Should you buy an electronic drum set?
I get this question a lot from new students, so I wanted to share some pros and cons on electronic kits to hopefully give potential buyers a broader understanding.
I've been very fortunate in my life in that I've always had a drum kit, from the time I was in middle school up through today. So I've never owned an electronic kit, I've just played on a bunch of different student's kits over the years and noticed some main themes.
The Volume: The most obvious advantage of electronic drum kits is the noise control. This is pretty unbeatable. You certainly can dampen an acoustic kit with a bunch of towels but you only can go so far. Being able to play drums with headphones or through a speaker with volume control is an outstanding selling point and the best part of electronic kits.
The Sound: This has been greatly upgraded over the years. Even cheaper kits come with a nice selection of different kit sounds to play with, something for everyone. You would need an entire warehouse of acoustic kits (from all eras) to have that much variety of sounds at your disposal.
In addition to the number of sounds, there's consistency to each sound. Every time you hit a drum it'll sound the exact same because it's a sample (just like an electronic keyboard). I actually find this to be a con because it doesn't train you to learn how to get the best sounds out of each drum/cymbal. Every acoustic drum or cymbal can produce dozens of different tones and timbres, so part of learning how to play is also learning how to properly hit each part to get the sounds you want. It's a major adjustment you'll have to make if you only play on E-kits and switch to an acoustic kit.
The Size: Similar to the pro of volume control is size control. Entry level E-kits can fit in a bedroom or apartment, you can even store them under the bed or in a closet. On the flip side, they also make big electronic kits just as big as acoustic kits, so I guess the size advantage goes out the window at some point if that's a main concern.
The biggest draw back with the small kits is they can be REALLY small. I find most E-kits people start with to be very cramped, resulting in your arms not being able to fully stretch out, which can create bad technique. The diameter of each tom also tends to be very small. This doesn't translate well to acoustic toms since they get larger as they go down in pitch, upwards of 18 inches for floor toms. These size limitations all might be unavoidable, but could become a real hinderance over time.
The Feel: This is when the pros start to end for me. There is no way to artificially replicate the feel of crashing a metal cymbal, slamming the kick pedal against the bass drum, or cracking a rimshot on the snare, just to name a few. Yes, sensitivity technology has vasty improved over the decades, but I'd argue is still day and night in terms of feel. I've played on $3000 E-kits which are super nice and fun to use, but they can't hold water against acoustic kits. The little nuances of ghost notes on a snare for example, trains your wrists, hands, and fingers to make the tiniest movements to get the sounds you want, it's a feel that only gets developed on actual acoustic snares.
The Hi-Hat: I kept this as it's own topic because it is my biggest pet peeve with electronic kits. I have the the same feel and sound critique. Metal hi-hats are one of the most dynamic pieces on the kit. The amount of sounds you can get with them is so vast, that electronic versions can't even scratch the surface. The range goes from super loud washy Dave Grohl style, to tight and controlled Clyde Stubblefield style, plus everything in between. Electronic hi-hats only offer 2 or 3 sound options.
The hi-hat also has a unique role in that it's tethered to your left foot. Learning how to play the hi-hat is also learning how to incorporate your left foot, which is mandatory. This gets a little lost on electronic versions because of the mechanism used to detect how open the hi-hats are isn't that sensitive. For instance, to get an open hi-hat splash sound, you have to lift your left foot so much more than regular hi-hats for it to recognize what you're doing. I find this to be one of the the biggest annoyances with E-kits.
The Price: The barrier of entry for both styles of kits are actually very similar. It might be slightly cheaper to start on an electronic kit but not really that much. If you're really strapped for cash, one way to save big time is by putting together a kit piece by piece (Frankenstein method) based around whatever deals you can find. Acoustic drums and cymbals can be mixed and matched pretty easily. This isn't true for E-kits, they're pretty much a package deal. Each brand has their own proprietary connections and software so your customization ability is reduced.
So would I recommend buying an electronic kit?
My basic view is yes, but only if you have strong limitations on noise. They can be a great tool to learn on but will never substitute acoustic kit's sound and feel. So if you do buy an E-kit, I would heavily encourage you to play on an acoustic kit as often as you can. You could take lessons from someone with a kit, rent an hourly rehearsal studio with a kit, or even play on one of the display kits at a big music store until they kick you out! Just incorporate it into your playing. Never feeling or hearing an acoustic kit can really hinder your progress and create some very bad habits that can easily be circumvented with some good quality acoustic time.