Electric vs. acoustic
As a pro drummer and drum teacher I don’t like playing electronic drum kits - I dislike the way they feel AND the way they sound. A guitarist wouldn’t play with rubber strings, a trumpeter wouldn’t play a plastic trumpet, yet unfortunately drummers needing to practice at home often have no practical choice other than to go electric, and it’s all down to one reason – NOISE!! Although as a drum tutor during my drum lessons I'm able to offer my pupils the chance to play a proper acoustic drum kit, that is rarely the case for them at home...
Many are unaware just how loud an acoustic drum kit is, and unless you’re blessed with living in a detached house a fair distance from your neighbours, forget it - unless you want to be on the receiving end of a noise abatement order! If you are one of the lucky ones and you won’t bother your neighbours, ask yourself - will others in your household be ok with enduring hours of incredibly loud, repetitive (and if you’re a beginner, out of time!) drum patterns during your practice sessions?! Would the fact that you’re annoying others put you off practicing?
Put an acoustic kit in a wooden shed/summer house and you can actually amplify the sound! A brick or concrete garage might seem a good idea but, not only will the thin metal garage door stop almost zero sound getting out, it will act like a drum skin and resonate, making an almighty racket outside! I've been a drum teacher for many years, and during my drum lessons in the studio I’ve heard lots of crazy suggestions, and been asked countless times how you can ‘sound proof’ ‘a bit’ ‘without spending a fortune’ etc. - for most, the simple answer is you can’t.
As a drum tutor I've learned the only effective way to sound proof for something as loud as a drum kit is to build a heavy concrete structure, completely air tight, with another, completely air tight, ‘room within a room’ inside it, with 4” thick compression latch-sealed double doors filled with sand, a complex sound proof ventilation system etc – it is not for the faint hearted, requiring expert knowledge on the physics of sound transmission, proficient builder’s skills (to do safely!), not to mention considerable time and cost! If you really want to play an acoustic kit (which is understandable and admirable), you are much better off renting a cheap rehearsal room a few hours a week, or maybe renting a semi-permanent lock-up (some drummers share the rent between them and have a time-share system. Facebook can help find such people).
As a drum teacher I've tried the many products available during my drum lessons for quietening down (or more accurately, pretty much ‘muting’!) acoustic kits, such as solid rubber pads that sit on top of snare and tom skins, sheets of rubber and/or foam that sit in between the beater and the bass drum skin, cymbal mutes and so on. This sort of set up is completely counter intuitive for a drum tutor or for a pupil practicing – what’s the point in buying an acoustic kit which feels totally natural to play, and sounds great, only to essentially turn it in to a set of rubber practice pads which, not only feels completely unnatural to play, but sounds terrible too (nothing like a drum kit and totally uninspiring!), and may still create a noise issue (see ‘Rubber pads’ below). The only scenario in which I see this sort of set up working, is for those who get to regularly use the kit in all it’s acoustic glory, in rehearsal spaces and/or at gigs, and just want to practice quietly occasionally in between - without shelling out for an electric kit too. If this is you, I would consider mesh practice drum heads instead of rubber silencers for a better feel, though this does require the inconvenience of removing and switching out all the acoustic drum heads, then putting them back and re-tuning the whole kit each time!
So, when not playing a proper acoustic drum kit under the guidance of a drum teacher during drum lessons, for most, an electric kit with headphones is the only practical option to learn effectively at home, without creating a noise issue, as well as to save a little space. Think of pianists who, rather than a huge loud grand piano, often play a much smaller electric keyboard with headphones, silently. Electric drum kits are still pretty big, but don’t have 18” deep bass drums, or wide based cymbal stands like their acoustic counterparts - instead most have shallow drum pads and a ‘rack’ stand system. To get a ‘real feel’ however, pianists have to spend a fortune on ‘weighted’ keys, and historically it has been much the same with electric drums, though increasingly there are more cost-effective options open to drummers, which is good news!
The final thing to note is that, although you want to aim to get an electric kit that is very quiet – they are not totally silent! As a drum teacher who used to give drum lessons on electric kits in a conservatory, my neighbours would you the sound of striking the pads, in particular the rubber cymbals, does create an incessant ‘tap-tap’ sound that can really annoy - so, drum tutor or not, where possible, players should aim to place an electric kit in a separate room to other household members. In addition, stomping the bass drum pedal and stepping the hi-hat pedal, will create ‘impact noise’ which will move down into a hollow wooden floor, across floor joists, through the ceiling below etc – myself and many others I know, despite spending considerable money going electric instead of acoustic, have still been on the receiving end of noise complaints due to this, so if at all possible place electric kits on a solid concrete floor downstairs. If you’re upstairs, in a semi-detached or terraced house, a flat etc, the best way to prevent your playing annoying the rest of the house, your neighbours, or people below, is to build a thick carpet-covered platform of mdf or plywood, which sits on lots of whole (or half) tennis or squash balls, that absorb the impact noise (half squash balls worked fine for me, made the platform lower, and the project cheaper!). If done right, these work incredibly well, and If you Google it, there is lots of advice on how to build one. There are a fair few commercially available ‘noise eater’ under-kit products on the market now, but I’m yet to see any at a reasonable price so DIY is still the cheapest option...
As a drum teacher I know buying an electric kit can be daunting – the market is flooded with so many options, HUGE variation in prices, and a LOT of confusing features and jargon to get your head around, which I find myself explaining at length during my drum lessons! This guide aims to help anyone buying their first electric kit (or their child’s) to help avoid wasting hard-earned cash on a useless ‘toy’ that doesn’t mimic a musical instrument and and will disappoint when played – something as a drum tutor I’ve seen happen all too often!
As a drum teacher, here I’m mainly looking to help buyers 1. and 2. since this covers the majority of people, almost everyone I teach in my drum lessons, and most beginners. Buyer 3. will likely have a lot of knowledge already, and can scour the ‘net for more help!
No kick drum pad, just a pedal on the floor – this feels nothing like playing a kick drum (which is played with a pedal attached to an upright beater, which strikes an upright drum) They also tend to be far too easy to press down, very wobbly, and likely to break quickly!
Even worse, are kits that just have two, attached, pedals that you can’t even move, meaning your legs may be way too close together or far apart depending on your size, your feet angled uncomfortably, as well as feeling nothing like playing a real kick drum!
‘Inverted’ kick drum pads/beaters - although getting closer, they still don’t feel the same as playing an upright kick, and always have a noisy rubber trigger pad.
Many, even sometimes surprisingly expensive kits, feature useless rack/frame designs such as these. As a drum teacher I have seen first-hand how every player is a different size (plus kids grow taller!), with different set-up needs (and tastes), so there is a huge variation of requirements when it comes to arranging the tom, snare and kick pads. None of the examples below allow all of the drum pads to be universally moved to comfortable positions! Look at how the ‘rack’ toms (first and second toms as you go around the kit left to right, the uppermost pads) are mounted – is there considerable scope to adjust them up and down? Those on a ‘crossbar’ of the frame, which itself can be moved up and down are best. Look at how the snare pad is mounted – can it be moved enough/close enough to you, or to the toms, angled downwards etc, to resemble the positions of acoustic drums? If the snare pad can be removed however, you could put it on a standard acoustic style snare stand instead – these start from around £25. In most cases, the brackets and wing nut that hold the snare drum pad in place are plastic, and on many cheaper kits I’ve seen pupils play during my one-to-one online drum lessons, after a while the snare simply will not stay in position while playing (no matter how tightly assembled), which can be very annoying – so as the snare takes such a beating, you may need to introduce a snare stand instead at some point anyway.
Instead, buyers 1. and 2. should look for this type of rack/frame
...and both would also be happy enough with this type
Due the nature of electric drum pads being much shallower than acoustic drums, and the fact they are all attached to a frame, it is possible (or even probable) that newcomers will set them up in a crazy way that bears no resemblance to the actual layout of an acoustic kit – this can pose a real problem if you get used to playing a kit like this, then try and play a proper acoustic kit only to find you have the wrong technique, accidentally hitting the rims, missing drums altogether etc! It is important to set up your electric kit with exactly the same positioning as an acoustic kit, and get it right from the start - as well as being a drum teacher who offers drum lessons in the studio and one-to-one online drum lessons, I also offer very reasonably priced 1hr 15mins electric kit set-up home visits to assist you with this!
All electric kits have a unit that generates the drum and cymbal sounds when pads are struck, receiving signals from the pads sent down cables connected to it from each one (these cables are never shown in kit promo photos to make the kit appear much ‘tidier’ than it looks in reality!). You can output from the module to headphones, a speaker or both, as needed. Generally, the more expensive the kit, the better the sounds. Increasingly, they also have a host of other features – play along songs, multiple kits and sounds, the ability to assign the sound on any one pad to an alternative sound (within any given kit selected), the ability to edit sound parameters (pitch, decay time, reverb and so on), USB stick inputs to load in your own mp3’s to play along to, or even SD card slots allowing you to load your own ‘samples’, perhaps recordings of real acoustic drums hits, that can be triggered with the pads instead of using the (with cheap kits, somewhat questionable) onboard sounds.
As a minimum, buyers 1. and 2. should look for an on-board metronome (or ‘click’) - an absolute must for learning to play in time, and only really omitted on some old kits (if perhaps you’re buying second hand) and an auxiliary (AUX) input so you can connect your mobile phone, mp3 player, iPod etc in order to play along to songs (or Bluetooth capability as an alternative). In addition, buyer 2. will likely want to look for a larger number of sound options (but be warned many drum and kit sounds are novelty ‘sound effects’ rather than true drum sounds, and unlikely to get much use in practice!), extra inputs to allow for expansion of the kit (by adding eg. an extra cymbal) in future, and MIDI output. Most kits come with 2 cymbals (crash and ride) but many drummers play with 3 or 4 - adding china and splash cymbals for example.
‘MIDI’ sends digital trigger information to a computer, allowing you to play, record and edit your drums easily in conjunction with DAW (Digital Audio Workstation – ie. music production) software (such as Cubase, Logic, Pro-tools, Garage Band, Ableton etc), as well as allowing you to instead use much more realistic drum sounds/samples than those onboard your sound module within such a program, that have been downloaded to your computer, or come as part of a ‘VST’ software instrument. This means, potentially a computer savvy buyer 1. can make a cheap electric kit sound like it is a pro level acoustic kit recorded at Abbey Road, and is a feature you may well want to use in future!
‘Positional sensing’ is a sound module feature which generates a slightly different sound for snare (or sometimes also tom) strokes depending on where they are struck - a ‘ringier’ sound on snare, when played closer to the edge for example (in conjunction with snare pads able to record the location of strokes). It adds a huge amount to the realism of the kit’s sound. One of the things that lets electric kits down most (especially if used to perform live...), is that they sound way too consistent – when you strike a real acoustic snare for example, it will sound subtly different each time... That said, when you record acoustic drums in the studio, the mixing engineer will often strive to make the kick, snare and toms sound more consistent, so if you want to make decent sounding recordings on a budget at home, the drum sounds of an electric kit, tweaked correctly, can potentially sound like a professionally recorded acoustic kit (though the cymbals rarely will). Unfortunately, ‘positional sensing’ is still a feature exclusively found on high end, very expensive kits, so is best left for buyer 3.
Rubber drum pads feel nothing like acoustic drums – by and large they are rock solid with no ‘give’, and create an annoying ‘tap tap’ noise nuisance. Playing repeated loud ‘accent’ strokes on them for prolonged periods of time, and/or with poor technique, can even cause injury such as tennis elbow - AVOID!
Mesh heads are near silent to play, and mimic real drum skins a lot more, though don’t expect them to feel the same - they can actually be easier to ‘bounce’ the sticks on for double strokes! Their tension can be altered with a ‘tuning’ (drum) key, just like a real acoustic drum head, to alter the feel/stick response to eg. better mimic a tightly tuned snare, or a low-tuned ‘flappy’ floor tom or large bass drum. Be careful not to go too loose though, as you can damage the trigger sensor underneath when you strike them hard!
Some kits feature a mesh snare only – though if bought at a cheap enough price (especially second-hand) you can replace the 3 rubber toms with mesh ones if cost effective. The excellent Roland PD-80, PD-80R, and PD-85 are readily sold second-hand on eBay from £65 each, though you can sometimes find a set of 3 at a discount, or consider new ‘own brand’ mesh heads such as Gear4Music’s WHD Dual Zone Mesh Drum Expansion Pad (8” £45 each, 10” £50 each + £3 shipping for 3), or DV247’s 10” FSPDD10 Dual Tom Pad (£51 each + free shipping for 3). Try and check compatibility with your make and model of kit before buying. Any rubber components you can try and sell off on eBay to put towards the cost!
Kits with rubber toms always have rubber kicks too. It used to be that, even with what are often (inaccurately!) described as ‘mesh kits’, the kick was still rubber(!), unless you spent a fortune on a high-end kit – very annoying! Rubber kick drums create a loud noise nuisance (since your legs are stronger/heavier than your arms, and you strike them with a foot pedal/beater), as well as feeling rock solid and nothing like playing a real bass drum - AVOID! It is possible to replace the kick with a mesh head model however, though from the leading brands these are VERY expensive new – a Roland KD-120 for example will set you back a whopping £440 (you’d be better off buying their discontinued KD-80, KD-85 or KD-100 models second-hand for £110-130, or perhaps their KD-9 ‘cloth’ model second-hand, but although quieter than rubber, these are not as quiet as mesh, for £70-80).
Thomann, a German supplier, manufacture their own (Millenium MPS-850) mesh kicks at a very reasonable price (£66 delivered) - just check compatibility with your make and model of kit. To save all this hassle try to buy a kit with all mesh heads.
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