Electric vs. Acoustic Drums

I use Roland V-Drums, specifically a Roland V-Tour Series TD-9KX2 electric drum set*, adapted for my teaching studio. For years I had a strong bias against electric drums. That changed recently when one of my students graduated from high school and began attending University of Southern California to study jazz drumming with Peter Erskine. When I heard USC had a drum lab equipped with these sets I decided to check them out and see how the technology has evolved. It has come a long way!

nkm set snapshot

For practice and teaching, electric drums are amazing tools. For performance, playing brushes, material requiring subtle dynamic shading and a variety of textures, they fall short of acoustic sets.

There are some big advantages to electric drums. The samples sound great. You can use the direct output to record and create “perfect” sounding tracks quickly and easily. Programming drum tracks and oversampling acoustic drums are already popular production techniques. Electric sets bridge the gap between playing acoustically and programming digital tracks. There are many fantastic practice tools built into the modules. The pads are very bouncy, which magnifies and makes it easier to learn to manipulate the rebound. You can easily control the volume.

Probably the biggest plus to an electric set is that you can play it whenever you want. Just throw on headphones and go for it! No angry neighbors, nobody listening in on your practice, nothing between you and your passion.

There are some drawbacks to electric drums. The lower 30% of the dynamic range is gone on an electric set. You can touch a real drum with your hand and every detail of the sound comes out. If you lightly touch an electric drum, nothing happens. Some depth is lost. This matters a lot if you are playing brushes, orchestral snare drum or jazz. For your average pop beat, it doesn’t matter as much. Some of the visual appeal and human feel are lost on an electric set. Like a human, the irregularities and imperfections of an acoustic set tend to add to the appeal rather than take away from it.

Some think the magnified rebound on electric sets pampers the drummer making it easier to play. Due to reduced range and sensitivity, electric drums can effectively “clean up” your playing, picking up less of the sloppy details when you play inaccurately, inconsistently or with poor technique. These traits can be a good or bad, depending on your perspective and how you utilize the instrument. On an electric set, you can control the volume with a knob. On an acoustic set, you must use technique and dynamic control. If you plan on learning and practicing on an electric set, try to remember just how loud an acoustic set is when you just touch it with a drum stick.

15 years ago, the electric sets I tried were so terrible I wouldn’t have considered using them. With the introduction of more realistic feeling mesh heads, increased dynamic range, sensitivity control, tunability and customization of modern electric sets, the game has changed. The only catch is that decent electric sets are rather expensive. I’m using a Roland TD-9KX2. I did a lot of research before buying it. In my opinion, it was the cheapest model that felt good enough to use in a professional setting. It cost around $2700. The big difference between the TD-9KX2 and the cheaper sets is that it has all mesh pads, and solid feeling hoops which respond realistically. It also has a real hi-hat stand instead of a detached foot pedal.

Electric and acoustic sets are really just different. One can’t replace the other. Both are good. Its all about using the right tool for the job.

*The updated model number for the equivalent of the set mentioned in this post is the Roland V-Drums TD-25KV.

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