Electronic drum sets have had amazing developments in the last 20 years — so much so that drummers are often at a loss. Should they get the electronic drum set or the acoustic drum set? This article was meant to give a little bit of history, and help the drummer to understand the differences between each one in the present time (2020).
Electronic drum sets started to make their way into music in the 1970’s after a rhythm box a.k.a. a drum machine had finally been invented in 1963 by the Ace Tone Industries (pre-Roland), and it had been modified in 1967. Although generally not accepted, different companies started buying into this concept of how to play drums in a new format.
At first, they just produced sounds that sounded like sticks banging on trash cans, but some people wanted to be experimental in their approach. Eventually, big name companies started making their own styles. All of the sounds were simply sound samples of real drums.
Jump forward to 1997, when Roland decided to make a huge shift in the industry. Instead of samples, they made triggers with their own special electronic drum heads with the TD-10 V-drum. This made the drums start to feel more real. This has been, and still is the major differentiating factor on why drummers are more likely to choose an acoustic set over an electronic set — because of the feel.
As Roland started this new way of building their new electronic drums, they started a trend in the electronic drum making industry. Many companies started to make their own styles of trigger-based drumming.
As of today, you can buy electronic drums that sound close to their companion acoustic sets, and even provide different sounds for different ways of hitting the drum. On the Snare Drum (SD) and Toms, you hit the rims of the drum, and it will generate a different sound than the drum head. There is even other rhythmic sounds and notes that can be played — even some that are non-drum or percussion related. The drum module, which makes the sounds, can even be plugged into a computer via a USB cable, which can then be useful for either programming in your own sounds, or getting precise drum hits when recording. Those are definitely benefits in having an electronic set. The other upside, which seems small to drummers, is that you can place earphones in the drum module, and your neighbours won’t hear you play.
There are also a few downsides. The first is generally the cost. Unless you buy a second hand electronic set, you will almost definitely pay above $2000. The second is that your drum set is very limited. There are only a certain number of inputs on the back of the drum module. You might be able to have — at best— a ride cymbal, 2 crash cymbals, a hi-hat, a bass drum, a snare drum, and 4 toms. If you want more, then you’ll have to buy a second drum module.
An acoustic drum set is often the preferred choice of drummers. Why is that? There are a few reasons. One is the seemingly limitless options on an acoustic drum set. You could have many different toms, cymbals, percussion instruments (ex. a tambourine or a cowbell), two bass drums, two snare drums — the list goes on and on. The second is that an acoustic set always produces the feeling of more natural bounce when the stick hits it. The third is the fact that when you are playing with a certain kind of stick (ex. brush sticks, hot rods, cymbal mallets), it actually feels like you are hitting it with that kind of stick. Although many drum modules in electronic sets have different stick-sounding options, it still is not the same. The last reason is that, as you progress in your drumming capabilities, it becomes more apparent how a little volume is produced by a little hit, and even that you can hit cymbal edges with a different part of your stick, and it produces different nuances in the feel.
I, myself, will always prefer an acoustic set over an electronic, but if I had my way, I would do a combination of both.