Now that electronic drums have finally become respectable, there seems to be a trend towards producing more easily affordable MIDI kits. This offering from Alesis is based around the well-regarded DM5 module, yet is still surprisingly inexpensive.
As an acoustic drummer who has also embraced electronic drums, I have owned and played various electronic kits over the years, ranging from the first Simmons kits with their bone-jarringly hard playing surfaces, via the newer softer rubber pads, to my present Roland V-Drum kit with its mesh heads, fabulous hardware, and equally imposing price tag. Even though the V-Drum family have been falling in price, there's still a place in the market for something simple, cheap, and practical, so I was particularly interested to see how Alesis had approached their new DM5 Electronic Drum Kit.
I was pleasantly surprised at just how easily and simply the drums and rack were packed, and at how compact the kit is when disassembled. The kit comprises a black rack frame to support the pads; five drum trigger pads, one of which serves as the hi-hat playing surface and is used in conjunction with the supplied open/closed footswitch; two cymbal pads; and the sound-module 'brain'. In this case the brain is the long-established Alesis DM5 drum module, which has 12 analogue trigger inputs, so cost has been saved by not having to design new electronics. The same was true of its predecessor, the smaller Ion Audio IED01 (reviewed in SOS October 2005), which used the long-running Alesis SR16 drum machine as a brain. Given the low cost of the kit, I was delighted to see the inclusion of both a set of reasonable drum sticks and a bass drum pedal, so all you need is a stool and a pair of headphones to get up and running. As with its predecessor, this kit is easy to set up and transport and, once unpacked, it took me less than 15 minutes to assemble it, a process that was only slightly hampered by the fact that I could find no assembly instructions included with the review kit!
The rack for the DM5 is the usual black-painted steel affair with multiple clamps that house the side extensions and pad arms. Included with this kit are the two side extension arms on which both the hi-hat and floor-tom pads are mounted. There is a 'T' bar leg support at either end, which vertically supports the entire frame, with a middle-section crossbar to add strength to the entire assembly.
Assembling the rack was indeed fairly quick, but less easy than it might have been. Most of the pad extension bars had come loose and needed to be assembled as I went along. The wing nuts provided with this kit are very small and fragile, which is quite unnecessary. Even slight over-tightening can cause these plastic parts to fracture, so Alesis would do well to sort this issue out as soon as possible, as it is the only real weak point of this kit and could be significantly improved if a little more thought was put into the design of the fittings, positioners, and tightening screws.
Compared to my V-Drum kit (not entirely a fair comparison given that this kit costs less than the VAT on my V-Drums), the hardware is very lightweight, but it still adequately supports the five black plastic velocity-sensitive playing pads. These are identical, and covered in a rubberised substance to enhance the feel of the playing surface. Each pad is around eight inches diameter by two inches deep, and presents a slightly larger playing area than available on the earlier Ion Audio kit. On the underside of each pad is a quarter-inch jack socket for connection to the DM5, and all the necessary leads come with the kit. As with the earlier Ion Audio kit, the newer model's pads include sockets for dual triggering, but one of these is mysteriously blocked off, suggesting some room for future development. The current kits are, however, strictly one sound per pad, unless you count the hi-hat, which switches from open to closed and also generates a closing sound when the pedal is operated.
The two supplied 12-inch cymbal triggers are both functional and easy to position on the rack. They're certainly better than using more rigid rubber pads for cymbal triggering. The rack itself has changed little from the previous version except for the addition of two side extension arms that mount both the hi-hat and floor tom triggers plus the snare pad. In terms of hardware compatibility, the rack is not suitable to mount other manufacturers' hardware, as the tube diameter is significantly smaller. Cleverly, the 19-inch DM5 module hangs suspended from the upper of the two support struts, which keeps it well out of the way of flying sticks, while still being within easy reach when adjustment is required. This keeps the kit nice and compact.
One of the most interesting aspects of electronic drums is their appeal to drummers and non- drummers alike. Casual players or studio owners who need a way to program drum parts will probably be perfectly happy with this kit, though more serious drummers may be put off by the lack of true drum-head 'bounce' — the tensioned mesh heads used by other electronic drum manufacturers are greatly superior in this respect, but the price of the pads is significantly higher. Being honest, the playing surface of the DM5 kit is a little harsh, and the tap, tap, tap of the sticks hitting the surface can be intrusive, but at least there's enough give in the pads not to make your wrists ache.
The hi-hat controller footswitch is both simple and effective, while the addition of a bass drum pad that is hit by means of a standard-style pedal is a great improvement over the kick switch provided with the Ion Audio kit — a switch lacks sensitivity to dynamics when compared with more elaborate kits, making it harder to play expressively. The two 12-inch cymbal triggers are quite a good size to hit, simple in design, and constructed from hard-wearing plastic with a thicker rubber 'outer shell' to shield the trigger from stick impact.
One of the major benefits of these types of drum kit is that they produce very little mechanical noise compared with an acoustic kit, and can be used effectively with a set of good-quality closed-back headphones. The clicking of the pads may be enough to drive people mad if they're in the same room, but at least this kit won't be heard throughout the house.
Even though it has been around for many years, the Alesis DM5 drum module still provides a great range of both conventional and electronic drum and percussion sounds, as well as some novel special effects. This outputs via 18-bit DACs running at a 48kHz sample rate and offers over 500 ROM-based drum and percussion sampled voices. You can store 21 drum kits, and each kit can have up to 61 sounds. Having become used to some of the more exotic features provided by the more advanced and certainly more expensive Roland, Yamaha, and Ddrum kits, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of drum voices that this kit has on board. The factory preset drum kits are well thought out, with kits covering heavy metal, pop, rock, jazz, Latin, and general percussion. Those interested in the techno/rap/world-music end of the musical spectrum are also well catered for. All the preset kits are available for editing, so sounds can be substituted, retuned, panned, and mixed.
For drummers, simplicity of operation tends to be important, and the interface on the DM5 module is both simple and clearly laid out, with a central backlit LCD display for kit names and edit parameters. There is a variable-level phones output, essential for practice, and an overall volume control. Most parameter adjustments are made using a large value dial. A very clever Preview button helps ensure you haven't dialled up a John Bonham kit by mistake when you are just about to play a jazz number. When tuning your drums (via the Tune button) there's an automatic 'pad follow' system which can be used to get the edit window to track the pad you last hit. As the DM5 has four audio outputs, there are also group-assign and output-selection functions, so you could take your kick and snare out separately for processing in a recording situation.
Altogether there are 12 trigger inputs, which you connect to the pads to create your sound. As not all of them are used, you can add more pads as required. Power for the DM5 module comes from an included mains adaptor which connects on the rear panel. Also round that back you'll find MIDI In and Out/Thru ports, as well as an input for a footswitch, which can be used either as a hi-hat pedal or to move incrementally through the drum-kit presets. Finally, there are the obligatory left and right main output jacks, as well as the two auxiliary output jacks which may be used to separate out some of the kit elements.
One of the most important aspects of the DM5 module is its versatility beyond being the brain of this kit. For example, you could use it as an expander to another electronic kit, or use it in your studio as a MIDI triggerable box of drum samples — which is how it was originally designed to be used. You can even trigger it using an audio track fed via a gate if you're careful, which makes replacing poor-quality drum sounds a possibility as long as there isn't too much crosstalk to allow the gate to work properly.
Because I'm primarily an acoustic drummer used to playing on very responsive playing surfaces, any move away from that environment feels unnatural. The recent development of mesh heads on electronic drums has made a big difference, but, as I've already pointed out, that kind of innovation comes at a price. If you want to build an affordable electronic drum kit, there seems little alternative to sticking a rubber layer over a solid backboard with a pickup on it. The seasoned professional may well like the sounds within the DM5 module, but balk at the playing feel — but then this kit clearly isn't aimed at the professional.
The frame, pads, and bass-drum pedal, whilst adequate for studio and casual use, would be unlikely to stand up well to the sustained wear and tear of nightly gigging, but, when you weigh up the cost, the Ion DM5 still offers excellent value for money. In fact I seem to recall that the DM5 module when launched used to cost more on its own than this complete kit. The kit is probably best suited to those needing to practice drums at home without annoying the neighbours, but it will also work well for general-purpose studio tasks, and should also be OK for the occasional pub gig.
In the studio, having playable surfaces is a big step up from programming drum beats or manipulating loops with a mouse or MIDI keyboard. I feel that Alesis could make a much bigger splash into the electronic drum-kit market if they spent a little more money on the playability and durability aspects of this kit. That said, if they drove the price up to the point where they were in competition with some of the entry-level V-Drums and similar units, then they'd probably find the market too tough, so it is a fine line! As it is, they have the 'cheap and cheerful' end of the market pretty much sewn up. What they lose in feel and durability, they gain in simplicity, sound quality, and affordability — even the manual is disarmingly simple. Overall this is a good-value, entry-level kit for practice or studio use, with the added bonus that the DM5 module is a versatile source of MIDI drum sounds.