In this blog, we’ll answer the question: “What are drum triggers?”, hopefully expel the myth that sticking a bunch of triggers on an acoustic drum kit is reserved for metal drummers, and tackle the almost criminal assumption that using triggers is cheating!?
Love them or hate them, drum triggers can open up a universe of options, so for the adventurous drummer, they can take your kit a giant step far beyond the boundaries of mere acoustic sound.
- What are Drum Triggers & How Do They Work?
- A Bit Like an Electronic Drum Kit
- Triggers: Just for Metal Drummers?
- ‘80s Studio Sound
- Studio Sound on Stage
- Is Using Triggers Cheating?
- Why Use Triggers?
- How Do You Set Drum Triggers Up?
- Hooking Up the Module
- Using a Drum Module
- The Right Samples
- Connecting Up to the PA System
- See also…
What are Drum Triggers & How Do They Work?
Before we dive in, we need to make something clear: a drum trigger is simply a small device that can be clipped onto your kick drum, your snare or a tom. A trigger is literally ‘triggered’ when the drumhead is struck and responds by outputting a signal – usually sending it to a drum module which is connected to a PA system or amplifier. It’s not the trigger itself that generates the sound you hear through the speakers. In fact, if you amplified the sound of the trigger itself, you would hear nothing but a piercing pop which, when you think about what it’s designed for, is actually a good thing. The trigger outputs a sound signal with an extremely high peak which is then translated into a much nicer sound by the module it’s plugged into. Most modern triggers will thankfully be velocity sensitive as well, so depending on how hard or soft you hit the drumhead, as long as it’s supported by your drum module, you’ll get the full dynamic range reflected back in the sound.
A Bit Like an Electronic Drum Kit
The concept of drum triggers is actually not all that far removed from that of an electronic drum kit. The drum pads of any standard e-drum kit are essentially triggers that send a signal to the drum module, which then spits out the corresponding sound into your headphones, an amp or PA system. Triggers that you can clip onto an acoustic kit work pretty much exactly the same way, but there is a small difference: the drum pads of an electronic drum kit output a ‘clean’ signal when the pad is struck rather than a peaked signal. Also, since you have to make sure that a drum trigger makes contact with the batter head of an acoustic drum, a lot can go wrong – and it has. But luckily, technology has come a long way since the dawn of drum triggers back in the eighties (yep, that long ago), and the art has vastly improved over the years.
Triggers: Just for Metal Drummers?
These days, if you’re talking about drum triggers, you’re often talking about metal drummers giving their live sound a more pointed punch by triggering kick and snare samples, or both. Using samples can not only inject more punch, but considering the rapid frequency at which the average speed-metal drummer is hitting the kick drum in the space of a single minute, the extra clarity, consistency and definition of each sampled strike really makes a difference to the live sound. However, the perks of using drum triggers aren’t reserved for metal drummers alone.
‘80s Studio Sound
Even if you only know it from that famous chocolate advert (the one with the gorilla), that drum fill from In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins is an indisputable iconic musical moment. What you might not know, is that this moment also inspired a revolution in the approach to both recorded and live drum sound. I won’t dive too far into the technical details here, otherwise we’ll be at it all day, but I will mention the magic words ‘gated reverb’, which was the effect that sprinkled the fairy dust on that legendary Phil Collins sound.
This sound didn’t just come from nowhere. While Peter Gabriel was recording his third solo album, the sound engineer left the talk-back microphone on by mistake (this is the microphone that a producer uses to talk to the artist on the other side of the glass in the recording studio). It might go without saying that this kind of microphone isn’t exactly designed for recording drums, but when combined with a few other factors, in this case it delivered an incredibly clear, fat and big drum sound – something that had never been heard before. A while later, Phil Collins applied the mistaken-method to his smash single In the Air Tonight and the rest is history. Just listen to tracks like Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Prince’s I Would Die 4 You and you’ll immediately notice that the same recording technique has definitely been liberally applied.
Studio Sound on Stage
“But what does all of this have to do with triggers?” I hear you asking. Well, bands in the eighties were quickly confronted with a dilemma: in the studio you have a near-unlimited range of options to help give the drum sound a boost, so how in the name of Phil Collins are you going to be able to get that same big sound on stage? This is where triggers combined with samples came into the picture for the first time.
To create that big ‘eighties’ kick, snare and tom sound on stage, you first need to sample your studio drum sound and load these samples into a module to which you connect a set of triggers that you stick on your drums. This is how those classic ‘80s ‘arena drums’ came into being. But did things always go smoothly? Absolutely not! Have a read of this snippet from a blog written by Gavin Harrison about his experiences with triggers when touring with Iggy Pop in 1986 (Gavin also drums for Porcupine Tree, King Crimson and more):
“Unwanted triggering was a big problem — sometimes just the sound of me clicking my drum sticks together during a song count-in would be enough to activate the snare trigger, causing an embarrassingly loud snare sample to come blasting through the PA. Vibration from my feet on the drum riser, loud bass notes (depending on the proximity of the bass cab), or Iggy himself jumping on the drumset from a great height smeared in peanut butter while howling ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, were all events which could set a trigger off. Loading the samples between songs was a nightmare; the crowd would be going mad, Iggy would be screaming ‘come on you muthaf***ers, kick it off!’ at the band, and I’d be down on my hands and knees staring at a blank green screen, trying to remember which ‘key word’ to type into the Greengate (module) so it could load the right sample.” (https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/live-drum-triggering)
Beyond hilarious anecdotes like the one above, Harrison goes on to describe how some samples would be triggered just too late; about having to superglue triggers to drumheads just so they’d actually stay in place; about the stack of floppy discs he’d have to feed the sampler, and so on. Luckily, we now sit in a pretty luxurious position where all of these issues have been definitively solved, so drummers no longer need to keep a tube of superglue in their hardware case. This also serves to answer the question: “Are triggers just for metal drummers?”, because apparently, the pop music of the 1980s was rife with triggers already, and did it all earlier.
Is Using Triggers Cheating?
Coming to the other assumption about using drum triggers: “Is it cheating?”, the simple answer is yes and no.
As briefly explained earlier, some metal genres use samples as a sound tool to make sure that the kick and snare, for example, have a clearly defined spot in the audio image out front of the stage. But there is the small detail that, with triggers, you can adjust the dynamics of your drum module so that no matter how soft or how hard you hit the kick pedal, the sample will remain at the same volume every time it’s triggered, which could be seen as cheating a bit.
There is also the argument that, because triggers and samples are so unbelievably direct, every mistake you make is immediately noticeable, leaving you nowhere to hide. So, in that way, you could say that using triggers requires a little more technique and skill. What you could do (and this could really be seen as cheating) is set up the module so that maybe four drum samples are triggered every time you hit the kick pedal. This means that you’re not physically playing what’s coming out of the speakers. Of course, I’m curious to know what your take on all of this is, so feel free to let us know in the comments at the end.
Why Use Triggers?
Now we come to the final question: “What can triggers do for you?” I would understand if, after reading all the horror stories about triggers popping off at the wrong moment, delayed samples and superglue, you might have some doubts. But with the tech on offer, backed up by the right equipment and settings, live triggers can actually work faultlessly these days. So, whether you’re part of a massive touring production or in a small band, triggers can really help to take your drum sound further, whether you’re playing pop or funk or electro-indie, you name it. Maybe you’re in a Prince or Tear for Fears cover band and need a really specific and hard-to-create drum sound. Samples might just be the key to getting your sound as close as possible to the original recordings.
How Do You Set Drum Triggers Up?
It might sound like a bit of a fuss, but installing drum triggers on an acoustic drum kit is actually really simple. All you need is a snare, kick and maybe some tom triggers made by a company like DDrum or Roland; some audio cables (which will usually be mono jack leads); and a drum module. Most modern triggers can simply be clipped onto the tension hoop of your snare, toms or kick so that the sensor is making contact with the drumhead. You just need to make sure that it isn’t secured too tightly, otherwise you might risk damaging your triggers or triggering samples when you don’t want to.
Hooking Up the Module
Once your triggers are clipped on, all you have to do is connect each of the triggers to your drum module using your mono jack leads. For example, if you were setting up a Roland TM-2 module, which has two inputs, you would hook up your kick drum and snare drum triggers. This model comes fitted with jack inputs, so you can either use standard mono jack leads or XLR to mono jack cables, depending on the type of output port of the triggers you’re using. If you’re not sure, just have a quick look at the specifications of the triggers and module you have.
Using a Drum Module
You can plug a set of headphones into most if not all drum modules, so you can easily monitor the sound and check that all of your triggers are responding correctly. If all is well, then you’ll have a module that ensures no latency (not when you’re using the factory samples that came with it, in the very least). However, there is a chance of unintended sample triggering or double triggers, meaning that, even though you only hit the snare or kick pedal once, the sample is fired off twice. If this happens, try loosening the trigger a little bit, experimenting with the tuning of your drumhead and having a look at the sensitivity, threshold, retrigger and noise cancelling settings of your module. These are all settings that can not only help stop any triggers from misfiring, but prevent lower frequencies, like the bass guitar, from unintentionally setting off your triggers. To gain a perfect balance, try toggling the settings so that your softest strike is just registered and your hardest blow never causes a double-trigger.
The Right Samples
What about the samples? Well, you can actually go a long way with the factory samples that come preloaded into most drum modules as standard, but if you want to use a specific sound, then you want to look for a model like the TM-2, which features an SD card slot. Simply stick your samples onto the card, making sure they’re saved as WAV. files, stick them in the slot and load them in. A little note: before loading in your custom samples, make absolutely sure that there’s no little gap of silence at the start, otherwise you’ll be hitting your snare and hearing the sample a fraction of a second too late.
Connecting Up to the PA System
When it’s time to set up on stage, all you’ll need to do is connect one or two jack cables to the outputs of your drum module and hand them over to the sound engineer, who can make sure your samples are amplified by the PA system or mixed into your acoustic drum sound. And voilà! You’ve just set yourself up with a triggered drum kit and expanded your live sound, taking your band to the next level. Enjoy!
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