Well, that's a weird thing to be writing a blog about surely? Gain? Are you sure?
Absolutely. Its one of the most misunderstood things when it comes to electronic drums. Get it wrong and your pads act like switches – hit them and they make a noise at one level. Get it correct and you suddenly have a dynamic, sensitive instrument that begs to be played and is genuinely enjoyable to use.
So what am I rattling on about?
OK, so gain is basically to do with how loud your pads are. No, not acoustically. Not how loud they are and if they are loud enough to wake your better half if you start practicing that Gadd lick at three AM. No, what we are talking about here is how big a signal your pad sends down the wire to your drum module when you really whack it.
Surely it cant be that important can it? Well, yes, it can, and give me a couple of minutes and I'll explain why.
When electronic drums first began, it was a real cottage industry – pads were built in garages, module built on kitchen tables, mostly around St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, England by a guy named Dave Simmons. As the idea of edrums spread and more people and companies jumped on the band wagon more and more electronic devices sprung up, and this really wasn't a problem for users. After all, if you wanted to play your Simmons SDS5, you plugged in your Simmons pads and away you went. If you wanted to play your Dynacord ADD-ONE system, you simply plugged in your Dynacord pads and it all worked exactly as it should.
Then the Japanese got involved and it all got a bit industrial. Initially the Japanese were very good copiers, and their electronic drums were copies of the Simmons gear of the time (even the accidental design flaws were copied exactly if you believe the stories). Then, over time, the Japanese started looking at the designs and tried to improve them. They used different components, which were just as good a quality, but were easier or cheaper for them to get in Tokyo or Hamamatsu, rather than St. Albans.
So the parts that Dave Simmons used in the UK because he could get his hands on them easily were changed to parts that were easily available across the other side of the globe. And these components behaved slightly differently. So over time, electronic drums from different manufacturers started to behave differently from each other. Then one manufacturer would find a supplier who could supply (say) 5000 piezo pickups a month for a great price and they'd start to use them, ignoring the fact that the part behaved slightly differently, but it didn't matter as the company would tweak all their modules to work perfectly with it.
So what I am saying is that there are NO standards in the design and electronics of electronic drums. The only standards are the sizes of the pads which copy 'real' drums – 10” pads, 12” pads, 15” cymbals etc. The actual electronics have diverged to the point where you cant plug a Brand 'A' pad into a Brand 'B' module and expect identical results as if you were using a Brand 'A' pad into a Brand 'A' module.
Basically, not all pads and modules are the same and wont 'just work' if you start to mix and match.
And unfortunately, nowadays we expect to be able to mix and match gear as we please – we use a Tama kit with Zildjian crashes, Sabian ride and hats and a Pearl snare, or whatever.
Is this a problem? Well, yes, to some drummers it is.
Regardless of features (2 zone, 3 zone, positional sensing etc), if you plug (and I'm slightly generalising here) a Yoland pad into a Ramaha module (like my fictional edrum makers?), the pad will trigger well but wont be able to recreate your quiet (ghost) notes without being too loud. You'll also notice that regardless of how hard you hit the pad, your medium loud hits will be registering as very loud on the module, and you wont be able to go any louder. All that will happen is that when you hit very hard, the pad might play a quieter note than you were expecting, or it might trigger late.
On the flip side, if you plug a Ramaha pad into a Yoland module, your ghost notes will be picked up very well (if not occasionally too quiet), and regardless of how hard you hit the pad, it will only register as medium loud in the module.
This is because over time, Yoland started to use piezos with a hotter (ie louder) output than other companies. This is fine, there is nothing wrong with that at all, and as long as you play a Yoland module, then you are fine, but use any other manufacturers module (without tweaking it of course) and you wont be impressed with the dynamics – it will all be a bit loud.
So, to use an analogy that I've used before, if you imagine the input to a drum module as a door, anything smaller or the same size as the door will go through fine. But anything larger than the door will be damaged as it goes through the door and wont look the same on the other side.
So, using this analogy, the signal from the Yoland pad going into a Ramaha module will be too large and the top will get knocked off, causing the Yamaha module to not be able to read the signal correctly from the pad, and causing issue. This can easily be cured (most of the time) by turning down the input gain, thereby making the pad signal smaller and so fitting through the door without damage.
And the Ramaha pad plugged into the Yoland module? Well, that fits through easily – too easily in fact and the signal isn't loud enough to register really loud hits. This can be easily remedied by turning up the input gain so that the input signal is exactly the right size to fit through the door.
Now, you might be thinking, yes, but I have a brand new kit and I sound brilliant on it, why would I want to change it? Well, one or two companies (one in particular) deliberately set their pad gain so that there is hardly any dynamics as it makes beginner drummers (who buy most ekits) sound much more even and consistent. The only problem is, the beginner gets used to this and it can really mess up their playing when they get onto an acoustic drum kit. It also means that the pros who use the same gear, cant get half the dynamics out of the kit as they should be able to or would expect to do. Sound familiar?
If your ekit has an input trigger light which flashes green when you hit it quietly and red when you hit it medium hard, that red flashing is the module telling you you cannot go any louder. Its pointless hitting any harder as the kit just wont go any louder. It means the input gains are not set correctly FOR YOU.
So, what YOU need to do is go to your trigger set up page and hit your pads in turn and see how loud they are registering inside the module. The easiest way of getting it correct is to turn down the input gain for the pad you are hitting to minimum and then slowly turn it up until your loud hits register as between 90-100% on the screen (or 110-127 if your module only has the MIDI volume).
Repeat this with all the pads and then save it (ideally as a new preset so you can always go back to the old settings if you really can't handle having a correctly set up pad set). Your whole kit might sound quieter now (in which case, just turn it up) but you should have a much better dynamic range.
Next months we'll look at how the dynamic curve can make it feel even better.