Your Complete Guide to Buying an Electronic Drum Kit
Buying an electronic drum kit is surprisingly different from shopping for an acoustic kit, even though they might look like the same instrument at first glance. Just like with buying an electric guitar compared to an acoustic guitar, there are a whole new set of considerations and features that you need to pay attention to in order to find the best kit. This guide serves as your primer to the world of electric kits, so you can get your footing and figure out what model is going to be the right one for you.
A Few Basic Terms
It’s important to be familiar with a few basic terms before you start focusing on the finer points of electric kits. First of all the main component that powers the sounds of the drums is called the module, though some people can refer to it as the drum brain. The actual pieces that you strike to create sounds are called pads, rather than simply drums, because of the difference in electronic construction. Finally, the rack is the metal structure that holds all of the drum pads in place. You’re going to see these terms used quite a bit, along with general drumming terminology for the drum components, like cymbals, snares, and sticks.
Number of Pieces
This is (thankfully) the same as with an acoustic kit, as it refers to the total number of individual components that you receive with the drum set. It’s standard to find kits with eight pieces, which means they include one snare drum, one kick drum, three toms, a ride cymbal, a crash cymbal, and the hi-hats. Kits with fewer pieces may cut out the cymbals or toms, while more pieces are going to add to those components. Also, more pieces generally means a more expensive kit overall, since the module needs to be able to support all of them.
The breadth and quality of the sample library is often one of the biggest distinctions and selling points for an electronic drum kit because it controls the actual sounds that the pads produce. In most cases, you’re going to see the samples expressed as the number of drum presets that the module includes. It’s common for manufacturers to also break this down into the total number of individual samples that the kit has as well, with 1000 or more being on the high end and a few hundred covering the lower spectrum.
If you’re looking for a beginner kit, you want to keep the number of samples low to avoid confusion. Professional drummers looking for a recording or performance kit might want a higher number because they allow for more variety out of the box. Some high end kits may also allow you to import your own custom samples, which can open the door to nearly limitless possibilities. Also, most kits allow you to designate custom presets, with lower end kits only allowing for a few, and high end kits supporting upwards of 20 user presents.
The material used in the pads can vary, but you’re usually going to find rubber pads that absorb sound while still registering the impact of the strike. Since electronic kits don’t create sound through reverberation, but instead translate your actions into digital sounds, rubber is a durable and affordable option. Since it’s so dense, it also helps reduce the sound that is produced with each strike, which can be helpful when you’re practicing at home. However, rubber can require more effort to strike and register a sound compared to other materials.
There are also some electronic kits that use pads with mylar heads, which are made to resemble actual drums. These pads can be more expensive because of the special requirements necessary to capture the impact on the heads, but in turn can deliver a more authentic drumming experience. Many drummers prefer mylar heads over rubber because they provide more rebound on each strike, whereas rubber doesn’t result in as much bounce when the stick comes into contact with the head.
Number of Response Zones
This is one of the biggest differences you’re going to encounter when comparing electronic kits to acoustic kits, since acoustic drums simply don’t have response zones per se. Most electronic kits are going to come with pads that have a single response zone, which means that no matter where you hit the pad the module is going to relay the sound the same way. Some pads might have pressure sensitive features to control how loud or quite the sound is but, volume aside, the sound is always going to be the same.
Higher end kits will feature snare pads that have two response zones, so that you can achieve different styles of drumming. This is because acoustic kits allow for distinct drumming styles that incorporate the outer rim of the drum to create a completely different sound. It’s definitely a more advanced feature that could become more troublesome for novice drummers, so it’s certainly not necessary for a beginner kit.
As a general rule, you’re always going to want to find a kit with a strong metal rack so that no matter how “passionate” you get while you’re playing, you won’t have to worry about the pads coming lose or the kit falling apart. This is a bit different than acoustic kits, since those usually mount the toms into the kick drum and feature separate stands for all of the cymbals. If you’re anticipating some serious action on the kit, look for a steel rack and avoid anything made of plastic or composites.
This may not be an important feature if you’re only planning on using your drum kit at home, where you won’t be breaking it down and setting it up very often. However, if you’re planning on playing shows then you definitely need to pay attention to the type of mounting hardware the rack uses. Some kits feature quick-release locks that make dismantling the kit a simple process, since the pads can disconnect from the module as soon as they’re off the rack. It’s one of the perks that comes with owning an electric kit.
Electronic drum kits don’t typically come with speakers, which means that you’re going to need a computer, amp, or a pair of headphones if you want to hear what you play. Nearly every kit is going to have a headphone jack so you can listen to yourself play, while some may also feature a MIDI port so you can connect the kit to other instruments or devices.
Each kit is also going to have different input options as well. Depending on your needs, you may be fine with a simple AUX In port to feed a song through the kit to play along with. If you plan on doing more complex recording then a USB port could definitely come in handy.
Final Buying Advice
Remember to think about the person who is going to be using the kit to determine what features are most important. This also helps you avoid overbuying for a beginner or underbuying for a serious musician. Some kits support integration with additional pads and devices, so keep this in mind as well so you can determine the overall lifespan you can expect from the kit.