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How to choose the Best Electronic Drum Set for your Needs

Wondering if you should buy an e-drum kit for stay-home practice?  This article helps explain how to choose the best electronic drum set for your needs, and provides some links to purchase online.

By Srikanth Narayanan with expert help from Toronto drummer Jinu Isaac.

electronic drum set

During this pandemic, people are staying home, and aspiring drummers are looking for ways to practice in their homes / apartments. They may also want to do video multi-track recordings with band mates to put on social media. Electronic drum sets really help solve the issues made by loud acoustic drum kits. So how to choose the best electronic drum set for your needs? To answer that, let’s first give an overview of what they are, and reasons why people buy them.

  • What are Electronic Drum Sets?
  • Reasons to buy an Electronic Drum Set
  • Limitations of Electronic Drum Sets
  • Current models of Electronic Drum Sets (2021)
  • So how to choose the best electronic drum set for you needs?
  • Don’t forget your Throne!

What are Electronic Drum Sets?

Electronic Drum Sets are MIDI controller devices built as a drum kit to control drum sounds from a sound module, or computer software. The MIDI triggers are built into drum pads and the pads are mounted on a metal tube rack. Below are some physical features of e-drums that affect their value.

  • Mesh Heads vs. Rubber pads
  • Kick Drum Pedal
  • Number of trigger sensors per pad
  • Diameter of the heads.
  • Choke able cymbals
  • Sturdiness of Frame
  • Hi Hat pedal

 It is important to understand these features so you know how to choose the best electronic drum set for your needs.

– Mesh Heads vs. Rubber pads

The drum pads themselves started off as rubber foam type pads, but mesh heads started appearing on expensive high-end kits a decade ago.   Now, mesh heads are available on entry- level kits in the $500 range! If you are choosing a new electronic drum kit in 2021, choose mesh heads.

mesh head e-drum

an example of a mesh head e-drum

Compared to rubber pads, the advantages of mesh heads are:

  • More sensitive with the sensors for dynamic range
  • Bounce more like the skins of an acoustic kit
  • Acoustically quieter when hit
  • Tension can be adjusted in some mesh heads

Kick Drum Pedal

Lowest price kits have a pedal button controller for the kick drum and not an actual drum pedal.

Pedal button controller for the kick drum and not an actual drum pedal.

Superior to that are kits with a real drum pedal and hitting a sensor on a solid pad.

real drum pedal and hitting a sensor on a solid pad

Better than that is a real pedal hitting a mesh head kick drum pad.

a real pedal hitting a mesh head

A real kick pedal is a big plus and are now available in low priced drum sets.

– Number of trigger sensors per pad

Each pad has a MIDI sensor that sends data to the sound module. The more triggers the better! Sometimes called Zones, you’ll read and hear about Dual Zone pads (two sensors: the pad head + the rim) and even Tri-Zone pads (cymbal: bell, bow, edge). If nothing extra is written, it is a Single zone pad, one sensor on the head, none on the rim.

– Diameter of the heads.

Normally, larger is better. Drum and Cymbal Pads and can be as small as 5 inches in diameter, though 8” is more common. 10” cymbal and snare pads are getting more affordable. Some expensive kits have pads that are the same sizes as their acoustic equivalent. A caveat is that smaller pads do allow the kit to be smaller, a bonus for an e-drums fitting in small places and for mixing e-drum with acoustic drums in a hybrid kit. The most important pad to have large is the snare pad.

– Choke able cymbals

This allows a player to grab the cymbal and a sensor underneath the pad tells the Sound module to play a choked cymbal stop sound. More choke able cymbals are better.

– Sturdiness of Frame

The frames tubes are metal and the joints are plastic. Check out the frames and joints. The kit should not wobble around when played. Sturdier frames cost more.

– Hi Hat pedal

As of January 2021, most entry-level and mid-level E-drum kits have only a pedal sensor to control the Hi Hat open-closed sounds. The most expensive kits do have a mechanical pedal and pole system moving the rubber Hi Hats open or closed, but unless you want to bring out the big bucks to purchase that, we’ll have to settle for a pedal sensor controller foot pedal and a single non-moving Hi Hat pad.

Reasons to buy an Electronic Drum set

  • Low volume practice (apartments, family house)
  • Giving or taking lessons via Video chat software
  • Recording to your computer
  • Variety of sounds (MIDI).
  • Built in learning tools
  • Physically smaller, easier to store
  • Allows more “Time on the drum kit” to practice rudiment patterns, beats and songs

– Low Volume practice

If you live in an apartment and can’t have a regular acoustic drum kit because of noise issues, electronic drums have the quietness of practice pads but with the drum sounds. Mesh heads e-drums are quieter than the rubber/foam pad kits e-drums and practice pads. In your headphones however, you can crank it up and live your rock star life.

– Video lessons

If you are teaching or studying drums during this pandemic, you are likely doing it via video chat platforms. Electronic drum kits allow a direct connection via one simple USB cable to your computer to pipe in clear, quality sound to your video chat.

 

With an acoustic kit, it is hard to get a good mix in a regular room.

– Recording into your computer (Digital Audio Workstation )

If you want to record your drumming into your computer DAW it could not be simpler; plug in via USB and record. The MIDI data will record in your DAW and will be easy to edit. You can change performance details, assigned sounds, and effects. Since it is MIDI, you can use the different drum kits in your DAW (GarageBand, Cubase etc) to get great sounding drum recordings. If you wanted to record the audio from your drum module, use two ¼” patch cords into your two channel sound input and you’ll get the well balanced stereo mix of your drum module.

Because the sound libraries, either of the drum module or the DAW software, are expertly recorded and made, an e-drum controlling it will most often make a superior recording than we realistically could using the acoustic kit, microphones, sound interface and room we usually have access to.

Variety of sounds

Different styles of music require different timbres to sound genuine. Hard Rock, Hip Hop, Jazz, all have different physical acoustic kits that typify their sound. One acoustic drum kit cannot do all that. With an e-drum, and scrolling the Sound Module menu, you can get sounds from sampled kits of each of those genres that will fit the music best.

Pro Tip! You are also not limited to the sounds in your sound module! Beginner e-drums have simple modules with basic sounds, but even the least expensive kit nowadays can connect to a computer via USB. Using drum library software like EZDrumer, Superior Drummer, Addictive Drums and many others, you can get incredible sounds from even entry level drum kits. It is no longer necessary to spend big bucks on an e-drum kit in order to get the better quality sound libraries. Yes, it is possible with additional software, to make a $500 e-drum sound as good, or better, than a $2000 e-drum without the extra software.

– Built in Learning Tools

Electronic drum kits have built in tools to help people learn. Most kits have a built in metronome, a meter to help with time by indicating if you are hitting behind, on, or ahead of the beat, and pre-recorded loops to jam with. They also allow recording and playback ability on the sound module itself, without having to record to a DAW.

– Physically Smaller

Electronic drums are made of a frame with striking pads. Large drum cylinders are not needed to make sound. The striking pads are usually smaller in diameter than the acoustic equivalents.   When assembled, an e-drum kit will take up less space in a room than an acoustic kit. Many e-drum kits can fit in a bedroom corner.   E-drums can also be folded, without being fully unplugged or disassembled, to fit along the wall, in a wide closet, or even under a high bed.

folding and storing an e-drum set when not in use

– More Time on the Kit

When beginning drumming, the best way to improve is to spend time on a drum kit practicing. With an acoustic kit, because of volume, many people experience limits to the kit time allowed. If your kit is at a studio, you have to commute there and back. If your kit is at home, volume, might limit practice to certain time slots in order not to bother family members or neighbours. In an apartment, you might not be able to play a regular acoustic kit at all.

With an electronic kit, you can play with headphones at almost any time of day or night! You can also use a small combo amp set to a low volume. This allows a student to work on 4 limb independence, rudiments, popular drumbeats, and songs whenever they want to. More practice hours per week, means more learning growth per week.

– Limitations of Electronic Drum Sets

When comparing the technique of playing an acoustic drum kit with the technique of playing an electronic drum kit, it is clear that e-drums do have some limitations. Understanding is key on how to choose the best electronic drum set for your needs.  Here are the most relevant e-drum limitations a player has to consider.

  • Sticks only
  • Subtle control / Finesse
  • Sound sample repetition
  • Small pads
  • Managing E-Drum limitations

Sticks Only

All current electronic drum kits need to be played only with sticks to trigger the MIDI samples. A player cannot use brushes, mallets, or hot rods to work an e-drum and get the sounds associated with each of those playing tools striking a drum or cymbal. This likely will not change in the foreseeable future.

Subtle Control / Finesse

A player will develop greater subtle control of sound and finesse of dynamics playing on an acoustic kit than playing an electronic kit. On an e-kit, the strike simply triggers a sample. The finesse was played by someone else far away and long ago when making the sounds for the Sound Module / software.

Sound Sample Repetition

No matter where you hit the skin, as long as it is in the sweet zone the same sound sample will be triggered. On an acoustic kit, where you kit the pad and how, will change the sound from bad to good to great. There are only great sounding strikes on the e-kits, no matter how badly a player hits the pad. This can leave a player undeveloped on the skill of striking a drum kit and cymbal. It can be a surprise when said player gets time on an acoustic kit.

– Small pads

Small pads, means the drum kit as a whole will be smaller than an acoustic kit. While this is a plus for fitting a kit in a bedroom, the negative is it can make playing fills and fancy stuff over the whole kit very easy. On an acoustic kit, where things are further apart, an e-kit player will have to adjust his effort to get the same results.

– Managing E-Drum limitations

With some awareness, a player can manage these limitations by acknowledging them and getting some time on an acoustic kit once in a while to practice these items of finesse and feel. Another option is creating a hybrid kit with some acoustic pieces. For example: replacing an e-ride cymbal with an acoustic ride cymbal; replacing the e-snare with an acoustic snare; or putting a physical material (Eg. cardboard) on the e-snare to allow acoustic brush work instead of triggering samples.

Current Models of Electronic Drum Sets (2021)

  • Alesis
  • Yamaha
  • Roland
  • Other brands

 

Now that you’ve learned the essential basics, you’re better equipped on how to choose the best electronic drum kit for your needs.  Here are some of the main contenders to pick from.

– Alesis

Alesis has been a leader in using the previously elite tech of mesh heads on entry-level price drum kits. They seem to be the best value right now for mesh head drum kits in the under $1000 range. Drawback is the somewhat dated drum module sounds.

Alesis Turbo Mesh ($450CAD) ;     for USA:Alesis Turbo Mesh ($300USD)

Alesis Nitro Mesh ($550CAD) click for sale price!  ;     for USA:Alesis Nitro Mesh ($395USD)

Alesis Surge Mesh ($750CAD)  ;     for USA:Alesis Surge Mesh ($550USD)

– Yamaha

Yamaha currently only offers a rubber pads on their entry level kits. (Yamaha’s higher-level kits have a great feeling spongy pad on them instead of mesh.) Drawback – rubber pads make more acoustic noise when striking, and are less sensitive to the sensors. Plus – Yamaha provides better sounding stock samples than the equivalent kits from Alesis.

Yamaha DTX-402K ($600CAD)  ;        For USA: Yamaha DTX-402K ($500USD)

Yamaha DTX-452K ($800CAD)  ;        For USA: Yamaha DTX-452K ($700)

– Roland

Roland is the leader in electronic drum kit innovation; however, they prefer to stay on the expensive side of the market. Their current entry-level kit is pricier than the others. They have excellent stock sounds, and quality pads with proven durability.

Roland TD-1DMK ($1000CAD)   ;      For USA: Roland TD-1DMK ($700USD)

* kick pedal sold separately  

  For USA: Roland RDH-100 Kick Pedal ($127USD)

        GP Percussion D719 Heavy Duty Pro Quality Drum Pedal ($65CAD) 

– Other Brands

Currently, many less well known brands are offering inexpensive electronic drum sets via bricks and mortar music stores like Steves Music, Long & McQuade or Archambault Music, in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, or via online stores from Amazon and similar. Examples are:

Donner DED-200

The quality and reliability of these brands are unknown to me at this time. The prices and features look attractive and the marketplace will have more to say about them in the future.

So how to choose the best electronic drum set for your needs?

Now you know: the basics of what electronic drum sets are; the reasons why people buy them; and the needs they have that electronic drum kits solve. You understand the different physical characteristics of drum kits like mesh heads versus rubber pads, kick button controllers versus kick pedals striking a drum head.  You also are familiar with the entry level models from the main manufacturers and their prices.

Think about your needs:  Are you a beginner looking for some new fun playing drums?  Are you an experienced drummer looking to keep up your drumming chops in a stay-home situation? Are you teaching or taking lessons online?  Are you looking to expand beyond the sounds of acoustic kits to the sounds of synthetic kits?  A little bit of everything?  😉

Evaluate your budget, your goals with drumming on the electronic drum set, and if possible make your way to a music store to play the actual kits.  Touch them, play them, hear them.  With the pandemic situation, stores may be closed, but they can offer curb side pickup or delivery options. If you’re not in a current try before buy situation, then I hope articles like this helped you become comfortable with a buy then try purchase.

Still unsure on how to choose the best electronic drum set for your needs?  My recommendation is the Alesis Nitro Mesh ($550CAD)(USA: Alesis Nitro Mesh ($395USD).  Excellent features, history, and build, all for a low price.  Check it out and compare.

Alesis Nitro Mesh

Don’t forget your Throne!

Whatever kit you end up purchasing, the drum “throne” or stool you will sit on should be a quality one. People may think of getting the cheap $50 one, but spend the money where it counts! The $50 stool will have limited height adjustability via pegs, and the ones that are more adjustable will keep sliding down with your full body weight. Your sitting stability and comfort is key to long practice sessions, performances and years of enjoyment.

Pro Tip! Choose from the drum stools where you can see the main support metal column having screw threads.

spiral support column, easy to adjust on a gig, and will not slip or slide down when locked.

The ideal stool should allow a player to raise and lower the seat by rotating the seat top, winding the support pole metal threads up or down to an exact height. Once that height is reached, the stool should provide a way to lock it in place without any tools.

It’s perfectly good to spend $200 on a drum throne to last decades, even when buying a $500 electronic drum kit. The contoured seat and backrest is up to player preference. The throne will keep its value 30 years down the road, all while helping to keep your back healthy.

This is the model I chose:  Yamaha DS-840

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Stay tuned to a forthcoming blog about the alternatives to an electronic drum kit for quiet practice; The acoustic practice kit: using mesh skins and holed cymbals with your current drum kit.

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About Musiprof

Thank you for reading our blog article about How to Choose the Best Electronic Drum Set for Your Needs.

Musiprof is a Canadian Music organization that connects drum teachers to students in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

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