Hybrid Drum Kits

Three Basic Electronic/Acoustic Setups

As an instrument, the “drum set” is constantly changing. Just look back to what was the norm in the 1920s. A contemporary kit barely resembles the set of that bygone era. The hybrid electronic/acoustic drum set is the next big evolutionary step. It not only increases the sound palette but can also expand the drummer’s musical role. With electronics, the drummer can play rhythms as well as perform parts that are traditionally the domain of pitched instruments. How cool would it be to replace that chronically late guitar player? With the technology available today, only imagination limits the possibilities. That said, let’s look at three different hybrid setups.


Each of the three hybrid setups is built around a specific type of sound source: a sample pad, a percussion pad, or a drum module. The sample pad is a product unique to Roland. Setup 1 is based around the Roland SPD-S sample pad. Percussion pads are available from a few different manufacturers, each offering greatly differing features. Because of this, I’ll use the Roland SPD-20 percussion pad as the centerpiece of Setup 2. Although drum modules differ greatly, their basic features are by far the most generic of all when compared to percussion and sample pads. Because of this, I won’t reference a specific manufacturer or model number for Setup 3.

Hybrid Setup 1: Sample Pad

Any drummer who is working or practicing can find a use for this particular hybrid setup. It’s compact, versatile, and not terribly expensive. Built around the Roland SPD-S sample pad, it’s easy to use and perfect for a drummer’s initial dive into the world of electronics. And if you want to play custom samples or loops, it’s the only game in town. Although it can easily be used in concert with a computer, you can also create, edit, and modify sounds directly within the unit. A sample pad’s versatility comes not only from the sounds loaded into it at the factory but from the ability of users to load and save their own custom sounds into its memory. With this setup, a player has access to hundreds of sounds of any type — Latin percussion, electronic, found, or acoustic drum sounds. Imagination, musical style, and taste are the only limiting factors.

One of the most common uses of the SPD-S is to play back loops — melodic or rhythmic — in live performance. A friend in Philadelphia has even replaced his bass player with a SPD-S! (Personally, I’d bag the guitar player first, but to each his own.) He did this by creating a separate loop for each song section: intro, verse, chorus, and so on. Each of the loops was assigned a different pad (nine on the SPD-S), and hitting a pad alternated between starting and stopping the assigned loop. If you want to see a master of this kind of setup in action, check out Johnny Rabb. He uses a sample pad to playback one-shot melodic and rhythmic samples to create real-time, on-the-fly arrangements — no need for a band! With this hybrid setup, the drummer is truly in the driver’s seat. Along those lines, I use the SPD-S to playback all the music I play along with in my clinic performances. Each song is loaded into the sample pad and assigned to start and stop with the strike of a pad. There’s no clumsy fumbling with my iPod or CD player. I hit the pad that has the song I want to play assigned to it, the song starts, and I’m off and wailing. This greatly simplifies my workload.

Nuts & Bolts

The sample pad can be positioned anywhere in the drum set to suit the player, although I put it next to the hi-hat so that it’s within arms reach. Because the SPD-S can accept input from two single-trigger pads or triggers, it is an easy way to get that perfect kick drum sound and add an auxiliary pad for specialty sounds, like a second snare drum. FIG. 1 shows this setup. An acoustic drum trigger is placed on the acoustic kick drum, and a rubber pad is placed next to the hi-hat, where a second snare drum would traditionally be found. They are connected to the SPD-S by an insert cable. An insert cable has a 1/4” stereo plug on one end that splits off to two individual mono 1/4” plugs on the other end. The stereo end plugs into the trigger input of the SPD-S, and the two mono plugs hook up to their respective pad/trigger. Although I’m using a pad/acoustic trigger combination here, you could use two triggers or two pads.

Getting Your Sound In

Getting sounds and loops into the sample pad can be done in two ways. An audio source can be plugged directly into the onboard audio inputs (mono or stereo). These can be line or microphone level, as there are controls to set the input to the desired level. Once the level is set, it only takes a few button pushes to get the sampled audio into the SPD-S and stored into memory. There are onboard tools that allow for basic sound editing, albeit on a small screen. Loops can be fine tuned to repeat smoothly, and excess silence at the beginning or end of a sample can be trimmed and discarded. Once the sounds and loops are edited, the onboard functions and effects can be used to further change the sounds. Altering or adding effects to an existing sound, then using the SPD-S’ resample function will create an entirely new sample or loop. The SPD-S is a very powerful tool that lets the lowly drummer pierce the once sacred bastion of the keyboard player. There is justice in the world after all.

Another way to get sounds into the sample pad is to transfer them from computer to the SPD-S via a compact flash card. This gets around the three-minute sampling limitation (stereo) when using the audio inputs. Some of my clinic tunes are over six minutes of stereo audio, and in my opinion, it’s easiest to edit sound on the computer because the waveform can be seen. Once edited, copy the sound/loop to the compact flash card. Then remove the card, place it in the SPD-S, and import the sound into memory — couldn’t be much simpler.

Hybrid Setup 2: Percussion Pad

Percussion pads have been the workhorses of the electronic drum world for almost 20 years. This setup is perfect for those who don’t need loops or their own sampled sounds. A percussion pad, in this case the Roland SPD-20, has sounds stored in ROM. Unlike the sample pad, these sounds are permanent and cannot be erased, although they can be edited (for pitch, decay, effects, etc.). This is the perfect piece for the player who doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by sampling. The SPD-20 has the added benefit of having four dual-trigger inputs, which allows for a more extensive setup. Yes indeed, more things to hit.

Nuts & Bolts

This hybrid setup (FIG. 2) has two drum triggers, a mesh pad, and a kick pad plugged into the percussion pad. Plugging these pads and triggers into the percussion pad is straightforward. The cable comes out of the pad or trigger, and it plugs into a trigger input on the percussion pad. Inputs 1 and 2 of the SPD-20 recognize dual-trigger mesh pads. Mesh pads actually use two piezo elements — one for the head and one for the rim. These are what I call “true” dual-trigger pads. Dual-trigger rubber pads most often use only one piezo to sense a hit both on the head or the rim. This single piezo is used in conjunction with a “membrane switch” on the rim that lets the sound module know which sound to play — head or rim. Each type of pad requires slightly different circuitry to work; the SPD-20 has both types of circuitry on Inputs 1 and 2. If you’re using a dual-trigger pad or trigger, you’ll need to use a stereo cable to make the connection. If a mono cable is used, only the head portion of the pad will work. Inputs 3 and 4 accept dual-trigger membrane-switching pads or single-trigger mesh pads/triggers.

Once the pads/triggers are hooked up, the trigger input settings on the percussion pad have to be set to best match the pad/trigger. Percussion pads generally have what I would describe as intermediate-level trigger parameters, like “sensitivity,” “threshold,” and “mask time.” You’ll have to do some experimenting to find the settings that work best for your style of playing and technique.


Percussion pads, as I mentioned earlier, have sounds that are preset in ROM memory, which means that you can’t add additional samples to the percussion pad’s onboard library, but you can alter the existing sounds. Pitch, length, and effects are a few of the parameters that can be changed. Roland’s SPD-20 has 700 onboard sounds from every genre and style of music imaginable — tabla, gongs, TR-808 sounds. They’re all right there at your fingertips.

FIG. 2 shows a mesh pad and snare drum trigger plugged into the first two inputs of the percussion pad. Because most mesh pads and nearly all snare drum triggers are dual trigger, a different sound can be assigned to the head and the rim. If you don’t want two different sounds, just assign the same sound to both the head and rim.

Hybrid Setup 3: Drum Module

Because drum modules have many more inputs than sample or percussion pads, the combination of pad and trigger types is huge! For me, this is the ultimate setup: It’s really a drum set within a drum set. There are six pads, triggers, and foot controllers used in the setup shown in FIG. 3. Choices abound when selecting sounds. Consider for a moment the drum-set-within-a-drum-set concept. By simply moving your hands to the pads and your left foot to the hi-hat controller, a completely electronic drum set can be played. This makes it easy to switch between programmed-sounding beats to full-on acoustic drums in real time.

A kick drum trigger is used in every one of the three setups shown. If I can only trigger one sound, it will be the bass drum. By triggering the kick, with or without the addition of a microphone, the sound can be dramatically altered. Altering or switching sounds is as easy as pushing a button to change patches. I commonly add the super low end of an 808-kick sound to fill out the low frequencies of a pop song. If a sharp beater attack is needed to cut through a wall of guitar sound, that too is easy to achieve. Just select a kick sound that has a lot of high-frequency snap. Use the drum module’s EQ (found on most high-end drum modules) to boost the frequencies around 8kHz, and then slightly cut all frequencies below 500Hz. Instantly a kick drum sound is created that will cut through the most dense guitar tracks. I’ve used this very technique on Thomas Lang’s acoustic kick drums at a number of recent live events. Adding in the triggered sound from the drum module made the kicks slice right through the mix — a must-have to hear his intricate kick patterns. As a bonus, the acoustic triggers tracked his unrelenting barrage of notes flawlessly.

Because almost all drum modules have more than six inputs available, this setup could be expanded to include even more pads and triggers. Consider adding triggers to the acoustic toms and snare drum. With a completely triggered acoustic drum set, it’s possible to change the entire drum sound from song to song, even if you don’t have mikes on the drums..

Nuts & Bolts

I didn’t included a cabling diagram in FIG. 3, because it’s about as straight forward as it gets. One cable goes from each pad/trigger to one trigger input on the module. As always, if a pad/trigger is dual trigger, use a stereo cable. Notice that this setup also includes a hi-hat controller pedal. This pedal can be used to open and close hi-hat sounds assigned to any pad, as well as control pitch bend on any of the pads/triggers (depending on the module’s capability).

As a rule, drum modules have more advanced trigger input settings than sample or percussion pads. Many of the higher-end modules even allow for the choice of trigger type on each input. By choosing the trigger type, the module’s trigger parameters are set to best match that specific kind of pad/trigger. Because every player is a bit different, these baseline parameters can then be tweaked to get the best possible response from the pad/trigger.

As I’ve said in previous articles, use the newest and most advanced drum module you can afford. Electronic drum technology is constantly changing and improving. And in this case, newer really is better.

Upward & Onward

It’s this simple: Electronics have become part of what we do as drummers and percussionists. Electronics might be reinforcing an acoustic drum sound, providing some sort of backing loop to play against, or playing some effect that can’t be created in the acoustic world. Drummers like Jojo Mayer, Johnny Rabb, and Samantha Maloney frequently use hybrid electronic/acoustic setups. Even drummers that are often associated primarily with acoustic drums, like Peter Erskine and Jim Keltner, use electronics as part of their everyday setups. So based on what you’ve read here, think about what you might need in your own setup to enhance the music you’re playing. Do you like to trigger a lot of loops? Do you need bigger acoustic drum sounds? Do you want to replace that pesky guitar player with a sample pad? Whatever you decide, there is no such thing as a wrong setup, and it’s really no longer a question of whether acoustic or electronic gear is the best tool for the job. You’ll likely need both.