In the last 40 years, electronic drum kits have come a long way. Gone are the days of clunky-sounding 80s kits with hexagonal-shaped triggers and single velocity samples. That's because electronic kits have leapt forwards in terms of feel, looks, sounds and flexibility in recent years. And there’s a host of new innovations that manufacturers like Roland and Alesis are building upon the basic functionality, but more on that later.
All of which leaves a burning question... should you buy an electronic or acoustic drum kit?
Firstly, you need to ask yourself a few questions:
- What do I need the kit for? Is it live work, studio work, practice or touring?
- What level are you at? Are you a seasoned pro or a beginner?
- Will this be your primary kit?
Once you've answered those questions for yourself, you should have a much better idea of what type of kit might be right for you. Want to know why? Read on!
Playing in a live environment
So, there’s no doubt that when it comes to playing live, on a stage the acoustic drum kit is in its element. Plenty of space to set the kit up, and the freedom to crank the volume. The Acoustic drum kit in its current form has been doing just fine for over 100 years, so there’s no problem here.
Electronic kits vary greatly. The Roland V-Drums TD-4KP folds down for transporting and can be setup in a hurry. On the other hand, something like Roland’s flagship TD-50 takes up at least as much room, if not more than a traditional kit. And the setup can take a fair bit of time too. With a wiring loom as thick as your arm, there’s a lot to a TD-50. That being said, it offers a lot too.
With pro players like Craig Blundell using electric kits for live and studio work, there are obviously some key advantages that make the setup process worthwhile. Upload your own samples, layer them on top of each other, or existing samples, and customise where your triggers are and what they do. Create loops on the fly and tweak every single element of your kit. That versatile!
There’s another key bonus with electric drums live too, and that comes down to the mix on and off stage. Whilst gigs are renowned for being loud, with an electronic kit, there’s no reason for the stage environment to be too loud. In fact, an electric kit gives every member of the band complete control over their monitoring. An acoustic kit famously floods the stage with its presence, but an electronic kit can be made near-silent on stage and only played back through select monitors. This is a game-changer, both for the hearing and sanity of your band. It also means the sound guy can perfectly balance the overall sound easily – something that, in smaller venues, has historically been difficult.
Home Recording and In the Studio
Recording an acoustic kit isn’t easy. You need an armoury full of decent microphones, an acoustically-treated room, a multi-channel mixer and a drummer who can consistently play to a click. The result usually depends on the audio engineer and the drummer. If they’re not on their game, it will show! Although a well-recorded kit is a wonderful thing – think “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, or “Vultures” by John Mayer.
Electronic drums really start to come into their own here. Whether you want to take a direct line out or use the kit to trigger software samples, you’re going to love the freedom it will give you. If the drums weren’t quite right, you can dive back into a midi file and change them later. You don’t have to treat the room you record in – in fact you can record even in your bedroom! And if the snare sound you used isn’t cutting through the mix, it doesn’t matter, swap it out for another sample during the mixing process.
For years, the drums have been what has let home-recorded demos down, either because they were acoustic drums recorded badly, or programmed drums that sounded rigid and robotic. Using an electronic kit gets around both of these issues. It gives you the feel of a real drummer and the control of midi drums.
Speaking of real drummers, if your drummer isn’t sitting right on the beat, just hit quantize in your DAW (digital audio workstation) and you’ll have perfectly played grooves.
From Beginner to Pro
We’ve looked at the pros and cons of live and studio work, but you need to work out what suits your style and ability.
Both electronic kits and acoustic kits come in a wide range of price-points. The easy to transport and quick to setup Alesis DM Lite is a highly-affordable kit, and although it’s more of a beginner’s kit, it's perfect for home use with a plethora of built-in practice tools and clever features.
In contrast to this, the Mapex Tornado Fusion Kit includes everything you’d need to get started for around £300! At the other end of the scale, Roland’s TD-50 and the Alesis Strike Pro take on the likes of the Pearl Masterworks kits.
If you’re a pro-level drummer, then this probably isn’t your first kit. Which means you’re looking for something to compliment your current gear. Assuming your go-to kit is an acoustic kit, what could an electric kit add to the mix?
There are the advantages for recording, but more importantly, there’s the flexibility of sounds and samples that electronic kits give you. If you want to play with dub-style effects or play on EDM (electronic dance music) tracks, an acoustic kit just won’t cut it. And there’s always the possibility of a hybrid kit!
Acoustic kits are perfect for jazz, rock and metal. But when it comes to Urban, EDM and Pop music, a session player will be expected to be able to find samples and sounds outside the usual remit of an acoustic kit. This is why adding an electric kit to your arsenal is a no-brainer - if you’re doing that kind of work.
Electric kits are a great place to start if you're learning. Practice in near-silence at home, and be ready for your moment in the spotlight without driving your family nuts. And thanks to some amazing extra features (looping, recording, metronomes, light-up pads and more), they can even accelerate the speed with which you’ll learn.
Customisation and Flexibility
Customising your acoustic kit is totally possible. You can buy different cymbals, extra snares and change up your configuration. But it often means adding more gear to your line up, and thus lugging more to-and-from gigs.
With an electronic kit, the initial investment in the gear can set you up for life. Change your snare at the click of a few buttons and change genre in seconds. The flexibility is the real selling-point of an electric kit.
For a lot of drummers, it comes down to how it feels to play the kit. Will you miss being able to hide behind a big bass drum and rack-mounted toms on stage?
With some of the cheaper electronic kits, the rubber pads don’t give the same response as an acoustic kit – but it must be said that the mesh heads of the higher-end kits are phenomenally close. They even come with real tuning hardware so that you can slacken or tighten the heads to suit your style and preference!
So, which is the right one for you – Electronic or Acoustic?
In general, electronic kits have come a seriously long way. Are they a replacement for acoustic kits? Well, no. And I think manufacturers have realised this now – they have a different purpose. In the same way that an electric guitar isn’t a substitute for an acoustic guitar. The two types of kit are becoming their own entities.
There’s no doubt that as a working session drummer, having both to hand is a very wise, if not essential decision. If you’re looking for a beginner's practice kit, electric is a great way to go. However, if you can play already, but you’re looking for a kit to do everything (gigging, recording and practice), you’ll have to think hard about the genres and venues you play before you make your decision.