The Drum Duel: Acoustic vs Electric kits

Everything, it seems, has gone digital these days: music, games, keyboards – even how we pay for our morning coffee. While everything is evolving into the digital era, can electronic versions truly make the original product better? Looking at this from the perspective of a percussion student, performer or teacher, we ask: Do electronic drum kits really measure up to its acoustic predecessors?

yamaha-drums

One of Yamaha’s electric kits.

Electronic drum kits have come a long way since their introduction to the music industry in 1976. In recent years, newer drum kits have addressed many of the shortcomings of early electronic drums. Basic entry-level units aside, the more professional kits, built from brands like Yamaha and Roland, have been geared toward creating a sound and playing experience that is nearly indistinguishable from the traditional acoustic kit. With focus on high quality digital sounds (these kits can simulate effects like muffling, microphone position and ambient acoustic), multiple triggers, realistic hi-hats and multiple outputs, these features go a long way in making these sets more enjoyable to play.

So what are the advantages of playing and learning on an electronic kit?

  • Little noise, if desired – the drummer can adjust the volume to fit their surroundings, or use headphones for nearly silent practice. No more need for pads or mesh heads to dull the sound of acoustic drums.
  • More compact design which makes these kits an ideal solution for small rooms and not a nightmare to move once assembled.
  • Most electronic kits have the ability to simulate the sound of different kits, like a vintage jazz, powerful rock or spunky Latin.
  • They create easy wirings for performances and gigs, by using a line-out or MIDI connection. No complicated microphone set ups required! Same benefit applies for recording sessions as well.
  • Most include a built-in metronome and practice tracks, which is great for students.
  • For band rehearsals, electronic drums can be lowered to a volume to match the rest of the group, which helps a great deal in cramped practice spaces or small groups.
  • No risk of electronic drums becoming scratched or warped in if treated badly or left somewhere damp.
  • No need to tune an electronic kit!

Next, we’ll take a look at the electronic kit’s disadvantages:

  • Most drummers will agree that electronic kits lack the authentic feel or sound the same as an acoustic one. While technology continues to improve on this, it’s difficult to replicate the sound and feel of real drums, cymbals and hi-hats, even with a top-of-the-line electronic kit.
  • Some electric drum kits (though usually basic models) do not include pedals, but supplied with trigger pads which are hard to play at fast tempos and insensitive to the light touch.
  • Electronic kits do require external amplification from a specialized drum amplifier/monitor, which is an added cost.
  • Some electric drum kits have very limited positioning options, making it difficult for all ages and sizes to play comfortably.

In the end, which is better? The answer likely lies in your situation and ultimate goal as a percussionist. For students learning the ropes, an electronic kit provides all the necessary staples to get started, and parents won’t have the headache of constant noise during practice hours. Professional musicians may favor acoustic kits because of their sound, feel and visual appeal, especially if this is what they are used to!

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Hate learning theory? There’s an app for that

Attention students and teachers! Understand & improve your music theory knowledge with this handy app

A colleague of mine, Tashi, introduced a very clever music app to our teaching staff the other day. Tashi, a vocal teacher (and all-around musician – she also plays piano, guitar and violin!), mentioned that she not only recommends this app to each and every one of her growing list of students, but encourages other teachers to take a peek as well.

Called ‘Music Theory Pro’, and available for download off the iTunes App Store, it was developed by Dr. Joel Clifft, a professor of music at Azusa Pacific University and the University of Southern California. It’s used by teachers and students alike on many university and college campuses throughout the US.

So what can you do with it?

The reason why this app is so awesome probably lies in the fact that it is a toolbox full of music theory exercises, games and quizzes, and useful for beginners, intermediate and advance students.

For example, you can:

  • Practice naming notes on the piano and on the staff;
  • Learn key signatures;
  • Get better at intervals, including major, minor, diminished and augmented;
  • Look up chords and inversions;
  • Do ear training, from easy to challenging for the more advanced student;
  • Identify anything from seventh chords and to modal scales;
  • Take quizzes to identify tempos and beats per minute;
  • Complete various exercises in all of the above to sharpen your overall theory skills.

This app is handy because any student can benefit from it; if you are training to be a classical pianist or contemporary singer, or just want to understand the basic rudiments, Music Theory Pro is chock-full of goodies to help anyone desiring to become a better musician.

And, I think most teachers will agree, learning the theory side of things should be a component in all music training! Having an app of this nature right in your pocket is a great way to motivate students by having an easy-to-understand structure and entertaining learning platform…much more entertaining than scribbling notes in a theory book.

Download it here for $0.99: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/music-theory-pro/id390788573?mt=8

Better than Guitar Hero? How Rocksmith measures up

I owe the recent discovery of this gem to fellow musician and teacher Corey Taylor, who mentioned this to me the other day:

“Introducing the next stage in the evolution of the music game. Rocksmith, the first and only game where you can plug into any real guitar. Featuring gameplay that automatically adjusts to your personal ability and innovative game design that makes playing music visually intuitive, Rocksmith will engage experienced musicians as well as those who have never picked up a guitar in their life.”

Rocksmith is available for Xbox 360, PS3 and – once released in October 2012 – on your PC. An electric guitar is needed, no matter the brand, size or shape — as long as it works! The game comes with a special connector cable that will adapt to any working six-string guitar.

The game holds a large catalogue of songs in a few different styles, mostly rock and alternative genres. Some classic rock staples like Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love, Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘s Sweet Home Alabama and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. Also note some good 90s and more recent tunes in the mix: High And Dry by Radiohead, Are You Gonna Go My Way by Lenny Kravitz and Kings of Leon’s Use Somebody.

The benefit of using a real guitar is quite the deal breaker; that feature alone places Rocksmith in a different league altogether, leaving the plastic buttons of Guitar Hero or Rock Band feeling like the easy-bake oven of music video games.

Nothing is perfect, however, so keep in mind the following hiccups some critics have found while playing Rocksmith, before you hit the ground running to the stores (or Amazon.ca):

1. Delays

It’s been noted that Rocksmith‘s connectivity has produced some lag time between playing the notes and hearing/seeing them on screen; a distraction for any guitar player or learner. Fortunately, there may be a simple solution for this: Connect your XBOX or PS3 to a stereo for audio output, via your console’s Audio Adaptor Cable, and then use an HDMI cable for video. Without this set up, players won’t be able to enjoy the responsiveness of playing a real guitar.

2. Difficulty levels

The game features a ‘dynamic difficulty’ for each song; as you play, the game keeps track of on how well you do, and adjusts the difficulty as you go. For beginners, this is very useful. However, more advanced players could find this feature frustrating if they crave more control. Here’s why: you can’t tell the game how you’d like to play, so it risks making it feel like you’re never getting anywhere. Unlike Guitar Hero, where you can select to play any song on Easy, Medium or Hard, Rocksmith juggles between difficulties as the song plays. Some players could end up not being challenged enough, while others may dislike the lack of control and selectivity.

3. Unlocking goodies

Like Guitar Hero, Rocksmith keeps much of its content under wraps when you first begin to play, and once you master a song, certain goodies will be available. Some players, especially those intermediate to advanced, may find it frustrating not having all the goodies and tricks at their disposal right from the start. Beginners may risk losing motivation if they don’t move along at a steady pace, and become bored when nothing new comes along.

For the guitar student, the full benefits of Rocksmith can only be achieved with the help of a real teacher who will be able to carefully adapt to their learning style and show proper technique along the way. Overall, it’s difficult for Rocksmith to find the perfect balance between video game and instructional device on its own. Combined with a teacher’s knowledge and own experience, however, it makes a great tool for any student wishing to expand their guitar repertoire.

And finally, where to get it:

Pre-Order for PC: http://www.amazon.com/Rocksmith-Pc/dp/B004S5TDUQ/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_0?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1337695030&sr=1-1

Order for XBOX 360: http://www.amazon.com/Rocksmith-Xbox-360/dp/B004S5PBM0/ref=sr_1_1_title_1?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1337695030&sr=1-1

Order for PS3: http://www.amazon.com/Rocksmith-Playstation-3/dp/B004S5TDL0/ref=sr_1_1_title_2?s=videogames&ie=UTF8&qid=1337695030&sr=1-1

Music Education Apps for iPhone or iPad

Music and technology have seamlessly integrated into one other over the past decade.  Nowadays, most musicians have a handful of digital tools to help them learn and play their instrument of choice. Here are 5 great picks for music education apps for the iPhone or iPad:

 

1. Nota ($2.99)
Nota is likely the most comprehensive music app out in the market today. And, for its small price, you get a lot of goodies in return: a 4 octave piano, scale and mode reader, chords, solfège, and note naming quizzes. My favourite part: an extensive Reference Library with over 100 musical terms and items.

2. Gibson Learn & Master Guitar (free)
I may be a bit biased for listing this as high as#2, but regardless, this app is great. The best feature, by far, is the tuner, which is my main use for it. It also houses a built in metronome, chord bank and hours of videos and practical lessons.

3. Metronome (Free)
This app is simple, easy to use, and effective. Just like having a real acoustic metronome in your pocket, this digital version allows you to select your tempo (up until 210 beats per minute) and your time signature of either 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 time. While not extensive or packed with extra features, this little gem should be in every musician’s app library.

4.  Karajan Ear Trainer ($14.99)
This app is a one-stop-shop for everything ear training. It helps students recognize intervals, chords, scales, pitch and tempo, through quizzes and stats displayed on screen. A Multi-Touch keyboard is also available for playbacks and exercises (using the landscape view). While the price may seem steep, it’s unlikely you will ever need another ear-training app. If in doubt, however, a free, lighter version is also available.

4. Rhythm in Reach ($3.99)
Rhythm in Reach is designed to help students with their rhythm playing and reading by displaying on-screen notation phrases and asking you to tap it back. Bonus point: When you make a mistake, it will show you exactly where you did it, so you can correct yourself for next time. Great for percussion students.