A lot of pupils ask me which is better to practice or play on – the electric drum kit or the acoustic drum kit. The answer isn’t as black and white as the question and simply comes down to looking at the advantages and disadvantages of both types of instrument.
Both types of drum kit have their uses and distinct advantages over the other but at the end of the day it all depends on what you intend to use the set for and how seriously you take your drumming.
To make this decision as easy for you as possible I have decided to simply list the advantages and disadvantages of each drum set and then let you decide.
The Electric Drum Kit
Probably the most important advantage with the electric drum kit is the ability to practice with ear phones or turn down the volume of the drums meaning noise issues can be avoided. This makes the electric kit ideal for flats or houses with grumpy neighbours.
Most electric drum kits have built in tools for practice such as metronomes and multiple drum kit sounds allowing drummers to experiment with their sound and playing styles. This can be a lot of fun and great for learning.
Most mid range electric drum sets are cheaper than most mid range drum kits, especially when you consider having to purchase cymbals and stands for acoustic kits. Mid range electric drum kits start at around £500.
Drum sticks tend to last much longer with an electric kit as they are not hitting real drum rims and sharp cymbal edges. A minor advantage I know but still…
You will get more stick bounce on an electric drum kit as they are basically rubber pads that never loose tension. This means that playing becomes slightly easier.
You will obviously never have to worry about tuning an electronic drum kit.
Electric drum kits can be plugged directly into recording equipment/pc for practice or writing sessions. Some higher range electronic drum kits have built in recording facilities already.
Electric kits have a smaller floor foot print than most acoustic drum sets and so can fit into small rooms or onto small stages.
They don’t feel or sound the same as an acoustic drum kit. This is the biggest disadvantage with electric kits. The technology is improving but you can’t beat (no pun intended) the feel and sound of real drums, cymbals and hi-hats. The cheaper electric drum kits sound very fake and can be uncomfortable to play on due to cheap rubber. Some electric drum kits don’t even have real drum pedals and instead are supplied with trigger pads which are unusable at fast tempos and insensitive to the light touch.
A common misconception is that the electronic drum set is totally silent; this is not the case as noises are still created from hitting rubber pads with sticks and bass drum beaters hitting rubber surfaces. They are NOT totally silent as bass drum pads can be heard through floors and walls and the tapping of rubber pads is audible from other rooms.
Electric drum kits will eventually break and will need individual parts replaced such as new drum pads or clamps. Some of the cheapest electric drum kits are infamous for this.
Buying a second hand electric kit can be a bit risky as with buying any electric product second hand. It could be on the verge of breaking and you will never know until you take it home and use it.
Electric kits can be very awkward when setting up sound levels on stage and most sound engineers aren’t prepared to set up an electronic kit.
They do require external amplification if used for performance. A small guitar amp is all that’s required for your own private use but if used on stage they will need greater amplification.
Some electric drum kits have very limited positioning options. Drums might not be able to be set up at required heights for example due to limiting pad arms or rack.
The Acoustic Drum Kit
With an acoustic kit the drummer is able to play with great feel and touch, from the very quiet to the very loud. Cymbal washes are of course possible unlike most electric drum kits and unlike most electric kits it is possible to take advantage of the tiny subtleties that can be squeezed from a real acoustic drum and cymbal. The acoustic drum kit is an incredibly sensitive and subtle instrument with great dynamics that just aren’t possible to recreate electronically. Yet!
Real acoustic drums allow the drummer to learn and perform drum rolls, buzz rolls, cymbal swells, hi-hat technique and cross stick to a better and more realistic level than the electric drum kit.
Bottom end acoustic drum kits can be purchased brand new for under £200 these days and second hand drum kits can be even cheaper. Unlike electronic kits there is less risk involved in buying second hand drums as they are far less likely to break.
The positioning options of an acoustic kit are far superior allowing angles and heights of drums to be placed where you want due to advanced adjustable stands.
No electronic amplification is needed for small gigs and brand practice….obviously.
Noise! An acoustic drum kit is LOUD but drum silencer pads can be used to reduce volume drastically. This does mean that the feel and sound of the drums suffer enormously though.
Drums will need their heads replacing occasionally depending on how hard or often you play and can be quite expensive (especially the larger bass drum).
Acoustic drums need to be tuned, this can be difficult to achieve properly by amateurs. It is possible just to tighten for feel rather than sound if the sonic quality of the instrument isn’t important to you.
Unless ear plugs are worn then hearing damage is a real risk. Be careful!
Drum kits can be big and heavy and so require space and patience when setting up or breaking down.
Real acoustic drums can be scratched and even warp in shape if treated badly or left somewhere damp.
As you can see there are many reasons to choose one type of drum kit over the other.
My advice when asked has always depended on just one parameter – is noise an issue? If the answer is yes then the drummer will obviously want to consider an electric drum kit.
The cheapest electric kits though (under £300) are very uncomfortable to play and unrealistic but will at least give the pupil a chance to learn and practice on something. Electric drum kits, with all the built in “toys” and learning tools, are great for practicing on but not really for performing on stage. A beginner could use an electric drum kit in their bedroom but a gigging drummer is probably going to require a real acoustic set.
An acoustic drum kit if proving to be too loud could always have a set of drum mutes thrown over it (around £50) to silence the kit until it is moved somewhere where noise is not an issue.
At the end of the day you can’t beat the sound, feel and subtlety of a real acoustic drum kit. Until electric drum kits are developed to feel and sound EXACTLY the same as a real drum or cymbal then this would be my choice. But then I am a gigging and professional drummer and perhaps a little biased.