I am a big fan of electronic drum kits. They are fun, high-tech, and allow you to practice without waking up your neighbors. But it’s no secret that electronic drum kits do have drawbacks. And aside from the occasional lounge act or electronic drum pad to augment an acoustic kit, electronic drums are hardly ever used in live performance.
Electronic drum kits have several problems that currently make professional drummers prefer the acoustic kind on stage. First and foremost is the sound. When I walk down a dark alley and hear music coming out of a bar, I can tell whether it’s a live band or recorded music just by listening to the drums. Live acoustic drums have a raw sound quality unmatched by the processed sound effects of an electronic drum module.
The second major drawback of electronic drum kits is their restricted range of expression. The mesh drum pad technology replicates the feeling and expression of hitting a drum with a stick quite well, but don’t ask it to handle a brush. Electronic cymbals also don’t offer nearly as many sound variations as a real metal cymbal. A real cymbal will produce variations in sound when struck all the way from its edge to its center, whereas a typical electronic cymbal has only one to three zones of sensitivity.
Electronic drums also pose some additional technical difficulties for a live performing band. It takes much more time to assemble and disassemble electronic drum kits, and those are therefore a nightmare for a road crew, which often consists of the drummer and helping members of the band, to set up.
The last time I saw an electronic drum kit used in performance was at a hotel-casino lounge in Las Vegas. The most apparent reason for using an electronic drum kit there was the noise level. One of the best characteristics of electronic drums is their ability to control the volume. That rock band was indeed the quietest rock band I’ve ever heard live. Many other lounges use acoustic drums with transparent sound shields in front of the drummers to reduce the sound levels. Using electronic drums is a good alternative to making the drummer sit behind plastic.
The electronic drum kit at that lounge was a top of the line Roland set, and did it’s job very well, but the band did sound almost like it’s a CD playing. There was no setup problem there because the kit belonged to the lounge and was left in place from night to night.
Electronic drums kits are great for home use, studio and practice. But their day as live performance instruments of choice is yet to come.