At my private drum studio in San Diego, I am often asked to give a recommendation between electronic and acoustic drums. To clarify, acoustic drums are what you would consider “traditional” drums, with wood shells (or often metal with regard to snare drums), and metal cymbals. Electronic drums are pads, with rubber, plastic, or mesh drumheads, and the sound is produced from a small box that we call a sound module. We then hear the sound through a headset or an amplifier.
The needs of the beginner and hobbyist drummer are different from that of a professional player. In most cases, a professional drummer will require high-end equipment, whereas starter drummers tend to be more cautious with their purchases in their early playing days, at least until they have established that their interest is long term, and worth a more significant investment. Given as both electronic and acoustic drum sets are equally accessible in terms of pricing, the main consideration comes down to practicalities, and playability.
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The highest ranking of those practicalities include space, and surroundings. The latter is often the biggest objective to overcome when choosing what is right for you. Are you able to make significant levels of sound? There is no getting around the fact that acoustic drums make a lot of sound (I can’t bring myself to use the term “noise”), and this often rules them out in apartment buildings, unless you have very tolerant neighbors, or you use the sound dampening options available to you. Even in houses, the sound can permeate outside and into your neighborhood. I used to get around this by having an agreement with my neighbors as to when I could play, and I never played after 8pm at night. So if you are reading this and thinking that the sound levels could be an issue, then electronic drums may be the way to go, simply because you can play using headphones, or at lower volumes through an amplifier. If sound control is your primary concern, then please be sure to read our blog on this topic before you abandon all consideration of an acoustic drum set. Also, it is not accurate to assume that electronic drums make no sound at all. The sound of the sticks hitting the pads, plastic cymbals, and especially the bass drum beater hitting the bass pad can be a source of annoyance for the non-drummers in the household.
While some of the smaller sized electronic drum sets take up marginally less space, the emphasis here should be on the term “marginal”. You really need a floor space of 6-7 foot square to comfortably accommodate a drum set and the drummer. There’s nothing more annoying than being too confined, or being forced to sit too close to your drums due to space restrictions. This can also affect your technique and posture, and is something to be considered when determining where your drums will live.
Your budget can also dictate which direction you go in. Acoustic drum set packages (where everything is included: drums, stands, pedals and cymbals) are often available from around $300-$500 upwards. It goes without saying of course, that you could spend significantly more then that. It should be noted, however, that the electronic sets that fall in this lower price category that you can often find in home electronic stores rather than the recommended music retail specialists, are often not the best options to go for, unless price is the overall determining factor. They are definitely better than nothing, but a budget of around $700 upwards will get you a better quality entry into the world of electronics, and as with acoustic drums, there are many models that cost in the thousands. I usually advise my students that a budget of around $1000 will get you a good quality introduction to acoustic or electronic drums.
Something to consider with electronic drum sets is that unless you are looking at the top-end models, the drum pads themselves are often undersized, with the average diameter of a drum pad being 8 inches. As these pads are mounted on a rack system that comes with the set, the net result is that the drums are compacted together. While you might think that this might have some advantages with saving a small amount of space, the downside is that the playing position becomes cramped, and this can then affect your posture and how you approach the drums. Some manufacturers are now producing electronic drum sets that use full sized drum shells, and this is definitely a move in the right direction.
One of the main differences though, is the overall difference in feel. Pads that are made from rubber, plastic or mesh, simply do not feel the same as hitting a real drum head. They are closer than they ever have been before, but the pads that come with electronic sets can let you get away with certain things that acoustic drums will not. If there is work to be done on your technique, then acoustic drums will reveal those shortcomings, whereas mesh heads can let you cover up all manner of drumming sins. As a runner, I often equate the difference between acoustic drums and electronic drums as training on a treadmill or running on the road. The treadmill is great - it’s comfortable, controllable and smooth. The road is testing, makes you work a little bit harder, but achieves better results.
Drummers who play and train regularly on electronic drums can often have a tough time transitioning on to acoustic drums. The articulation of the cymbals, the response of the drums and the different dynamic approach to playing the set as a whole can take some getting used to. The feel you get when you hit a bass drum beater into a kick drum head - the air pushing out of the drum and hearing the low, punchy attack is a feeling that you can only get from a real bass drum, and is one of the enthralling, thrilling and fulfilling parts of playing the drums.
Nothing beats the world-dominating feeling of letting loose on what many refer to as “real drums”, but electronics provide a great alternative in situations where an acoustic set may be impractical.