Electronic drum kits have a bad reputation; straight away you think of nasty, pinging syndrums and unrealistic samples. But they've come a long way since the days when hexagonal red-rimmed drum pads ruled the roost, as we find out...
There are few studio jobs more satisfying than recording a drum kit and getting a really great sound, but achieving this aim requires a good-sounding, well-tuned kit in a musically sympathetic room — and that's before you start to consider the skill of the recording engineer! In the typical project studio, this is a lot to ask, and where several musicians need to be recorded at the same time, spill becomes a major problem, not to mention snares that buzz whenever the bass guitar plays.
Many recording musicians have side-stepped this problem by using drum-loop or drum-hit samples, often played from a keyboard, and while these can sound good, it takes a very good programmer to make the listener believe they are listening to a real drum kit. The other alternative is the electronic drum kit, but the problem here is one of perception, because the opinions most players hold concerning electronic kits are way out of date. Ask a typical drummer for his thoughts on the subject and he'll probably say he doesn't like the tiny hard rubber pads and that every drum hit sounds exactly the same. In this respect, the electronic drum kit suffers from the same stigma as the guitar synthesizer, largely because few people have played a well-designed, up-to-date model.
Several years ago, Roland rose to the challenge of creating more realistic-sounding, more playable electronic drums. Instead of relying entirely on samples, they used physical modelling to mathematically reproduce the sound of different types and sizes of drum shell, head type and damping. As with all new technologies, the original V-Drum systems were pretty costly, so only professionals could afford them, but as is always the way, the technology eventually makes its way down into more affordable kit.
The TD8KV V-Drum kit is Roland's middle-of-the-range electronic drum kit and the TD8 'brain' unit for the system combines V-Drum modelling with additional percussion and effects samples and an onboard sequencer capable of playing one drum part, one rhythm part and up to four melodic parts. It may also be used as a separate 16-part GM module. In all, there are 1024 onboard drum instruments and 262 backing instrument synth sounds. The TD8KV kit also comes with newly designed trigger pads eight inches across which use a tough synthetic mesh head designed by Remo. This is tensioned in the traditional way using five tension lugs and provides essentially the same feel as an acoustic drum, but with minimal noise. Force-sensing technology (which is far more sophisticated than simple piezo triggers) is used to translate the playing into trigger signals, and the snare-drum pad (PD80R) has an additional sensor in the rim to allow rim shots and cross-stick sounds to be played. The snare pad can also output positional information that may be used with some drum sounds to create timbral change depending on how far from the centre the head is struck. It's even possible to play the snare with brushes providing one of the brushed drum models is called up, the only proviso being that you should use nylon brushes rather than metal ones, so as to prevent damage to the mesh heads.
All three toms use the same PD80 pad, which is essentially the same as the PD80R but without the rim sensor. Another area that's been vastly improved over earlier efforts is the design of the cymbal pads. These are now cymbal-shaped and incorporate sensors that divide the surface into three zones — the bell, the bow and the edge. There's also a sensor around the edge that permits manual damping, but it's important to note that the TD8 brain can't make use of all these facilities at one time on the same cymbal. For that reason, there's a dedicated ride cymbal input that responds to the bow and bell triggers and a crash input that gives bow and edge sounds plus manual damping. Although it's a little smaller than a traditional cymbal, the CY12R/C pad has a similar bounce and feel to a real cymbal and it's quite uncanny to hear the sound damp when you grab the edge of the cymbal. Two output jacks are fitted so that the same cymbal pad can be used in crash or ride mode (bell and bow or bow and edge). In fact the only pad that resembles the older hard rubber type is the one used to trigger the hi-hat sounds (the PD7, which is six inches across), and in this application, it feels acceptable.
All the toms, cymbals and snare drum fix to the supplied tubular stand, which is lightweight, easy to fold down and very adjustable. The TD8 brain also fixes to the stand, usually to the left of the hi-hat pad, but it is possible to swap sections around if you're left handed or want to use a traditional hi-hat on the left. The only components not fixed to the stand are the KD80 kick drum pad and the FD6 hi-hat pedal, the latter of which can be placed anywhere the cable will reach. In normal use, the hi-hat pedal controls a progressive change between open and closed hi-hat sounds, and also sounds a closed hi-hat when the pedal is depressed. Similarly, if the pedal is depressed and then released quickly, the open hi-hat rings just like a real mechanical hi-hat. It can also function as a pitch control pedal for the other pads.
Though the KD80 kick pad looks much like one of the toms, its internal construction is different to allow for the greater impact force of the beater. It has a ledge with short stabilising spikes for clamping a kick-drum pedal (pretty much the only thing not supplied) and a pair of adjustable spurs that can either present rubber feet to the floor or, if you screw the rubber feet upwards, a pair of spikes. In my experience, the rubber feet are (literally) pointless and do little to keep the pad from wandering on most surfaces. The best solution I've found to this problem so far is to use the spikes with the kit set up on a square of heavy, fabric-backed carpet. This simple arrangement totally eliminates creep for me, but if you're particularly heavy-footed, a piece of wooden batten fixed to the front edge of your carpet square should provide a non-slip solution.
Everything is so neatly designed that when you come to connect the pads to the brain using the stereo jack cables provided, the resulting mess of cables is rather obvious. To help address this inevitable issue, Roland include a number of reuseable velcro straps, so you can make the wiring as tidy or as scruffy as your patience allows. The ideal solution would be some kind of internal wiring system hidden within the stand, perhaps with the drum support post doubling as the connector, but no doubt this would add further to the cost.
Clearly a lot of thought has gone into making the TD8 brain as simple to operate as possible, and for live use, the large illuminated buttons (see above) help prevent mistakes. However, it is powered from a conventional Roland/Boss external power supply, and while this is fine in the studio, it may not be tough or secure enough for live performance. If Roland must stick with this PSU design, I think an attachment to hold it on to the drum stand would be in order; something like a mobile-phone holder perhaps?
A numeric display on the TD8 shows which of the 64 drum kits is currently active, and an LCD window shows parameter values, kit names and graphics, depending on which mode you're in. In addition to accepting the pads that come with the kit, there are two more auxiliary inputs on the TD8 that may be used to accommodate two further pads, either from Roland or from a third-party manufacturer. Furthermore, all the pad inputs may be set to accept different trigger signal types, including those from third-party pad manufacturers and from acoustic drum triggers. A number of user-adjustable parameters are available, including pad sensitivity, trigger threshold, dynamics curve, crosstalk cancelling, retrigger-inhibit time (to prevent beater bounce, which causes double triggers) and so on. There's also the option to use the hi-hat pedal to control pitch, which is useful in those drum kits that include timpani or talking drums.
Three buttons below the display change function depending on which window is displayed, the function names always being displayed at the bottom of the screen. In conjunction with up/down buttons and a rotary data wheel, these provide fast access to any on-screen value. To the left of the unit is a bank of four faders, which work in conjunction with the Faders button (essentially a bank switch) to access eight different levels corresponding to the main drum groups, click track, sequenced pattern and level of drums within the sequenced pattern. The inevitable Setup button lets you get at global settings, such as trigger types and MIDI configuration, while Mixer brings up a tiny graphic of a mixer enabling individual drum levels, ambience levels, pan position and output assignments to be tweaked. The main output from the TD8 is stereo only, but there are two further direct outputs that can be used to isolate specific sounds from the rest of the mix. Internal effects are not applied to the direct outputs.
MIDI connections are supplied as an In and a combined Out/Thru, the main purpose of which is to allow drum parts to be recorded to an external sequencer. Complex parameters such as head and hi-hat pedal position are sent as controller data. The MIDI In may be used to replay these parts and also to access the onboard GM synth. SysEx patch dumping and loading is also supported.
In normal use, the Kit mode button would be active; the current kit name is then shown in the display. New kits may be selected directly using the data wheel or the very large Inc/Dec buttons on the right of the panel, but there's also a chain facility for live use that allows specific drum kits to be stepped through in any desired order as programmed by the user. Kits may also be selected using the Inc/Dec buttons, and for programming purposes when no pads are connected, the Trig Select buttons and the associated Rim button allow any pad input to be accessed. When the pads are connected, the last pad hit comes up as the drum available for editing, which makes life very easy. Sounds may be auditioned using the Preview button if no pads are connected, and of course no product of this kind would be complete without a Shift button, used in this case to change values in larger steps, mute parts and preview sounds while changing their volume settings. Separate level controls are provided for the headphone outlet, the main output and for the rear panel Mix In input, which allows other sources to be added to the mix. This is useful when practising along to CDs and so forth.
That leaves only the sequencer section, which can be used on a number of levels, from generating preset musical styles to practice along to at one end of the scale to multitrack composition at the other. Parts one to four are the backing instruments, part five is a percussion part, and on top of that you can record the main drum part. All six parts together are referred to as Patterns and there are 700 preset ones on board ready to play to, with space for a further 100 user patterns that you can record via the MIDI In. Changes to drum kits and to user patterns are saved automatically — there is no conventional save procedure — but factory settings may be recovered if you overwrite something you want to keep.
The sequencer is very simple and features familiar transport controls as well as a tempo button. Various click tracks can be selected, including a rather comically spoken count that works surprisingly well, and demo tunes are available. Separate buttons select Song or Pattern mode, and there's a selection of pattern playback trigger modes that provide one-shot, loop or single-step playback. Pattern playback may be assigned to pads, and in this mode, the step function is really very useful as it allows you to assign, for example, the notes of a walking bass line to the kick drum (as well as the normal kick sound) — or something rather more flamboyant if you so wish. You can also specify a reset time so that the pattern will return to beat one if you don't hit the pad for a while. Though this might sound rather gimmicky, it can be extremely effective if used tastefully, especially for some dance/pop music styles or for creating inspirational sound loops.
Patterns may be transposed wholesale (not affecting the drums of course), different instruments may be selected for the individual parts, parts may be muted and new patterns may be recorded in real time from an external MIDI device. A number of recording options are available, including starting recording by striking a pad. Data may also be imported from an external sequencer by directly recording it via the MIDI In port while the TD8 is set to external MIDI sync.
When it comes to editing and assembling patterns, the system is not unlike that used in drum machines, where patterns may be copied and pasted (useful for copying a factory pattern to user pattern prior to modifying it). Sections may be copied or moved, blank measures may be inserted and songs may be constructed by assembling a number of patterns in order.
Though V-Drum modelling is technically fairly heavy stuff, the TD8's user interface is thankfully very simple. Where a V-Drum is selected as the sound source for a pad, you can select what type of drum it is (kick, snare, tom), various shell materials, how deep the shell is, what type of head is fitted (plain, pin-stripe or coated), how it is tuned and how much damping has been applied. The snare drum (which has separate main and rim sounds) also has variable snare tension, and in instances where MIDI controller data is being sent, it is possible to change the controller number if your sequencer is already using it for something else. As the drum parameters are changed, so does the graphical depiction of the drum in the display, though in most instances, you'll probably want to call up the nearest appropriate drum sound from the list available, then fine-tune your selection, as some of the preset drum characteristics seem to be built in and non-editable. For example, there are pitch-drop toms that fall in pitch slightly after you hit them, but the amount of pitch drop is fixed. If you choose to trigger a non-V-Drum voice, then tuning and decay time are the only variables.
As well as plenty of conventional drums and percussion and a wide range of ethnic percussion, the sample-based (non-V-Drum) sounds include scat singing, other vocal sounds, orchestra stabs, dance/trance hits, heavy-metal guitar chords and slides, record scratches, synth ambiences and a whole load of other interesting stuff. Whether you use it or not depends on your musical tastes, but don't dismiss it out of hand, as some of it can really work well.
The drum sounds for each kit may be treated with overall two-band EQ and ambience; the level of ambience can be adjusted for each drum. Rather than confuse the owner with complex reverb algorithms, the virtual environments are described as locations — 'Beach', 'Living Room', 'Bathroom', 'Studio', 'Garage', 'Locker Room', 'Theatre', 'Gym Stadium' and of course that place familiar to drummers everywhere — 'Cave'! These environments can then be tweaked by changing the room size and the wall material, while individual send levels are set in the mixer along with volume and pan. Simple though this system is, the reverbs sound pretty good and work well with the drum sounds, though I would have preferred a decay control to have been included.
Unpacking the kit is quite a task, as every drum comes wrapped in a masterwork of cardboard origami — and the manual laughingly suggests that drums should always be packed and transported in their original packing! I think it's easier to assemble the whole kit than to reassemble the cardboard packing of just one of the toms, so a flightcase with foam-lined compartments would be a good purchase if you plan to use the kit live.
Once the kit is set up, you have to tension the heads before playing for the first time and in most cases, this is a matter of taste, though with the snare drum, there's a tension setup page that lets you set the optimum tension for the positional detection to work properly. Having 'real' heads rather than rubber surfaces makes a huge difference to the playing feel and as a result, the whole experience is much closer to that of playing acoustic drums, though as with electric guitars, the perceived feel is also influenced by the sound being played. A hard beater is provided for you to fit into your own kick-drum pedal, and I felt the response and bounce compared extremely well with the real thing, making fast syncopation pretty easy.
The sample-based sounds are comparable in quality to what you'd expect from a JV-series synth, but what sets this kit apart is the responsiveness of the V-Drum sounds, particularly the snare drums. This is the first electronic kit I've used where you can do a press roll on the snare (or play it with brushes, for that matter) and make it sound real, and by the same token, the rim shots actually 'feel' as though you're playing a real rim shot. Certainly the quality of snare sound is better than you normally get when miking up an acoustic snare, unless you happen to be lucky enough to be blessed with a great drum kit and an equally great drummer. The range of snare sounds is astonishing, from shallow metal to thunderously deep wooden shells. The dynamic range is also impressive, and while it may not be as great as for a real acoustic drum, it's probably fair to say that it's greater than that of a real drum after a studio engineer has applied a suitable amount of compression! The ability to apply difference response curves can also emulate the effect of compression to some degree if you're after a more even level response.
One problem I've always had with drum machines is that tom rolls never sound right — there's always something very mechanical-sounding about them, no matter how clever the programming. With the toms on this kit, this seems to be much less of an issue, so that when you hit a drum that's still ringing from the last hit, it responds more like an acoustic drum rather than stopping and retriggering the same sample. The sound also seems a lot more 'acoustic' than other systems I've tried, and while the trained ear might tell the difference when the sounds are heard in isolation, within the context of a mix they sound utterly convincing.
The V-Cymbals also fare pretty well in the authenticity stakes, though the ride cymbal can give itself away if you play continuous beats on just the main bow rather than mixing bow and bell beats, as the sound is just a little too consistent. I think that for serious recording, I'd probably use real cymbals for ride and hi-hats, but that's a perfectly reasonable prospect in a typical project studio.
I have to say at the outset that the TD8KV isn't a cheap alternative to a drum kit — you can buy a pretty serious acoustic kit for this money — but it does make it practical to record good-quality drum sounds in a small studio, especially if you use real ride and hi-hat cymbals to augment the electronic ones. Furthermore, when you consider the cost saving in microphones, it starts to look a lot more attractive! The V-Drum sounds are wonderfully responsive and natural sounding, and combined with the feel of the mesh heads, these factors make the kit a joy to play. The sequencer section, and particularly the preset patterns, are great for practice, even though I don't think many studio owners would use the TD8 as their main composing tool. Nevertheless, it's there if you need it, it's really no harder to program than a drum machine, and it could be useful in spicing up live performances. The synth sounds are up to Roland's usual high standard, as are the sample-based additional percussion sounds, and there's something very liberating about being able to change from an acoustic rock drum kit to a set of tablas at the press of a button. You also get to play TR808, 909 and analogue drum synth sounds, something you can't get from an acoustic kit, no matter how much you mess with the tuning!
Mechanically, the kit is robust and very stylish, in a techie kind of way, and the standmounting system seems very well thought out — even the cymbals stands mount to the frame. Furthermore, it is possible to expand the kit to some degree by adding other Roland pads or even by using double bass-drum pads, something the TD8 unit is designed to accommodate.
Of course, not everything is perfect; I'd like to have multi-zone or position-sensing cymbals, rim shots on all the toms and perhaps a few additional editing parameters to control, say, the amount of pitch-bend you get from hitting an unevenly tuned tom-tom hard, but given that the TD8KV is Roland's middle-of-the-range kit, the performance is seriously impressive as it is. The bottom line is that I like this kit a lot — in fact, I'm getting one so that I can get back to recording real bands in my small studio without all the hassle that used to go with acoustic drums. It might also help me to rediscover my drum chops, currently lost somewhere in the swirling mists of history.