Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Transitioning to V-Drums: It can...and it can't

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I acquired a set of Roland V-Drums earlier this year, and I've been documenting my transition and trying to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the electronic kit.

Let's start with a couple of "can'ts."

It can't give you realistic feel and response. Probably the most obvious weakness is the hi-hat pedal. When playing jazz, the hi-hat "chick" sound is all but worthless. Not only is the sound mushy as all get out, you have to absolutely crank the level (and drop everything else) to get an adequate relative level for swing and latin grooves.

If you can imagine the differences between a grand piano and an electronic keyboard, you're close - at least in concept. This is the way I've begun to think about it: with acoustic, real drums, you are limited by physics - by the literal wood, metal, plastic, metal and wood (I know I repeated metal and wood, but that was for effect) - and by your own skills and creativity. With the V-Drums, you're limited by the programming of the computer module and the capabilities of the triggers.

That being said, you really do have to think about acoustic drums and electronic drums as two very different instruments, and thus approach playing and making music differently. You might play them with similar technique, but they are as different as the aforementioned piano and keyboard.

And if you're thinking about them this way, you realize quickly that the number one strength of the electronic drums is that they have literally hundreds of sounds onboard. You can adjust - within limitations - the samples to reflect shell material, diameter and depth, as well as a limited bank of cymbal sounds. You can literally change kits every song - or every chorus if you want!

Another huge benefit is that you can play virtually silently. With headphones (I mentioned this before), I can rock out at 2 AM without waking the kiddos. And with an audio input jack, I plug in the ol' iPad and practice with a track and be almost totally silent. The feel is close enough that this is really a great benefit. It's not like you're going to have to make a huge adjustment when you go back to acoustics.

This, in fact, is one of the reasons I was encouraged to get a virtual kit - to keep the stage as quiet as possible during performances. Combined with in-ear monitoring, the only live sounds on stage are acoustic guitar and voices. It's eerie and cool at the same time. The bass, electric guitar and keyboard players all plug directly into the system, amp-less.

I do miss the "thump" of the live sounds. Even when using the in-ears, you can feel the vibration of the drums and amps, and I do miss that. But it is nice to be able to pull out one ear, and then have a relatively low-level conversation while playing a tune. It's gotten almost a little silly at some of the less intense (read: background music with zero audience) gigs because we're catching up and chatting it up on stage.

One last thing for now. This may seem backward, but I miss having to play with good dynamics. In a small venue, I used to have to choose my sticks and play so carefully so as not to overblow the band, and in a large venue I had to work pretty hard. Now, it's all in the hands of the engineer - I've even cut my stick bag down to one pair (minus the bag) when I take out the V-drums.

And that's just weird.

Anyway, enough of my rambling for now. As always, I welcome comments, opinions, input and feed back below.

Happy drumming!

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Drummer's Weight Room: Tap Timing Exercise

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