It’s probably fair to say that there has been nothing like the recent boom in electronic drum kits of the past five years since the explosion of electronic keyboards in the 1980s. The advance of sampling and synthesis technology, combined with increasingly sensitive and complex triggers has meant that – as with the keyboard’s successor, the digital piano – an instrument whose sound and playability depends upon the acoustic structures achieved through traditional manufacturing methods can now be imitated very closely by synthetic means.
The electronic development of musical instruments has led to three significant selling points: noise levels, size and price. Nowadays would-be players can buy a drum kit for well under £400, pop it in the corner of a bedroom without having to do more than clear a small space, plug in the headphones and start learning.
Those in the know will already be reaching for their ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ letter templates. Acoustic drum kits have long been as compact as electronic kits, of course, with practice pads readily available to silence a kit and entry-level kits have only recently been matched by electronic ones for price – and have a better mark up.
MAKING A MARK (UP)
As with the keyboards of the ‘80s and, to a lesser degree, digital pianos, e-drums have slipped easily into the ‘hi tech’ retail category, which can translate into as little as 15 to 20 per cent mark up. One drum retailer I spoke to, who has enjoyed a very successful 2008, told me that while e-kits have grown to 20 per cent of his turnover, that comes through as a mere seven per cent of his gross profit. Add to this the fact that while an acoustic drum kit customer will need all manner of add-ons (such as those practice pads – not to mention the sticks, skins, pedals, new cymbals and snares and hardware) there is little value the drum dealer can add to an e-kit sale other than the hope that the customer will be back to upgrade or make the leap to an acoustic kit.
With prices now moving below the £500 mark – some even below £300 – there are now signs that youngsters starting out on an electronic kit are beginning to come back to the stores looking for an acoustic kit. It is a recent development, but one that bodes well.
The boom in electronic kits is also a healthy sign that the market is still growing. A look at the major suppliers’ sales figures makes for interesting reading, where growth in the entry-level particularly seems to be proving that accessibility in terms of space and low noise is all many need to inspire that move to buying a drum kit.
E-drums have also brought the drumming fraternity (or rather aspirants) into the mom and pop stores, which has been very much welcomed by said outlets, while rankling a bit with the specialists. This is not so much to do with any ‘stay out of my territory’ attitude as with a concern that the back-to-front entry into the market has brought about an interesting phenomenon. Coming into the market on the back of e-drums and the inherent low margins has led some to assume that starter acoustic kits can function on lower margins, too. This is having the effect of pushing prices and margins down for all, including those that make their bread and butter from drums and percussion.
Despite that, there is a lot of opportunity for ‘simple’ sales (compared to full scale acoustic kits) and thus for non-specialists to take full advantage of a product range that appears to have captured the public’s imagination.
It wasn’t that long ago that a drum kit in a home was unusual. A few more years and it will be positively normal.
What follows, then, is, as ever, far from a comprehensive run through of electronic drums, but it should be enough to give those pondering the possibility of getting into e-drums a bit of inspiration as to where to go for advice and supplies…
The rise of Roland in the drum world over the past six or seven years has been nothing short of phenomenal and the Japanese hi tech developer has forged a path that has enabled an increasing number of minor manufacturers and suppliers to follow on with ease.
Roland’s latest offering came at the recent NAMM show: the TD-4K kit, a mid-to-high price range kit with a new TD-4 sound module, which has upgraded drum and percussion sounds, as well as new ambience effects, optimised for drums. As well as the familiar rubber drum pads, cymbals and proprietary multi-layer, mesh snare head, it has a newly-designed four-legged drum stand that allows flexible and solid positioning of the pads and places the TD-4 module in the centre for easy access. The Rhythm Coach and Quick Record functions complete the package, offering excellent tuition capabilities.
The TD-4K, which clocks in at a sub-£1,000 price tag, is a typical example of Roland’s ongoing trickle down of technology from last year’s TD-9K kit, which retails at around £1,300. The TD-9 introduced an upgraded triggering system and came in two versions, the familiar rubber pads (as with the TD-4) or with complete mesh heads throughout on the TD-9KX for an extra £300.
Roland tells us that an increasing number of acoustic drummers are incorporating triggering into their performance as a bridge between the conventional playing they know and love and the adjustable and stable output of a sound module.
Another route for the ‘established’ drummer unsure about the benefits of going the whole hog with an electronic kit is the drum pad unit. Roland’s SPD-S sampling pad is becoming a familiar sight amid professionals’ acoustic set-ups, enabling eight sounds using six rubber pads and three edge triggers. The beauty is in the simplicity: record a sound, assign it to a pad and go. Up to 12 minutes of sampling is provided in ‘Long’ mode, along with the editing features of Truncate and Trigger Mode. Roland is seeing considerable growth with this product, too – and at a roughly £400 retail price, it needn’t be the exclusive sphere of the
New to the e-drum market (although in relative terms, Ashton is, of course, pretty new to everything) the Australian entry-level brand
has also gone down the drum pad route with the EDP420 drum unit.
Targeting the home market or incidental studio work, this Far Eastern-manufactured drum pad unit has seven pads, two pedals (hi-hat and bass drum), 25 preset kits, five user programmable kits, 250 percussion and 128 MIDI voices, USB port, single track recording, metronome and the all-important headphone output. As well as a set of sticks, the EDP unit also benefits from Ashton’s now familiar POS packaging. At £189 it is a good way for the beginner to dip a toe into the genre without blowing a year’s savings.
P&R Howard has been enjoying considerable success with the Session Pro DD505 since its introduction to the market just under two years ago. Sold predominantly to general or mom and pop stores, the Scottish supplier was blown away with the response. The 505 hit straight into the entry level market, retailing with a sub £400 tag, while offering four drum pads, three cymbals, hi-hat and kick drum, together with 215 voices, 20 preset kits, ten user kits, tempo, tap and voice tuning, as well as reverb and gain control.
It is now introducing the DD508 to the UK. The 508 stretches out into the mid-priced market at £849 and this could prove a big mover over the next year or so.
The 508 has the same pad, trigger and cymbal layout of the 505, but upgrades to 307 voices, 30 user kits, multiple triggers, including rim shot, cymbal bell and edge, cymbal choke, MIDI and USB – in short, a pro kit that will doubtless turn the head of those intermediates looking to upgrade and gain access to some of the acoustic techniques, but on an electric kit. Well worth a look.
The new PP900E from Performance Percussion (now referred to as PP Drums) features all the equipment laid out as you’d expect: four drum pads, kick drum and pedal, two cymbal pads and a hi-hat cymbal pad with control pedal. Also as expected, the kit is supplied with a fully adjustable frame, three cymbal booms, all connecting cables, power supply, drumsticks and instructions.
The mountable sound module offers a choice of 215 voices, along with 20 preset kit sounds. And while the unit’s memory lets you save your favourite settings, ten ‘user defined’ kit voices are also available with an additional 50 preset songs to play along with, as well as a click track and metronome facility. Via the module, the player has control over these settings, plus straightforward volume, tempo and tap controls, which can be monitored visually on the LED display.
The PP900E module offers a MIDI out facility, with normal outputs for hooking up to a PA, desk or monitor/amp. Then a headphone output (of course) and an aux input for audio from an external source. A lot of bang for buck on this model with a retail price of £479.
Pintech is unusual in that the manufacturer focuses on the kit itself, while leaving the hi tech wizards to supply the sound module. The Road Pro kit, for example, comes standard with all the extras, designed specifically for the Roland TD-20 drum module and comes in at a few hundred quid less. This six-piece kit is the top of the line in every respect – two ten-inch and 12-inch Concert Cast Black EZ Tune mesh pads and a 14-inch Black Piccolo mesh snare. It features the Visu Lite line of cymbals (available in 12 colours), has super accurate triggering and a feel that is as close to acoustic as electronic cymbals have yet come.
Top it all off with American-made, hand-soldered CBI cables, with Neutrik connectors, Silen Trim on all pads for quiet rim playing and you have a kit that has the pros drooling. Pintech also recommends the Roland TD-12 for this kit.
Like Roland, Alesis began life with synthesizers and keyboards and as such had access to a lot of technology ideal for the manufacture of electronic drums. The addition of Akai and its sampling technology to the Numark family, however, opened up even more doors, but still the company hung back from the plunge, while Roland and Yamaha stole the show. When the company did finally come into the market, it was with something of a splash – literally.
Alesis’ USB Pro drum kit is the world's first drum set designed for use with a Mac or PC as the sound module. The logic is that a computer has more processing power than any hardware drum module and combined with the touch of tunable, mylar drum heads and the natural feel of brass-alloy Surge cymbals (by Sabian), creates an acoustic-feeling, great-sounding drumming experience. The heart of the USB Pro is the Trigger/IO interface and the FXpansion BFD Lite software, which opens up the world of DAWs and plugins, such as BFD, Toontrack and Reason to drummers and producers looking for realistic drum performances.
The drum pads are built around eight-inch mylar drumheads and acoustic-dampening foam. The snare and tom pads are dual-zone, enabling rimshot or rim-click sounds on the snare and additional sounds such as wind chimes, cymbals, gongs, and cowbells on the tom rims. When they wear out, the drumheads can be replaced with any model you choose from any manufacturer.
The Surge cymbals on the USB Pro are 12-inch hi-hats, 13-inch crash and 16-inch ride – the crash and ride both having a choke function, while the ride has a dual zone for bell sounds.
Yamaha has done as much as anyone to establish e-drums as a viable alternative to ‘the real thing’, as well as helping to open up the hobbyist and home market. As with digital pianos, the MI giant has had its own top quality products in the acoustic arena to examine, sample and emulate, which means the ‘learning curve’ of gradual sound quality improvement has proved an easier nut to crack.
Whether in the studio or live, Yamaha’s DTXtreme tops the DTX range and gives the drummer everything he (or she) needs thanks to the powerful Motif synth engine. The kit also has value for the student and helps teach any style, as well as allowing the users to track the accuracy of their playing. There are also a lot of uploaded songs on the kit for the player to get to grips with.
As ever, the technology trickle down has allowed Yamaha to introduce much of these features in the mid-priced DTXpress and the DTXplorer beginner kit.
Roland: 01792 702701
Ashton: 01780 781630
P&R Howard (Session Pro): 01355 236621
JHS (PP Drums): 0113 286 5381
Pintech: 0141 432 2469
Numark (Alesis): 01252 341400
Yamaha: 01908 366700