Virtual Drumming: A Geek Musician’s Dream

By JR Raphael
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

I think I may have found the perfect — albeit, somewhat unlikely — match.

I’m a musician, a drummer with more funk than Flavor Flav after a week without showers. But I also live in an apartment, which makes drumming a bit difficult — at least, unless I want to get shot by my neighbors.

I’ve discovered my solution, though, and it’s got great geek appeal whether you’re a musician or not. So I propose to you the perfect match: gadgets and rock ‘n’ roll.

Quiet Noise

When I realized I wouldn’t be able to pound the skins in my current abode, I started searching for other options. Sure, you can play on practice pads — they’re great for working on technique — but that only goes so far. I wanted to capture the feel and the sound of a real, hardcore drum kit — just in a way that no one else would have to hear.

Then I discovered the world of virtual drumming. Now, I’m not talking Technotronic-era beat machines. I’m talking high-tech, studio-quality machines that could convince you you’re sitting behind Tommy Lee’s rig. Let me give you a tour.

The Electronic Experience

There are several major manufacturers and models around, but I’ll focus on the one I know: the Roland V-Drums. I have the TD-12 model. From a distance, they look like a regular drum kit. When you get up-close, though, they appear more like a futuristic factory of sorts — and they have the same level of power.

The configuration will be familiar to anyone who’s played a standard drum kit. You have a snare in front of you, a couple of toms, a ride and crash cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal, and a kick drum attached to a normal pedal. Of course, the main difference is that hitting any of these surfaces produces only a minimal sound.

The heads of the drums are made of mesh and the cymbals of a kind of rubber. The wires, though, connect all these contraptions to a centralized “brain” that interprets your strikes and turns them into sounds. The drums can actually detect how hard and where on the drum or cymbal you’re hitting — and then translate accordingly to produce the same kind of sound your movements would on an acoustic kit. The sound comes through either headphones or an amplifier that you plug-in to the computer.

Virtual Versatility

The coolest part, aside from the practical function, is the customization. With a few clicks and tweaks, you can change from a standard rock drum kit to an expensive jazz setup, from a marching band rig to an African percussion collection. The combinations are infinite. You can configure any part of any drum or cymbal to have any almost sound imaginable, and you can define every nuance of that sound and how it responds to your touch. My kit has room for 50 different settings, so with the touch of one button, I can toggle between any number of different configurations.

That makes the kit great not only for practice, but also for playing. You do lose a bit of the warmth and body of an acoustic kit — obviously, you aren’t going to feel the same kind of vibration as when you bang a loud drum — but you gain a kind of versatility that would cost thousands to create in any non-electronic setting. Want to throw a cowbell into your kit? No problem. Need a gong? You got it. Even oddities like whistle sounds and clapping can be arranged.

Real-World Rocking

You might be wondering if these things are limited to electronics nerds sitting in apartments with headphones on. There are some of those — especially sexy ones with initial-based first names — but there are plenty of real-world rockers putting this technology to use, too.

Drumming legend and Rush member Neil Peart rocks the virtual kit. Other well-known names in the world of percussion like Gregg Bissonette, Thomas Lang, and Jason Bittner also go for the electronic experience. And remember Rick Allen, the Def Leppard drummer who lost an arm? He uses all electronics to play single handedly these days. Tons of other famous drummers incorporate the technology into their regular kits, too. Look closely next time you’re watching and you just might see some mesh surfaces mixed in with the regular drums.

Now, it should be mentioned that these kits aren’t cheap. You’ll definitely pay more for a good electronics kit than you would for a basic acoustic one — somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand dollars, depending on the model and how many bells and whistles you add on. But for a drummer with an appreciation for electronics — or with a need to keep noise to a minimum — they bring the best of both worlds together and open up your playing to a whole new set of experiences.

Oh, and they also seem to impress chicks. Take that, Tommy Lee.