The History of Electronic Drum Sets – 1960s to the 2010s

When you go to a party or a live gig nowadays, it’s very common to see drummers playing electronic drums. They are easier to transport, quicker to sound check, and they offer a vast array of sound options.

They are especially useful to bands that play modern styles of music. Many of these require a more diverse set of sounds.

Electronic drums have come a long way from their early versions in the 1960’s. They have quickly developed into the fantastic rhythm machines we currently have.

We’re going to discuss the development of electronic drums and their most prominent players. We will also talk about some cool new models that will inspire electronic drummers wherever they are.

The Roots of Electronic Drumming

When digging into the roots of electronic drumming, you’ll always find a man and a machine. The man was Felix Visser, a Dutch drummer who was into sound engineering. The machine was the Ace Tone electronic rhythm box. This was an early rhythm machine which enabled its users to play live gigs with a few rhythm presets.

Visser added a longboard with a dozen circuit boards attached onto the Ace Tone box. Those 12 smaller boards were enriched with copper traces. This combination of copper as the conductor and the boards as touchpads were connected to the Ace Tone box.

He added computer relays to each of the touch pads to conduct an electronic circuit to them. Those Siemens-made relays were connected to the sounds produced by the Ace Tone rhythm box.

Naturally, the sound Visser got wasn’t as perfect as it is today, but it was a revolutionary move towards modern electronic drumming.

Interestingly enough, Ace Tone would later develop into Roland – one of the most popular manufacturers of synth and rhythm machines in the world.

The founder of both companies, as well as the Ace Tone rhythm box, was Ikutaro Kakehashi, a great musical innovator who paved the way to numerous music genres from the 1970s to the present day.

The Rise of the Electronic Drum Kit

After Visser and Kakehashi had come up with their findings in electronic drumming, it was time for commercial manufacturers to take the lead. Pollard Industries released the first commercial electronic drum in 1976. This was the Pollard Syndrum, invented by Mark Barton and Joe Pollard. Despite its originality and authenticity, the product didn’t take off as successfully as its creators thought it would, so the business failed.

The Simmons Company came up with their commercial electronic drums in 1978. This time the market reacted in a more positive way, which helped this business rise to prominence at the beginning of the 1980’s. Their best-selling electronic drum kit was Simmons SDS-5. It was released in 1981 and became a part of many studios in the 1980’s. Also, you can hear its characteristic ‘metal-can’ drum sound on many songs from the 1980’s, from Spandau Ballet and Rush to Duran Duran.

The 1990s saw the arrival of electronic drums from two large manufacturers of electronic instruments, Yamaha and Roland. The latter made an exquisite contribution to the development of electronic drums with their TD-10 model from 1997. This model was based on modern mathematical features, which created synthesizer-based sounds, rather than classical acoustic sounds.

Also, it replaced rubber covers on pads with a skin similar to mesh. These two innovations opened room for a modern electronic sound.

Electronic Drummers in the Spotlight

Four years after Visser put together his homemade kit of electronic drums, Graeme Edge, the drummer of Moody Blues, made the first modern electronic drum.

He played that kit on the Moody Blues song ‘Procession’, released in 1971. Since Moody Blues covered a wide scope of music experiments, the use of his electronic drums expanded their range of sounds.

Bill Bruford is another prominent drummer who supported the use of electronic drums and became its promoter in the 1970’s. Having left the band ‘Yes’ in 1972, he joined King Crimson. Their progressive attitude to rock music and hunger for original sounds were a perfect chance for Bruford.

He used the Simmons SDX kit during his stint in King Crimson. You can read more details about his experiences with electronic drums in the 2009 interview on his official website.

Also, here you can hear him playing an electronic drum kit in Japan, in 1986.

Although heavy metal drummers often do not approve of electronic kits, Def Leppard’s Rick Allen played them for a long time. He had to learn how to play drums only with his left hand since he lost his right hand in an accident in 1984. This is where electronic drums were extremely helpful.

Roger Taylor, the drummer of Duran Duran, played electronic drums on some of their songs. Since they were one of the major representatives of synth pop, it was a must for them to use electronic drums. Here you can listen to him playing the Roland TD-30KV kit.

Apart from these drummers, many other drum players and music producers from the 1980s and 1990s used electronic drums in a wide range of genres – from disco and synth/romantic pop to funk, dance, hip-hop and R’n’B.

Modern Electronic Drum Sets

Electronic drum sets have come a long way from Visser’s amateur electronic kit to the powerful sound machines that we admire today.

Take the Roland TD-50 for example, which feels so like playing behind a regular drum kit. Of course, it offers many features that are not available on acoustic kits, for example, custom sampling and even gives you playing instructions to improve your technique. Here you can see (and hear) Kai Hahto from Nightwish playing the Roland TD-50.

Apart from the entire electronic drum kits, there are now modern lines of amazing sampling and percussion pads. The Roland Octapad SPD-30 and the Roland SPD-SX are both stellar models.

Modern electronic producers are often adding live electronic percussive elements to their sets. MIDI technology enables them to communicate these devices with their digital audio workstations or other gear.

Modern music production will make even more room for electronic drums in the years to come. It’s great to look back on what sound engineers and music enthusiasts have done in the last fifty years to improve the nature and quality of drumming. In the time ahead, we can only look forward to new innovations in the field of electronic drumming.

Interested in getting your hands on an electronic drum kit? Check out our electronic drum set reviews and guide.

Mike

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