2009 Electronic Drum Kit Buyer's Guide | B&H Photo Video Pro Audio
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2009 Electronic Drum Kit Buyer's Guide

By Ken Hamberg

Electronic drum sets have been available since the mid-1980's and have evolved considerably from the sample and special- effects trigger complements of acoustic drums that they were when they first appeared.

As both sampling and modeling technologies have advanced at a seemingly logarithmic pace, so has the physical and ergonomic design of the electronic drums themselves. The result is a truly enjoyable (and healthy) playing experience, combined with an often-astonishing sonic realism and fidelity to the acoustic originals being reproduced with each stroke of the stick and push of the pedal.

This article will address the curiosities, concerns, and needs of professional drummers, project and commercial studio owners, dedicated hobbyists, parents and relatives, and other "civilians" interested in purchasing an electronic drum kit for themselves or a loved one. We'll also have the opportunity to review a selection of electronic drum kits available at B&H that we've chosen according to their value and performance within their price ranges.

Please note- This article is an overview of many of the electronic drum kits we offer at B&H, and is meant to serve as an educational tool for selecting the best product for your needs and/or budget. Due to heavy holiday demand, some of the products discussed in this article may not currently be in stock, though most can be easily drop-shipped directly from the manufacturer when you place your order. If you have any questions about availability, please feel free to contact us via telephone or email.

Tapping out the Beat

An electronic drum kit is comprised of a sound module, or "brain", from which the sounds emanate, drum and cymbal triggerpads to which the sounds are assigned and played, foot pedals (usually optional) for the hi-hat and bass drum triggers, and a stand upon which the trigger pads are mounted and positioned.

Roland TD-20S - V-Pro Electronic Drum Kit (Black)
Electronic Drum Kit with stand

The original electronic trigger pads usually contained a hard rubber playing surface capable of causing some nasty injuries to the hands and feet if played for significant periods of time. I know this because I've played on nearly every electronic drum kit ever made, both owned and rented.

Thankfully, those days are long gone. Most electronic drum kits in production today, whether they're designed for professional or home applications, use triggers with actual drum heads, either smooth or mesh plastic that look — and more important feel — like the heads on acoustic drums.

Many pad triggers are also equipped with what is called a "dual-zone design", meaning that separate sounds may be assigned to the head and the rim. For example, the trigger's head may be assigned a tom-tom sound, while the rim may be assigned a cowbell. Your kit might contain only 4 drum pads, but those pads are capable of producing 8 different sounds. Life just got better.

Alesis DM5PRODPDZ DM5 Pro Kit - Dual Zone Expansion Drum Pad
Trigger Pad with adjustable head

The heads are adjusted and tightened with tuning lugs and a drum key, just like an acoustic drum, but they're "tuned" not for pitch but rather for response to the individual's playing touch, and maximum sensitivity from the drum pad's internal sensor. You can play today's snare, tom, and bass drum pads for hours on end, so good is the feel and response.

Cymbal triggers have also undergone a remarkable transformation. Basically rubber-coated metal, some companies have introduced metal alloy finishes to the top of the cymbal so they feel more like the real thing in performance, and look more like the real thing on stage. Cymbal triggers typically mount on cymbal stands and react with the familiar swishing motion of their acoustic counterparts.

Alesis SURGE 16" Electronic Dual Zone Ride Cymbal
Cymbal Trigger with brass alloy surface

However, even the uncoated variety of cymbal trigger exhibits the same motion, response, and (usually) shape of an acoustic cymbal, and most also offer a dual-zone design, so that the bell/bow and rim may be assigned separate sounds. Two different crash cymbal sounds, for example, may be assigned to the same cymbal trigger.

Roland CY-15C V-Cymbal Ride 15"
Cymbal Trigger with rubber surface
Roland FD-8 Hi-Hat Controller
Hi-Hat trigger controller pedal

The hi-hat and bass drum triggers are played with pedals, and some companies offer dual hi-hat triggers that mount on a hi-hat stand. If you're used to playing double bass drums on an acoustic drum kit, or you use a double bass drum pedal, you can use the same technique on an electronic kit, using the same pedal.

Roland KD-120 V-Kick Trigger Pad (White)
Bass Drum trigger with pedal

Now that we have a better perspective of the various playing components of an electronic drum kit, let's take a look at the magic box that produces the sounds we're playing, and how they're made.


Of Brains and Brawn

Roland TD-12 - Electronic Percussion Module for Roland V-Series
Percussion sound module for an electronic drum kit

The sound module that accompanies an electronic drum kit, also known as the brain, is really the heart and soul of it. The programmable brain is loaded with the kit's sound library, contains the trigger inputs from the assorted pads, analog-and sometimes digital-audio outputs, a headphone output, MIDI inputs and outputs, and footswitch inputs. The brain is also often equipped with an internal sequencer for recording patterns or full song arrangements, internal mixing, often with faders and knobs, and sound assignment capabilities. The level of programmability will vary from unit to unit according to price (and hence sophistication of features) and the technology deployed for sound delivery engineered into the unit, which these days means either sampling or sound modeling technology.

Sampling basically describes the recording of a sound as an event in time and space that can be played back on a variety of triggering devices – a keyboard or guitar controller, for example, or in the case of an electronic drum kit, a drum pad or trigger cymbal.

The sound is an actual recording and for the most part, it is what it is. Even if the recording has been properly edited and well recorded, there really isn't much possibility for modification apart from external-effects processing such as equalization, reverb and ambience application, etc. It's a permanent recording of a specific instrument as it sounded in a particular room with a particular microphone.

Sound modeling, or virtual instrument technology, is not sampling - it's the magic of mathematics: a series of algorithms programmed to accomplish the simulation, emulation, and recreation of an instrument's behavior, character and sound.

Sound modeling has been around for a while in the world of keyboards and electric guitar and bass – think of some of those amazing simulations we hear of classic synthesizers, amplifiers, and speaker cabinets. Sound modeling technology has been successfully invoked for recreating drum and percussion sounds, most notably by the Roland Corporation in their V-series drums, with pretty astounding results.

Sound modeling offers everything you may love about sampling – clean, realistic, life-like sound and playability – combined with amazing control over the physical details of an instrument, in this case a drum.

You can program anything from the depth and material of a drum's shell to the type of drum head (clear or coated) being used. You can program the type of bass drum beater material you'd like to use (felt, wood, or plastic) regardless of what you're real bass drum beater is made of, and also the type of sound-damping material you'd like to use for that bass drum (tape or a blanket, for example). The changes you can affect in the overall drum sound by adjusting the various virtual parameters are really significant.

The ability to control so many virtual details is nothing short of amazing, allowing for the creation of completely unique custom instruments and drum kits that can be called up with the press of a button. In the acoustic world you may have one or two great-sounding drum kits to choose from; with an electronic kit you may have 50 to choose from, while taking up less than half the space.

Getting Set

Here's a selection of electronic drum kits we carry at B&H, arranged by price, from low to high.

Yamaha DD-65 - Compact Digital Drum Kit
Yamaha DD-65 - Compact Digital Drum Kit

The Yamaha YADD65 is an extremely compact digital drum kit comprised of 8 touch-sensitive polymer pads you can play with your sticks or your hands. The pads are ergonomically arranged on a futuristic trapezoidal tray that serves as sound module, control surface, and monitoring center with built-in stereo speakers and amplification. The unit is equipped with a large library of high-quality percussion samples culled from Yamaha's digital drum collection, and features 50 drum kits, internal effects processing, and 100 onboard songs to play along with. Under $220, pedals and sticks included.

Yamaha DD-65 - Compact Digital Drum Kit with DK-65 Bundle
Yamaha DD-65 - Compact Digital Drum Kit with DK-65 Bundle

The Yamaha YADD65-DK65 is the YADD65 mentioned above, packaged with a snare stand, a drum seat, and both a kick drum tower and hi-hat tower from Yamaha's professional DTXPRESS electronic kit. It's a great package, and it's under $520.

Alesis DM6 Kit - Electronic Drumset
Alesis DM6 Kit - Electronic Drumset

The Alesis DM6K is an 8-piece electronic drum kit with 5 pads and 3 cymbals, touch sensitive and rubber-coated. The snare pad features dual-zone triggering for separate head and rim sound assignment. The brain is stocked with 108 clean, usable samples and 15 programmable drum sets, a built-in metronome and sequencer, a USB/MIDI output and an internal play-along song library. This kit is a great low-cost alternative for practice and recording purposes. Stand, kick, and hi-hat pedals included. Under $500.

Roland HD-1 - V-Drums Lite All-in-One Electronic Drum Kit
Roland HD-1 - V-Drums Lite All-in-One Electronic Drum Kit

The Roland HD-1, also known affectionately as V-drums Lite, is an ultra-compact electronic drum kit featuring 3 quiet, cushioned tom pads, a mesh head for the snare, and a highly-responsive kick pad/beater unit. The crash and ride cymbals look and sway like the real thing, and the intense little brain features 10 kits culled from Roland's fabulous V-drums sound modeling library. Great starter kit for the kid, great practice kit for Dad or Mom. Custom stand and pedals included, under $800.

Roland HD-1 - V-Drums Lite All-in-One Electronic Drum Kit
Roland HD-1 - V-Drums Lite All-in-One Electronic Drum Kit

The Roland HD-1 PAK is the HD-1 packaged with the PM-01 personal amp/speaker drum monitor and the DAP-1 V-drums accessory package, which includes a drum stool, sticks, and headphones. Under $1000.

Roland TD-4S V-Compact Series Drum Kit
Roland TD-4S V-Compact Series Drum Kit

The Roland TD4S is Roland's entry level pro electronic kit, and the TD4 brain brings Roland's proprietary COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling) technology into play with 25 drum kits and some cool virtual editing possibilities including tuning, muffling, and cymbal choke capabilities. The natural rubber pads and cymbals are dual-trigger configured, and the snare pad features an adjustable mesh head with a natural playing feel. Pedals, stand, and mounting hardware included. Under $1000.

Alesis DM10 Pro Kit - Electronic Drum Kit
Alesis DM10 Pro Kit - Electronic Drum Kit

The Alesis DM10 Pro Kit is a professional electronic drum kit featuring adjustable Mylar heads for the pads and a brass alloy coating for the hi-hat, crash, and ride cymbals. The brain is loaded with an astounding 1,047 preset sampled sounds, varying from studio-quality drum sets to classic drum machine, electronic drum sounds, and world percussion. Useful internal sequencer and USB output greatly enhance recording capabilities. Classy look, feel, and sound for under $1320.

Roland TD-4SX - Electronic Drum Set
Roland TD-4SX - Electronic Drum Set

The Roland TD4 SX features adjustable multi-layer mesh pads, a dedicated hi-hat cymbal with custom hi-hat trigger pedal, cross-stick functionality for playing on the snare rim, and a 9000-note internal sequencer. The kick drum tower is wide enough to accommodate the double-pedal of choice. Excellent low-cost professional alternative for live or studio performance. The TD4 brain offers 25 drum kits and 125 percussion instruments along with a useful complement of virtual parameter editing. The ergonomically designed stand and all mounting hardware are included and easy to adjust. Sounds great, plays great. Under $1600.

Roland TD-12SV-BK V-Stage Kit (Black)
Roland TD-12SV-BK V-Stage Kit (Black)

The Roland TD12 SVB, known as the V-Stage Kit, is Roland's elite professional stage alternative, although it's a way more than capable recording kit as well. It's equipped with 3 dual-zone cymbals, 4 dual-zone pads with adjustable mesh heads, and a dedicated hi-hat trigger cymbal you can mount on a hi-hat stand for exceptionally realistic performance. The kick drum trigger is wide enough for a double-pedal and features a super-accurate sensor. The TD-12 brain offers a huge 500-sound library with 50 programmable drum kits, a variety of effects processors, additional trigger inputs for additional pads and cymbals, and the highest level of virtual parameter editing we've seen so far. This is one of the best-sounding electronic kits out there. Under $3300.

The Benefits Package

In conclusion, let's briefly review the benefits of electronic drum kit ownership:

  • The opportunity to practice, play and record at any time of the day or night wearing headphones without disturbing your family or neighbors.
  • Take the tedium out of recording at home or in the studio. Perform your drum and percussion parts instead of programming them. Discover how much fun it is to play rolls and flams with old-school drum machine sounds rather than having to step-enter them in a sequencer.
  • Drumming is great exercise. Improve your endurance, work your cardio-vascular system and build muscles at home on your kit instead of in the gym.
  • Access to hundreds of instruments enable you to expand your musicality and technique. Learn to play anything from tabla drums to timpani, cuica to claves, and never worry about where to store them.
  • Develop your sound programming skills, and you'll have anywhere from 25 to 100 great-sounding drum kits to choose from instead of one.
  • Dual-zone, dual trigger technology means that you'll always be able to play at least double the number of sounds compared to the number of pads in your kit because you can assign separate sounds to different parts of the cymbals and pads.
  • Even the largest, most expanded electronic drum kit will take up less than half the space a full-blown acoustic kit requires.

Play on drummer, and Happy Holidays!

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