The Electronic Drums Guide
Understand your choices. Make your selection. Buy the best kit for you.
Electronic drum sets have been around for decades now and yet, still have great appeal to consumers over acoustic kits.
- First, with electronic drums, you get access to many more exotic and exciting sounds than is possible with a regular acoustic drum kit.
- And second, electronic drum sets allow for a much quieter playing experience which means they are ideally suited to drummers who need to practice in populated areas. A proper acoustic drum kit can generate over 100 decibels of sound which is the kind of volume that might annoy neighbors and could attract the attention of law enforcement.
There are several major brands of electronic drum sets, and each has its own selection of models that range all player levels needs. On this website we review nearly all kits made by the leading electronic drum manufacturers Roland, Yamaha and Alesis. You can go to each of those pages for an overview of what each manufacturer has to offer. Alternatively, read on for a close look at the most important aspects of electronic drums you should be considering when selecting a set of your own.
Electronic drum kits use triggering pads to simulate the effect of playing on real acoustic drum heads and cymbals. The quietness of any electronic drum set is due to the build and design of the pads themselves.
These pads can be made from a variety of materials and are typically rubber or plastic mesh. The mesh variety of drumhead offers the biggest reduction in noise from stick attack while playing. Mesh heads are more expensive than rubber pads because the triggering is far more sophisticated and the response is close to that of a real drum. While you can play a rubber drum pad and produce bounces easily, mesh heads have a lighter, springier feeling and are extremely quiet.
In most entry-level electronic drum sets, mesh heads are a rarity. Comparing introductory kits from Roland, Yamaha and Alesis shows that all kits come with rubber pads for both drum and cymbals. The Alesis Nitro Kit is an entry level drum set with five rubber drum pads and three rubber cymbal pads. Likewise, Yamaha’s DTX400K has the same configuration and pad type. Roland offer an upgrade of their TD-1K which is the TD-1KV. This kit has one major difference to both the Alesis and the Yamaha; it offers a mesh snare drumhead.
The snare tends to be the most frequently played instrument on any drum kit so that is the reasoning behind Roland’s thinking. The pad that comes with the TD-1KV is a PDX-8 stereo mesh snare head. It’s remarkably quieter than the accompanying tom and cymbal pads. Another advantage of mesh heads is that they are kinder to the wrists when playing as more of the stick vibration is absorbed by the head itself.
As you progress up the kits offered by each brand, you reach the mid-range level. This is usually around the $1000 price mark or above. For this amount of cash you could go for the Alesis Crimson II, which is a fully mesh drum kit including a mesh bass drum pad. For a couple of hundred more dollars you can get a fully mesh Roland TD-11KV which also offers a nice and quiet noise solution.
All top-end electronic kits ship with fully mesh set-ups but that is really to be expected when you are paying upwards of $3000. Whatever the kit you purchase, it’s worth noting that mesh heads can be slightly more susceptible to damage than rubber pads. You need to be careful with these heads as they can tear if abused either by a drum stick or in transit.
Ease of setup
Most electronic drum kits, whether they are designed by Roland, Yamaha or Alesis, follow the same basic design principle. That is namely, a drum rack which holds all the drum pads, the cymbal pads, and the drum sound module. Setting up these kits usually takes no longer than a half hour and is relatively intuitive.
Most manufacturers opt to go with the orthodox five-piece drum set-up, to mimic typical acoustic kits that include a snare drum, three toms, and a bass drum. In most entry-level drum kits under $1000 you will find that each drum, including the snare, is fixed to the drum rack. This can be helpful when moving the kit as there are less separate pieces to carry around. It does, however, mean that the snare takes more time to adjust, as you must position the mounts accordingly.
As you go up the in cost, the drum sizes increase and the occurrence of separate snare stands becomes more common. These bigger drums need more support than the smaller pads. The Alesis Crimson II comes with a 12-inch dual-zone snare mesh head which would be too big to sit comfortably on a rack and so Alesis have provided an appropriate snare stand. For higher-end kits the process of setting up is along the same lines as with the entry level kits.
High-end kits such as the Roland TD-50K/50KV and the Roland TD-30K/30KV come with unique features such as the ability to harness connecting cables internally. This naturally means the whole drum set-up looks much tidier and you won’t be tripping over any nasty bundles of cabling. And the MDS-50K rack is designed in a way that leaves enough clearance under the toms to fit a full size 22-inch bass drum, should you wish to mix and match your electronic and acoustic set-ups.
For kits on the cheaper end of the scale, portability is not always a priority, as they usually will be situated in a bedroom or practice space rather than carried around to live performance gigs. That said, Roland do offer the TD-4KP which is specifically designed to be portable. They tell us that the ‘P’ in the model number stands for ‘Power, Playable and Portable’.
The TD-4KP folds away easily and can even be transported in a Roland holdall should you wish to purchase one. This kit is lightweight and portable, and therefore will suit the drummer on the go. It’s approximately 27lbs and easily the least heavy electronic drum set out there.
One downside of the smaller, more portable electronic kit is that they are usually not as robust and stable as the heavier kits. This can lead to slight vibrations and the odd wobble so be aware that there is a sacrifice between the two.
For those interested in spending a bit more on a drum kit, there are a few helpful designs to look out for. Some high-end electronic drum sets, such as the Roland TD-30KV and TD-50KV, do include uniquely modified lightweight drum racks. Roland’s flagship rack, the MDS-50K, uses its internal cable storage with portability in mind. This makes transporting your instrument to and from gigs a lot easier.
In most cases, as you spend more on newer and better drums, you’ll notice an increase in weight. This is reflective of the superior technology and triggering within each drum.
For maximum portability it’s worth checking out the relatively new ‘Aerodrums’. Aerodrums is a stunning invention that allows you to play drums without a physical drum set. All you need are two drum sticks, provided, and to hook up to your laptop or desktop. Sensors inside each drum stick can be calibrated to know when you are striking your imaginary drum kit. The sticks respond to movement and allow for dynamic playing at all volumes. The really great thing about Aerodrums is that the whole set-up will fit in most average sized computer bags.
Sound quality is of paramount importance to any electronic drum kit. In some cases you will find that more expensive models of kits have fewer sounds. This is because, although they won’t have as many samples within, these samples are of a higher quality.
With beginner kits you usually get around a dozen drum kit sounds and a few tutorials built-in. Both the Alesis DM Lite and Yamaha’s DTX400K offer 10 different drum kits ranging from rock to pop to jazz and some electronic sets too. The quality between the two is pretty much on a par. The pads respond to various strokes, from loud to soft, in order to allow you some dynamic control.
Moving up to mid-range kits, we notice that a few extra additions are included. Along with better sound samples, you also get more of them and a few FX controls too. The Crimson II by Alesis offers 671 different drum samples and 120 playalong songs. There’s also the added ability to load in your own sound samples to the drum module. This means you can always be updating your database of drum kits for more options.
Top end kits like Yamaha’s DTX760K and Roland’s TD-30K have over 1000 sounds each and offer superior and realistic sound triggering. In many cases, which kit sounds the best comes down to personal preference. Some drummers prefer Yamaha’s sound selection, other drummers prefer Roland or Alesis. It really depends on the individual ear.
The sounds on Roland’s TD-30 module have been sourced from studios around the world and are nuanced and detailed. Each drum has been sampled multiple times and works with the TD-30 module to produce subtly realistic playing. Even when playing a simple roll between the hands, the TD-30 module will alternate between similar samples to avoid a robotic sounding outcome.
One major challenge that electronic drum manufactures face is to try to recreate a playing experience that closely resembles that of a real acoustic kit. Playing the drums is a very physical process involving complex co-ordination between the limbs. The drum set has been described as a mini orchestra in that it is made up of individual instruments that must be played in a ways that complement each other. It also means that the task of recreating this experience is considerable.
Each surface of an acoustic drum set often has different responses, or bouncy feel. For example, snare heads are usually tuned so that they are taut, whereas tom heads are usually much looser. This is difficult to achieve with basic rubber pads. Also, cymbals on an acoustic kit are hard metal, not rubber, so it’s not always possible to replicate every feature of these kits.
With that said, the realism of entry level kits is not usually their major selling point. Typically, these kits represent a solution for drummers to practice anytime and anywhere. They’re also ideally suited to people who are new to the instrument and looking to learn the basics.
For this reason, the truly impressive realistic features are often saved for the more expensive drum sets. On every entry level kit you will find a hi-hat that does not resemble a real hi-hat. These controllers consist of a pedal which is connected with a cable to a rubber cymbal pad. The pad is then mounted onto the drum rack. Examining the hi-hat pedal we see that it works on how hard you are pressing down. This is the same for all the cheaper kits, whether it’s Yamaha, Roland or Alesis.
Also with beginner kits you will often find a similar pedal in place of the bass drum. This pedal works in the same manner as the hi-hat pedal and is essentially beaterless. As you move up the ranks you’ll find that manufacturers introduce freestanding bass drum pads in place of these inferior, yet more cost effective, pedals.
Freestanding pads like this allow you to use a bass drum pedal of choice to play with. Do make sure to check whether your kit comes with or without a bass drum pedal. In most cases, Yamaha like to supply a pedal with the drum set, whereas Roland do not.
With mid-range and higher-end kits, it’s often common to see mesh heads on the snare, toms and even sometimes the bass drum too. These mesh heads can be tuned so as to loosen or tighten the head. This means you can create a more realistic stick response for each drum from snare to bass. And unlike for an acoustic drum, the tuning of an electronic pad will not change its sound.
One major flaw in nearly all electronic drum sets is in the cymbals. The feel of a real, acoustic metal cymbal is very difficult to imitate with a rubber pad. Metal cymbals have a totally different feel and react differently when played compared to their rubber alternatives. Zildjian have come up with their GEN16 range of cymbals which are metal but work like a trigger in the same way as a regular electronic cymbal pad. None of the major electronic drum set manufacturers offer anything similar to these metal cymbal triggers, so you will have fork out for a set of these if you want ultra-realism on your kit.
When it comes to durability, there are several areas of an electronic drum set that can let you down. With cheaper kits, the freestanding pedals are known to not have the longest shelf-life. These pedals can end up taking a lot of abuse from enthusiastic drummers learning their trade. The design of freestanding pedal means that it is not as strong as a genuine drum pedal. There are sensitive triggers inside that send signals to the drum module. After time these triggers can wear out or stop working altogether. This can vary, depending on who is playing the drum set.
Rubber pads on entry level drum sets tend to be robust enough to withstand years of considerable pounding. Ironically, it’s the more expensive, higher-end mesh heads that stand to be more likely damaged. But, mesh heads are tunable and a benefit of this is that they can also be easily replaced.
Expandability allows you to build onto your current set-up by adding more drums or cymbals. The expandability of your drum set depends on the inputs on the drum module in question. The Alesis Nitro Kit has space for two more pads. This kit is close in price to the Yamaha DTX400K, another entry-level kit with expansion options.
Staying with entry level kits, the Roland TD-1K can be expanded to add more pads and even replace the bass drum pedal. You can swap out the standard freestanding pedal for either a more robust KT-10 freestanding pedal or a KD-9 kick pad, which is compatible with any standard bass drum pedal.
On higher-end kits, you’ll find that along with expanding your drum set, you can swap out pads and cymbals. The Roland TD-25K has the TD-25 module which lets you use either PDX-6, PDX-8 or the newer and more responsive PDX-100 pads.
Comfort at the kit is essential so that you can put long hours. Whether it’s playing a live gig or practicing, chances are that you will be sitting at your drum set for hours on end. One major element to drumming comfort is the drum throne, so make sure you have one that is both comfortable and the right height. One common mistake drummers often make is setting their drum stool to be either too high or too low. Both are bad options and can lead to back trouble or even injury.
When it comes to the drums themselves, there’s no doubt that a quality mesh drum head will allow you to play for longer than cheaper rubber pads. Mesh heads are great at soaking up stick vibration and this means less wear on your joints.
With entry-level electronic drum sets, you’ll find that positioning the drums and cymbals to fit your body can be awkward and difficult. For example, the sub-$500 Alesis Nitro Kit has a snare which is mounted onto the drum rack. With the mid-range Alesis Crimson II, you get a free-floating snare along with a snare stand. The improvement here means that the snare can easily be repositioned as opposed to the rack mounted option.
Because the drum pads on electronic drum sets are on average much smaller than acoustic drums, electronic drum setups take up less space. Roughly speaking, most electronic drum kits take up near enough the same amount of floor space, give or take a few inches.
Some exceptions are Roland’s TD-1K and TD-4KP models. These two kits are super-lightweight and easily fold away after use, should you be stuck for room. Expect to have to take up around a 4×4 foot area in order to sit and play your drum set. You can reduce this further by foregoing the use of both a ride cymbal and floor tom.
Kits discussed here range from $300 to $10,000. It’s important to know what budget you are working with. In the under $500 range there are two standout options. Two of the least expensive kits available from a top brand are the Alesis Nitro and Alesis DM6 Nitro. Both are budget entry-level kits.
In the mid-range you can spend anything from $600 to $2500 for a drum set. Make sure you know what features are important to you. If it’s mesh you want, then make sure you buy it. Even though many mid-range kits can be upgraded to mesh, this will increase your spending. It might be better to pay up early on and get what you want from the start.
On the high-end, Yamaha and Roland share the limelight. Both offer professional level kits with Roland taking innovation to an extreme. Yamaha’s DTX760K is a solid drum set with many of the features you will want to last you through the years.
If you have more to spend, take a look at the top-end Roland kits such as the TD-30KV and TD-50KV. Both kits are cutting edge with a few enhancements in the case of the TD-50KV. The main selling point is the inclusion of the TD-50 drum module and all the latest super-sounding drum samples.
Whatever your budget, it helps to know what is important to you in an electronic drum kit. If you just need a drum set to learn the basics of the instrument then there’s no real point paying more than $1000. On the other hand, if you’re an established drummer and have been playing for a few years, then you might be more concerned with the realism of a certain kit. In this respect, get the best within your budget. Paying for more advanced features, such as mesh over robber pads, or bass drum pads over freestanding pedals, will be worth it in the long run and could save you shelling out for upgrades months, or even years, down the line.