Drum Triggers and Everything they Help You to Do – a Full Guide

We all know what an electronic drum kit looks like. They’re a very house-friendly, practical alternative to a traditional acoustical set that might be too cumbersome for some people.

We know how a traditional acoustic set looks and that it produces a genuine, great sound and feel, which nothing can quite replicate.

Somewhere in the middle sit drum triggers. What are drum triggers? They are small electrical transducers that can be attached to any acoustical drum to make it into an electronic drum. This way you can create a hybrid kit. But there’s much more to them than this.

What are drum triggers and what can you do with them?

Drum triggers are much more than just a way to make a hybrid kit. Let’s look at what they offer in terms of recording and performance and what they are capable of in different settings. Then let’s talk about how to set up triggers and go through all the pros and cons of them.

What are drum triggers?

If you compare it to the traditional acoustic drum equipment, drum triggers are still relatively new. They first came into the scene at the beginning of the 1990s, becoming immensely popular with the emergence of electronic drum kits. Also, they can be used to replace the acoustic drum set or to make it into a hybrid one.

What are drum triggers made of? Lots of them are made of a piezo, which is a crystal that converts the vibrations into a changing voltage. A piezo pickup looks like a small disk, which will be working as a sensor. A piezo disk has wires attached to it, a guitar plug in a standard 1/4 “ size that will be installed into a trigger module that will receive the information from the trigger.

How do triggers work? A piezo disk has crystals in it that act as a sensor that picks up on vibrations made by the instrument and then converts them into a voltage. That input will go into a module that can then transmit it to any software you use that contains a sample library.

What are drum triggers used for? Simply put, they are microphones that pick the sound of the drum and send it to the source, in this case, a converted box or an outside one. If you plug it into an electronic drum module, you can make your drum sound like anything you want.

What you get as a result is incredibly useful for studio musicians as well as a live performance. In acoustic drumming, when you’re playing you’re limited to the number of pieces you have. To get an incredibly wide variety of sounds, your setup sometimes has to be big, expensive, and cumbersome in assembly.

But, if you use an acoustic drum trigger, an additional electronic sound is triggered. If you mount an acoustic trigger on your snare, cymbal, or tom, you’re making them pick up the vibrations the drum makes as you play them and send them to a module or percussion pad. The sound that the module triggers can be picked by you, because triggers can sense the velocity, and will need to detect how you’re making a sound.

acoustic drums

Triggers can come in the form of a piezo pickup that you attach to the drum shell or hat or a trigger that has its housing that you then attach to the rim of a drum. The difference is in the sensitivity: the rim-mounted drum triggers are usually more sensitive.

Pros and cons of drum triggers

There are many pros of drum triggers, from the relative ease of installation to many options in terms of price.

  • More interesting sound. Triggers allow you to have more variety in your sound. They allow you to experiment with sounds that were previously not attainable on your set. This experimentation makes your soundscape more interesting, allowing you to have the best out of acoustic and electronic drums.
  • Enhancing live drum sound. Triggers are first and foremost – microphones, and can not only be used to produce an electronic sound but also to enhance the sound. Using acoustic drum triggering in a live performance allows you to play a pre-recorded sample that makes it easier to cut through a complicated mix.
  • More clarity in a studio recording. Drum triggers are used to achieve a more powerful and crisp sound in a studio recording. They prevent bleeding from the rest of the kit. Some triggers can also send MIDI files to a digital audio workstation in real-time, or with an electronic drum module equipped with a MIDI output. If the mic recording of the drum is not usable, a drum sample can be used as an alternative, as well as allowing for post-production experimentation.

Of course, they have some cons too.

  • Sometimes drum triggers can set off false signals because the vibrations of other shells set them up. It’s rather difficult to isolate drum shells, so the resonance from the other shells can cause problems. Though this problem is resolved in drum triggers with higher sensitivity.
  • Latency is an issue for many triggers. The sensor might be too slow to detect the vibrations from the drum stroke, so there is a lag of several milliseconds.
  • For some drummers placement of the trigger on the edge of the shell is problematic, because you can hit it by accident. For cheaper triggers with plastic shelling, it means they can be damaged by accident. However, more expensive acoustic drum triggers have a metal shelling that makes them more strong.

Are drum triggers cheating?

This is a frequently mentioned drawback of triggers.

According to some, the sound produced in acoustic drum triggering is too polished and machine-like. This criticism applies in general to modern music production, which utilizes them to add and replace the recorded drum sound with a sample. Many people also seem to think that drum triggers kill the dynamics of the performance.

However, an acoustic drum trigger is only a tool that allows you to achieve a certain sound. In any performance, be it studio or live, the sound is captured, amplified, and changed through various devices, so using drum triggers is no more cheating than, say, using a microphone.

How to set up drum triggers (Step by step guide)

To start experimenting with trigger drumming, you should first set it up. Luckily, they aren’t very complicated in the setup.

How do drum triggers work? All you need is 3 components:

  • an acoustic drum trigger that will act as a sensor and detect vibrations when you strike a drum.
  • drum trigger modules that will be connected to your computer or DAW
  • a sample library that is hosted in your DAW as a plugin

drum set in blue light

With all that said, let’s go step by step into how to start trigger drumming.

  1. Choosing triggers.

    Before you do anything, you need to choose the right trigger types for the application you’re going to use. Different drums will require different types of triggers, depending on their hoop size.
    Just like in an electronic kit, it can be mono (single signal output) or stereo (dual head).

  2. Mounting your trigger

    You can attach an acoustic drum trigger directly to your drum. All you need is to tighten it to your hoop with your hand. You should make sure that the foam piece of the trigger is making even contact with the drumhead, as that part is the one that detects the vibrations. There are triggers that fit securely even to curved hoops.

  3. Connecting drum triggers

    Now that you have your sensor, you need something to receive the information from it. Triggers are connected to drum trigger modules with ¼ jack cables. The type of cable depends on whether you use mono or stereo.

  4. Choosing a module

    Drum trigger modules are as important to choose correctly as drum triggers. Luckily, they are very universal, and most of them will work with any drum trigger modules that you have.
    If you want to stick with the same brand though, it might make your life a little easier.

  5. Fine-tuning

    You’ve hooked up your triggers, so the most interesting part is tweaking the sensors and experimenting with their thresholds to find what suits your playing style best. While using general advice is good for beginners, settings are a very individual thing, which largely depends on what setup you have and what kind of style you play.

Terminology of trigger drumming

Now that we’ve covered how to set up your hybrid set, let’s go over some of the terminologies of acoustic drum triggers.

electronic drums close-up

Sensitivity. This is one of the most important settings of a trigger, which determines how a trigger responds to hitting strength.

If your sensitivity is set to low, the trigger is less responsive to hitting strength, and will only pick up very hard strokes.

If the sensitivity is set very high, the trigger will be able to sense you playing very low, and even allow playing with fingers.

Threshold. This determines how hard you have to hit the drum before a sound is triggered. This is the specific amount of strength, exceeding which will make a module produce sound. If your strokes are below this threshold, no sound will be produced.

Setting the threshold correctly is important because if you set it to zero, it might detect the slightest vibration, while if you jack it up to the maximum, the trigger won’t register quiet hits.

Velocity curve. This is a setting that is meant to control how playing dynamics change the volume. This is a curve that shows the relation between striking force and volume. A linear curve is a standard-setting that produces the natural balance between volume and striking force.

You can change this setting to suit stronger playing dynamics or accommodate softer playing.

Crosstalks. This happens when the vibrations of one drum trigger the sound from another pad to fire. This happens due to sympathetic vibrations and happens unintentionally because it’s difficult to separate pads or triggers mounted on the same stand. If it’s impossible to increase the distance between two pads or triggers, there are triggers with a special setting called ‘Xtalk’ which is meant to make triggers less prone to receiving crosstalk from other pads or triggers.

Double triggering. This happens when a beater bounces back after the kick and hits the drumhead a second hand immediately after the intended note, so a single hit can double trigger and two sounds instead of one will be produced.

Mask Time. This is used to prevent double triggering and indicates how much time a trigger input waits before reacting to another trigger wave. Measured in milliseconds. Once you set it up, any additional triggers that happen within specific msec (0-65) will just be ignored.

Milliseconds. A time measurement. There is 1,000 ms in 1 second.

Scan Time. This is the time it takes the trigger to detect a signal. Sometimes identical hits (velocity) can produce sound at different volumes. To prevent this, you can increase your scan time to make the detection more precise.

Drum triggers limitations and recording with a hybrid set

It’s important to remember when you use drum triggers, that they must only be used for drums and not on cymbals.

They Can be used on kick, snare, and tom drums.

If you want to track and record other drums, you can use microphones for that.

This is where triggers allow you to get the best out of recording. The essence of your performance can be recorded with the microphone, and it can be used for adding more layers to the sound and enhancing it.

If you want to record your drums with both microphones and triggers it will essentially be like simultaneously recording two instruments. For the microphones, you’re going to be using an audio interface and for your trigger – a drum module/MIDI interface.

When you’re tracking you don’t want to use the sample library, because that might increase latency. Better to record most of your performance with the microphones, the rest you can leave for post-production. The huge benefit of using triggers is that you can add your MIDI tracks made by your triggers during the mixing.

This is also an excellent plan B in the case of audio recording just not sounding good.

FAQ

Are drum triggers velocity sensitive?

They are built so that they can sense the velocity. Because of that, they detect the strength with which you’re playing a certain sound, and you can adjust it, so that they don’t react under or above a certain level.

regular drums

What does a kick drum trigger do?

While trigger drumming became very popular in the 80s, by the late 1980s purists have purposefully rejected electronic gear in favor of traditional stick-to-skin playing.

Yet, triggers became popular again for a very simple reason: they make playing much more practical. Especially for metal drummers who played extremely fast and at increased velocity. There was a limit on how fast their body could let them play, so triggering samples became a solution. In the case of the bass drum, it doesn’t matter how consistent you are when playing, once you reach a very fast tempo you cannot get a clear sound. Putting a mic into a bass also doesn’t solve the problem due to many facts, from the fact that this is a big, airy cylindrical drum and that fast pace of metal, combined with the size of the venue, makes the sound too booming and sloppy.

So what does a kick trigger do? They can allow you to make them sound louder, more consistent, more robust and if you want to – to change them altogether. It also allows great versatility when you mix different sounds. Acoustic drum triggering the bass is common for many players when they want to get the sound quicker and more reliably than with a regular microphone. Understanding how sound production works and using triggers will help you get any sound you need.

Are kick drum triggers any different in their setup? For kick drums, players use a normal acoustic drum trigger or an acoustic trigger pedal. The acoustic trigger is mounted on the hoop similarly to other drums. Newer models come with sensors that help to eliminate false retriggering.

There are also triggers that you can stick directly onto the head of the stick, though those tend to be less durable than acoustic drum triggers that are mounted on a hoop.

When it comes to acoustic trigger pedals, the choice isn’t as wide as with drum triggers. There are add-ons that help you change your kick pedal into a trigger pedal and are attached separately to the pedal. This design helps solve many problems that happen with acoustic triggers attached to the drumhead.

How do you trigger a live drum?

While triggers are incredibly useful for studio and even home recording, their use for live performances is equally important. Translating the crisp studio-created drum sounds to the stage setting can be quite difficult, but drum triggers help to make the transition easy. In a live setting, drum triggers are frequently used to enhance the snare and bass sounds. In the case of kick drums, in a live setting, they can often sound muddy and unclear when you use a microphone, so a trigger can turn on a tighter-sounding sample, giving you some balance and making it possible to get definition and clarity even at a very high pace.

The reason why triggers are so useful in the live setting is due to the trigger being connected to a MIDI output. MIDI is a digital language that allows musical instruments to interact with one another. Depending on what recording software you use, you can capture a real-time digital version of the performance.

In terms of installation, the setup is very much the same one you would use for a studio recording. You’ll need an acoustic drum trigger mounted on the hoop of your drum, a module, and software that contains your sample library. Lots of drummers use something as easy as a Macbook.

When it comes to the bass, experimenting with installing an attachable trigger to your kick pedal might be a worthwhile investment because of the unprecedented clarity it gives, along with solving many issues with double-triggering.

So to set up a live hybrid kit you need the same elements and same steps you used for the studio setup: triggers that are mounted on the hoop of your drums, or, possibly, the pedal of your kick, drum trigger modules that will receive the output and software that will contain the sample library.

Conclusion: why you should get into trigger drumming ASAP

Music and musical production evolve every day and using drum triggers help you maintain the feel and effect of performing on acoustic drums while allowing for the perks and range that electric drumming has. It could not only help you achieve better recording and consistency in your drumming, but it could also adapt your drumming for the specific style and needs of the performance. Drum triggers are simple in installation and come in a variety of prices.

Tell us about your experience in trigger drumming and what you like using them for in the comments down below.

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