I’ll cut to the chase straight away then completely contradict myself later on. If you’ve got the space and understanding neighbours buy acoustic drums. You can buy a very nice acoustic kit for the same price as a mediocre e-kit and really nothing compares. The volume, the tone, the feel and the sheer power of an acoustic drum kit is something to behold and it will never be replaced. So if you can get away with the volume, acoustic kits win hands down.
BUT, and this is a big but, for most people the volume is a really big problem. I cannot emphasise enough how LOUD acoustic drum sets are! However loud you think they are, they’re louder. Pretty much louder than any other instrument and this is a big problem for most people. Unless you’re fortunate enough to own a soundproof rehearsal space, an acoustic kit brings with it problems that at best will severely limit how often you can practice and at worst can prevent you from practicing at all. Yes, you can cover it in silencer heads and cymbal mutes but then it sounds rubbish, feels rubbish and you lose all the advantages of an acoustic kit.
Low Volume Heads & Cymbals
Recent innovations such as the Zildjian low volume L80 cymbal range and the Aquarian Super-Pad heads overcome a lot of these volume issues BUT at a cost. Once you’ve added the cost of an acoustic kit PLUS all of the above you’re approaching the territory of ‘very good e-kit’ and if you’ve got $1,400+ to spend on a kit I would seriously consider something like the Yamaha DTX-562K or the Roland TD-11KV. That said at least with the low volume acoustic option you retain most of the feel of a drum kit… but a decent e-kit will probably sound better. Ultimately if you’re constrained by volume limitations there will be compromises and it’s all down to your personal preference and budget as to what route you decide to go down.
The Acoustic Drum Kit
So let’s assume you’ve got a soundproof room or live in a field. You can pick up a second hand beginners’ drum kit with cymbals and hardware for around $300 – sometimes cheaper! This will be more than enough to last you for your early years of learning drums. Kits such as the Pearl Roadshow are available for just $480 brand new WITH cymbals and stands! That’s incredible value for money.
A word of advice too – don’t sell your first drum kit! I remember my first Premier kit well and 30 years later wish I still had it (I still have the snare drum and use it regularly). You form an indescribable bond with your first kit and going back to playing it years down the line is like being reunited with a long lost best friend. It’ll probably be worth very little to anyone else after you’ve given it years of abuse so if you have the space, somewhere dry, you’ll never regret keeping it. If noise is an issue stuff the bass drum full of pillows and invest in some of the drum muting systems mentioned earlier. Then practice, practice, practice!
The Electronic Drum Kit
The biggest single advantage of an e-kit is that you can play it more often. More practice = better drummer. A small word of caution before you think you’ll be practicing the drums at 2am – an e-kit is far from silent! It’s a LOT quieter than an acoustic kit but if you plan to play one in an upstairs flat above someone’s bedroom I’ve got bad news for you. The sound of the bass drum and hi-hat can be particularly troublesome for anyone below you and even just the noise of the sticks hitting the rubber pads can be pretty loud. Mesh heads are the quietest but (at the time of writing) cymbal pads are still solid rubber and therefore pretty noisy. But MUCH quieter than an acoustic kit.
If possible set it up on a concrete floor. You can also buy / make a sound isolation platform to help alleviate the issue of sound being transmitted through floors. Another quick fix is to use a softer bass drum beater to reduce the kick noise. If you’re really cheap wrap a couple of pairs of socks over the beater and hold them on with an elastic band. It works surprisingly well!
Now, in terms of what e-kit to buy, that’s a much bigger question and the bad news is you’re going to struggle to get anything decent for under $700. Unfortunately I’m yet to find any sub-$700 e-kit that doesn’t suffer from serious compromises such as:
- Very poor flexibility of kit set-up making it difficult to make the thing comfortable to play – this is a huge problem with many e-kits
- Poor kit sounds
- Unrealistic and unpleasant feeling pads
- Poor quality components
- Unrealistic / hard to use pedals
At the time of writing the best ‘starter’ e-kit that doesn’t suffer from too many of these compromises is the Yamaha DTX-522K at around $800 and even then you have to contend with a remote hi-hat pedal and only one crash cymbal.
A bad e-kit could put a prospective drummer completely off the instrument for life so I really don’t support the idea of ‘cheap e-kits’ to get you by, even on a temporary basis. It can be more damaging for your playing than not playing at all. I’d much rather see a student learning on a beat up acoustic kit filled with pillows than a badly set-up e-kit. The acoustic kit might sound rubbish but at least it will FEEL like a drum kit. A bad e-kit won’t feel like a drum kit and won’t sound like a drum kit.
What about soundproofing?
One option we’ve not talked about is soundproofing. After all, why spend $1,500 on an e-kit when you could spend $300 on an acoustic kit and $500 on soundproofing? Well, the bad news is $500 isn’t going to get you far in the world of soundproofing. This is an entirely separate subject that I might write an article about at some point if you’re interested! In a nutshell soundproofing for drums needs two things:
I’ll not go into the details on here but if you think soundproofing has anything to do with eggboxes… well it just doesn’t, OK? Probably one of the most problematic surfaces to deal with is wooden suspended floors – they act like giant amplifiers for drum kits carrying every hit, bash, splash and thud to the floor below. This is why if your drum room has a concrete floor half the battle is over. Walls and ceilings are far easier to deal with.
So, if noise isn’t a problem get an acoustic kit. If noise is a problem but you have a room that’s easy to soundproof, soundproof it and get an acoustic kit. If soundproofing isn’t an option and budget permits get an acoustic kit with a set of Zildjian L80 cymbals and silencer heads. BUT if ANY of these options are going to prevent you from playing the drums then it’s probably wise to take a serious look at the e-kit option! In the next part we’ll be looking at a buyers guide for beginner acoustic drum kits. See you then!