuits would be triggered by the touch pads, merely by damp. Just breathing over them would do the job. So in the end a 40 Watt light bulb was built inside the box holding the pads, electronic circuitry and relays, to heat up the unit when the instrument had been sitting in a car and then put on a stage in a relatively warm, damp environment.
After all we'd just left the dark ages of electronic music... "
Question - "One of the strangest pieces was 'Procession' (Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, 1971), which featured the pioneering work of Graeme Edge's electronic drum kit. How did that come about?"
Graeme - "I'd got in touch with the professor of electronics at Sussex University, Brian Groves. We worked up an electronic drum kit, a marvellous idea. I had the control panel in front of me, it's old hat now but we were the first to do it. There were pieces of rubber with silver paper on the back with a silver coil that moved up and down inside a magnet that produced a signal, so it was touch sensitive. I had 5 snares across the top and then ten tom-toms and then a whole octave of bass drums underneath my feet and then four lots of 16 sequencers, two on each side. There was a gap — to play a space — a tambourine, ebony stick, snare and three tom-toms. This was pre-chip days, back then you did it all with transistors. So it had something like 500 transistors. The electronic drums inside looked something like spaghetti. When it worked it was superb, but it was before its day, because it was so sensitive..."
The first commercial electronic drum was the Pollard Syndrum, released by Pollard Industries in 1976. It consisted of an electric sound generator and one or more drum pads. It quickly caught the attention of numerous high-profile drummers/percussionists at the time, such as Carmine Appice and Terry Bozzio. However, the Syndrum was a financial failure and the company failed in the following years.
In 1978, the Simmons company was created to produce commercial electronic drums sets. Its most notable product was the SDS-5, released in 1981. With its characteristic hexagon-shaped pads, the SDS-5 was first used by Richard James Burgess on From the Tea-rooms of Mars ...., "Chant No. 1" by Spandau Ballet, and "Angel Face" by Shock. After its debut on the top musical chart shows and parades, this electronic instrument garnered significant attention from established and influential rock/pop musicians. The sound of the SDS-5 is often described retrospectively with phrases such as "awful" or "sounded like trash can lids" by those who employed them at the time. Despite the critics, the distinctive Simmons sound was extensively used during the 1980s by pop/rock & synth-pop groups such as Duran Duran and progressive rock bands such as Rush, among others. Simmons drums are often viewed somewhat nostalgically by those who began to experiment with these early forays into electronic drums and percussion.
In the following years, other companies started selling their own versions of electronic drums, notably Roland and Yamaha. At that time, the electronic drums were similar to 2016-era starter or entry-level kits. They consisted of rubber-coated sensor pads mounted on stands. The pads were created to be velocity-sensitive and the sound was generated through single or multiple-layered sampling or synthesized sound.
In 1997, Roland introduced its TD-10 model, which had two important musical/electronic innovations. The first and more controversial innovation was its method of providing a sound for the drums/pads to trigger, instead of generating its sound by using samples of an acoustic drum or cymbal . The TD-10 used mathematical models to generate its sounds using synthesizers. While some drummers lamented the fact that the produced sound was not a "pure" sample of an acoustic sound, others felt that simple replication of an acoustic drum was not the goal. Secondly, instead of only providing rubber-coated pads, Roland featured a new mesh-like pad, produced in collaboration with acoustic drum skin manufacturer Remo.
The mesh-head pads look and feel approximately like a smaller-sized acoustic drum. The Remo/Roland mesh surface is made from a double layer of taut woven mesh fibers, fitted with several electronic sensors or triggers. The playing feel is close to that of striking an acoustic drum, but with more bounce than an acoustic skin. Roland termed its innovative commercial drum set "V-Drums", which later became the marketed brand name of its electronic drum line. Together, the mathematical/computational modeling, mesh-head pad surface and improved trigger sensor technology greatly increased the quality of sounds, volume levels in practice and live show settings and the "realistic" feel of electronic drums.
Newer drum kits from major manufacturers have therefore addressed many of the shortcomings of early electronic drum pads and modules. While each of the significant market brands have entry-level units, the professionally marketed kits are geared toward creating sounds and playing experiences that are nearly indistinguishable from playing a quality acoustic kit or world/orchestral percussion instruments. Examples of these high-end professional kits include the Yamaha DTX 950k and Roland V-Drums TD-30KV. Typically, these professional-level and studio kits are equipped with:
High-quality digital sounds – These drum modules offer high quality modeled drum sounds – with hundreds of on board sounds, effects and audio loops and song options/patterns to choose from. Some of these modules allow the user to dial in the specifics of tuning, head type, depth/width and material (metal, wood type, etc.). Trigger sensor/reliability and reduction of cross/talk have been vastly improved. Triggering now allows both the head and the rim to produce sounds, facilitating rim and cross shots as well as shell tapping and many other audio sounds that can be assigned to the head or rim, so that the options for live music increase even more. Cymbals can accommodate more zones: for edge, bow and bell strikes, with choking capability and realistic cymbal swells (Roland and Yamaha video demonstrations on YouTube and Facebook with Craig Blundell, Michael Schack, and Johhny Rabb for Roland, and Zak Bond and Andy Fisenden for Yamaha).
Realistic hi-hats - These newer versions are no longer single cymbal pads but dual replicated cymbals, that can be mounted on regular stands like their acoustic versions. These cymbals allow for actual opened and closed hand/foot playing. A high-spec electronic module detects hi-hat movement/height and position, providing realistic variations of sound via degree of placement – open, partially open, and closed hi-hat strikes. Some modules, like the Roland TD-30, also feature foot close and quick close-open sounds, with pressure on the cymbals also being sensed and replicated when tightening or loosening the foot pressure, even on a closed hi-hat. So, the audio sounds tighter when firm pressure is applied on an already closed hi-hat pedal (Roland's TD-30 Module, as demonstrated by Craig Blundell, Omar Hakim and Michael Schack on YouTube for Roland. Tom Griffen for Yamaha also demonstrates cymbal sensitivities in a demo on YouTube).
Multiple outputs - The professional-level modules from the leading manufacturers have multiple outputs to the sound board such that each percussion group (i.e. Toms, Cymbals, etc...) can be independently mixed (like the multiple miking of an acoustic kit). Additionally, these groups have independent volume faders on the module to fine-tune volume settings for each group. Another commonly designated output is the MIDI connection, which sends signals to a computer based specialist MIDI software or, for example, a DAW (digital audio workstation). The increased processing power provided by this option allows the user to utilize actual, randomized samples of professionally recorded or modeled drums. The output and input of the pads, trigger devices etc. can be augmented or controlled through digital software, the module, MIDI instruments and other samplers. The result is a phenomenally credible, nuanced, flexible set of instruments and, arguably, by some accounts; an almost indistinguishable augmentation or replacement for traditionally recorded drums and melodic/world percussion and effects. Not many acoustic drummers will warm to that, and many studio engineers will quibble about the finer audio details regarding acoustic vs electronic, but that is not the scope of the article.
Comparison to acoustic drum set
Although not totally silent because they are still being played by striking on the surface of the drums, electronic drums and their counterpart devices usually produce considerably less acoustic noise than a traditional drum kit.
Also, the drummer can use headphones for an essentially silent and private practice in dwellings where it would be impossible to have a studio or acoustic noise level, and perhaps where regular-sized kits would not fit. They are lighter and easier to transport than an acoustic drum kit.
Electronic drum sets are (usually) more compact than acoustic drums- though it is possible to have them customized to acoustic sizes – or convert acoustic kits to become one and so that alters their size benefits, depending on your choice.
A single electronic kit can (via its module or software) simulate the sounds of countless acoustic kits and instruments/effects. A drummer in a cover band or wedding band can switch instantly, for instance, between a vintage jazz drum kit and a powerful maple rock kit. Other options include congas, piano, guitar, brushes, orchestral timpani, gongs or even add hand claps or sound effects such as a sirens. In the 2010s, many non-musical samples and effects are available. It is therefore possible to achieve much more than one can with an acoustic kit alone and one has to transport significantly less kit to play a wide variety of sounds and instruments.
Electronic drums do not require complex and expensive microphones or their large stand arrangements for recording, unlike acoustic drums. Instead, the sound can be obtained through line-out or MIDI connections. Because of this, an electronic drum is good for education, practice, composition applications. The best-quality electronic drums and drum modules can even be used in studio recording or live performance.
Electronic drums usually have useful features for both the aspiring beginner or professional alike, such as metronomes with different metronome voices; play-along songs/loops and samples, with the ability to record practicing or playing; syncing of the metronome to a studio DAW metronome instead of using the studio's click; or experimenting with composition. It is also easy to use an MP3 player or iPod to play songs for practice or for looping those parts to target technique issues or replicate drum parts.
Electronic drums can be played at a significantly lower volume level, and so are less restrictive for use, avoiding the need for the rest of a band or other quieter musicians to have to increase their volume acoustically or electronically to match the percussive volume level. This is particularly advantageous in smaller rooms, or older architectural theatres/classical/folk/choral style settings, where excessive volume is not necessarily desired and can dominate in a way that is difficult and time consuming to solve (with acoustic drums, some small venues use plexiglass screens to reduce the onstage drum volume).
When equipment such as sticks, brushes (vinyl brushes for mesh heads) and mallets are used with electronic drums, they last slightly longer than on acoustic kits, due to the use of rubberized rims and hoop protection that prevents stick contact with metal.
They can be used to control or sample from other MIDI instruments or work with other samplers (Roland SPD-SX, or Yamaha DTX Multi-12), or percussion pads (Alesis Percussion Pad, Roland SPD-30 Octapad/Handsonic- HPD 20 or the Yamaha DTX Multi-12). They also work well alongside DAW software for using samples rather than modeled computer generated sounds.
Electronic drums do not perfectly reproduce the sound of acoustic drum kits. (This may not be the entire scope or purpose for electronic kits in 2016, but it is still a large priority for many customers.)
Unlike acoustic kits, the individual drums, sensors, pads, modules, and cables of an electronic kit may be incompatible with those of other models or brands.
Electronic drums may be more costly than an acoustic kits of equivalent quality, particularly when the need for a keyboard amplifier or other sound system is factored in.
Important features such as realistic-feeling pads and advanced, realistic sound modeling or samples are generally limited to expensive sets. Entry-level electronic kits generally use single triggered rubberized hard pads and modest-quality samples or sound modeling.
Unlike acoustic drum kits, which are powerful enough to be audible in a small gig without amplification, electronic kits need at least one power outlet and a keyboard amplifier or small PA system to be audible.
The quality of the sounds reproduced by an electronic kit depends on the quality of the sound module, samples, amplifier, personal monitors, headphones, satellite speakers, or audio system used by the performer.
Every region has regulations on electronic equipment. Bands that are on tour with electronic drums will need to do maintenance and periodic tests of the equipment. As well, bands that are crossing international borders may need accurate paperwork for their electronic drums. Cables, plugs, adapters, earthing, and any sign of damage or modification without the proper paperwork could nullify a band's or a venue's insurance policy. Occasionally a venue may require a risk assessment before electronic drums can be used on stage.
A table-top electronic drum (or portable electronic drum) is an electronic drum that has all of its pads (except foot pedals) and the electronic sound module combined in a single table-top unit. It usually has a small amplifier and small loudspeakers incorporated. The sound generation is generally simpler (single-layered samples) when compared to more expensive, full-size electronic kits. Also, the feel when playing a table-top drum/pad is very different from using a full-size electronic kit or an acoustic kit. The advantages of table-top drums are the portability and the relatively lower price.
Some acoustic drummers use a table-top electronic drum as their first foray into electronic drumming, since purchasing a single table-top unit and setting it up alongside an acoustic drumkit is much cheaper and simpler than fitting an entire acoustic kit with sensors and connecting them to a "drum brain".
Acoustic triggered drum kit
An acoustic triggered drum kit is a regular acoustic drum kit coupled with drum trigger/s (sensors) on the drums and cymbals. The triggers can be "built inside" or permanently fixed on to cymbals–so that they are necessarily either: fixed triggers (electronic kit essentially), removable (can be either acoustic or electronic by default of purpose at the time), or simply an acoustic kit that is now actually a "Hybrid" kit–using external triggers that attach to the rim and skin (or batter head) so as to trigger other sounds on top of the natural acoustic sound produced or simply to boost it for performance.
The triggers detect hits/ vibrations on the batter head and/or hoop rim and generate an electric signal. The signal is then sent to an electronic module/sampler or via cables and an Audio Interface to MIDI-DAW/drum software on a PC/laptop/Mac–to trigger the selected sounds. Usually, the "acoustic triggered kit" has either commercially available mesh head "skins" (silent), or the drummer keeps her natural skins (using acoustic skins for a Hybrid kit are standard practice) and other muting accessories to reduce the acoustic sounds generated when played. This way, an acoustic (electro/acoustic) or Hybrid triggered drum kit has the feel and sizes of the standard acoustic kit but with the added benefits of an electronic kit's onstage silence, controllable volume (an important factor in small venues) or the added sound library available in 2016-era high-end kits, which includes sounds for large gongs and other instruments that are expensive and hard to transport in their original acoustic form. A recent innovation is DrumsAnywhere software, which uses only a single piezoelectric microphone to trigger eight different drum pads on any flat or irregular surface.
^[For the definition employed here cf: -'The Case for Vintage Electronic Drums' by Michael Render, page 1 (originally published in the Not So Modern Drumming Magazine) & sourced from "The Electronic Drum Experts" web site]
^ abRender, Michael. The Case for Vintage Electronic Drums. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-02-08. Retrieved 2011-06-21.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link), accessed June 21, 2011
^Greg Rule & Steve Fisher. V-Drums History. , accessed June 21, 2011
^UK Musicians Union (April 2014), "Powered Performance", Drummer Magazine, p. 46
^See Craig Blundell on: "Hybrid Kits" & Roland V Drums, "Triggers" & Trigger bar on YouTube; See 682Drums for materials on conversions and DD Drums, Hart Dynamics Drum-tech or Pintech for Custom Acoustic/Electronic Kit sizes, that function dualistically or primarily as electronic kits but in various acoustic sizes).