- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Ben Marcheski wants everybody to wang chung tonight. As the drummer for the 1980s band the Reflex, Mr. Marcheski, 29, uses an electronic drum kit to mimic the synthetic sounds that marked the decade.

His set includes favorites such as Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

“For every song on the set list, I have a different set of drums preprogrammed,” Mr. Marcheski says. “It really makes a difference. They are signature sounds from that time.”

Although electronic drums made their mark during the 1980s, the instruments are still a vital part of performing and recording in the music industry. Technological advances allow drum sounds to be replicated without a drum kit being present.

Along with creating synthetic sounds, many other positive applications are available when using electronic drums, especially when performing live, says Harry Evans, an engineer at Clean Cuts Music in Northwest.



Because the sound is generated by the drum brain and then amplified, the volume can be controlled, Mr. Evans says. Bands or artists that play on cruise ships or in small clubs or cafes, churches and schools may use electronic drums because the volume is easily controlled.

“You want to be able to control the volume to amplify it as much as you want,” he says. “The lower the stage volume, the better the house volume.”

Sometimes, a drummer playing an acoustic set might want to use a drum loop from an electric drum set as a click track, which helps keep the rhythm steady.

Triggers also can be placed on an acoustic set of drums, which allows the musician to alert the electronic kit to play a separate part, says Jason Stanfield, sales representative of Armadillo Enterprises Inc. in Tampa, Fla., which is responsible for an electronic drum line called Ddrum Pro Percussion.

“You mount them on the side of a drum,” Mr. Stanfield says. “These triggers will send an electrical impulse to the brain of the electronic kit and trigger the sound from the brain.”

Although performers use electronic kits for concerts and composers might use electronic drums as the basis for the beginning of a song, one helpful application for electronic drums is used in recording studios where sound leakage or space is an issue, Mr. Stanfield says. For a musician who lives in an apartment, electronic drums might be the perfect tool for creating drum parts.

In studios where loud volume is not an issue, sound engineers and producers would more aptly use acoustic drums. However, they still might choose to program the drums in software such as Logic, Digital Performer or Pro Tools.

After recording the drum part in the studio with an acoustic kit, many engineers use Sound Replacer, a plug-in program associated with Pro Tools, to replace individually recorded tracks with new sounds, says Ken Schubert, chief engineer at Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church.

Acoustic drums played by a skilled drummer have a subtlety that doesn’t come from an electronic kit, Mr. Schubert says. To preserve the feeling associated with acoustic kits, he can use Sound Replacer to improve the sonic quality of drum parts while maintaining the feeling of the original performance.

Sound Replacer uses the existing wavelength created by the original track as the framework for a synthetic sound, he says. The original track also can be mixed with a computerized instrument for a unique sound.

Because the finished recording will be listened to many times, most engineers go over the tracks with a fine-tooth comb, especially with pop music, Mr. Schubert says. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the music industry depended more upon the skill of the musicians instead of computer-generated sounds.

“Currently, the emphasis in music is on production, not on musicians playing their music well,” he says. “It’s amazing what technology allows you to do.”

Electronic drums kits can be good tools on which musicians can improve their skills, says Jim Haler, product manager for Yamaha Drums in Buena Park, Calif. Yamaha’s most popular drum kit is the DTXpress III, which has a retail price of about $1,295.

“Arguably the most important skill for a drummer to learn is keeping good time,” Mr. Haler says. “Another important skill is to learn the appropriate ‘groove’ for a particular style of music.”

When the skills are mastered on an electronic kit, they can be transferred to an acoustic set, he says.

Similar to an acoustic set, electronic drums start to work when the pad is struck by the drummer. The standard electronic kit comes with pads for a snare drum, bass drum, three tom-toms, a high hat and two cymbals. A rack for the pads, cables and a control module comes with the set.

On the individual pads, rubber is mounted on a metal frame, Mr. Haler says. Underneath the pad is a trigger called a piezo, which is made from crystals. The crystals vibrate and generate voltage that carries the signal from the pad to the module.

The module interprets the signal by different criteria, such as how hard the pad is hit, Mr. Haler says. It triggers whatever voice is assigned to the particular input. The sound travels from the output to either headphones or speakers.

Along with electronic drums called V-Drums, a series of V-Cymbals is produced by Roland Corp. U.S. in Los Angeles, says Steve Fisher, percussion product manager for the company. The instruments cost $1,000 to $6,000, depending on the particular set.

“Ten or 15 years ago, electronic drums were popular, but it wasn’t a drum set,” Mr. Fisher says. “It was just a sound module and pads. That was part of the problem.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that drummers had a complete electronic drum set, he says.

“Keyboard players have had their electronic counterparts for years and years, and the electric guitar has been around since the 1950s,” Mr. Fisher says “Drummers haven’t had the same advantages as guitarists and keyboard players for years.”

Drummers who also are singers are often in a difficult situation when trying to connect with a crowd, says David Haney, co-founder of Zendrum Corp. in Atlanta, Ga. The original electronic drum set made by his company is the ZX Zendrum, which is worn like a guitar. It costs about $1,250 to $1,600, depending on the model.

“I personally have been a singing drummer all my life,” Mr. Haney says. “It became a practical tool for me to get out from behind the drum set to sing upfront. I was originally a bass guitar player. So that hand position was a very natural thing.”

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