Understanding the different parts of your electronic drum kit

Overview

This is part 9 of the Using an electronic drum kit with Rock Band FAQ.

An electronic drum kit is made up of a lot of different pieces.  You probably want to know more about them.

The stand

The drum stand is the frame that holds up all of the electronic drum pads and other equipment that make up the kit.  Stands are typically comprised of 1 1/2" diameter metal tubes that are connected together via plastic or metal joints to create the whole assembly.

I don't have much to say here.  There are some differences in how quickly these stands can be torn down and put back up, but that's unlikely to be an issue for most people.

Of course, size is certainly a consideration.  The bigger stands give you room to mount bigger drums and cymbals around you.  But creating such a setup is an integrated project … it makes little sense to buy a big stand and not spend more money on the bigger drums that should go along with it.  What I'm trying to say is…if you're putting together your own kit from the ground up, don't buy a big stand and then realize you only have enough money to put small pads on it.

Clamps and rods

Clamps are attached to the metal tubing and, in turn, secure cymbal arms or steel l-rods that are used to mount the drum pads or cymbals.

The clamps made by Roland are made of plastic.  This generally works fine, but if you are not paying attention, it's possible to overscrew the clamp while securing it and damage the plastic.

Steel clamps such as those made by Gibraltar are definitely superior.  While heavier, the metal clamps do not flex at all and when you are securing a clamp to the stand, the screw used to tighten the clamp will stop very quickly and firmly as opposed to a plastic clamp.

 

Drum pads – rubber vs mesh

Electronic drum pads are made a couple of different ways.  Both types of pads are far superior to the plastic drum set provided with the Rock Band kit.

Lower end pads are made of black rubber.   These  have a nice bounce back to them that helps your drumming.  The material produces a deep thumpy type of sound on their own when you hit them.  Imagine you are hitting a tire with your drumstick.  That's basically what it sounds like.  In terms of shock transferred back to your hands, there is a medium amount of it as compared to the Rock Band kit…much better, but definitely not perfect.  My hands still hurt a little bit if I bang on a rubber pad as a hi hat for too long.

HItting rubber pads is OK, but does not really feel the same as hitting a real drum head.

High end pads, on the other hand, are made of a tightly woven mesh material.  The best way I can think of to describe it is that it feels like you are hitting a trampoline.  The feel is very much like hitting a real drum head.

In addition, mesh pads have good bounce back and are extremely sensitive…you can take a drum stick, let the end fall onto the pad and bounce, and the pad will detect nearly every bounce as it settles down onto the drum pad.   This isn't to say that rubber pads are not sensitive…unless you are trying to breathe on a rubber pad with your sticks, a rubber pad will pick up every hit.  But you can use a very light touch with mesh pads.

There is almost no shock transferred back into your hands from mesh pads due to the bounciness of the mesh material.  This makes them much more comfortable to play on for extended periods of time.

Mesh pads have a quiet sound to them.  To me, they sound like you are hitting a very quiet snare drum.  I would say a mesh pad sounds to me about as 2/3 as loud as a rubber pad…plus the quality of the sound is not thumpy or resonant as a rubber pad, which means it probably won't carry through walls as easily.

A frequent compromise in lower end kits is to use a mesh pad for the snare and rubber pads for the rest of the drums, since the snare is so frequently used with rapid hits.

In addition to the regular pads, special variations include the cymbals (which are usually always rubber) and the kick drum, which can either be rubber or mesh.  Also, you can use a regular drum pad as a hi-hat, but Roland does make special electronic hi-hats which look and behave more like the real thing.

The hi hat pedal

Not much to see here…stepping on this pedal simulates closing the hi-hat.

The cables

Each drum pad or cymbal is patched into the drum brain via a cable.  In every case I've seen, the cable is a 1/4" TRS to 1/4" TRS cable … which is, in layman's terms, the same type of connector that you see on big headphones.

Usually one end of the cable will be an L-shaped connector.  The L-shaped end should be plugged into the drum pad…the L-connector reduces the stress placed directly on the drum connector in the event that you inadvertantly yank or trip on the cable.

Some controls or drums only need a mono connection … for example, the hi-hat pedal and the bass drum.  Roland only sells stereo cables standalone, but the stereo cables work perfectly well as replacements for the mono cables and are still inexpensive.

The drum brain

Every electronic drum connects back into a drum "brain" that actually detects what is being done to each pad and makes the appropriate sounds when an electronic instrument is struck.  You can switch out all kinds of different instrument kits on the brain, which gives you a very large palette of virtual instrument sounds to work with.

The drum brain, in addition to making sounds on its own, also outputs MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data when you play on the kit.  This data doesn't consist of the sounds being made by the drum brain…it's actually just data about the drum that was struck, the velocity of the hit, etc.  It's essentially
feeding tablature or sheet music out in real time.

This data can be sent to a PC, where it can then be used for all sort of purposes.  For example, you could simply have your PC act as an infinitely flexible drum brain, or you could actually record your performance (again, as the notes, not the actual sounds themselves).  This MIDI data is the key to connecting your drum kit to Rock Band.  The MSA-P reads this MIDI data in real time and triggers the drum controller to signal the correct hits.

High end drum brains are very expensive and make up a good portion of the cost of a high end electronic drum kit.  Fortunately, for the purposes of Rock Band, it almost doesn't matter what kind of drum brain you get.

Two minor things to watch out for:

You want a drum brain that can customize the MIDI note numbers it sends out when a pad is struck, or else you may be slightly limited in the pads you can use while playing Rock Band.  Every current Roland drum brain can do this, except for the HD-1.  The Yamaha DTXplorer III cannot remap MIDI notes either.

If you are going to be serious about trying to hit the correct drum for a note as opposed to just matching the color of the note on the screen, then you need enough inputs on the drum brain and pads to match.  Again, even the low end TD-3 has tons of inputs, and I haven't seen a case where more inputs would be needed…but it's theoretically possible.

A final work on this … every Roland drum brain that I know of has settings to prevent crosstalk between drums and adjust pad sensitivity.  If you buy a very cheap or generic electronic drum kit, be sure to do your homework and figure out if the kit you are buying has these settings.  Some do not, and it can be a deal breaker for use with Rock Band.  Nothing is worse that hitting one drum and triggering another one if you are trying to play seriously.

 

Conclusion

By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of what you're actually getting when you go out and buy an entire kit like, say, the new TD-9SX.

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