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All You Wanted To Know About Drum Triggers

Setting The Sound Module’s Parameters, Hey Where’s My Chicken?

Practical application of triggering technology can at times be challenging, sort of like herding cats, but through patience and experimentation it can be harnessed with great success. You have to remember that every drum is different, and because of that there isn’t just one set of software settings that will work on every drum.

So let’s take a look at what each of the most common trigger settings (parameters) actually do. Each manufacturer may call the same function by a different name, but like parameters, no matter what they’re named, will function similarly. Be sure to read the owner’s manual for your interface or drum module. Also familiarize yourself with your drum module’s user interface. Yes, you should actually read the manual.

Before any other parameter is set on the trigger interface, check to see if you can select the “trigger type” on your drum module or interface. While older modules may not have this parameter, most newer ones do. This will set the trigger settings in the ballpark of where they need to be.

Next the “sensitivity” level or “gain” must be set to match your playing style. Keep in mind, when you set trigger parameters by yourself, there’s a tendency to play softer than you do in actual performance. So smack them! When you play your hardest, the sensitivity graph should peak out. Don’t set the sensitivity too high, otherwise it’ll limit your dynamic range, and can lead to problems like double triggering and notes dropping out. Don’t worry if the triggering isn’t very good at this point, we’ll make it better.

“Threshold” is next. I set this by setting the threshold parameter to “0” – its most sensitive. I then play the drum at the lowest volume I plan to play, and raise the threshold until the triggered sound begins to occasionally drop out. I then lower the threshold a number or two. Take note – the tendency is to play the drum softer than you will in performance. Be realistic with your expectations. If you play loud, the drum doesn’t have to trigger very quiet sounds.

One of the most important parameters is “mask time.” This setting is definitely called by various names, so check the manual for what it’s called on your interface. “Mask time” is the parameter that is most responsible for getting rid of double, multiple, and false triggers. If possible, find out how your interface’s numeric values correspond to actual milliseconds. It will make the process of setting this parameter a bit clearer. If not, you’ll just have to rely on you ear a bit more.

Take the “mask time” parameter all the way down to “0,” then play the drum as fast as you will in actual performance. Raise the threshold setting until the double triggering is reduced or gone, then continue to increase the value until some notes don’t trigger. Then back the setting down a few notches. Repeat this process for each drum.

For reference, the space between notes in a buzz or orchestral roll is around 15ms. The space between flams played by a double pedal on a kick drum is around 50ms. As a rough rule of thumb, the snare will have the smallest mask time, the toms will have mask times that increase as the toms get lower in pitch, and the kick will have the largest mask time.

There are other parameters that are specific to each different trigger interface. A few of them are “retrigger cancel” on the Roland interfaces and “velocity curve” on both Roland and Kat interfaces. I’m sure there are others, so crack the manual.

Trigger Wisdom & Conclusion

It’s very possible that after following the previous directions, you may still encounter either note dropouts or double triggering. Such is life in triggering land. Here’s where you must snatch the rock from my hand, Grasshopper. All I can suggest is that you play with the mask time, threshold, and sensitivity. It’s a balancing act. There are no hard and fast rules at this point, you must experiment and tweak. You may even find that other “trigger type” settings work even better than the “acoustic trigger” setting.

If all else fails you can muffle the snare and toms a bit. I often use a third of a muffle ring on the snare drum and a small loop of duct tape on the batter head of the toms. I’ve even seen people trigger drums that are filled with packing peanuts so that the drums make no acoustic sound at all. The more muffled the drum, the easier it is to trigger.

Well, I hope this gives you some insight into the scary and mystical world of drum triggering. Dive in and experiment – it’s extremely hard to make smoke come out of a drum module or trigger-to-MIDI interface by just pushing buttons. You need a cup coffee to do that!

Triggering Terminology

A To Z (well at least to W)

Amplitude. The height of the waveform, measured in volts.
Crosstalk. The vibration of the drum or pad being struck to cause another drum trigger or pad to fire. Usually caused by sympathetic vibrations.
Double Trigger. One or more sounds sounding after the initial intended pad or trigger hit.
Mask Time. The amount of time a trigger input waits before it will react to another trigger waveform. Generally measured in milliseconds.
Milliseconds. A measurement of time. One-second equals 1,000 milliseconds (ms). In-air sound travels at the rate of about one foot per millisecond.
Sensitivity. A trigger interface setting used to balance out the varying voltage output levels of different acoustic triggers or pads and playing styles.
Scan Time. The amount of time after receiving a trigger signal that a sound module takes before reading the waveform amplitude to determine the volume (velocity) of a sound. Measured in milliseconds.
Threshold. The point below which a trigger waveform will not be recognized.
Velocity Curve. A trigger interface setting used to alter how a sound module’s sound output volume changes in relation to user input.
Waveform. The representation of the voltage output of a drum trigger. Shown in amplitude over time.

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