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Drum It Down

Perhaps the greatest challenge in any church auditorium is controlling the drum sound. Acoustic drums’ frequency range covers the entire audible spectrum. It is all too easy for the drums to cover and obliterate other acoustic instruments being performed. Unlike a keyboard player who can simply turn down a volume knob, a drummer has to change the playing style to get real low. It becomes a kinetic challenge that is uncomfortable to the performer. There is an alternative.

Electronic drums and percussion is not a new concept, but recent changes in technology make looking into this alternative more viable and desirable than ever. There are several components in the electronic drum question that need to be examined; the playing surface, the sound module, the PA system.

The Playing Surface
There are two schools of thought regarding what the “pads” should be like, each having a distinct set of advantages and disadvantages. The “traditional” electronic pad setup is a collection of drum pads (usually round like an acoustic drum). These pads are mounted on a drum rack, where each pad needs to be adjusted to a desired height and angle. Each pad also needs a quarter inch cable that either must be plugged into a drum module that has trigger inputs or must first go into a trigger to MIDI converter which takes these trigger pulses and turns them into MIDI data. Once in this format, the drum pads can work with any MIDI sound module. Manufactures such as Pintech, Hart Systems, Yamaha and Roland use this format for drum emulation.

The other alternative playing surface is a flat surface pad controller. Up to 24 different pads are placed on a flat surface. These controllers use a natural rubber playing top. It is mounted on a stand, and one cable sends information from all of the pads. Alternate Mode is the manufacturer of this design called the drumKAT and trapKAT.

Some advantages: the “Traditional” pad controller looks more like a drum set. Even though the roundness of the pads have no effect on the sound, some drummers are more comfortable with it looking like an acoustic set. Also, each pad is adjustable. The height and angle of each pad is malleable. This gives the performer the ability to set up the kit to ones liking.

Disadvantages: it takes longer to set up. Every time the electronic kit is needed, each pad has to be set up individually. Every pad requires its own cable making it look potentially messy and lends itself to wiring problems. It also costs more. Because each pad is a separate identity. It costs more for the price per pad, and for the stand because each pad requires its own mounting hardware.

Almost all electronic drum pads of this type use Piezo elements as the trigger mechanism. Piezo senses vibration when a pad is struck. If a pad is played hard, it is possible for adjacent pads to false trigger. Some manufactures deal with this inherent problem with “smart software” that evaluates each signal as true or false. Not a perfect system.

Here are the advantages to the Flat Playing Surface:

It is fast to set up. Since all of the pads are on one surface, it just takes moments to set up the entire drum kit. The pad surface gets mounted on a single stand. There are no trigger cables. The drumKAT(trapKAT) convert the strikes to MIDI before it leaves the box.

It has a small Footprint. Up to twenty four pads are configured on one playing surface. That is more than double (probably triple) the amount of pads in a traditional electronic drum setup. An acoustic kit this size would fill up half of the stage. The price per pad is less than half of the other style.

The triggering system is a space age technology called FSR (force sense resistor) that measures pressure rather than vibration. The result is a wider dynamic range, increased sensitivity and zero crosstalk.

The disadvantages: it looks different. Even though it is easy and comfortable to play on, it does not look like an acoustic drumset, and the “techno” look gives some drummers the jitters.

You can’t change the pad layout. You can change the sound on any pad, but the pad is where the pad is. You have height and angle adjustments on the stand, but it applies to the entire instrument.

The Sound Module
Once again, there seems to be two schools of thought regarding drum sound modules. Each clearly has its own set of advantages and disadvantages as well. I like to call this the “turn key” versus the “creative” approach.

The “TURN KEY” approach is the drum module/drum machine type of sound generator that has preset drum kits built in. This really is the quick and easy approach because the drum sounds are available instantly. All one has to do is turn the dial on the module, and another drum kit pops up. This approach works on both types of electronic pad controllers.

The “CREATIVE” approach is using a “sampler” device to create one’s own kits or purchasing sampled drum sets (usually via CD ROM) for the sampler. Samplers used to be a very expensive ordeal, but with the advent of fast personal computers and soft synths like REASON from propellerheads, it is possible to have very powerful samplers on your laptop for very little money.

The obvious advantage of the turn key drum modules is that it is really easy to get sounds up and running. Unfortunately, there is a downside. These drum modules have very little RAM and ROM inside them. That means that there is an extreme limitation on just how representative these sounds really are. These drum kits can often sound static and artificial. Because only a small amount of sample memory can be used to represent the drum sound, electronic trickery must always be at play (such as looping the end of a cymbal sound or changing the filter frequency of soft hits to appear like it is a different sample). Also, many of the kits are really the same kit with just a different tuning of a snare or a different reverb setting.

Samplers and soft synths can sound stunningly realistic. Soft synths can have Gigabytes of memory for sample representation (a typical drum module only has 32 megs of ROM). That means that a cymbal can ring for a minute without stressing the processor or memory load.

It is clear that the computer will be the synthesizer of the future, but once again there are disadvantages. If you are like the rest of us, you may have noticed that one’s computer doesn’t always behave. Also, there is some programming involved. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend hours setting up your drum set. There are libraries of drum and percussion sounds (Alternate Mode) that make the process easier, but you still have to load in the sampler and load in your sound bank and have your note numbers set up.

That’s the easy part. It is likely that your Church already has a PA in place. There is no need to have a separate amplifier for the drummer. There is one matter however that needs some discussion, and that is the issue of latency. Sound travels at approximately 1 millisecond per foot. If the speaker placement is more than five feet away from the drummer, he or she will notice it. Remember, there is no acoustic sound coming from the pads (other than the taping sounds). Even if the delay is not noticeable, the music will feel different if the speakers get too far away from the drummer. The need for monitors are important. Nothing will make your drummer happier if they can get their own mix (lots of drums of course).

With the advent of sensitive drum controllers and realistic drum sounds, the time for having the drums in the mix has never been better.

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