Buyers Guide: Electronic Percussion

New Sound Modules, Drum Kits, and Controllers
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ELECTRONIC PERCUSSION controllers fill many roles. In the studio, they can be used for tracking realistic drum parts into a MIDI sequencer or for cutting demo tracks using a software drum library to avoid miking up an acoustic kit. Onstage, they can be used to augment the sounds of your drum set by doubling the kick and snare, or simply to provide extra colors. And because pads are quieter than acoustic percussion when struck, they work well in low-volume performance situations, such as small venues, schools, and houses of worship.

The Right Feel Whether you’re assembling a hybrid electronic/acoustic system to enhance your traditional set or looking for a complete electronic drum kit, the system you choose should not only be based on price and the way you’ll use it (e.g., gigging, recording): You will want to take into consideration the feel and response of the pads, and what it’s like to play them.

Drummers who are used to hitting acoustic drumheads and cymbals often have to alter their playing technique much more when playing lower-priced trigger pads, which are made from cheaper materials and provide minimal rebound. The more responsive instruments, such as the drum triggers with mesh heads, tend to be higher priced, but in my opinion, as a drummer, they’re worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re new to drums, the way the pads feel when you play them might be less influential on your purchasing decision than the internal sound set or the I/O options (such as having USB MIDI connectivity). In either case, you will make the most informed purchase decision by spending some time behind the kits you’re interested in, hitting the pads, and checking out the sounds.

Following is a sampling of recent releases in the world of electronic percussion by manufacturers who are leaders and innovators in the field, many of whom have decades of R&D behind their products. Not included in this roundup is the outstanding Nord Drum 2 and Nord Pad combo: You can read our recent review of that system in the June 2014 issue. All prices are MSRP unless otherwise noted.

Alesis DM10 Studio Kit Mesh Alesis DM10 Studio Kit Mesh, DM10 X Kit Mesh
$999.99 street and $1,499 street

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The Alesis DM10 Studio Kit Mesh and DM10 X Kit Mesh are 6-piece sets that improve upon the company’s other DM10-based systems by swapping out the Mylar-covered RealHeads for heads made with tightly woven mesh. This softer, flexible material is much quieter than rubber pads, and it provides a satisfying rebound that drummers enjoy.

The Studio and X kits differ in two important ways: drum- and cymbal-pad sizes, and the heftiness of the rack. The Studio Kit Mesh features a 10" dual-zone snare, four 8" dualzone toms, 12" and 14" cymbals, and the solid StageRack. When assembled, everything but the kick pad and hi-hat pedal attach to the rack.

The X Kit Mesh, on the other hand, features two 10" and three 12" dual-zone drum pads; 12", 14", and 16" cymbal pads; and the heavy-duty XRack. A separate snare stand is provided to avoid crosstalk, which, according to the manufacturer, allows for higher sensitivity settings. Both sets have identical kick pads, a 1-piece 12” hi-hat pad, and a 3-zone ride cymbal. Each of the 4-post racks is large enough to accommodate extra triggers, cymbals, and other accessories and still hold a solid footing.

The two configurations use the DM10 sound module, which provides 100 factory kits, all of which are customizable. The kits are assembled from a library of 1,047 16-bit/44.1kHz audio files that cover many different instrument types—acoustic and electronic. The DM10’s built-in mixer lets you set levels for each instrument quickly and without scrolling through menus. The internal sequencer holds 75 preset patterns and 25 user-created patterns, and you have the ability to overwrite all 100 of them.

The DM10 has 12 TRS 1/4" trigger inputs and includes stereo aux inputs on RCA jacks, main and aux outputs on 1/4" jacks, standard 5-pin MIDI I/O, and a USB port for transferring MIDI data with your computer. You can also connect the module to an iPad using the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit in order to trigger Core MIDI-compatible apps.

Aquarian inHead Aquarian inHead
$59.95 - $66.95 street

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Drummers who are creating a hybrid kit and want the feel of a standard drumhead under their sticks should check out Aquarian’s inHead triggering system, which embeds force-sensing resistor (FSR) technology into a multi-ply head. When the FSR layers are activated by pressure or touch, the circuit is completed and an impulse signal is sent to the output. The result is an integrated triggering system that is compatible with the majority of hardware- and software-based drum modules. Unlike conventional drum triggers that react to vibration and are susceptible to sympathetic misfiring or double triggering, the inHead will trigger only when it senses pressure. This makes the inHead sensitive enough to respond to sticks, brushes, mallets, and fingers while providing the high-quality timbre and feel Aquarian heads are known for.

Each inHead includes an inBox to power the FSR, as well as boost and condition the output signal. A gain control is provided for dialing in an accurate output level, and the unit is powered by a 9V battery.

The inBox has inputs labeled “head” and “rimshot” (the latter designed to accept the company’s rimShot sensor), which can be sent to separate channels of your sound module from the inBox’s 1/4” TRS output. The unit attaches securely to one of your drum’s tension rods, but stays out of the way when you play. The inHead Kick and Snare Pack ($169.95 street) adds a rimShot sensor and a kickZone bass-drum trigger to create a 3-input triggering system. The inHead is available in sizes ranging from 10" to 16" and can be purchased separately.

Aquarian also offers the onHead PED (Portable Electronic Drum-surface), which, as the name implies, is a standalone, FSR-based trigger that can turn an acoustic drum or any flat surface into a quiet, expressive electronic drum pad. The onHead PED is available in sizes ranging from 10" ($99.95 street) to 16" ($139.95 street) in diameter. An inBox is required for each. The onHead EBD, the kick-drum equivalent, is available in 18" to 24" sizes ($139.95 - $179.95 street).

ddrum Digital Drum 4-Pad Sample Station ddrum Digital Drum 4-Pad Sample Station
$499 street

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For a ready-to-go pad system to complement your acoustic setup, ddrum offers the Digital Drum 4-pad Sample Station. You get four 8" dual-zone pads, the DD3X sound module, and a stand with boom arms to hold it all.

The DD3X is also the heart of the company’s 5-piece DD3X drum kit ($699 street). The module offers 50 factory kits compiled from 218 drum and percussion sounds, with another 30 slots available for storing kits you’ll build. The I/O includes 9 trigger inputs, MIDI I/O, a USB port, a stereo audio input, and a headphone jack.

Kat Percussion KTMP1 Kat Percussion KTMP1
$119.95 street

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For a lightweight, inexpensive percussion controller with built-in sounds that can be played with sticks or fingers, the KTMP1 Multipad is worth checking out. The playing surface is divided into quadrants, each of which can be assigned its own instrument; with foot pedals attached, you can play as many as six sounds at a time. You can adjust the pitch, pan position, reverb level, sensitivity and output level of any of the 50 internal sounds you select. The module focuses heavily on auxiliary percussion—cowbell, timbale, triangle, conga, tabla, shaker, and so forth—but a few acoustic and electronic drum-set sounds are thrown in for good measure.

Powered by the included AC adapter, the KTMP1 has 1/4" stereo outputs, as well as a headphone output, and external trigger inputs—one for a hi-hat pedal (such as the KTHC1, $49.95) and another for a kick pedal (such as the HC-KP1 kick trigger, $79.95). As you would expect, you can use the MIDI Output and USB connector to control external instruments and sound libraries. A stand bracket is also included.

Korg Wavedrum Global Edition Korg Wavedrum Global Edition
$599.99 street

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At the higher end of the 1-piece electronic percussion instruments is the Korg Wavedrum, which has gone through several iterations over the past two decades. The most recent model, the Global Edition, expands the original sound library with realistic instrumental colors from around the world as well as unconventional and impressionistic electronic timbres. The sound engine combines PCM sounds and physical modeling that can be triggered from the head and rim sensors. The unit also has 140 phrase loops to play along with.

Like previous Wavedrums, the Global Edition has a tunable head and notched rim that respond well to sticks, mallets, and hands. The head is also pressure-sensitive, and can be mapped to modify pitch and timbre.

The internal sound library provides 200 factory programs and 200 additional slots for user-created sounds and setups. Performers will want to take advantage of the Wavedrum’s Live mode, where they can store and easily recall a dozen of the programs they use most.

The unit has a 1/8" stereo audio input for playing along with your favorite tracks, and a headphone jack so you can practice privately. Unfortunately, the unit has no USB or MIDI I/O, so unlike the other products in this roundup, it is unsuitable for playing external drum modules. Nonetheless, the internal sounds of the Wavedrum Global Edition are of the highest quality and provide plenty of useable timbres. More importantly, the instrument is fun to use on its own, thanks to its highly sensitive playing surface and ergonomic design.

Roland TM-2 Trigger Module Roland TM-2 Trigger Module
$199 street

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For drummers who want to trigger high-quality electronic sounds with minimal setup and fuss, Roland created the TM-2 Trigger Module. This diminutive device provides a pair of 1/4" TRS inputs, each of which accepts single- and dual-zone triggers, so you can play up to four sound files at a time. The module can be used with Roland’s RT-series acoustic-drum triggers and many of its V-drum controllers, and it is well-suited for use with the single-zone BT-1 Bar Trigger Pad ($99 street) and the low-noise KT-10 Kick Trigger Pedal ($229 street).

The factory library includes more than 100 sounds, from natural-sounding and electronic kicks, snares, and toms that can supplement your kit when you’re using acoustic-drum triggers; to auxiliary percussion that extends your sound palette. You can assemble the drums and percussion samples into 99 kits for easy recall.

The thing I like best about the TM-2 is that it can load 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV files—stereo or mono one-shots, loops, and song-length tracks— from an SDHC card. You can alter the files using the internal multi-effects processor that offers reverb, delay, tape echo, ring modulation, flanging, distortion, compression, wah, phase shifting, chorus, and EQ.

The module’s user interface is easy to navigate for basic triggering work, yet it provides deeper editing features when you want to get tweaky about sounds or adjust playback parameters such as velocity curves, threshold, and sensitivity. The TM-2 has stereo outputs, a mini-plug headphone jack, and standard MIDI I/O for controlling the TM-2 from an external source or when you want to track MIDI parts in your DAW sequencer or incorporate other drum modules.

The TM-2 weighs just 13 ounces and can be powered via an AC adapter or four AA batteries. It’s small enough to clamp onto your hi-hat or cymbal stand, making it easy to reach without schlepping yet another stand in your trap case.

Simmons SD1500KIT Simmons SD1500KIT
$999.99 street

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Simmons has lowered the entry price into electronic percussion with a range of affordable kits. The more you pay, of course, the more features you get, and the sturdier the system is. The SD1500KIT is a pro-level kit that provides a significant increase in feature-set and ruggedness, while keeping the price under a grand.

An appealing aspect of the SD1500KIT is that it uses a heavy-duty rack to hold everything and feels very stable when you play the kit with some force. In addition, the instruments connect to the underside of the SD1000 sound module with a single multipin D-sub connector; it sets up quickly and you don’t have a bunch of 1/4" cables sticking out of the module.

The SD1000 accepts 10 trigger inputs, including a pair of 12" triple-zone snare/tom pads, three 9" dual-zone drum pads, a 14" triple-zone ride, and two chokeable 12" dual-zone cymbal pads. The 9" kick pad is mounted on a floor stand, and a multiposition hi-hat controller is included.

The pads' playing response is similar to that of a practice pad, so drummers will feel right at home. The cymbals are made from hard plastic with a rubberized wedge on one end that serves as the striking surface. Though the number of pads is similar to the 6-piece SD1000 kit ($799.99), the SD1500KIT’s pads are larger and include the double- and triple-zone models.

The user interface of the SD1000 module is easy to navigate, and a new library of 516 sounds comes with the SD1500KIT. Select the instrument you want to audition or edit using its top-panel button. You get 99 kits, with 44 slots for your own creations. Sensitivity, threshold, velocity curve, and crosstalk are among the settings you’ll use to match pad response to your playing technique. The sequencer stores 100 factory and 100 user songs, offers four Play modes (One-Shot, Loop, Hit, Tap), and provides a metronome. Internal effects include 4-band EQ and reverb.

For I/O, the sound module has stereo 1/4" audio outputs, a 1/8" headphone jack, and an SD card slot to save and load kits and MIDI files. The 1/8" stereo aux input can be used for practicing along with tunes from any line-level audio source. The SD1000 module includes standard MIDI DIN jacks and as a USB port that supports MIDI.

Yamaha DTX562K with DTX502 module Yamaha DTX502 Drum Module

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The DTX502 is not only the brains behind three outstanding Yamaha electronic drum kits—the DTX522K ($2,200), DTX532K ($2,450), and DTX562K ($3,225)—but it can serve as the lightweight and portable heart of a hybrid kit for gigging and recording. The sound module offers stereo 1/4" audio outputs, a 1/4" stereo headphone jack, and a stereo minijack input.

The DTX502 accepts 12 trigger inputs, which can be acoustic-drum triggers or pad controllers. These triggers include the 8" triple-zone XP80 DTX pad, the 7" single-zone XP70 DTX pad, and the 7.5" single-zone TP70 rubber pad, which are used in the DTX kits. As a drummer, I enjoy the playing feel of the DTX pads, which have a squishy center and a more realistic acoustic-drum rebound than are found in the TP70 and other less-expensive pads. The raised rubber rim on the XP80 makes it easy to play sounds assigned to those trigger zones.

In the top-of-the-line DTX562K kit, the sound module divides the triggers between a 3-zone snare, two 3-zone cymbals, three single-zone toms, the kick pad, and two inputs dedicated to the dual-zone hi-hat pad. The cymbals in the DTX-500 series have a weighty rubber covering that softens the blow of a stick, so you don’t hear the clacking sound that you get from hard plastic cymbal pads.

The DTX502’s sound set comprises 691 drum and percussion instruments, which you can process using the internal 2-band EQ and reverb effects. In addition to the 50 kit presets, you can create and save another 50 of your own. A metronome and various rhythm training functions are also provided.

If you're interested in creating a custom sound set, you can import 20 of your own 16-bit/44.1kHz WAV or AIFF files by connecting the module’s USB port to your computer, using the MusicSoft Downloader, or to an iOS device via the MusicSoft Manager app. You can also use MIDI over USB to control software drum modules. The Yamaha DTX502 has an internal MIDI sequencer for recording your own playing; it also includes 60 song sequences, covering a variety of musical styles, for you to jam along with.

Zildjian Gen 16 System with Buffed Bronze Cymbals Zildjian Gen 16 Buffed Bronze Cymbals
$189 - $449 street

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It’s hard to beat the feel of a real metal cymbal: Whether you’re using a hybrid setup or a fully electronic kit, Zildjian’s Gen 16 “reduced volume” cymbals are big improvements over the rubber and plastic triggers that are commonly used with electronic kits.

This year, Zildjian unveiled a new series, the Gen 16 Buffed Bronze, available in seven sizes: 12" splash, 16" crash, 16" China, 18" crash-ride, 20" ride, and 13" and 14" hi-hat pairs. The company says that the larger cymbals get extra lathing, which results in an increase in the lower fundamental overtone structure, while the buffed bronze finish warms up the overall tone of all of the instruments. Acoustically, they sound remarkably different from the original Nickel Plated cymbals, and I can feel a subtle difference in response between the two types when playing them.

The Gen 16 AE reduced-volume cymbals are designed to be used with Zildjian’s Direct Source Pickup, which provides a wide dynamic range without any feedback or audio bleed. These are plugged into the Digital Cymbal Processor (DCP), which shapes the tone of each cymbal, rather than triggering samples.

The DCP can accommodate five Gen 16 cymbals. Each of the five channels comes with 10 Tone Shapes, but will hold up to 99 Tone Shapes. Additional Tone Shapes can be downloaded for free from at the Gen 16 downloads page. (Note that new Tone Shapes from drummers Russ Miller and Simon Edgoose will be available in June, with more to follow). Each cymbal input has its own pan and volume control, so the player can mix the instruments as needed.

The audio output of your drum module can be blended in with the Gen 16 cymbals using the DCP’s balanced inputs and mix control. The DCP also includes a digital reverb with 12 presets, a 1/8" aux input for use with portable audio-playback devices, and a headphone output.

Gino Robair is the technical editor of Electronic Musician magazine and a contributor to Mix magazine.