Electronic Drums Tap Into an Expanding Marketplace
Technology Meets Demand for More Sales Opportunities
“While the acoustic drum market is struggling, the electronic drum market is growing,” declares Yamaha’s Bob Terry. Others agree: Traps Drums, who are relatively new on the scene, report that in 2008 electronic percussion amounted to 20 percent of their sales and, this year, despite the economy, that number has risen to 24 percent.
After an up-and-down market segment flux since electronic drums first exploded onto the scene in 1982, could these “percussion products with plugs” be on the rise, and for good? There’s a case to be made that technological advancements coupled with a younger generation that is more open to them is indeed adding up to sales growth.
Jim Norman at Alesis points to the analogy of digital pianos, which while they became more prevalent in the 1980s, “everyone still thought they sounded bad and weren’t real,” he says. “Today they are more accepted and you see and hear great sounding digital pianos on stage.”
But drums require a little more attention then that digital piano. Roland’s Steve Fisher points out that the goal is for everyone, especially potential hobbyists, have a good experience every time they sit behind any electronic drum kit. “If they have a bad experience, maybe they pick up an electric guitar… or maybe they go buy something like a radio controlled airplane instead, taking them out of the music-making pool completely.”
Never before have there been so many choices for that first experience, either.
New Sounds, New Looks, New Possibilities
“We just introduced a new high end drum kit, the TD-20SX,” says Fisher, who is Roland’s drum/percussion market development manager. “Our focus has been enhancing the aesthetic aspect of our electronic drums for a much better stage presence. This new kit is more heavy duty, with silver painted cymbals, and a larger kick drum. But we never do anything just for looks. There’s always a functional aspect.” The new 14″ kick drum, for example, offers a more solid feel and better sound.
Just launched, the new kit features a chrome rack mount that allows the cables to run inside them, addressing concerns over all those “messy cables,” which have long been a turnoff for many drummers. But this particular kit comes with a $6,999 MSRP price tag. “This is for the professional who really needs the instrument or the hobbyist who has a lot of money,” he says, adding that the worship market will also be drawn to it.
“We’ve been answering customer demands, and most recently this includes creating a shell wrap that the average drummer can switch out,” Fisher continues. “It’s a free-floating shell design that allows you to take out the head and counter hoop to put in a new shell.” This is going to be popular because many drummers want to customize their kit. Another benefit is if there are pieces being used in a hybrid kit, they can rewrap to make it match their acoustic kit.
Also new is a lower-priced V Drum kit that has all mesh heads. “We’re pushing the mesh head advantage,” he says. The new TD-4SX has a MSRP of $1,599, and “it’s affordable, and is a great sounding and feeling product.”
Among the many new developments at Yamaha is Bob Terry, who now helms the new electronic drum marketing department. A longstanding professional drummer with many recording and performing credits (he drummed for Wang Chung in the mid 1980s), Terry previously worked at Notion Music, Inc. and with Line 6. While only in the position for six months, Terry is ushering in some new product (which he reluctantly couldn’t talk in detail about at press time because it was to be unveiled at the PASIC show).
“Yamaha decided a while back to devote more resources and time to the electronic drum line, and has ramped up the staff both in Japan and here,” he explains. “They wanted to split the electronic division off and give it more focus.” This will involve some rebranding, as in their products will be called DTX Drum by Yamaha. Along these lines, Yamaha’s new series of drums will go with “model numbers like Mercedes” doing away with the old “xtreme/xpress/xplorer” names.
Alesis released its DM10 Pro Kit at the Summer NAMM show, and is having great success with it already, reports product manager Jim Norman. Designed around a new module that features more modern sounds, more polyphony, a new sound set, and a variable control high hat, it’s positioned as the “more for less money” kit. “The new module has built-in sequences that allow you to play along and make your sounds. And what’s really unique is you can update the sound set.” It has a USB jack that allows players to go to third party companies and download the sound sets they want. These are purchased separately and tend to be in the $20 price range.
As for the sounds that come with this module, “we focus mostly on classic drum sounds – like the Ludwig Black Beauty, or some more boutique vintage sounding drums,” Norman says. “We really try to get realistic drums and acoustic percussion sounds, but also add some hip hop type sounds.”
Also new is the feel: “The cymbals used with the kit are real cymbals, but dampened underneath. Combined with heads made of Mylar, it really has playability.” The kit MAPS at $1,499.
Traps is the newest kid on the electronic drum block. Joe Cappello, president of Cappello Music, contacted Traps’ founders Nigel Robinson and Bob Henrit in 2005. Based in England, they had created a portable, shell-less drum kit. “It sounds awesome,” he says. “Gigging drummers love it for the small footprint and portability factor, and moms and dads love how you can fold the kit up and put it under the bed after practicing.”
But right after Cappello secured the North American distribution rights, Robinson and Henrit developed an electronic mesh head kit, that while popular in Europe, couldn’t be brought over here because of patents held by other companies. “So what we did was develop a new concept to for our electronic kits, the power pad,” he says. “These pads are placed on top of the Traps acoustic heads. What’s great about this is it opens up the market to the many who have already bought Traps.”
Up next for Traps is a patent-pending power pad designed in different sizes to fit non-Traps drums. “You’ll be able to convert that Ludwig, Rodgers, DW – most any of them into your own set of electronic drums,” Cappello says. “It’s exciting. They’ll be whole packages that come with the pads, a set of cymbals, and a module.” The module is being manufactured for them overseas, and the cost for the pads will be about $499. The cost for a Traps drum kit with these is around $999.
Pintech is a smaller player determined to get larger. Lorrie Landry, manager, says the company was founded in 1994 and purchased by Dan and Linda Gilbert in 2002. They create electric drums and triggers, and accessories. “We focus on making our drums as compatible with as much acoustic hardware as possible, so it makes it easy for drummers to incorporate electronic elements into their kit,” she says. “Our focus is giving the drummer as many options as possible as well as providing good quality American-made products.”
Most recently they’ve created a new electronic high hat cymbal controller, the VisuLite. “It’s the first and only electronic high hat cymbal that can utilize a drop clutch and an integrated controller between the cymbals.” The cymbals also come in a wide variety of colors.
Also turning heads is the PinTech E-Road Pro drum kit, which includes VisuLite cymbals. It has a MAP price of $4,000. A double bass custom metal kit made with Tama Shells featuring their triggers and mesh heads plus nine VisuLite Cymbals and hi-hat comes in at $9,000. They offer some lower-end entry-level products as well.
“We consider our customer service the best, and people respond to that,” she says, adding that they make available inexpensive repair kits and a warranty program that allows those who want to upgrade their PinTech gear can do so easily and at a significant discount. “Like the new high hat system – a drummer can send us their old high hat system, and we can convert it for only $50, saving them considerable money on a brand new one.”
Who’s Buying, and Why
The lower end products are becoming increasingly popular for the lack of noise they create. Using headphones they can be played in any room including apartments, at any time of the day, with only the mild pitter-patter from the pads being heard.
Electronic drum sales are also tied to the growth of home studios, both pro and hobbyist. Speaking from his day as a pro, Terry points out that $100,000 could be spent getting acoustic drums to sound just right by the time you tune the room, deal with preamps and mics, etc. “But with the DTX, you can load in perfectly acoustic sounds into your kit and run it directly into the board. You don’t need the peripherals.” Making this more attractive is that Yamaha continues to partner with other companies who are creating a variety of drum samples that allows for more flexibility. Plus, “home and portable studios are also using them as controllers.”
Yamaha’s low end products are primarily appealing to up and coming drummers and students. “Johnny is wanting to be a drummer and taking his parents to the local music store, and once there, his parents are saying, ‘Fine, but we live in an apartment – maybe we should look at an electronic kit.’”
Another buyer? Guitar players, says Norman. “A lot of those guys are buying Alesis DM5s for their own demos or simply to find grooves to jam with. Obviously they aren’t going to buy a full acoustic kit, and they can’t justify spending $2,000 on an electronic kit, but can spend $1,000 on one.”
Otherwise, he finds the demographics for these products are “all over the map.” Customers in their 40s and 50s are wanting to play again, but don’t have room for an acoustic set or can’t deal with the noise headaches they can cause. “Also kids want these. Our lower priced Ion brand is selling inexpensive kits to get them started. Even our Rock Band controller is doing well, and that has spurred interest into kids getting an actual kit.”
The people at PinTech also see “across the board” interest in these products, including houses of worship. “A lot of churches are finding it cheaper to have an electronic drum set than installing a $50,000 sound system to quiet the drummer down. When I first started we’d do maybe one church a month, now I do a couple a week.”
“And older guys want to convert their acoustic kits to electronic to protect their hearing!” she laughs.
But Cappello’s experience is different, and he says that the vast majority of those buying Traps drums with the electronic pads are younger players. “And these players are educated, meaning they’ve been on all the Web sites, read all the reviews, and know more about your product than you do!” Otherwise, “some older drummers wouldn’t be caught dead” with an electronic kit. Some see the value of say, a single power pad that they can use to make special sounds like a gong or cowbell, but universally it’s the younger drummers that’s going for these products. “And thank goodness, because we need younger drummers playing and buying these products.”
With the “what” and “why” figured out … how about the “where?”
Yamaha’s market research shows that once these kits are bought, they largely aren’t moved around. They are stationed in a home, studio, or church. “They generally aren’t being played live and that’s true for all of them in all price points,” Terry says.
But it’s vastly different for those using electronic components. For drummers creating hybrid kits, “we get calls every day from pro drummers using them in hybrid situations,” he says. “That’s very popular because they are able to expand their percussion sound and voices and come up with new sounds. DTX recognizes this and will be introducing products that fill that bill.”
Norman, who is based in L.A., reports he’s seeing more electronic kits being played live. “One guy in an orchestra pit has one because it’s easier to haul and he doesn’t have to worry about it being too loud,” he says. “Plus he can adjust the kit sound to fit what he’s playing to.”
Terry thinks in the future more of these drums will be played live. “If you’re in a wedding or lounge band playing lots of different styles of music, at the touch of a button you can dial up the exact perfect-sounding kit.”
On the Retail Level: What Works
“Where we see the most success is when retailers display the electronic drums in a way people can test them out,” Terry says. “It’s hard to sell them when they aren’t out on the floor. That said, it’s perplexing that we have great sales with our online dealers. That could be a geographical issue.”
“Having it all set up correctly and working on the retail floor is absolutely critical,” says Fisher. But it doesn’t just stop there: he points out that an electronic kit on a floor is probably the most played instrument in the store, but the fact that players listen to it through headphones means personnel can’t assume that it’s always ready to play. If somebody sits on it and hits some buttons, goes into an editing function or starts a sequencing program, then walks away, the next person sitting down will have a bad experience. So the retailer needs a diligent champion who can maintain it. “Those that do this, do exceedingly well,” he says. “Per square foot, electronic drums can be the most revenue-generating part of your store.”
After-the-sale service is important – and can lead to more sales, as drummers are educated in the art of pro audio, says Fisher. For example, if a house of worship gets an electronic kit, retailers should make sure they have it set up right and have the proper sound system. “Some drummers have trouble playing it if they don’t have a good sound system,” he says. “You need a full range of speakers, including a 15-inch or an 18-inch – and actually, I prefer a subwoofer. If it’s less than that, you’re not moving air and thus not really feeling it.”
Cappello too refers to basic retailing tips on how to succeed with these products: “Whether it’s any drum, a violin, or anything else, the retailer who is successful is the one that is educated about the product. They have to have enough product knowledge to feel comfortable enough that they are comfortable selling to the customer.”
Landry agrees: “The more they know the product, the better the sales, plain and simple. Clients buy more from those who know what they are talking about.”
Following the trends and knowing the possibilities is important, as well.
“Generally, electronic drums offer a wide variety of applications – live playing, worship services, sequences, project studios, and it’s all growing,” says Fisher. “From our standpoint, there’s a lot more awareness about these products then ever before. I think electronic percussion has a huge potential, and it’s just getting going. It’s one of the fastest growing segments in our business.”
“What drummers are looking for more than anything else is versatility,” says Landry. “They want to come up with their own sound. They want to customize.” She adds that many want to add electronic aspects to their acoustic sets. “They want hybrids.”
Fisher feels their latest foray into the high-end market will lead to more live playing of electronic drums. Making this a reality is a goal of their new line of drums, which have a better stage presence.
Prior to working for Alesis, Norman had worked at Roland and was there when the TD7 came out in 1993. “It was great because it was the first time someone had put together an entire kit,” he says. “But Alesis has always been about getting more bang for the buck. We know people don’t have $5,000 for an electronic drum kit. We’re able to take existing product and build kits around them, and we’ve had good luck with that.”
Terry points out that so much of the new music coming out is at least tainted with electronics. Those playing clubs who want to replicate that will need to at least have hybrid kits.
Challenges & Compromises
Despite the progress, all readily admit challenges remain – some which may never be as elusive as the Holy Grail. First and foremost is the feel of electronic drums. Terry points out that Roland’s V Drum with mesh pad head is an attempt to answer the call, but “it still falls short of feeling like an actual drum.” The new DTX technology will get closer to it, he says, “bridging that gap.”
Cappello says of Traps’ pad system it has a good bounce but admits “it’s all up to the feel the drummer [experiences]. Some like pads, some like mesh … some like neither!” he laughs.
Alesis’ new DM10 has cymbals that are … well, real cymbals. This is to address the fact that some drummers don’t like hitting rubber. But if they are real, isn’t there a noise factor, even if it’s dampened with a rubber undercoating? “It’s a little louder then a rubber pad but not as loud as a regular cymbal,” he says.
“Cymbals have always been the tougher challenge in electronic drum production,” Terry admits. “We have come far with cymbal sounds in general as far as being able to sample and reproduce them.” Explaining this leads to a lot of computer and technological jargo and Terry stops himself, laughs, and says: “Drummers – speaking for myself – we don’t care! We just want it to sound like a real cymbals!”
“These days, almost everyone who plays acoustic drums plays a little electronic,” says Norman. “And the complaint is always the feel, the expressiveness isn’t quite there and I totally understand that. It’s up to us as manufacturers to push the envelope.”
But it’s clear that electronic drums aren’t going away, are going to become more ubiquitous, and the quality and technology will entice more players.
“The early resistance to electronic drums is mostly gone,” Norman says. “The industry has a whole has made more sturdy products which is what the market has come back and said they wanted. Musicians in turn are figuring it out.”
Bottom line: “Gotta feel good, gotta be real,” Terry says. “That’s the goal.”
|Explorer Drums: A Retailer’s Perspective“Electronic drums were so big in the early 1980s, and peaked about 1986,” says Wes Faulconer, owner of Kansas City’s Explorer Percussion. “The people at Simmons were taking orders by the swimming pool, and then going to the airport and getting them shipped in. Then about 1985 Roland came out with some, then Pearl … everyone was trying to jump on the bandwagon.” But generally, drummers who wanted gigs needed to get a Simmons set.
It’s almost laughable in hindsight as he recalls at the time the people at Simmons and many others thought that their drums were going to replace acoustic kits entirely. But then almost as fast as they had exploded in the market, they died down. There were several factors involved in this decline, including the high cost and maintenance necessary on those drums, plus the unavailability of replacement parts played a role. A change in music styles didn’t help as well.
For Faulconer, who stocks Yamaha and Roland kits, the ones in the $950 to $1,500 price point do the best. While at one point they had a dedicated sales person handling it, now the entire staff tries to stay up on the technology and is able to help educate customers on them.
For him it’s the younger players drawn to the set. “I would say high school to early 20s are the primary customers,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a family thing. And churches.” He personally hasn’t seen any up tick in sales, but they have been steady sellers. “Maybe for some other retailers sales might be bigger, especially the big box stores which have their own brands.”
But as a drummer himself, he notices the improvements. “There’s no doubt that the newer electronic drum products are getting better,” he says. In fact, sometimes a new lower-end set actually sounds better and has more features then its slightly older higher-end cousin. Yet the subtle nuances of a real drum set will possibly be something that is never achieved. In his house he has both an electronic and an acoustic set, and he’ll go back and forth between them. “When you play an electronic kit, everything is perfect and really clean. Then you go back to an acoustic kit and you get the squeaks, the rattles, the nuances … you can’t recreate that with an electronic instrument.”
|Personal Perspectives on Electronic Drums
Yamaha’s Bob Terry provides his perspective as a professional drummer on the history of the electronic drum: “When they initially came out, they didn’t sound good,” he says. “They sounded very synthesized.” That they were often used in conjunction with drum machines resulted in being a big turn-off for traditional drummers. “So it was a trend, then it died out and people went back to their acoustic drums.”
In the past few decades, acoustic drummers have been more open to it as technology improved. “A lot of acoustic drummers are using hybrid kits,” he says. This can be just a trigger on one of their acoustic drums, or adding a pad with a module.
For Roland’s Steve Fisher, true electronic drums have actually not been around that long. Yes, the early 1980s saw the explosion of Simmons, but “that was just pads and a module. People think electronic drums have been around a long time, but really it’s only been since about 2000 that an electronic drum with acoustic/weighted action has existed.” (Simmons was contacted for this story, but citing a company policy that prohibit them from talking to any music instrument trade magazines, declined.)
Fisher adds that electronic drums are becoming to drummers what the electric guitar was to guitarists in the 1960s. When he does public demonstrations, he always asks how many in the audience started on electronic drums, and more and more people are raising their hands. “And how many people buy an electric guitar as their first guitar?” he asks. “Plenty!”
“I think whether or not to play electronic drums is a personal choice,” Joe Cappello of Traps says. “There’s a place for it in today’s music, and I see music has evolved toward it. You look at music from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s compared to today – today’s has a more electronic feel in general. It’s going to be with us for a long time. It’s the future.”