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Motivated by Why might one want to record a drum accompaniment electronically without using regular or electronic drumheads and cymbals to drum on?

What are the disadvantages of using an electronic drumset? In other words, when you choose acoustic over electronic, what are the reasons?

  • I'm a little late to the party, but check out my answer if you get the chance; I added clips from an original song I made with both electronic drums and acoustic so you can compare the timbre difference – Kolob Canyon Dec 27 '16 at 17:04
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To be clear about what we are talking about, this is an electronic drum set: Roland V-Drums

There are other ways to generate sounds that function as drums in a music production, including drum machines and several different kinds of software. This answer will not be about those. For the sake of anyone curious and reading about this who does not know much about electronic drum sets, a brief description follows.

An electronic drum set is composed of a set of pads that are mounted and arranged like the pieces of a drum kit, and a sound module (commonly called a "brain") that all of the pads are connected to. A drummer sits in front of the electronic kit like it's a regular set of drums and strikes the pads with regular drum sticks (or with a kick pedal beater). The pad strikes are electronically transmitted to the sound module, which produces synthesized or sampled drum sounds corresponding to the struck pads. The sound module has outputs that are routed to an amplifier, headphones, or a PA system so they can be heard and recorded. Sound modules also commonly (possibly always, I haven't seen one that doesn't do this) provide MIDI output of each pad strike which can be used to trigger appropriate sounds (or anything else) in a drum machine, synthesizer, or software.

What are the disadvantages of using an electronic drumset?

Disadvantages shared with acoustic drums:

  • Playing electronic drums requires the same skill level with drumming as playing acoustic drums. Other drum sound sources (e.g., drum machines) can be played and/or programmed with keyboard skills or with very little musical skill at all.
  • Electronic drum sets take up about as much space as an acoustic drum kit, especially if you include an amplifier of some sort.
  • Even when playing with headphones, electronic drum kits are not silent, merely much quieter than acoustic drums. The sounds made by striking the pads, and especially the action of the kick pedal resting on the floor, can be heard easily and can sometimes be fairly loud. Drum machines and drum software can be 100% silent when headphones are in use.
  • A full electronic drum set can be very expensive, often more expensive than a decent acoustic drum set. The most expensive electronic drum kit on one music reseller web site right now is almost three times the cost of the most expensive drum machine. Software is generally much less expensive (assuming you don't count the computer as part of the total cost).

Disadvantages unique to electronic drum kits:

  • Getting good sound is usually fairly difficult. The best sounds are either multi-layer samples with many different types of articulations sampled (for re-creating acoustic sounds), or they are well-programmed and generated synthesized sounds. The former is primarily only available in the form of expensive software and multisample libraries that would be triggered using the MIDI output. Usually the recorded MIDI pattern needs tweaking to make the samples sound their best and reflect the intended articulations. The latter is primarily available from either expensive software packages, like the acoustic sounds, or from expensive analog synthesizers, also connected via MIDI, which themselves have to be tweaked and programmed. Only the most expensive electronic drum kit sound modules include high-end sample libraries with convincing articulations, and even with those, an experienced ear will almost always hear the difference.

  • Actually playing an electronic drum kit does not feel very good. The pads do not have the same physical properties as the drum pieces they replace, so stick rebound and friction are off, unusual techniques are more difficult or unavailable, and overall the experience has none of the enjoyment of playing acoustic drums.

With all of that in mind, I'm going to add to your question:

Why would anyone ever use an electronic drum set?

I can think of two things one can do with an electronic drum set:

  • A drummer can practice drums at a volume level more appropriate to an apartment or shared house, with less chance of disturbing others. The feel is off and the sound is not great, but the pads can mostly be arranged to reflect a drummer's acoustic kit and the drummer can work on patterns, beats, and fills, if not advanced techniques or articulations.
  • The timing of the playing of an actual drummer can be captured (recorded) at much lower volume and without a good-sounding room or microphones. The one thing an electric kit has that no other synthesized or sampled drum generation device has is the ability to capture a drummer's actual performance and timing. If the drummer has a part they play effectively on their acoustic drums, and there isn't an entire recording studio with a good room, microphones, and interface for capturing a good acoustic recording, then that performance can at least be captured with electronic drums in any decent sized apartment without mic stands and cables running everywhere or threat of a noise complaint. Once the MIDI from the drum performance is captured in recording software, a high quality sample library can be used to create a drum part that has all of the performance characteristics of the actual drummer, with the sound quality fairly close to that of an actual drum kit.

Having owned an electronic drum set in the past, I don't think they are worth the cost. For low volume drumming practice, I prefer mesh heads and practice cymbals. For low volume recording, I prefer putting triggers on a mesh head & practice cymbal kit. The money saved by not buying a quality electronic kit could be used for studio rental to record acoustic drums.

  • Owning a decent electronic kit, and having played MANY in the past I believe that your post makes a lot of good remarks but is quite too subjective as a whole. The feel is off and the sound is not great: how is the feel off? Do you mean the delay between sound and hitting? Minimal, especially on new kits. It's also not true that kits "sound bad unless you go to the most expensive kits", not at all. I personally think they sound great, especially since most kits allow you to modify preset kits, and create new ones. Finally, meshed e-kits aren't expensive, compared to an acoustic set. – Bram Vanroy Nov 25 '15 at 20:21
  • Basically what I'm trying to say here is that I don't think your last paragraph is relevant. There are many good e-kits that are of course e-kits with some disadvantages that you mention, but I also believe that you make these disadvantages sound worse than they are. Don't get me wrong, I'd choose an acoustic kit over an e-kit any time, but an e-kit doesn't sound and feel as bad as your answer seems to imply. But that's just my 2 cents. Apart from that, good summary! – Bram Vanroy Nov 25 '15 at 20:24
  • By "feel" I mean the actual touch sensation coming back up the sticks to your hands and that the best case scenario on electronic drums is that you're hitting mesh heads. Worst case you are hitting rubber. Mesh heads are better than rubber but still don't feel right, and with mesh heads on an acoustic kit you have a whole acoustic kit you can use with real heads. I suppose sound is a matter of opinion. I think all but the best and most expensive samples sound terrible. Assuming you have great samples, you need expensive triggers to get the articulations right. A difference of opinion, it seems – Todd Wilcox Nov 25 '15 at 21:08
  • @BramVanroy I am a bit of snob about pretty much anything I care about, including sound quality, so my standards may be overly high for anyone just looking for something to practice on. – Todd Wilcox Nov 25 '15 at 21:11
  • Just out of curiosity, I wonder what you think about the samples of my mid-end kit. It's a Roland TD-9KX. Here's a sample. Disclaimer: this is me playing a year and a half back, though I'm not trying to get more views or anything like that by posting this. I'm genuinely curious what you think about the sound. (Do use headphones or anything that can produce good lows.) Oh, now that I hear that song again; another down-side of e-kits are that they are ultimately simply triggers. Therefore, sometimes the triggers don't trigger. – Bram Vanroy Nov 25 '15 at 21:18
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First, understand that electronic drums main selling point is they aren't as loud as acoustic drums.

The common consensus is to use acoustic drums if you can.

Still, I have gotten noise complaints with electric kits in an apartment if there's someone underneath you who may be able to hear the kick pedal being stomped on.

Disadvantages of using electric drum-kit:

1) Can't practice same techniques as on acoustic kit (rim-shots, cross-stick, buzz-rolls); the surfaces are more bouncy which can make you reliant on fingers and no wrist. You'll have to re-learn wrist strokes like I did :<

2) They sound different Let me demonstrate this with the intro of my original song:

Electronic Drums

Acoustic Drums

3) Jazz - Does not work. You cannot get good dynamic range when practicing jazz with these. You can get away with rock / punk / metal, but jazz will not work.

So my solution for practicing jazz with real feel in an apartment?

I got myself a pair of Zildjian L80 Cymbals. However, these are still kind of loud and you would still need to use mesh pads as drum heads on your acoustic set.

  • What you said about technique was illuminating. // We don't have downstairs neighbors. The disadvantages of the acoustic set, for us, have been: takes up lots of space in the music room, needs regular maintenance and replacement parts, and would be a nightmare to transport -- we don't own cases, and even the idea of packing everything up and loading in a car, unpacking, repacking, re-unloading, is incredibly daunting. – aparente001 Dec 27 '16 at 18:52
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sound. they're a synthesizer, not acoustic instruments. the sound just won't be as good. also, acoustic drums will have more subtle sounds that digital drums can't do.

  • you are right if you are taking about 'pure' synths, but most synthesizers use hybrid of 'real' sampled sounds with oscillators . – meowlicious Dec 27 '16 at 17:10

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