For those with money to burn, a top-of-the-range electronic drum set (aka e-drums) by the likes of Yamaha, Roland or Alesis enables a playing experience pretty much on a par with that of a real acoustic drum kit, thanks to its full-sized mesh heads, stellar multisampled sounds, effortless studio connectivity and more.
But what about the other end of the scale, where the tentative beginner, perhaps lacking the space or neighbourhood tolerance required to house an acoustic set, will be looking to make their first instrumental investment? Can a five-piece e-drum set costing a few hundred pounds/dollars really hope to emulate the feel and sonics of a ‘proper’ kit in the same price bracket, and do the unique digital advantages it offers counterbalance any compromise in authenticity? Let’s find out…
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Acoustic vs electronic drums: Noise
For many fledgling (and, indeed, veteran!) drummers, the domestically challenging volume levels of the acoustic drum kit are a potential show-stopper – and no one really enjoys playing on deadheads or drum mutes. E-drums, on the other hand, deliver their sampled sounds via volume-adjustable studio headphone and line outputs, and although their rubber pads are still far from silent, the difference is night and day – and mesh pads are even quieter.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Space
Even the smallest full-size acoustic drum kit is a big, hefty collection of things, and the kick drum and cymbal stand legs outline a considerable footprint. Again, the budget e-drum kit walks away with this one, its racking, small pads and kick tower adding up to a comparatively compact rig.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Portability
Another easy win for e-drums, as most modern beginner kits folds down to a readily manageable, almost flatpack arrangement, while the acoustic alternative barely packs down and generally demands separate cases for each drum, plus two more for cymbals and hardware if it’s heading for long-term storage or leaving the house.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Cost
Technology being what it is, the saying, ‘You get what you pay for’ obviously applies more directly to electronic drums than it does their acoustic counterparts, and the meaningful difference between a $/£500 drum kit and a $/£6,000 one is less profound than the increase in playability and sound quality that the equivalent upgrade gets you in the e-drum market. So, while a budget acoustic kit may well see you through those formative years and some way beyond, you’ll quite quickly outgrow a similarly priced e-drum kit as your skills and aural discernment improve.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Features
Unsurprisingly, the electronic kit holds all the aces in this particular game, providing not only tons of tweakable onboard sounds, glamorous DSP effects, and convenient MIDI (over USB and/or 5-pin DIN) and audio output, but also a variety of genuinely useful coaching and training tools that are of huge value to the aspiring newbie. From exercises designed to develop timing, speed and consistency, to full playalong tracks, it’s here that e-drums trounce the resolutely – albeit reassuringly – low-tech architecture of the acoustic kit.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Playability
There’s simply no comparison between the natural feel and directness of a real drum head and the hard, triggering response and smaller target area of an 8” rubber pad, but thankfully most budget electronic kits these days include a much more ‘realistic’ mesh head for (at least) the all-important snare drum – ideally dual-zone for rimshots – which we would argue is a must-have. For added realism, a kick drum tower, as opposed to a beaterless pedal, should also be on the e-drummer’s shopping list, along with a dual-zone ride cymbal if possible. Even with all those boxes ticked, though, the acoustic kit still can’t be – ahem – beaten in the playability department.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Playing live
With budget e-drums not necessarily blasting out the most convincing sounds, and requiring some form of amplification to be heard in a live setting – be it through the venue PA or a dedicated amp and speakers – the acoustic kit clearly has the edge on stage when it comes to rock, jazz and other electric/acoustic styles. Having said that, the MIDI output of the e-drum kit facilitates velocity-sensitive triggering of synths, samplers and drum machines, either hardware or laptop-hosted software, opening up an endless universe of tonal possibilities that transcends the earthbound limits of acoustic drums. If your band is of an electronic bent, this alone could seal the e-drum deal.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Recording
The samples built into your affordable e-drums aren’t really going to cut it as a bona-fide acoustic kit emulation in the studio any more than they will on stage – but once again that MIDI output proves an invaluable inclusion. Connecting it to your Mac or PC lets you use those pads to instead trigger amazing multi-gigabyte sampled drum kit plugins such as Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 2 or FXpansion’s BFD3 in any software DAW, and capitalise on the creative power that MIDI recording and editing brings to the table. Committing an acoustic kit to ‘tape’, meanwhile, calls for a decent set of microphones, an engineer who knows what they’re doing, and a properly treated recording space – that’ll be a recording studio, then.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Moving from one to the other
The final consideration in our percussive wood/silicon face-off is how readily technique developed on e-drums translates – as, ultimately, it must – to the acoustic kit. To make this crucial switch as painless as possible, mesh pads (for the snare at the very least) and a kick drum tower are essential, as these will get you significantly closer to the physicality of sticks/beater on Mylar than rubber pads and a beaterless pedal ever could. Even with those criteria fulfilled, though, moving from the 8” pads of the entry-level e-drum kit to the 14” snare and 10-16” toms of the real deal is always going to involve a period of adjustment.
Acoustic vs electronic drums: Verdict
So where does all this leave us? Well, in a nutshell, for the novice drummer, an acoustic kit is the better choice from a developmental perspective, and every effort should be made to accommodate one if and when at all possible. However, when space and/or noise are issues, today’s affordable e-drum setups make more than acceptable substitutes, especially if you opt for a model with mesh heads (on the snare at least) and a kick drum tower. And, of course, onboard training tools, ‘produced’ sounds and MIDI output all make for compelling extras, especially if you’re looking to integrate your drums into a home studio.