Is the Roland TD-50K Electronic Drum Kit capable of fully replacing your acoustic kit?
Quite Possibly! Read on to find out why!
When it comes to drummers and the drums they play on, there are typically three lines of thought. You’ve got the hard-core traditionalists who refuse to ever play anything that’s remotely considered to be electronic in nature, you’ve got the guys who (for various reasons) prefer to play on electric kits only, and then you’ve got the guys who are somewhere in the middle. The ones in the middle are those who either play on both acoustic and electronic kits or they are utilizing a hybrid method where they incorporate electronic pads into their otherwise fully-acoustic kit, or they modify/purchase acoustic kits that have been outfitted with various trigger and module setups in order to achieve more of a ‘traditional drum look and feel’, but to gain some of the aspects that an electronic kit offers over a more traditional setup. As with most things, there is no one-size-fits all option to encompass everyone, so the choice comes down to the particular individual’s needs and preferences.
Being an acoustic drummer of over 20 years now, for the longest time I swore I would never ever touch an electronic drum set. Obviously, somewhere along the line that method of thinking changed. Many years ago, that viewpoint fell in line with my whole ‘electronic music isn’t real music’ thought process that I had – for some reason unbeknownst to me – before I opened my ears and began to realize what all was possible when you stretch beyond the limitations of utilizing only acoustic instruments for creating music and redefining what was possible with traditional instrumentation alone. When I began tip-toeing into the world of electronic music, it didn’t take long at all to realize that creating realistic drum patterns was fairly difficult to do by hand in a DAW.
Painstakingly drawing MIDI notes by hand, adjusting their off-sets and velocities to try to replicate the intricate humanized patterns and feeling in an attempt to create something akin to what I would actually be playing on a real kit was exceptionally difficult, and extrememly frustrating as it took so long to get anything organic and real feeling that it was a creativity killer. This is what lead me, as well as a lot of other electronic music, to fall into the ‘drum-loop’ hole. Still to this day, a great deal of electronic music is still either your basic four-on-the-floor pattern, or it’s a repetitious loop – albeit sometimes tweaked a bit to add some flair and variation with a simple tom fill here or there, and perhaps a splash or china tossed into the mix at some point. I realize that not all of us are seasoned drummers, and not all of us focus and hone into the rhythmic drum patterns and grooves of our favorite tracks, but there are people, such as myself, who do tend to naturally feel and hear the beat and groove as the driving force and main element of the track. When you begin to realize that your basic loops and repetitious patterns are not what you would be actually playing, were you actually playing and recording it in real time, I know at least for me, it’s a bit disheartening. I needed more. I needed to be able to ‘play’ the drums, but electronic kits were expensive, and as far as I knew when I was starting out, they were far from being decent enough to really replace an acoustic kit.
I originally tried supplementing this need and desire to create more realistic drum patterns in my beginning stages by purchasing a M-Audio Axiom AIR 40 Keyboard and Pad Controller. Being new and naive to the world of controllers and creating music digitally, I looked at this controller as the end-all solution to my problems! After all, not only was it a keyboard, but it also had knobs and sliders that I could theoretically utilize to control aspects within the DAW (such as mixing), but more importantly, it had 16 finger drumming pads! At first glance, this thing looked to be the ultimate powerhouse, and it was reasonably affordable at the time too! What more could I ask for?
Long story short, it didn’t take long at all for me to basically regret my purchase. The keyboard itself was a good starter keyboard, but the sliders were grainy and unusable, the knobs were utterly useless as they had issues turning on their own (which, if you use Ableton, you’ll know behavior like that will break your global automation and become frustratingly annoying very quickly). The thing I was looking forward the most with the keyboard – the pads – turned out to be so stiff they weren’t really ‘playable’ unless you mashed them really hard. Regardless, I attempted to stick with it, and even used the pads to try to lay down some more intricate beats. It was fun for a while, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I ultimately gave up building my drum patterns with these pads and went back to programming my drum patterns by hand for a couple of years.
Fast forward another couple years, and the bug for better drums bit me again. This time, it was when the Ableton Push 2 was announced and released. When I finally picked a Push 2 up, it was a game changer, but sadly, not as much for the drums as I initially had hoped. It’s odd looking back to know that while I initially picked up the Ableton Push literally to try to create better and more life-like drum grooves, it actually ended up becoming my main go to- controller, ultimately fully replacing my old worn-out Axiom Air 49 keyboard. To this day I love my Push and I use it on every single song, but while I have had some great success using the Push 2 to create more realistic drums, I’ve still shied away from utilizing it for full pattern and drum/groove creation, and instead used it to aid with creating tom fills and very intricate snare roll structures. When it really comes down to it, as playable as the Push 2 is for drums, it’s still no replacement for actually holding a pair of sticks in your hands and physically being able to sit down and play a drum kit just how you want to, applying finesse and techniques which would otherwise be difficult and time consuming to program manually.
As time continued to pass, it become more and more apparent I needed to get an actual legitimate electronic kit of some sort to play. Music creation aside, living in a townhome for a couple years meant I hadn’t been able to play my acoustic kit for quite some time either, and I could feel the itch to play growing and growing. I’d been trying to narrow down the various options by manufacturer, kit type, and head style for quite a while now, which is no easy feat considering the plethora of available options and kits that are available on the market today. Years ago, electronic drums were basically a joke – thick rubber pads that didn’t feel ‘right’, were rigidly molded in place, and had extrememly limited dynamics. They weren’t really much fun to play on at all. Fast forward a few years, and the industry has made incredible leaps and bounds in bringing realistic dynamics, feel, playability to the electronic drum scene, but make no mistake about it – there still remains several instantly recognizable differences between today’s entry, mid-range, and profesional grade kits, and it’s important to realize those differences and limitations when shopping for a kit of your own.
I knew right off the bat that entry level kits weren’t going to be an option for me, as I knew I simply wouldn’t be satisfied with them coming from a heavy acoustic drumming background. I began by scouring the web for mid-range kits that were slightly used. I waited a few months after Christmas passed, figuring there would be several kits from parents who bought their kids decent mid-range kits, only to find they lost interest. I figured I could find a decent kit at a decent price that was basically brand new from someone looking to recoup some of their losses. I looked around at all your usual sources, and even found a few, but what I came to find was that the majority of the kits that people were buying were actually entry level Alesis and Simmons kits. I found a very select few mid-range Yamaha and even the occasional used Roland kit, but these were almost all older, heavily abused gigged kits. At one point, I found a used Roland TD-11K kit that was in pretty good condition, for a decent price. I was initially pretty interested, until I realized that it didn’t have USB out. I knew I didn’t want to screw around with MIDI adaptors. Whatever kit I got needed to have USB. It was quickly becoming clear that it was time to stop looking around for lightly used kits, and just focus on what options I knew I wanted from a kit from the get-go, and then focus on finding one at that point – new or used.
After doing tons of research and even taking a trip to the local Guitar Center to look at the kits, I was really intrigued by the new mesh-heads that some kits were offering these days. After playing around on the different kits, it was immediately evident that there was a huge difference in feel and playability between the modern rubber pads and these new mesh-heads. I was a bit worried that these mesh heads wouldn’t be able to handle the wear and tear of playing, and that they would need to be babied. Doing my research, that didn’t appear to be the case. Some simple rules seemed to apply – No metal brushes, no felt beaters, use brand new sticks, and nylon tips were okay as long as you kept an eye on the tips as having a tip come of would be disastrous to your kit. The more and more I read on these mesh heads, the more I was impressed by them, and the more I wanted to get a kit that at least had a mesh head snare. I spent some more time reading, and finally decided that a mesh head snare was nice, but it would make the toms feel less than ideal in direct comparison. Full mesh headed kit it was, but there was a drawback to this – the price point of kits jumped significantly when going rubber pads to single mesh pad, and even more so so when going from single mesh pad to full mesh pad kit.
Another area of concern was the cymbals, and especially the hi-hat. Anyone who’s familiar with playing an acoustic drum kit knows that a lot of the intricacies that you can perform on a hi-hat and very fine cymbal work is often just flat out lost when trying to transition over to an electronic kit. The actual feeling of playing a hat aside – it’s exceptionally difficult to capture all the subtle nuances, especially in a hi-hat, on an electronic kit. This problem is exceedingly accentuated by kits that don’t use real hi-hat stands, instead utilizing a pedal that’s supposed to somehow magically mimic the playability of a hi-hat, which is impossible to do because it’s offering zero tactile feedback of how the hats are actually moving up and down on the stand. To make this problem even more wide-spread, some kits are using this exact same type of pedal for a kick drum trigger, although some have created a bent/upside-down beater mechanism to hit a trigger on their kick, neither design feels like a real kick pedal, and neither is as of high quality as a good name brand pedal, not to mention double bass goes out the window with one of these kits. While I can certainly understand the appeal of these features on some kits, especially for those people who are playing their kits in apartments or other environments where they absolutely need the quietest kit they can get, for someone who’s main focus is on feel, feedback, and realistic playback – these types of pedal/trigger combinations feel akin to that of a toy. These types of setups were out – I wanted something that used a real hi-hat stand and a real kick pedal – specifically supporting a double-bass pedal, as that’s what I’m accustomed to playing on (although, I realize that wouldn’t likely be utilized in most of my electronic based music productions).
Having finally narrowed down my final list of criteria for a kit (USB, full-mesh heads, real hi-hat, and real kick pedal – capable of supporting double-bass), I moved forward in my search. Believe it or not, even with the plethora of manufacturers and kits available on the market today, having such a stringent list of requirements really narrowed down my search a great deal. I even found a lot of hybrid manufacturers who used real shells and added triggers to them, but the problem is that you’re paying a lot of money for the actual wood/real drums, and they are usually paired with sub-par drum modules, which I came to find out, make or break your kit. I had basically narrowed down my potential kit to full electronic options available from four manufacturers: Alesis, KAT Percussion, Roland, and Yamaha.