What’s better, electronic drums or acoustic drums? The answer is, it depends. I’ve owned acoustic drums since 2004 and electronic drums since 2008, and in my opinion, there’s a time and a place for both types of drum kits. Read on for my take on this age-old question…
First, a word on how far electronic drums have come
Electronic drums really have come a long way recently, and are about to get better. One of the main reasons for this (in my opinion) is the fact that Roland’s US patent for drum pads using mesh heads, trigger cones, head and rim zones, positional sensing, and other features, have expired in July 2017.
This patent actually may have hindered the development and popularity of electronic drums — Roland have effectively had a monopoly on mesh head eDrums. Roland’s drum modules trigger accurately, however who wants to play on tiny, undersized pads and with sub-par kit sounds?
Until recently, non-Roland eDrums based around mesh heads have been a cottage industry, mostly revolving around small businesses and DIY builders. This is definitely a route I’d recommend going down to save a ton of money and produce something way more playable than Roland’s entry to mid-level kits. It’s easier than it sounds, too — check our my DIY eDrum guide here!
But thanks to Roland’s patent expiring, acoustic-styled, real sized eDrums are about to go mainstream. Just look at ATV’s aDrums kit — it’s basically a higher-tech version of the DIY kit I built, plus way more affordable than Roland’s TD-50 — the only kit in their line up that has comparable pad sizes.
I expect there’ll be plenty more mainstream kits like this coming on the market soon, bringing innovation to the market and making electronic drums a more appealing choice for drummers who until now have sworn by acoustic drums.
Playability vs practicality
This leads on to the first factor when deciding between acoustic drums or electronic drums — playability. Cheap electronic drums certainlty aren’t anywhere near as playable as cheap acoustic drums — the feel is unrealistic thanks to the tiny rubber pads, and unrealistic triggering.
Playing on a low-end electronic kit means you can get away with poor technique that would otherwise sound dreadful on an acoustic kit — these poor quality kits simply cannot respond in the same way. The poor responsiveness of a cheap electronic kit could mask bad technique that would become evident once the player moves to an acoustic kit.
However, spend a bit more, and an electronic drum can get much closer to a real feel. First, larger sized pads definitely help make the experience feel much more like you’re playing a real drum kit, as the ergonomics are almost the same. Second, a better drum brain triggers more accurately, and as you go up in price, more advanced features like positional sensing help make the drum react more like an acoustic kit.
Adapting acoustic kits for low volume practice
Playability can also be impacted by where you’re playing your drums and what the purpose is. Playing an acoustic drum kit at home is impractical for many due to excessive noise. As a result, there’s plenty of rubber drum mutes, low volume cymbals, and even mesh heads on the market designed specifically for acoustic drums, to help turn them into a quieter practice tool.
However, if you were to use either of these tools for making your acousitic drums quieter, the playing experience ends up virtually the same as an Electronic drum kit. It’s very simple to add eDrum triggers onto a drum with a mesh head, and there are low volume cymbals on the market that can trigger drum modules.
Why listen to lifeless thudding and tapping when using mesh practice heads or rubber mutes when you could listen to real drum sounds through your headphones?
In a nutshell, if you have to compromise the feel of your acoustic drums to practice more quietly, then the playablilty and feel gets very close to a quality electronic drum kit, or DIY eDrum kit. Instead of having to listen to uninspiring thuds and tapping sounds as you play, why not trigger a drum module and listen to real drum sounds through your headphones?
This is where eDrums fit in as useful practice tool. Yes, they’re not 100% the same as playing an acoustic kit, but if it’s a choice between having a relatively accurate practice tool vs not practicing at all due to noise, I’d take the electronic kit.
Meanwhile when noise is not an issue, acoustic drums become more viable, and are a better option for that real feel.
The next thing to consider is home recording. Recording drum covers for Instagram and YouTube is a massive trend at the moment, plus a great practice tool to be able to record and watch yourself play, so you can critique your own performances.
However, getting a good recorded drum sound from an acoustic drum kit is very difficult. A kit may sound good in person, but can sound dreadful through a microphone. The issue really is to do with room acoustics, adding extra expense and complexity. Not only do you need to control the sound in the room with acoustic panels and other sound dampening devices, you’ll also need to invest in some suitable microphones and a mixer. On top of that, you then need to get a basic understanding of sound engineering for a good sound.
If you’re after something a lot simpler and easier, then electronic drums coupled with a VST drum sampler app is perfect. You’re basically triggering professionally recorded drum samples, so all the production and recording is already done for you to a much higher standard than is possible for the vast majority of amateur musicians without bags of cash. That makes it rediculously easy to quickly produce drum covers and Insta videos with great sound quality!
Triggering drum software like Superior Drummer isn’t limited to bedroom musicians, either. It’s a perfectly viable tool for recording a professional sounding album, as drum tracks can be edited, EQ’d and mixed as if the drummer was right there in the room. If anything, these tools are overkill for practicing the drums at home, but they really help to make eDrumming way more authentic than the robotic sounding samples you’ll get on most drum modules.
And if you’re in a band, VST drum instruments are a much, much easier way to get a professional sounding mix for a demo, EP, or even commercial record. As far back as 2012, MusicRadar covered how these virtual drum studios were changing the way music was being made. Electronic drums are the ideal interface to for triggering these pro-level sounds while keeping a human feel to the beat.
On top of that, this high-quality drum sampling technology is getting embedded into drum modules themselves — just look at the Pearl Mimic Pro, which puts Steven Slate drum software right into the module itself. Again, this is innovation sorely needed after years of the eDrum market being dominated by Roland and Yamaha.
Gigging and performing live
When it comes to peforming, acoustic drums are still the only serious option outside of electronic music. Performing live is the one environment where an acoustic kit will always make sense. Sound volume is no longer a limitation, so why imitate when you can use the real thing?
With that said, electronic drums are certainly making inroads into live music. Hybrid kits are getting more popular, particularly for drummers looking to use the exact samples and sounds used on the recording of a particular track.
Check out the video below to see how Josh Dun of Twenty One Pilots plays a Roland TD-50 module triggered by a set of acoustic drum shells using mesh heads and triggers. To the audience, it looks like a real acoustic drum kit, but it’s really an electronic kit!
However, is this viable for the average amateur drummer? In most cases, probably not. If you’re triggering Superior Drummer on your laptop like me, would you really want to take your laptop to a gig and have that headache of extra on-stage electronics that could malfunction? I’d rather keep it simple and stick to my acoustic kit when playing live.
Outside of commercial bands, where there’s a back-up plan for everything, it’s much easier to keep things simple — if you want to use electronics, use a simple drum module or sampler which are much less likely to have on-stage issues.
As we’ve already looked at, a budget electronic kit isn’t a good investment. But if you go down the DIY route, around £2,000 should get you a decent drum module, quality cymbal pads, and a converted acoustic kit with mesh heads and internal triggers, plus a copy of Superior Drummer or similar drum software. (Check out my DIY drum guide for a breakdown of the parts I used)
Alternatively if you’re not keen on going DIY but don’t want tiny drum pads, then you’d be looking at spending £3,000-£3,200 for a Roland TD-30K or the ATV aDrums.
Since we’re skipping entry level electronic drum kits, it makes sense to look at intermediate level acoustic drums for a comparison. For about £2,000 you could get:
- Pearl Decade Maple kit with hardware pack — £1,050
- Istanbul Agop Xist Cymbal Pack — £500
- Drum Throne — £100
- Set of Remo or Evans drum heads- £120
This would leave you with about £230 which could go towards acoustically treating the room you’ll have your kit set up in. However, to get all the recording functionality of an electronic kit, you’ll need to spend another £250–300 for a budget set of drum mics and stands/mounts, plus a budget 8 channel mixer — or much more for a better quality system.
Yes, you can get a cheaper acoustic kit (for example dropping down to a Pearl Export or equivalent) and maybe save £200–400, though you’ll probably not want to skimp on cymbals as lower end ones tend to sound noticably worse. That said, at the bottom end, the playability of an acoustic kit is much greater than an equivalently priced electronic kit, so certainly for drummers on a tight budget, acoustic is the only realistic way to go.
Ultimately whether you go electric or acoustic, you’ll have to spend between £2–3k for a quality set up — the difference is that below a certain price point the quality of an electric kit simply cant keep up with an equivalently priced electronic kit.
There’s clearly pros and cons to both acoustic and electronic drums. In my opinion, here’s my preference:
To really benefit from electronic drums, you need to spend enough to get a kit with large enough drums and cymbal pads , plus a quality drum module and/or sampling software, which can cost around £2,000 or more. Such a kit is best for:
- Practicing at home when the noise of an acoustic kit would be an issue
- Quick and convenient recording of Instagram/YouTube drum videos and drum covers
- Recording high-quality drum tracks for your band (using Superior Drummer, Addictive Drums or similar software)
Meanwhile acoustic drums are generally best for:
- Performing live
- Practicing when there are no noise limitations
- Drummers on a low budget (as the only real option)
- Beginners yet to learn proper technique
All in all, acoustic verses electronic isn’t a case of one verses the other, it’s important to see them as two different tools. I regularly play on both types of kits — electronic for playing at home and for recording, and acoustic for practicing in the studio and on stage.
If you’re choosing between the two, base it on what your main needs for the kit are. If you already have an acoustic kit, would an electronic kit be a cost-effective addition for you as a practice tool, for example? Or if you already have an electronic kit, would you benefit from having an acoustic kit as well for gigs?