The price of MIDI keyboard controllers has tumbled over the past few years, and Ion clearly feel it's time the same thing happened to MIDI drum kits. Their IED01 costs £299 and includes five pads, two pedals, and the stand!
During my childhood in the heart of West Yorkshire, there were two pieces of wisdom that were regularly handed out with the bread and dripping across the scullery tea table. "Whatever you buy, never pay full price if you can help it" was the gist of the first — an exhortation to always purchase at below market value. The second, more colourfully rendered as "You never get owt for nowt" conveyed the idea that just because something could be obtained for little money didn't mean it was worth having. In fact, the reverse was often true.
Being brought up on this helpfully contradictory advice means I am now constantly on the lookout for a bargain, yet always immensely suspicious of anything that is already too much of a bargain to start with. The first lesson at the School of Hard Knocks is that if something is too good to be true, that's usually because it is!
That's broadly how I felt when I first encountered the Ion IED01 drum kit, an encounter made through the ultimate bargain-hunter's paradise, eBay. The scenario was this: having recently relocated my studio to a room with a party wall, I wasn't sure exactly just how friendly (and/or deaf) the elderly neighbours would prove to be. For the sake of peaceful co-existence, I was considering replacing the antisocial acoustic kit with a second-hand electronic drum kit, the idea being that it would be useful both for out-of-hours practice and also for being able to play rhythms into the computer sequencer in real time.
In response to the search text string 'tight-fisted Yorkshireman seeks MIDI drum solution', eBay presented me with several entries concerning said Ion IED01. Each entry was accompanied by bright and breezy copy promising everything I wanted to 'start playing drums out of the box, including headphones for silent practice'. With more precise technical details rather sketchy, and with an accompanying stock photo that gave no sense of real scale, it was hard to tell whether what I was looking at was a child's toy, a 'stress-relieving' executive gimmick or something that genuinely deserved the description 'electronic drum kit'. I decided to give it a wide berth.
However, when I noticed that a lot of mainstream music dealers also had the Ion kit for sale, I began to think that maybe it was worth investigating further. A couple of weeks later, I encountered a demo kit on the Numark-Alesis stand at the Sounds Expo exhibition at Wembley. I was impressed. So much so that, taking advantage of the special show price (Yorkshire roots showing again, you see), I dipped my hand into my overdraft there and then and ordered one on the spot. So what you're reading here relates not to a review unit supplied for free for a month or so by the manufacturer, in the usual SOS way of doing things, but to a kit paid for with hard cash.
Like the adverts say, the Ion IED01 really is a complete five-piece MIDI electronic drum kit: that's pads, pedals, stand, trigger-to-MIDI converter, sound module and all connecting leads. In their generosity, Ion even throw in headphones and a pair of drumsticks — though they'd be pretty mean to throw in just the one drumstick. The only essential commodity that's missing is something suitable to sit on; otherwise, this is a total electronic drumming experience for a recommended retail price of under £300 (and as usual, you can get this for less if you shop around).
The box in which the kit is supplied seems surprisingly compact, but it opens TARDIS-like to reveal lots of other little boxes and plastic bags containing many and various bits and pieces. You even get a screwdriver. The initial activity involves assembling the stand, which anyone with a GCSE in Flat Pack Furniture Studies should be able to manage even without recourse to the very clear step-by-step instructions. At first glance, the stand appears somewhat spindly and fragile, but as you put it together you realise it is more robust than it looks. The poles are steel and overall quality of the plastic connectors is pretty good — and everything even lines up and fits, which is more than can be said for the average IKEA bookcase. One good thing is that all the connections are tightened using bolts with wingnut-style heads. As you'll discover later, this makes it easy to adjust the stand and fine-tune the position of the drum pads. Another surprise is that while the stand seems quite small in comparison, the long arms on which the pads are fixed means you can set it up quite comfortably, even for taller players.
The disadvantage (if it can be called such) is that unlike more expensive kits, none of this hardware is compatible with that used by other drum hardware systems, so if you were looking to integrate the Ion's hardware with a conventional kit, then you'd be hard pushed. But for what it is, it works. And what's more, after thrashing the hell out of the pads for a week or so, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in spite of some initial misgivings, things did tend to stay in position once it had all been tightened up. All in all, an impressive start.
The five velocity-sensitive pads themselves are no oil paintings in terms of their aesthetic appearance, looking a bit like the kind of sandwiches Darth Vader might have in his lunchbox. But performance is respectable enough. The hittable pad surface is about five inches square in size, provides a fair amount of bounce, and as long as you play in the centre of the pad, you can trigger quite fast drum rolls with no problems. They do give off a lot of surface noise though, which to someone in the next room can make it sound as though you are wrestling with an industrial knitting machine... er, and losing. On the plus side, after several weeks of being under the stick, so to speak, the pads appeared just as new as when they had first come out of their wrapping. Interestingly, although they are all single-trigger varieties, tantalisingly there's a blanked-off hole on the back labelled Output 2, which suggests that somewhere there are dual-trigger versions of the pads, perhaps with the extra trigger being mounted on the rim. I'd be interested to learn more, if there's more to learn.
The score so far — Yorkshire scepticism: 0, Ion IED01: 2. But it's in the foot department where the economies start to become evident. Both the bass-drum and hi-hat 'pedals' are very simple, and indeed very plastic, non-latching footpedals. This means for a start that you can forget velocity sensitivity on the bass drum, although when it comes down to playing, this proves less of a problem than it might appear. And certainly when you're using the kit simply for practice, you're probably not going to be worried about it at all. Probably of more concern is just how long the pedals might last compared to the rest of the kit. After a few weeks, the bass footpedal was prone to double triggering, though this was partly due to the fact that it requires a different playing technique to that of an acoustic bass drum pedal setup, where you will often use the beater to 'damp' the bass drum skin.
In the meantime, let us follow the rather flimsy connecting leads from the pads into the trigger-to-MIDI converter, which rejoices in the name of the IET01. Neatly, this has been designed to be integral to the stand itself, bolting on to the lower horizontal bar. And thanks to some creative design thinking, it also provides a lipped shelf for the drum sound module to sit on. Ion even give you some self-adhesive Velcro strips to make sure it doesn't drop off.
The IET01 trigger-to-MIDI converter, which is powered by a 12V DC adaptor, offers nine inputs for pads — so there's room for future expansion — plus two for the bass and hi-hat pedals. As with the pads, the connectors are all on mini-jacks. The pad inputs are labelled Hi-hat, Snare, Tom 1, Tom 2, Tom 3, Crash, Perc 1, Ride and Bass and what you quickly realise is that the corresponding MIDI note assignments are fixed (see the box on the right). In its default state, then, the inputs correspond to the type of sound you will trigger from the drum module. But because you can change the combination of sounds that make up a kit from within the module itself, the pads are not restricted as to which type of sound they trigger.
You'll have noticed that there are two inputs for hi-hat control. The trigger input is so that you can use a pad to play the sound, while the footpedal input allows you to switch between an open and closed hi-hat sound and also to make that 'chick' noise that you would get when pressing down on a real hi-hat. Hi-hats are really difficult to mimic electronically, so I wasn't expecting much. But in fact the Ion hi-hat setup is pretty realistic. Certainly it works fine for practice purposes.
What the IET01 does lack is any programmable sensitivity for the trigger inputs, which would allow you to adapt the kit to your particular style of playing. This concerned me at first, because it also provides a way of setting up the kit to avoid false triggering of sounds from vibrations passing through the frame. But in fact, this wasn't a problem. Another round to Ion.
One of the main roles for the Ion kit in my studio is to trigger drums within a sequencer. If you're interested in doing the same, you'll need to know that although the MIDI note assignments of the IET01 trigger inputs are fixed, they do conform to the GM spec. So interfacing with other gear or programs shouldn't be a problem. And of course most modern software allows you to assign whatever sounds you like to incoming notes. With Glaresoft's iDrum, for example, which I have in my setup, I just used the program's Learn facility to assign sounds within an iDrum kit to the different pads on the Ion kit.
For general reference, the following list shows how the trigger-to-MIDI assignments stack up. The IET01 transmits on MIDI Channel 10.
ION PAD INPUT NAME MIDI NOTE
* Hi-hat: 46
* Snare 38
* Tom 1 48
* Tom 2 45
* Tom 3 41
* Crash 49
* Perc 1 65
* Ride 51
* Bass 36
* Bass Pedal 36
* Hi-hat Pedal 46
A short MIDI connector takes us from the trigger-to-MIDI converter to the IDM01 drum 'brain' (as they are sometimes called in these systems) which actually turns out to be a licensed (and thus only very thinly disguised) version of the long-running Alesis SR16 drum machine. This has been knocking round for years — you'd certainly know one if you saw one — and at one point seemed to be a globally accepted standard issue in just about every singer/songwriter's bedroom studio setup around the world. It's ages since I've played around with one, but as far as I can see, the only significant difference (apart from the Ion logo), is the seemingly blank hole where the MIDI Out/Thru socket ought to be. On closer examination, the 'blanking panel' turned out to be nothing more than a sticker, presumably placed there to ensure that MIDI novices plug in the MIDI cable from the IET01 in the right place. Remove the sticker, and the extra five-pin socket is revealed.
Essentially, though, there is nothing 'amateur' about the SR16 drum machine, offering as it does extensive pattern and song programmability, plus the luxury of a pair of auxiliary outputs alongside the main stereo pair. The soundset is made up of 230 16-bit drum and percussion samples, and probably the only criticism you can level at them is that they sound a little bit too 'West Coast rock' in these gritty days of urban-orientated music. But the good news is that a lot of the sounds have dynamic articulation (they change timbre according to velocity) which means they work well as a source of sounds for an electronic drum kit. You also have some control over how they are triggered — if, for example, you want one voice to cut off another. The sounds are also tuneable, so there's a fair bit you can do to make them your own. In that area, the IDM01 enables you to assemble and store up 50 user 'kits' which will be plenty for most users.
Being a drum machine means that there's more on offer than just sounds to trigger. The IDM01 has 50 preset patterns, each containing two main patterns, plus two fill patterns. If you want to make drum practice less boring, these are great to play along with. Along with the presets, there are 50 locations for user-programmed patterns. Programming facilities cover the usual ground with step and real-time input, plus housekeeping functions such as copy and delete. Finally, patterns can be chained together in various combinations to create up to 100 songs of up to 254 steps (providing you don't exceed the internal memory in the process).
Given that I've already put my money where my mouth is, I'm not going to go through the 'would I/wouldn't I buy it?' considerations an SOS author would typically introduce at this point in a review. Basically, this was the cheapest solution to my need for a kit that could handle being used both as a quiet studio practice kit and also for general-purpose use with a MIDI sequencer. The fact that the kit's sound source turned out to be a tried-and-tested stand-alone drum machine with a wide range of well-recorded drum sounds and a decent level of programmability was an added bonus. Given that I'm not about to go on a world tour, the 'non-professional' aspects of the kit — the thin leads, use of mini-jack plugs and unconventional pad fittings — aren't of huge concern to me, though they might be to you. It's true that the footpedals are the weakest physical link in the chain — I'm not entirely sure how they will stand up to long-term stomping. That said, it would be easy enough to replace the bass pedal with something more substantial in time — or perhaps even to rig up one of the pads so it could be triggered by a conventional bass-drum pedal. And if I were interested in total realism for recording, I would probably use a miked-up acoustic hi-hat to replace the electronic hi-hat arrangement.
For lightweight studio use, though, the IED01 is simply brilliant value for money. And as I've indicated, there are many aspects of its design which really exceed expectations, justifying a passage in the manual which claims, 'the goal of the IDM01's design team has been to create a musical instrument, not a computer that happens to make sounds'. For example, the way that the trigger-to-MIDI converter integrates into the stand, and the fact that the lead for the hi-hat pedal is longer than the one for the bass pedal, because it has further to stretch to reach its trigger input. Someone has clearly put a lot of thought into it.
The introduction to the IED01 user manual concludes 'We hope that you find the IDM01 a rewarding tool for self-expression that stimulates your creativity (and tickles your fancy)'. Well, my fancy has certainly been tickled!
- Brilliant value.
- Well designed and well made for the price.
- A complete electronic drum package (bar the stool).
- The IDM01 brain/drum machine has stand-alone value in its own right!
- Flimsy footpedals.
- Wouldn't stand up to use on the road.
For neighbour-friendly drum practice and for general MIDI-triggering duties around the home studio, this value package is hard to resist. And the 'brain' can be pressed into separate service as a stand-alone drum machine.
£299 including VAT.
Numark +44 (0)1252 341400.
+44 (0)1252 353810.