If you’ve decided you want to pick up the drums, your first considerations will likely be the following:
- Am I going to annoy the neighbours?
- Are drums a good instrument to get started with?
- Are they fun to play?
In order, the answers are…
- It depends
Before you rush out and buy the first kit you see, it’s worth taking time to consider whether an acoustic or an electronic drum kit would suit you better.
While acoustic and electronic kits used to have their own pros and cons, today’s electronic drum kits are beginning to pull ahead in many ways. Nowadays, you’ll see electronic kits in practice rooms, studios, and on-stage being played by beginners all the way to world-touring professionals.
To help you make the right choice, we’ve put together a guide to help you find out whether you should pick up an acoustic or an electronic drum kit.
We’ve also included a glossary at the bottom of the page to help you know everything you need to get started.
Let’s get started!
What’s the difference between acoustic and electronic drums?
Ultimately, the main difference is the way the drums produce sound.
Acoustic drum kits use physical impact from drumsticks on to a drum skin (now known as a drum head) to create a sound. Each hit from the stick vibrates the top and bottom drumhead creating the noise you hear.
Electronic drum kits differ in that they use a drum module/brain that produces a sound in response to a hit on a rubber or mesh drum pad. This sound is known as a “sample”.
This means you’re not physically making the noise when you hit the drum, you’re telling the drum kit to play a noise when you hit the drum.
You’ll still get a very similar “stick feel” to an acoustic drum kit, but far more control over the sound made. Each sound produced is then sent to an output of your choice at a volume you choose, whether that’s headphones, amplifiers, or directly into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
All electronic drum kits also come with dozens of pre-made kits built-in, hundreds of different samples to play with, and incredible control over how you want those samples to sound. For the price of one good acoustic kit and cymbals, you could play with everything from soft jazzy drums to thumping metal drums.
We’ll let professional session drummer, Oli Wiseman, explain what’s possible…
With the advent of the Roland V-Drums Acoustic Design series, electronic drums even look indistinguishable from acoustic kits.
Next, let’s look at volume levels.
How loud are electronic drums?
Not very loud at all, especially when compared to an acoustic drum kit.
To give you an example, playing an acoustic kit at normal to high levels can be anywhere from 90 decibels (motorcycle engine revving) to 120 decibels (standing near a jet engine).
In comparison, electronic drum kits use mesh drumheads that measure a quiet 60 decibels (normal conversation level) to 75 decibels (a car driving past on the street). Most of this noise comes from the pedals used on the bass drum and hi-hat, which can be reduced even further with Roland noise eaters.
“It feels like an acoustic kit, it plays like an acoustic kit, but it has an 85% reduction in volume from an acoustic kit.”
Oli Wiseman on the VAD506
In real terms, that means behind a closed door in the next room, electronic kits are barely noticeable - completely different from the teeth-rattling noise of acoustic kits.
Can acoustic drum kits use mesh drum heads?
Yes, and it’s a fair solution if you absolutely must practise quietly on an acoustic kit, but there’s a big compromise to be made.
Acoustic mesh heads might please the neighbours, but they’re surprisingly expensive, not very effective, sound flat, and many manufacturers use single-ply mesh made from a springy nylon material which introduces a lot of unnatural “bounce” back into the stick. This also tends to unseat itself from the top of the drum and become loose after a few plays, requiring regular tune ups.
Roland V-Drum mesh heads are made by Remo, renowned for their drum heads, and are made with a different material, and with double or triple-ply thickness, giving an almost perfectly replicated feel of an acoustic drum head, as well as nearly invulnerable durability.
“You get all that feel and energy, and you keep the neighbours happy as well.”
Oli Wiseman on the VAD503
It’s best to go with an instrument that feels and sounds good when you play it or you’ll lose interest faster, especially when you’re new to playing, which leads us to our next point.
Are electronic kits good for practice?
Yes. They’re built with it in mind.
Beginners, hobbyists, and professionals need to practice. It’s the hard and fast rule if you want to get better at playing.
Learning to play the drums is more than just hitting the drum with a stick. You need to learn correct stick technique, how the drums feel to play, timing, drum rudiments, and be able to take a step back and judge your playing to identify how to improve.
Electronic drums come with a wealth of features to help you progress:
- Virtual playing coach to sharpen up your timing and technique
- Laser-accurate metronomes with multiple timing functions for any kind of song
- Mobile device connectivity for play-along songs, via cable or bluetooth
- Recording features to listen back to your face-meltingly awesome drum solo
The virtual playing coach is a fantastic tool for getting your playing up to speed in no time at all. All the Roland modules come with a version of the coach, helping to develop playing accuracy, speed, and solid beats, but in a gamified way, making practice fun!
When paired with apps such as Melodics for V-Drums, it becomes an extremely powerful learning aid.
What about sounds?
All the drums sound great out of the box, and many models allow some pretty amazing adjustments to tuning, drum size, muffling, and other tonal aspects which can quickly teach you how acoustic drums respond to adjustments. You can also adjust the tension of the mesh head without affecting the tone, perfect for replicating the feel of an acoustic.
It’s also comforting to know that with full control over the volume of your kit, nobody can hear you while you get your chops in order!
“I was really impressed by the feel of it, but also how quiet it was…”
Oli Wiseman on the VAD503
With acoustic kits, you’re more or less on your own after you get the drums home. You’ll need to find online lessons, pick up a metronome (though there are plenty of free downloadable ones), and get a tutor to point you in the right direction... at least for the first few months until you know which path to follow.
Are electronic drums more expensive?
Okay, let’s look at the elephant in the rehearsal room - Cost.
On the face of it, it seems like starter acoustic kits are cheaper. Beginner acoustic kits tend to come with a cheaper price tag in the shop and there are almost limitless options to choose from. While this initial price seems attractive, it’s not the full picture.
You’ll need to regularly buy replacement drum heads, keep hardware maintained and rust-free, purchase cymbals, find dampening pads for practice, replace drumsticks, and pick up metronomes and practice accessories… all of it quickly adds up.
On top of that, a beginner kit will likely need replacing with a more sturdy and reliable one within a year or two anyway. While you might reuse old parts, it’ll be a case of constantly upgrading as you go.
Electronic kits don’t have this issue. Even entry-level electronic kits provide dozens of different presets to play with, as well as editable sounds with controllable volumes, coaching and practice assistants, music track input and even Bluetooth connectivity on some models… all features that will help you get started, but also keep up with you as you progress.
So which do you pick?
Ultimately, if you don’t need to worry about noise, need power and volume from a physical kit, and if you have the money to cover maintenance, accessories, and lessons, an acoustic kit is a fair place to start.
If you need to keep practice time quiet, want hundreds of different drum sounds, need a kit that’ll help you get better and support you as you get further into music, and if you don’t want the hassle of maintenance, electronic kits are a better choice.
- 60-75 decibels – (equivalent to a usual office environment or a car outside driving past). Can be reduced further with Noise Eaters
- Hundreds of samples and preset kits, even on entry-level kits.
- Can be played through headphones or an amp.
- Does not require hearing protection.
- All sounds are tuned properly by default, but can also be adjusted.
- Drum pad response can be adjusted without affecting tuning.
- One-time purchase with little to no maintenance costs.
- Uses electronic outputs to make a sound (Headphones & amplifiers).
- A choice of VAD drum shells or pads.
- Drum rack system takes up less room.
- MIDI functionality as standard.
- 90-120 decibels (equivalent to a motorcycle engine all the way up to a small jet engine!).
- Tone can be changed slightly using different heads, sticks, and muffling.
- Can only be played acoustically.
- Hearing protection is essential!
- Drums require tuning.
- Drum head response cannot be adjusted without affecting tuning.
- Acoustic kits require new heads, drumsticks, cymbals, felts, and cleaning.
- Makes a sound without any extra accessories.
- Uses drum shells.
- Needs a lot of space to set up.
- Requires triggers to use MIDI.
What electronic kits should I look at as a beginner?
Cheaper than good starting acoustic kits, with far more functionality, the TD-1DMK is a great place for beginners to start on the drums, especially when you need to save space. It features 15 full drum kits, built-in coaching features, and quiet mesh drumheads.
The new TD-07KV is a fantastic place to start if you want a capable electronic drum kit, and is in the same price range as a beginner acoustic kit with accessories and cymbals included. The module uses much of the same technology found in the higher-end TD17 module, but simplified and with Bluetooth connectivity. A great place to start if you are buying purely for a practice kit.
The VAD306 is a perfect introduction into shelled electronic kits. It uses a compact half-shell design to save on space, and the TD-17 module derives from Roland’s flagship TD-50 drum kit. A perfect place to start and develop your drumming if you want a realistic look and feel to the drums, but with the extra functionality of an electronic kit.
An electronic kit for those who want to invest fully in their drumming career from the very beginning. The VAD503 and 506 kits use the powerful TD27 drum module and come with full-sized drum shells. This kit supports any drummer from first beat in a practice room to sell-out shows, and comes with in-depth functionality that supports all aspects of drumming.
What is MIDI?
MIDI provides amazing features for every aspect of music, from performance to production to practice. Since electronic drums are designed with advanced MIDI features in mind, it’s worth taking a quick look into how MIDI works as you’ll be able to do some incredible things with it.
MIDI is not a sound itself, but a signal. When you interact with your electronic drums - for example, hitting a drum - it sends a signal to another instrument, computer, or DAW telling it to do whatever you’ve set it to do.
Here are a few examples:
- Hitting a pad could trigger a looping sample of another drum track to play along with.
- Trigger a metronome to play, but only in your headphones.
- Set each pad to trigger a sample of an acoustic kit you recorded.
- Each pad could trigger chords, or sound effects.
- Trigger stage lights to shine when you hit specific drums.
MIDI is a huge topic, for another time, but it shows you what’s possible with electronic kits.
Do I need power to play an electronic kit?
Electronic kits are powered by the included AC adaptor. Simply plug it all in, click the on button, pick a kit to play and start playing. Easy.
Do electronic drum kits need special drumsticks?
No, all wood or nylon- tipped sticks work flawlessly on electronic kits, and some high-end electronic kits even have a setting for jazz brushes. There are specialist sticks that are built to reduce certain vibrations from mesh heads too, but they aren’t necessary to play well.
Are electronic drums easier to play?
They’re as easy to play as any kit. Electronic drums kits are designed to replicate the feel of an acoustic kit, but with far more flexibility. In terms of playing technique, they’re practically the same. If you can play an acoustic drum kit, you can play an electronic kit and vice-versa.
Can I rock out on an electronic kit?
Yes, you can. The mesh heads on Roland drum kits are designed to withstand everything from the lightest tickle of a ghost note to the heaviest rimshot. They can happily take an absolute beating without stretching, warping, or getting pits and dents.
Do I need ear protection when playing an electronic kit?
No. The noise from the mesh heads is comfortably below the decibel level where hearing needs to be protected (approx 85 decibels). If you’re using headphones or amplifiers, simply turn the volume down to a comfortable (and safe) level.
Dampening pads - Made from rubber, gel, or neoprene, these pads sit on the top of acoustic drum heads and cymbals, preventing them from vibrating as much. They tend to result in a very flat, unenjoyable thud.
DAW/Digital audio workstation - A program on a computer dedicated to producing and playing music.
Decibels - A unit of measurement for sound. The higher the decibel level, the louder the sound. Anything above 85 decibels runs the risk of causing permanent hearing damage.
Drum Hardware - Metal stands and arms that hold the drums and cymbals in place. Drum racks are a common hardware choice for electronic kits and tend to take up less room.
Drum module/brain - The computer which manages all of the drum kit features, from samples played, to coaching features, and where cable connections are made.
Drum Presets - Default drum kits saved inside the drum module. Switch to these to play a different set of drums, or create your own.
Drum Rudiments - Patterns of notes that are designed to improve playing ability and good technique. Learn these if you want to get good at the drums!
Drum Triggers - Small electronic sensors that identify when a drum has been hit. They can be set to trigger samples in a similar way to electronic kits using a DAW.
Metronome - Also known as a click. A metronome makes a clicking noise on every beat to help musicians stay in time.
MIDI - A way to connect and synchronise multiple electronic instruments together.
Muffling - Preventing vibrations in a drum head to change the way it sounds.
Samples - Recorded sounds played back. In the case of V-Drums, these are recorded drums which are played when a drum pad is struck, but can be anything from a cowbell, to a guitar chord, to a cartoony noise.
Tension - Drum head tension changes the way the drumsticks feel when you hit a drum. More tension leads to more "bounce", less tension means less "bounce". This is generally a personal preference, but the tension on acoustic kits also affects the tuning of a drum. Electronic kits can adjust tension separately from tuning.
Tuning - Drums need tuning in the same way a guitar does, otherwise they can sound unpleasant. An acoustic drum kit is tuned by adjusting various lugs with a specialised key. Electronic drums are tuned via the module.