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Electronic drum sets? Why???

Electronic drum sets may not have all the subtlety of acoustic drums, but they have other advantages. Electronic drums are surprisingly popular...

The drum set as we know it today has evolved gradually since the 1920s to be suitable for all of the styles of popular music we have enjoyed since then right up to today.

The drum set is an acoustic instrument, which we mic up for recording and for live sound. But just as there are electric guitars, electric pianos, electric organs, and electric versions of all kinds of acoustic instruments, there are also electronic drums.

Generally the distinction between the words 'electric' and 'electronic' is that an electric instrument actually does produce a sound, albeit a tiny one. This sound is captured by a pickup and then amplified. An electronic instrument produces only an electric signal - there is no acoustic sound other than the clatter of the keys.

Electric drums for some reason are as rare as chickens' teeth. But electronic drums are surprisingly popular. We have to wonder why...

One reason why electronic drums are popular is that they can easily trigger samples. This way, the sound of each drum can be optimized through the use of sample libraries. In the early days of electronic drums, drum sounds were created through synthesis, and these sounds are still popular.

The use of electronic drums to play samples has led to an electronic style of drummer. Because samples are relatively constant and unyielding to the potential subtleties of drumming, an electronic drum kit tends to sound really full-on all the time, at least that's how most electronic drummers style their sounds. An electronic drum kit could be loaded up with gentler jazz drum samples, but then the subtlety of jazz drumming would be lost.

But without doubt there is one major advantage of electronic drums for live work - they can be quiet!

In the acoustic drum world, there is no such thing as a quiet drum set. Drums are meant to be loud, and if they are played quietly the sound just isn't right. But often even an unamplified drum set is too loud for a small venue, particularly on the birthday/wedding/bar-mitzvah circuit.

But electronic drums can be played as quietly as you like (or the person who hired the band likes!). Just turn down the volume control.

It will be a long time before an electronic drum set can sound convincingly like an acoustic set. But then again it will be a long time before acoustic drums can be played quietly.

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By David Mellor Monday March 21, 2005
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