You’ve set up your gleaming electronic drumkit. You’ve slid onto the stool. You’re poised to fire off the gunshot intro to Smells Like Teen Spirit. There’s just one tiny problem. Unless you have some means of monitoring your electronic drum kit, it won’t make any audible sound beyond the quiet tap of stick on pad. And let’s face it, you didn’t get into the drumming game to make quiet taps…
When it comes to monitoring, then, you have two tried-and-tested options. First up, there’s headphones, which let you paradiddle at midnight without being lynched by the psycho downstairs. Then, on the flipside, there are drum amps, which let you blast out high-decibel beats in a band situation. Ideally, look for an e-kit whose drum module has separate outputs for each of these.
Sounds simple enough, but not all monitoring gear is created equal. If you’re still using the headphones that came with your Walkman back in 1987, or trying to hook up to your mate’s 10-watt guitar amp, your tone is doomed to sound like a backfiring motorbike. This post aims to help you decide which method of drum monitoring is right for you – amp, phones, or both – and let you hunt down the best-sounding products to achieve it.
Headphones are the cheapest and fastest way to bring your e-kit to life. They’re ideal for solo practice in situations where an amp is too loud, but won’t be much use for jams or rehearsals. Headphones might seem like a no-brainer purchase, but obey these three golden rules to avoid a headache.
1. Insist on decent drivers and a wide frequency rating
Try playing My Generation wearing your iPod headphones and they’ll buzz like you’ve got two wasps stuck in your ears. If most of your drumming consists of solo practice, get serious and invest in a set of proper monitor headphones. Critically, these should have good-quality drivers of around 40mm and a wide frequency rating of circa 20-20,000Hz, thus giving sonic clarity even at high volume, and relaying every crack and thud.
2. Consider noise-cancelling headphones to banish external racket
Car alarms. Roadworks. Nagging partners. If you practise in a distracting environment then noise-cancelling headphones could help your concentration no end. These come in two main forms, with passive phones featuring layered high-density foam to absorb ambient sound, and battery-powered active ones using electronic circuits to invert any stray soundwaves that make it through.
3. Remember: headphones aren’t just for bedroom practice
Headphones are associated with a lone drummer practising beats in a bedsit, but it’s not necessarily so. Unlike the aforementioned noise-cancelling phones, open-air-type headphones intentionally allow some external sound in, which makes them ideal for live drummers who want to hear the band onstage. For live work, there are also in-ear monitors, which give drummers a clear, compact and comfortable way to hear the band mix from the stool.
Sometimes, you want to hear your beats loud and proud – and that’s where drum amps come in. Depending on the size, wattage and features, these can either be used for low-key jams at home or full-scale gigging, and with so many models out there, don’t swipe plastic until you’ve read our three rules.
1. Don’t use a guitar amp (ever)
It’s tempting to think that running your e-drums through a spare guitar or bass amp will save you money, but at best, it’ll sound terrible and at worst, it’ll detonate your rehearsal room. For both safety and superior tone, always use an amplifier designed to deal with drums, though bear in mind that some keyboard amps – including Roland’s KC range – have flexible connectivity, meaning they’ll deliver the goods for e-drums and other electronic gear too.
2. Match the amp to the gig
Be honest about your needs and aspirations. If you’re holding low-key jam sessions at home, or teaching students in a quiet environment, then a personal drum monitor with a small footprint might suit you. If you crave a pumping setup with dynamic stereo sound, try a higher-wattage model with satellite speakers and a dedicated subwoofer for low-end. If you’re a drummer on the move, you’ll want an amp that’s portable and powerful, while if you have a gigging band, a quality set of active stereo PA speakers could be the ticket. In any case, remember that frequency range is more critical than brute volume.
3. Any extras?
The best modern drum amps do more than simply beef up your beats. Some have live-friendly features like anti-feedback technology, slanted cabinets that focus your sound onstage, and battery-power options to let you busk or play guerrilla gigs. Others include onboard effects like reverb and delay, or offer a multi-band EQ to fine-tune your sound. Many let you hook up to a CD/MP3 player and jam along with your favourite songs, or even connect a percussion pad to supercharge your beats. Granted, you might not want all these bells and whistles – but it’s worth knowing what’s up for grabs.
by Henry Yates