Acoustic vs. 'Electronic' Drums

by Eric Scot Porter

Article 1 - 2003

Editor's Note: ESP has moved to a new format to better facilitate our vision for more detailed, in-depth articles on featured topics. This quarter Eric Scot Porter opens the drummer's Can O' Worms as he explores the world of electronic drums. Eric first spent some time with a Roland TD-8 module on a set of DIY mesh pads and a mix of Hart and Roland cymbals. He was then sent home with a studio full of stuff to make sense of. The following article details his first impressions of electronic drums as a whole, coming from a perspective of a lifetime acoustic drummer.

Acoustic vs. Electronic Drums*

* Digital Sample Triggering Devices You Hit With Wood.

Electronic Drums

Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But why choose the imitation when you can have the real thing? No, I'm not talking about Coca-Cola. Electronic drums have been evolving now for 25 years or so, but they still are not the real thing. Does that matter?

As many of you know, William (Bill) Reeves, founder of and long time friend of mine, is one of the top electronic drum guys in the world these days. Sometimes when you are so immersed in a topic, you can forget what it is like to approach something with little or no preconceptions or biases, as well as little knowledge of a subject. I have very little experience and very little knowledge of electronic drums, so I was right for the job.

I joined Bill's conglomerate of web sites when he introduced My background is primarily with acoustic drums, and to be honest, I have never owned an electronic drumset. I have played a mesh head electronic set 4 times in my life and 2 of those were in the music store showroom. Other than this, my only experience with electric drums has been playing them with my fingers on my electronic keyboard. For this reason, Bill thought I would be a good candidate to try out a set for an extended period of time, and give my impressions and evaluation of electronic "drums". So, Bill graciously came over and set up a set of mesh head electronic drums in my recording studio, and asked for my evaluation. Two months later, here we are...

Now, before I begin my review, testimony, experience, whatever you want to call it, let's be fair and clear. I did not have state-of-the-art technology to work with. The sound module was ten-year-old technology. (Yeah, thanks for dusting off my Alesis DM5 for me. Anything else you want to borrow so I can find the back wall of my closet? - Editor)

Alesis DM5 18-bit Drum Module

Alesis DM5 18-bit Drum Module

With the Alesis DM5 High Sample Rate 18-Bit Drum Module you're sure to find the sounds you like. Brand new sounds include kicks, snares, toms, cymbals, hi-hats, and a wide variety of percussion instruments and special effects. DM5 can be used as a MIDI-controlled module for sequencers, or by drummers who use electronic drum pads or triggers mounted on acoustic drums. Includes 12 trigger inputs. Also features 16-voice polyphony, 7-position user-programmable panning, footswitch and headphone jack, Random Sample function to create more realistic performances, and custom backlit LCD.

However, Bill gave me a variety of pads to try that incorporated some of the latest technology, so the playability of the pads was about as cutting edge as electronic drums have to offer. Bill has been working on a high tech hi-hat pedal device that I feel would have aided my evaluation, but it was not available for testing at the time.

Because the sound module was not cutting edge, perhaps my first impressions of electronic drums are tainted. However, I don't think so. What I found were larger discrepancies and philosophical differences that have not been all together mended with the newest technology. My job was not to review the specific capabilities of a system, but to examine the whole idea, concept, philosophy, and product overall of electronic "drums". In any case, I will be stepping out a bit here, walking my own plank as it were, in the midst of all of the readers who are avid electronics fans, and may make a splash into the ocean of public opinion.

First, let me say this, I do not dislike electronic drums. Again, I do not dislike them. But here is the part that may raise some eyebrows. I don't dislike them because they do not exist. Electronic drums do not exist. (So, here's where I'M thinking Eric has recently watched 'The Matrix' and has a drawer full of bent spoons. Trust me, this is going somewhere. - Editor) "What?!" you say. They are not drums. They are an electronic trigger device, not unlike any other electronic trigger. I wouldn't call the thermostat on my wall a drum. It's just that this trigger sends a message to a box that triggers a sound instead of a heater. But even then the box doesn't make a sound. It has to send another signal to some speakers. But, let's not get caught up in a tangle of terminology as it is irrelevant and clearly up for debate.

There is nothing wrong with this. Electronics can be very musical instruments. In fact, I have a CD out called Kingdom that is almost exclusively made with electronic keyboards. At the time I used electronic "drum" sounds because it fit the music well and because I did not have the microphones to get a good real drum recording. I "played" and sequenced the electronic drums with my fingers on a keyboard. Don't tell me that a trigger that sends a message to a box that sends a message to a speaker is a drum. It isn't and never will be a drum.

So then we get to the next point. If it is not a drum, then even though technology advances, as long as it is trying to be something it is not, it will never be as good as that which really is what it is trying to be. (Go ahead and read that sentence again if you need to.) It may be better or worse in some ways, but it's a better or worse something else, not a better or worse drum. . So, as I asked at the start, why choose an imitation when you can have the real thing when it comes to the art of actually playing a drum?

Well, I can hear the answers coming now:

  • It's easier to carry.
  • It's easier to record.
  • You have total control over volume.
  • You have a huge variety of sounds to choose from.

You are right, and for this reason, they are a very useful instrument as I found on my CD. In fact, I like them. They can't replace my drums and they never will. They are an electronic instrument, like a synthesizer, that has been configured in such a way that it can be played using some of the same skills and techniques that drummers use. For that matter, they can even be played with your fingers on a keyboard. I could turn on my heater with a drumstick too if I had Bill put a mesh drumhead on my thermostat. Hey, that's not a bad idea. (Hmmm. If I put an external trigger on two separate acoustic drums, ran them to a DM-5, connected the MIDI out to your computer's sequencing program, set the MIDI mapper to fire off an MCI event, wrote a small program bridge to some PC based X-10 software and installed an X-10 compatible thermostat we could do that. - Editor)

I have been honing my skills as an acoustic drummer for 25 years now. I am 34 years old, so that is most of my life. Let me tell you that to me, playing an electronic set is like a basketball player having to play with one hand tied behind his back. It's like watching The Lord of the Rings in black & white with monophonic sound. Or it is like eating yogurt instead of ice cream.

There are many small techniques and nuances I do while playing acoustic drums that I can't do when playing electronic drums. Many of them I didn't even realize until I started playing electronic drums. You could not ask Picasso to use Photo Shop on his computer to paint a masterpiece. There are too many intangibles and techniques to the stroke of the paintbrush to be able to do that.

Invariably the organic is much too complex for the electronic to duplicate, just as the computer can't approximate the human brain. Even though a computer can do some tasks better, it is by far a simpler, less complex and a less advanced machine than the organic brain. So is an electronic drum to an acoustic drum. Most super computers equal the intelligence of an insect at best.

I remember when I was about 12. I was doing a concert with a jazz-rock group called Phase 9 at a little theater. My drum teacher let me borrow his electronic "drum" to supplement my acoustic set for the concert. This was in the early 80s. Electronic "drums" then consisted of a little trigger you attached to the acoustic drumhead. When you hit the drum, in addition to the sound of your acoustic drum, you got a sound that was like a bullet whizzing by your ear, Doppler effect and all. Kind of like a 60's Sci-Fi laser gun. I thought it was cool. But looking back, it didn't add anything to the music. However, it made me feel high tech and sophisticated. It really wasn't even a pleasing sound. I still have a recording of it.

Electronic drums have come a long way since then. However, in my opinion, we should not look at them as a substitute to acoustic drums. They are a legitimate instrument. They can be used instead of acoustic drums at times. They can be used in conjunction with acoustic drums. But it will be a long time before they replace acoustic drums. I will use electronic drums when I want that sound and playing experience and I don't need a detailed drum performance. But, I will use real drums when I want to hear real drums and interact with a "real" acoustic instrument.

We live in a fast food society. People want everything fast and they want it now. The same applies to some drummers. They don't want to hone their skills so that they can play soft, yet with expression. They want a volume knob. They don't have the patience to tune a drum and make it sound good. They want it to sound like the latest CD right out of the box (literally).

Some electronic drummers have lost the personal side of music, where your instrument has your own unique sound. Where your instrument is you. A sound no one else has. It is you and you are it when you interact with it. There is magic there. Magic that can't be found in a box of circuits. A magic where the human brain is not restricted in its imagination by the two or three trigger points of a pad, or the digitized sample of a drum once played somewhere else in time and space. There is a depth there. A personality. A creation brought forth that instant and to never be repeated. A new sound, not a repeated sound. A real sound, not a virtual sound created by someone else.

When two very good drummers play a big-name electronic set, how can I tell them apart? Maybe by style, but what they can do is not limited by their technique, but by the instrument's limitations. Some electronic drummers have expressed their personality and originality by designing their own custom electronic sets. That is an expression of sorts, and a good test of electronics skills and ingenuity. But most of them use the same sound modules, and trigger the same samples as the guy down the street.

Art is the expression of the human soul. It is the language we use when words will not do justice. It is infinitely personal. It is as personal as any expression on Earth. However, amazingly, while it is infinitely personal, it is infinitely universal to the understanding of all mankind. However, can something so personal be expressed as well using something so impersonal as a "canned" bunch of sampled sounds? Some of you would say yes, but I don't think it is as much a personal expression when you start with sounds from someone else's imagination. I know you can choose your virtual shell type, size, tuning, etc.; but your sound is predestined to what is programmed in the chip.

V-Drum TD-8 Screen Shot

Perhaps one-day technology will advance to a point so that it is impossible for the human brain to distinguish between acoustic and electronic for both listening and playing. Perhaps someday we'll have Holodecks like on Star Trek, where you walk into a room and a totally computer generated reality surrounds you, and you can't tell it's not real. That is pretty much what it would take for electronic drums to replace acoustic drums. But that is a long road to haul just to arrive at something we already have: the real thing.

The two can live peacefully side-by-side as two legitimate instruments. Just don't tell me that one replaces the other. Until that Holodeck arrives, I will be happy with the real thing, and use electronics when I want to. For the rest of you, keep checking and, as I know I will. The Holodeck may not be as far off as you think as long as those innovative folks, dissatisfied with the current offerings continue to tackle the nuances.

(As I first read this, it reminded me of a post I made at quite a while back about ideas for the next generation of electronic drums. The concept of electronic drums dates back to where a piezo and a trigger interface was quite an advance over nothing. But, when you compare the evolution of 'electronic' drums to 'electric' guitar, it quickly becomes apparant that drummers got hosed. Why? First of all, I remember a time when I had to continually correct people who called them 'electric' drums. Even Musician's Friend used the heading 'Electric Drums' for their electronic kits. They AREN'T electric drums in the same sense of an electric guitar. Electric drums would allow you to amplify the continued amplitude and waveform of a drum and tweak it through rows of effects boxes. Your tuning range and the effect of the head properties on the drum's decay would translate to each synthesized sound patch you selected. These traits don't exist. When Roland brought out the V-Guitar, this built on the ability to translate amplitude and waveform to other sounds, still using this same information. Where did drummers get hosed? Current modules only care about the INITIAL amplitude and waveform of a given strike. This is information about the first 5 or 10 milliseconds of the sound. Those with 'positional sensing' take the pitch of that initial waveform into consideration as well to make some judgements of WHERE the drum was struck. Sure, this makes the first trigger pad ever built somewhat compatible with the latest modules, but is it the right way to do it? Most trigger pads require that the head be PREVENTED from vibrating to accurately trigger. Since only an initial waveform is analyzed, additonal vibration is detected as another 'initial' waveform and the module acts like you struck the drum again, a distinctly different sound than the sustain of a drum. Can you simulate the gradial build-up of overtones on a ride cymbal with only an initial waveform to work with? Can you hear the difference between heel-down and heel-up kick technique? Can you tell when the kick beater is buried in the head vs. pulled back, allowing the drum to resonate? No. These are the items that turn hardcore acoustic drummers away from electronics.

So, what would an 'electric' drum look like? If we were to borrow the concept of electric guitar and apply it to drums it becomes clearer. (Sure, acoustic guitarists have some of the same complaints about electrics. You can't thump the soundboard on each offbeat and put a kick drum out of a job, for instance.) What if a head would exist above a short, sound-absorbing chamber, though not a 'drum' per say. This head could contain a thin metallic layer that would vibrate over a magnetic pick-up. Each signal could run through a pre-amp and find it's way to a set of effects pedals. When you're ready for 'virtual drums', a second pick-up would be added to each drum, built in a manner similar to those on Roland's V-Guitar pick-up. Instead of one sensor per string, you would have one sensor per drum. The module would rely on the continual amplitude and waveform data of each drum, allowing a gigitally modelled translation of each sound that can be converted to the properties of another. Will it ever happen? That will probably depend on whether there are enough drummers who are willing to pay the price for the missed nuances. Are you? - Editor)

Mentioned Items - Where to Buy:

ESP's Kingdom
Eric Scot Porter's 'Kingdom'
Click for Details

Eric Scot Porter is an accomplished drummer out of Oregon's own Bay Area. His recent solo project, Kingdom, is available on-line from Amazon. You can check out several MP3 audio clips of Kingdom at The Orchard. You may forward your comments and suggestions to him via ...

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