Drummers have different ideas and attitudes toward electronic drums. For example, I have heard drummers say, “The electronic drums are great; I don’t need acoustic drums any longer.” I have also heard the comment, “Those things sound awful. I refuse to play on them.” Some drummers have said, “They may sound interesting, but they just don’t feel good when you play them.”
Tim Root, a resident of Houston, Texas, has probably done more clinics on electronic drums than any other drummer in our industry. Tim also plays acoustic drums with great skill. I talked with Tim at length when doing research for this column, and we both feel that the term “electronic drums” is misleading. A more precise term would be “electronic percussion instruments.” For example, all electronic keyboards cannot be adequately described as “electronic pianos.” They are different from, and in some ways much more than, electronic pianos. The same is true for electronic drums: They are very different from their acoustical counterparts.
Tim makes the point, “Why spend a lot of extra money for an electronic drumset if it sounds exactly like acoustic drums? You’d be better off miking your regular set. The appeal of electronic drums is that they offer possibilities that acoustic drums cannot.” If you are considering buying an electronic drumset, Tim suggests that there are certain attitudes the average drummer must overcome in order to get the best results.
1. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to get your electronic kit to sound exactly like your acoustic kit. Although I’ve heard some electronic kits that come pretty close on certain sounds, why limit the kit and yourself? Music is sound. The electronic kits are tools that offer a newer and wider range of sounds; be prepared to experiment and to be creative.
2. Electronic “pads” feel entirely different than an acoustic drum. Some pads are softer than others, but even the softest ones do not truly feel like a drumhead. Adjustments have to be made. For example, since the sound comes from a speaker, there is no need to hit the pads extremely hard. Use a lighter touch and allow the electronics to work for you. Brute strength is not needed on an electronic kit.
3. Think creatively in terms of sound. Experiment with new possibilities. Electronic kits can be programmed to produce bass lines, string sections, and any number of special effects. You must not only play differently, but also think differently in order to get the most out of your electronic kit.
4. If you are considering studio work, you will need an electronic kit as a part of your equipment. Producers who want electronic sounds will hire a drummer with an electronic kit. If they can’t find one, they will probably ask a keyboard player to program a drum machine. The point is that, if you are going to be a drummer in pop music or studio work, you will need the equipment to do the job. An electronic kit is one of those tools.
I have seen a number of drummers combining acoustic and electronic drums in the same kit. In some cases, the acoustic drums are set up to “trigger” electronic drum sounds as well. With state-of-the-art equipment, the possibilities are somewhat overwhelming. Drummers such as Harvey Mason have used a drum machine along with acoustic and electronic kits. If you are interested in electronic sounds and possibilities, a drum machine is as essential as an electronic kit. The drum machine can also be used to “trigger” electronic drum sounds.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard regarding electronic kits is that all the drummers who play them sound the same. This doesn’t have to be the case. Many electronic kits can be programmed with your own individual sounds. Also, the way in which you combine sounds allows for individual expression. Another critical comment I’ve heard is that, if you play quickly on an electronic kit, many of the beats get lost or run together. I think that this is the result of playing acoustical-style patterns on an electronic kit. Such kits do respond differently, and not all patterns will be interchangeable. You don’t have to play as hard on electronic drums, but in some instances you may have to choose your patterns and fills carefully for maximum effect. This will require becoming familiar with the new instrument.
Will electronic drums replace acoustic drums? Tim feels that they will not, because electronic sounds do not fit all types of music equally. As Tim says, “If I get a call for a jazz trio gig, I do not take my electronic kit. If I get a call for a rock trio concert, I do not take my little jazz set. I try to pick the equipment that will be appropriate for the music and the situation.”
Some drummers seem to have the attitude that, if they ignore or refuse to acknowledge electronic drums, they will simply go away. I feel that this is not the case. Electronic drums are here to stay. We can’t turn the clock back. Music is always changing—sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, depending upon your point of view.
I personally would not care to hear an electronic drumset in a Count Basie-style big band. However, there are musical situations where the electronic sounds will be more appropriate. In fact, if we use the music as a guide, there is no controversy. There is no need to reject the future or to reject the past. Think creatively and put the music first. Use the tools and equipment that are at your disposal. Listen to music and sounds with an open mind, and solve musical problems in an imaginative way.
Drummers have new tools, now that electronic possibilities are with us. We have more options with which to create music than ever before. This should be good for music and for drummers.