Friday, 28 March 2014

Review: Alesis DM10 Studio Drum Kit

Not quite the new model ...

Anyone else notice the price drop on several Alesis kits over the last month or so?  I did, although I wasn't sure why at the time.  A bit of Googling revealed an announcement from Alesis that several of their existing models would come with mesh heads this summer.

Nice, and one of the few critiques I've read about their kits while I've been researching.  Mylar heads may be what we have on our acoustic kits, but by their nature we don't really want acoustic noises coming from our electronic kits if we can help it.

Of course, we've been able to buy mesh for some time now and a few companies even produce 'kits' for you to convert your Alesis kit - so it was a sensible move for them.  Nothing fundamentally wrong with the drum kit, let's just give people the improvement they've been asking for.

For anyone looking to buy one of their kits right now, this represents a dilemma.  Do you buy now and take advantage of the slight price drop, or do you wait for the summer and pay over the odds for the relatively minor upgrade.  I was all for the latter, but after being messed around with unrealistic delivery dates from certain suppliers (you know who you are G4M!) I changed my mind and decided to take the 'current', bargain priced DM10 Studio.  After all, I can always change to mesh heads at a later date and there are no other changes to the package (none you can't update for free via USB anyway).

I ended up placing my (online) order with not the cheapest retailer (although it was close) but a reputable company I knew, and who would deliver next-day at no cost ... as well as throwing in some extras to help sweeten the deal.  They were true to their word and the kit arrived 24 hours later in perfect condition.  Nice one Andertons.

Everything came in two boxes.  One huge one with the entire kit inside (that can barely be moved by one person) and another with headphones, pedal, stool and sticks.  This constituted the 'extras' I alluded to earlier.  I won't bother reviewing those items as they will probably end-up on eBay anyway.

This is very well packaged.  By this, I mean It's a whole bunch of components which are individually labelled, bagged, boxed and padded and fitted snugly into a very large box.  You will need a knife or scissors to open the many  boxes and 'a lot' of room in which to toss the empties!

It took me a good couple of hours to unpack everything, flick through the excellent instructions and assemble it.  There was nothing difficult in here, even if this is your first drum kit.  However, if you are familiar with drums, racks and electronics you will find the experience reassuringly straight-forward and well documented.

The wiring loom is pre-assembled and cut to length.  This means you don't have an enormous amount of flexibility in terms of set-up, but at least you won't be in cable hell if you stick with the recommended configuration.  There are a lot of cable clips as well and although I (obviously) haven't yet spent time tidying it up, it's nice that you won't have a spider's web of cables hanging from everywhere.

Before I used the kit in anger, I decided to perform all the software updates first.  There are a bunch of them, but they are available as a single download from the Alesis website.  Just unzip the file and run through the updates one-by-one.

Things to note:
#1 The USB cable isn't included, even though they say it is.  However it is a standard peripheral one (I'm sure your USB printer will have the correct one to borrow).
#2 Follow the instructions in the PDF document included in the download.

Yes I know #2 should be obvious, but I'm a bloke and didn't even open the PDF document.  Needless to say, I was scratching my head in confusion before I finally caved and read the (short) document.  The instructions are simple and clear and all the updates installed flawlessly - even if they took a few minutes to run (the soundfile update is massive!).

Assured I had made a reasonable first-stab at positioning all the pads, and feeling a little smug that all the updates had been installed - I started plugging the cables into the back of the module.

Hmmm ...
I know the DM10 module crosses at least two kits, but I've never seen a DM10 configuration that wasn't 1 x snare, 1 x kick, 4 x toms and 4 x cymbals.  So why isn't the module labelled up this way.  The cables are, and most of the module inputs are, but towards the end you are faced with perc 1, perc 2, perc 3 etc.  This meant that plugging in the last few toms/cymbals was a bit of a lottery.  Not a massive problem I know, but surely a tom pad is a tom pad .... regardless of whether you're using it to trigger a helicopter sound?  Pity they didn't stay consistent for what was otherwise a faultless process, although I should point out that that separate assembly poster does give you some hints for which channels to plug the pads into - even if the back of the module itself does not ;-)

Donning the headphones and flicking on the module for the first time revealed everything working, straight out of the box, but there was a lot of crosstalk going on.  If you're familiar with electronic kits you know what this is, if you're not .... imagine striking the snare drum and (also) hearing a cymbal trigger.  Even worse, imagine hitting a tom and hearing a cowbell (set to a drum rim on the other side of the kit) trigger about a hundred times!

Crosstalk and (re)triggering is nothing new on electronic kits, I've never used or even heard of one that doesn't experience it when first set-up and even on the cheapest kits it is usually 'dialled-out' as part of the set-up and calibration process.  There are a lot of settings for each trigger and I don't need to go into them here.  I recommend checking out the guys on the unofficial Alesis drummers forum.  I read one thread there in ten minutes and it was enough to get my kit completely calibrated in under an hour.

The Unofficial Alesis Drummer Forum

I'm now 90% happy with the config.  In my experience you will continue to tweak and adjust over time, but I'm comfortable that I have a very workable set-up which may need a little fine adjustment to be perfect.

So, the kit is up and running.  What are the first impressions?

  1. The rack, pad and cymbal set-up is very solid.  We are not talking the build quality of my DW stuff, but nor are we talking anything like the same money or weight.
  2. The sounds are amazing.I used to have a D4 and for it's time, it was spectacular.  20 years on I really wasn't expecting the sounds this much more realistic, useful and  so damned good!
  3. Mylar heads are not going to last long.I'm a fairly heavy hitter, but I'm not mental.  I can see me getting one of those mesh head conversion kits sooner rather than later.
  4. I am used to electronic kits and am happy to configure/calibrate it.  But I can't shake the nagging feeling that Alesis should have done most of this themselves with the default settings.  There are already a bunch of updates on the Alesis site ... why don't they add another or even better update the settings in one of them.
    Some people, probably newcomers to electronic percussion, will doubtless be put off.  Which would be a crime - this is a stunning drum kit!
  5. The bass drum pad wobbles a bit.  It's not fallen over yet, but it doesn't seem completely happy about being attached to my DW 5000 double pedal.

Two days after taking delivery of the kit, and only two short evenings to fiddle with it, I'm happy enough to take it to a (new) band rehearsal.  For me, that speaks volumes.  I'm the guy who likes to be 100% prepared for everything.  I'm the boy scout who has spares of everything, won't play a song unless I know it, and won't use any piece of kit until I'm completely convinced it won't let me down.
As I suspected, the DM10 won't be replacing my DW kit anytime soon.  But it does have it's place and for me at least, that place is for practising at home and for gigging with the function band.  I love it.Alesis DM10 Studio Page

Friday, 14 March 2014

Electronic Drum Kits - This Is Now!

The current state of electronic drum kits ...

As those who've read my other Shlogg post will know - I have a history with electronic drums.  I'm not proud of it, but it is what it is and over the years I've made peace with it and try to treat it as a learning experience ;-)

Pearl Hybrid Kit
Today, things are quite different.  I'm sure even the absolute worst electronic kit on the market is better than the absolute best from 20 years ago.  20 years is a long time in consumer electronics and even those technologies from back then that are still around today ... they now cost a fraction of what they did in 1994.
On top of this we have a huge variation of hybrids and a lot of the technology from way back has crossed-over completely.

DDrum Triggers
We had triggers back in the 80's and 90's.  These haven't changed significantly and in fact I know that the old DDrum (the original Scandinavian company, not the modern far eastern company who bought the name!) triggers are quite sought after.  The same might be partly true of Simmons (again, the original English company, not the far eastern one who recently bought the name!) where I've seen their iconic pads go for far more on ebay than they should.  Perhaps it's collectors, perhaps it's art, but honestly - I can vouch for the fact they are not nice pads to play!

The classic Simmons pad

In terms of pad choice and hybrid kits, you can now have a 'regular' drum kit that has jack plugs on the shell to trigger sounds.  You can get cut down wooden shelled kits that are silent until you hook them up to drum module, but look almost identical to an acoustic kit.  Even most top-end  fully electronic kits have pads that look (and feel) much more like traditional drums than they have at anytime since Mr Simmons sent the e-kit mainstream.

Roland TD30
With choice comes competition.  That's not only good for the market and the technology, it's great for our pockets!  You can literally spend anything you want these days.  Just work out what you want to spend, and you'll be able to dial-up at least a dozen kits that come close to your target.  I recently went into my local Maplins and played a £150 kit that plugs into your laptop.  It wasn't wonderful, but it was a working drum kit.  I've also played £10k's worth of Roland drum kit that was truly staggering.  I'm not necessarily recommending either of these options, but I suspect most of us will be shooting for something between the two extremes :-)
An inexpensive USB Drum kit
Why all this interest in Electronic drums again, didn't I learn first time?
Well.  The idea of electronic drums is compelling.  Smaller and lighter than an equivalent acoustic drum set (actually, this is arguable - what amp are you going to use?), they sound the same in your lounge as they do at Wembley Stadium (not a problem most of us have), you can be loud, or quiet, at the turn of a knob (depending on your amp - this is definitely true) and you get hundreds - maybe even thousands of different top-quality drum kits at the push of a button.  That last reason is the real killer isn't it.

Like most drummers, I find practicing a real PITA.  So much so that I rarely do it.  Unless you are lucky enough to live on a secluded island - your practicing is likely to be driving someone crazy.  At least your family and friends, if not your neighbours or your whole street in a built-up area!  However, rock-up to your electronic kit and pull on your headphones and no-one will ever know just how annoying you are ;-)

Neal Peart (the electronic kit is closest to the camera)
Likewise, being able to flick from a Phil Collins sound, to Dave Grohl , to John Bonham , to Aaron Spears .... you get the picture. Some of the most fun and distinctive sounds aren't even drums in the traditional sense.  Anyone seen Neil Peart's solos over the last ten years?  Hell, he triggers an entire Big Band during his solo!  Great fun, and something I find far more enjoyable than 20 minutes of really fast paradiddles ;-)

So, electronics kits are nice to practice on.  They have a niche slot for live performance (my new function band seems a likely candidate) and the prices have dropped significantly whilst the capability has increased many fold.  For myself, I'm not prepared to let go of my beloved DW Acoustic kit.  I've still found nothing that plays like a good acoustic kit and actually enjoy working to get a good sound at different venues, studios etc.  It's an art-form in itself and I won't be parted with it.  But that doesn't mean that an e-kit wouldn't be worth addition to my arsenal.

As a second kit, I'm not looking to invest in a TD30 or get DW to build me a custom electronic shell kit like Mr Peart (above) has done.  I'm looking at the middle-ground, something that I can (re)cut my teeth on.  I'd like something capable that might last me a couple of years, and hopefully teach me what I like (and loathe) about the electronic kits of today - before I go re-mortgaging the house.

Alesis DM10 Studio
The Alesis range has come to my attention.  They will fit you out with something starting at £199 and going up to around £800 .... which is about where Roland kits start off!  I figure the bang-for-buck is pretty high here and whilst it's not cutting edge, you get a lot of value from the fact they are using the tried and tested technologies that have become mainstream.

I'll let you know what I decide, and how I get on with it ;-)

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Electronic Drum Kits - That Was Then

My back-history of electronic kits!

I played an electronic kit back in the late 80's, early 90's.  In fact, now I think of it, I played basically the same kit for almost ten years!

Simmons SDS2000 - best avoided!
I started with the SDS 2000 kit back in 1988 and I firmly blame Rick Allen from Def Leppard for this.  The Hysteria album came out in 1987 and made heavy use of sampled drums, machines, sequencers and loops.  

Rick had lost an arm in a car accident and used the making of Hysteria to recover and basically, learn how to play again.  In order to do what he had done before, and all the things he wanted to on Hysteria, technology had to play a big part.   Already a Leppard fan, I fell in love with Hysteria the moment I heard it.  When I saw them at Castle Donington just before the album came out, and a while later on the Hysteria tour I wanted to sound like that.  Rick was using Simmons pads (that was basically all there was!) and a collection of electronics, so naturally I just had to follow suit.

I went for the Simmons SDS2000 kit which was their flagship in '89.  I added a second bass drum  and rather than the Simmons rack I went for a Dixon one which seemed more customizable.  Within a year or so I realized (along with everybody else) that for all their early  innovation - Simmons were going nowhere.  I replaced the dreadful SDS2000 brain with an Alesis D4 in about 1990.  The cymbal sounds were still pretty bad, so I used regular Sabians.  By today's standards the D4 is pretty primative.  But back then, it gave you hundreds of digital samples and a bunch of trigger inputs for almost no money.
The main issue I had was carting along my own PA to amplify the thing.  If you thought you would carry less gear with an electronic kit - you're wrong!

After another year or so I managed to get a  Simmons Hexahead for the snare pad, and a few Minihexes for special effects before Simmons finally went out of production in '94. 

Hexahead - still didn't feel like a drum!

Minihex. Cute, but almost uselessly small!

The only reason I know this isn't me?  This chap is wearing a tie!
I'm not sure my wrists will ever recover from using those Simmons pads for a decade.  Basically, they were plywood with a thin bit of rubber glued on top.  Yes, they did provide some rebound, but they never felt like drums (even the Hexahead) and good grief they were hard work on the hands!!  The Hexahead did use a real drum skin with a section of foam underneath.  However, the drum was completely plastic, so there was no effective way of tensioning the head.  The Multihex pads were basically the same technology as the full size pads but all plastic.  Useful for triggering occasional notes like cowbells etc, but that's pretty much it.

In the late 90's I moved back to acoustic drum kits.  Electronic kits have come a very long way since then.  I'm thinking of getting one again for practicing and maybe function gigs as well, but I don't see the day when I will go back to using one full-time.

Watch this space for my views on the current state of electronic drums!

Monday, 10 March 2014

The second best thing to happen to music ...

... since the drummer ;-)

OK, I Shlogged a while back about how Spotify changed my music listening (and spending!) habits almost overnight.  I stand by that.  I believe Spotify was, and is, the poster boy for how we consume music in the 21st century.

But it's not perfect.

I know nothing is, but I'll point out the flaws in case you haven't picked-up on them yourself.

Your existing music collection is null and void.

I'm not talking about your 300 or so vinyl albums, quietly warping and demagnetising in your parents attic (oops, that's me!).  No, what I'm saying is your existing CD, mp3, iTunes, Amazon, etc. music collection is not compatible with Spotify.  Spotify doesn't want it, doesn't want to know about it, and couldn't care less what digital rights you've already invested in (there is an exception, but I'll come to that later).

You can share, but you can't Share ...

You can share playlists, songs, whatever via the usual social media channels.  One of your buddies clicks on it and it with either fire-up in Spotify or, if they don't have it, it should open up in the free Spotify web client.
All well and good.  But if you want to share your account with, say, your other half.  Spotify gets a little piqued about it.  Some would say that's fair enough, but I'm not talking about all 20 of your buddies using the same account, I'm talking about two people who are occupying the same space, household, car, speakers sharing an account for the convenience of my other half using her phone, rather than mine - which is navigating us in the car, to play some music via bluetooth over the car stereo .... or some similar scenario I'm sure you can think of.

The big guys from Sweden are clamping down on this.  If you have more than three devices logging-on to the same account, the last ones to login will find their playlists unsynchronised and deleted.  Harsh.  And if you don't log-in for 20 days, you will find your playlists unsynchronised and deleted.  Harsh.

Updates and New Features are slow to come

Spotify has come a long way, with a fairly low budget for a big part of it's life.  It has led the field, but despite those years of spearheading and the (almost) unlimited cash they have now - it feels like they are running out of steam. 

I watch other, similar, services get more and more features, faster and faster than poor old Spotify can keep up with.  Can you believe you can't re-order a playlist on the mobile device, or repeat a song?  Just some of the features that other services take for granted, but are sadly missing.  The whole market is accelerating along with smartphone and tablet growth, but Spotify seem to be stuck on a timeline they developed four years ago and haven't updates since.  Shame.

Anyway, this niggling feeling that the pioneer of streaming music may be losing it's sheen, has prompted me to check-out one of their main competitors.

Google Play Music All Access

Google Play Music All Access is a stupidly long title for a service.  A clear indication that Google is a company of engineers, not marketeers!  But let's hope they fix that minor detail soon ;-)

In use, there really isn't too much to say about the service.  That doesn't mean it isn't good, rather than that it just works!  

I kinda had the jump really, because all of my MP3 collection was already uploaded, I had just never used it much.  ANYONE can upload up to 20,000 songs to Google Play Music completely free of charge.  You have access to them via the various clients or web browsers.  You can sync them and play even if you don't have an Internet connection, or you can stream them in real time.  You are also free to buy any songs you like from Google Play and they don't even count toward your 20,000 song limit.

What the 'All Access' bit gives you in addition, is essentially Spotify.
In addition to all the above (free) shizzle, you get to rent Google's vast library alongside your own.  Like Spotify, all the time you pay your tenner a month, you get to keep their music, on and offline, streaming, and interactive radio stations.

In practice, if you search for a song and add it to a playlist, if you have it in the songs you already own, it comes from there.  If it only exists in Google's library, it will come from there instead.  If you want to 'own' a track permanently, you can buy it and it just gets added to your personal library.

I suspect in the background there's an immense de-duplication engine that ensures only one copy of a given song is stored on Google's servers at one time, but we don't need to know about that.  My songs belong to me and I can rent Google's songs indefinitely for £10 a month.

The phone and tablet clients are very good and I can't find any features missing.  The webclient is ... much like any other of Google's web clients.  Simple, functional, intuitive.  I like the fact that my fairly extensive music library is finally getting used, and that Google store and stream it to me whenever I like, free of charge.  I can also shop on Amazon (or anywhere) for MP3s and when I download them to my PC's music folder, Google notices and adds it to my Play Music collection.  Nice.
The music selection seems a little better too.  I guess Google have a bit more muscle when it comes to contract negotiation, because I have found some (not ridiculously obscure) artists on Google Music that I never did find on Spotify.

I'll continue running the two side-by-side for a while (there is a 30-day free trial of Google Play Music All Access running at the moment.  But whilst there isn't a massive difference between Spotify and Google Play, the 'open format' of Google's may just give it the edge for me ....

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

In Ear Monitors (IEM) - Part II

Taking it to the next level ...

I've already Shlogged about IEM's, building on this I'm attempted to create some 'custom moulded' IEM earplugs to round-off the experience.

Now, I'm no stranger to custom moulded earplugs.  When I was motorcycling I had a pair made for me by an audiologist, so I know the benefits of having proper custom made ear protection - even though they are not cheap.  I use regular cone-type earplugs in rehearsals to protect my hearing, and as mentioned in my other Shlogg post I've used a few 'universal' makes of IEM earplugs for several years.

They work well, for most people.  But, like any "one size fits all" device they never fit anyone absolutely perfectly and do have a tendency to slip out when they get hot and slippery with sweat at gigs.  Once you break the seal on an IEM - you lose all protection and 99% of the mix being transmitted.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants here.  There's a lot of posts in the Bloggosphere and videos on YouTube about making your own IEM's - with various levels of success.  So I've read all the material on the subject I could find, and settled on this excellent guide.

For the ear kit, I was all set to use the Ahead kit (I'm a big fan of all the Ahead gear), but since found out that the Radian kit is exactly the same and 2/3 of the price.  I had difficulty finding that in the UK, but settled on the ProGuard kit from Amazon.

I know it's stating the obvious, and it is mentioned in the guide, but note the following:-

  • DO read the guide more than once
  • DO read the instructions with the kit
  • DO be careful when shoving anything smaller than your elbow in your ear
  • DO be careful when using sharp things like knives

For the earphones, I'll be using my ACS universal earplugs.  They are single driver, relatively inexpensive for an IEM, but offer a pretty good sound quality.  Also, if anything went wrong I wouldn't be absolutely horrified that I'd ruined my precious earplugs.

The initial trial worked okay-ish.  The problem I had was being able to push the earbud into the ear plug.  It just would barely make a dent.  This stuff goes off fast!  For the second attempt (using the half of the mix that was left) I wrapped some of the mix around the earbud first, stuck that in my ear, and then packed the rest of the mix around it.

Given that I only had half the mix for both ears, this second method worked well - but the resulting plug didn't 'seal' the ear very well ... although it was quite usable.

In summary, you can do a lot with a DIY kit.  But if you're used to a custom fit from a trained audiologist - you probably won't get quite the same result from a DIY kit :-)