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Electronic Drums: Adding Life to Your Rhythm Tracks

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Have you ever recorded using real acoustic drums? First you need a good kit, and a room to put it in — a room with good acoustics and enough space for drums and mics, including room mics which often need to be meters away. You need a truckload of microphones — different types and great quality. And a mixer and audio interface that can handle all of those inputs. Finally you need to find (or become) an exceptional drummer!

In comparison, recording electronic drums is a breeze. Unfortunately, they can also sound programmed and mechanical. There are good arguments both ways for using acoustic or electronic drums in recording — you can read the pros and cons at Harmony Central. But there is definitely a place for electronic drums for the home recording artist.

Rather than pushing sampled drums around an edit window with your mouse, there are a lot of hardware options that let you play drums with sticks straight into your digital audio workstation. This gives your rhythm tracks a more realistic feel, because they’re played in real-time by a real person. Most of these devices allow you to record your drum sounds directly to audio, or sequence them with MIDI so you can choose the perfect sounds later.

Besides buying the hardware, you’ll also need to learn some basic drumming skills. Because you can lay down the rhythm track piece by piece, it is amazing how much you can accomplish with limited skills, as long as you have reasonable timing. Even if you don’t get the timing perfect, you can quantize later.

When my second son was six, he decided he wanted to learn drums. Having five kids in a small house and a shift-worker next door, I didn’t want to buy a large acoustic kit. And I wasn’t sure how serious he was, so I didn’t want to spend a fortune on hardware or lessons. So we bought a small Yamaha digital drum kit (the DD-11) and a book about learning drums. I taught myself how to play, and then taught my son.

The solution seemed to work well: the drums were small and quiet, but my son learned good technique because he played with sticks. I was surprised with how well he could play drums on such a small and inexpensive kit. Eventually he outgrew his teacher, and received lessons from drummer who had real talent. Now he’s a young adult, owns his own acoustic kit, and is a brilliant drummer.

Since those early days we’ve had Roland Octapads, electronic kits and acoustic kits. We’ve always used the electric kit or Octapads for recording drums — we just don’t have what it takes to make acoustic drums sound better. This article isn’t a tutorial on how to record electronic drums — if you’re looking for one, eHow has a good video tutorial. What we will do is have a look at some of the devices that are available.

Roland Octapad and Equivalents

The original Roland Octapad PAD-8 came out in the mid-80s, just after the birth of MIDI. It was a rectangular device around two feet wide containing eight rubber pads (two rows of four) which trigger whatever sounds you like via MIDI. They were designed to sit alongside a full drum kit and give additional supplementary sounds to the drummer.

Later Octapads (like the SPD-11 we purchased in 2000) contain hundreds of their own sounds, but can still trigger external sounds (or a sequencer) via MIDI. Besides the eight pads, they have four inputs for additional pads or pedals.

They can also be used on their own as a mini drum kit. They’re great for gigging in small spaces, playing in venues where volume is a sensitive issue, and for recording. Terry (a producer/engineer friend) once told me of a drummer who had to play a particularly complex rhythm pattern on one track. He couldn’t play it cleanly on a standard kit, so went out to his car to get his Octapad. The closely arranged pads made it simpler to play the pattern.

Roland’s current model is the SPD-20, which features 700 drum and percussion sounds. They also have the SPD-S Sampling Pad, which has nine triggers (six pads and three edge triggers), and allows users to sample and add effects to their own sounds.

Other companies also make Octapad-like devices. I’ve already mentioned the Yamaha DD range, which I feel is a less professional product. Their current version is the DD-65, which they market as “a more professional and versatile digital-drumming instrument”. You can make it a more capable drum kit by adding the DK-65 hardware kit, which adds a snare stand (which acts as a stand for the DD-65), drum throne, kick drum pedal, hi hat tower and kick tower.

I noticed in a music store on Sunday that Alesis also have Octapad alternatives - the ControlPad and PerformancePad. They have similar functionality to Roland’s product, but at a much lower cost.

If you have a favorite Octapad replacement we haven’t mentioned, or any comments about your experience with Octapads, please let us know in the comments.

Single Pads

If you don’t need eight pads, there are several simpler devices:

  • Roland HPD-15 Handsonic 15 is designed for hand drumming. Though it looks like a single pad, it is actually divided into 15 different zones, enabling you to add subtle variations in your playing. It contains sounds for 600 instruments. It features MIDI In/Out/Thru, a built-in sequencer, and digital effects.
  • Roland HPD-10 Handsonic 10 is similar, though with 10 zones and around 400 sounds.
  • Alesis E-Practice Pad is designed for practice, but might also be used for recording. Though it doesn’t seem to have MIDI, it does have 65 sounds and 1/4” stereo output.

Electronic kits

I’ve just finished a holiday in Tasmania, and besides the fairy penguins, seal and snow, one of my favorite sights was my brother’s old Dynacord electric drum kit from the 80s. Although it doesn’t work any more, it brought back a lot of good memories. The brain used removable cartridges for the sounds, each of which contained a single drum sample. You customized your kit by pulling these cartridges in and out and replacing them with alternatives, which seems very cumbersome now, but was cool at the time. Cartridges were only available for snare, kick and toms - you had to use real cymbals.

Electronic drum kits have come a long way since then. While many real drummers prefer the greater expression on an acoustic kit, the gap is slowly closing. Mesh heads, better sounds, and better programming are improving the experience with each new generation. A full electronic kit gives a more authentic drumming experience than playing with Octapads alone, but takes up more space in your studio.

Electronic drum kits are huge topic that I’ve only just touched on. Many major brand names including Roland and Yamaha have excellent kits. Check them out at your local music store.

Other Devices

There are various other ways to program drum sounds with your hands rather than a mouse. Here are a few — feel free to mention other options in the comments.

  • M-Audio Axiom keyboards include eight trigger pads which are perfect for playing drums with your fingers, as does the Novation ReMOTE.
  • M-Audio Trigger Finger is a device with sixteen trigger pads for playing percussion with your fingers. The Akai MPD32 is similar.
  • KORG nanoPAD is a smaller device with twelve trigger pads.
  • Zendrum have a range of controllers for “triggering controller designed by drummers to allow musicians to express their creativity in rhythmic and intuitive ways.”

How do you add life to your rhythm tracks? What are your favorite devices, software and techniques for laying down a realistic rhythm? Let us know in the comments.

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