A Guide to Drum Triggers for the Gigging Drummer

Drum triggers for me have been a journey of fascination, discovery and frustration. I use them regularly for my work as a drummer with cover bands, and have experienced the ins and outs of what makes drum triggers good and bad, and how to get the most out of them. I’m hoping this guide can serve others who are experimenting with triggers and going through this journey, as I wish I had the knowledge that I have now when I started using them. It would have saved me a lot of money and frustration! I think it’s appropriate to start by asking the question:

What are Drum Triggers, and why use them?

In short, drum triggers are small devices that, when used in conjunction with a drum module (such as the ‘brain’ of an electronic drum kit), can turn a live drum kit into an electric kit. On a more technical level, drum triggers are sensors (small piezo microphones usually wired into a 1/4″ or XLR jack input) that are attached to a drum so that the sensor is making contact with the drum head (or built into drum pads, as with an electronic drum kit). The trigger converts your drum hits to an audio signal, which is then converted by a drum module (such as the ‘brain’ of your electronic drum kit) to a digital signal. The drum module then uses this digital signal to ‘trigger’ a sound file. Drum triggers are mainly used to trigger drum sounds, but can also be used to trigger samples.

Roland Drum Triggers

Drum triggers: On the left is a kick drum trigger, on the right is a snare drum/tom trigger.

There are several reasons why drummers use triggers on their kits. By using triggers, you aren’t limited to using the sounds that your drum makes. Depending on your module, you can upload your own samples, use electronic kit sounds, or even trigger sounds and samples that sound nothing like drums. Some drummers use triggers simply because it makes the mixing process easier, and eliminates the need for a vast array of microphones. Many metal drummers will use drum triggers and a drum module to trigger their kick drum sound so that they can get a flawless punchy kick drum sound without using mic’s or compressing the signal. However, if you wish to get a great ‘drum’ sound and have access to good microphones, P.A. equipment and a sound engineer, I recommend using them! Triggers can be difficult! Which leads me to my next two points:

What are the advantages of drum triggers?

As mentioned above, the main advantages of drum triggers are as follows:

  • You can convert your drum kit into an electronic drum kit (by using triggers in conjunction with mesh drum heads).
  • If your drum module allows it, you can trigger almost any sound you want.
  • Mixing a good sound is easy (that is, if your drum sounds/samples are good to begin with).
  • You’ll be the sound engineers best friend.
  • You can send your drum sounds directly to your in-ear monitors.

What are the disadvantages of drum triggers?

So far drum triggers are sounding fun, but they can be difficult at times. When you consider how triggers work, you can see why. When you hit a drum, the skin vibrates which produces a sound. The trigger’s sensor is sitting on the drum head, and picks up this vibration (or more specifically, the sound created by this vibration, as triggers are peizo microphones after all). However, when you strike a drum, vibrations continue to happen through the drum head beyond the initial sound of the drum. This can cause issues such as double triggering, where more than one sound is triggered for a single hit of the drum, and can even cause notes to not be registered at all. These ‘flaws’ are why electronic drum kits use mesh heads or rubber pads. There are almost no vibrations after the initial strike, meaning that these drum pads can be far more accurate. Drum triggers will probably never be able to pick up a live drum, but there are some techniques we can employ to get our drum triggers triggering as accurately as possible:

Setting up:

The basic idea of setting up a drum module and drum triggers is easy. The drum triggers usually attach to the rim of the drum or the bass drum hoop. The triggers have either a 1/4″ input (guitar lead) or an XLR input (3 pin microphone lead). Here’s an example of a trigger with a 1/4″ input, with a lead plugged in:

Drum Triggers

The guitar lead then runs from the drum trigger into one of the trigger inputs on the module. These are almost always 1/4″ inputs.

For home use, most modules allow you to plugin a headphone jack to the front for practice. As seen in the image above, this module also has a separate stereo ‘Output’ for sending signal to a mixing desk or P.A. These outputs are almost always duel 1/4″.

Optimising your drums for drum triggers:

When optimising your drums for triggers, there are several things to note:

  • ‘Dead’ drums will trigger more accurately. Snare and kick drums will have less issues with triggering than Toms, due to the resonance of the drum heads. By ‘Dead’, I mean that there is little or no ‘ring’ from the drum after you hit it. This ringing is the drum resonating and the drum skin vibrating, which can lead to inaccurate triggering.
  • Tight drum skins will generally trigger more accurately (however I find that kick drums trigger better with a loose skin).
  • Small drums, especially in regards to Toms, will trigger more accurately.
  • At the end of the day, it’s all a balance. You may be wanting to mic up your drum kit as well, or prefer to hear the sound of your real drums as well as using drum triggers. Take the time to experiment and see what works best for you.

Kick Drum

I recommend tuning your kick drum so that the skins are fairly loose, and place some padding inside the bass drum against the batter head (batter head is the side that the beater hits), such as a pillow or a small blanket. I’ve found that doing so allows for some very accurate triggering. Accurate triggering equals happy days.

Snare Drum

I’ve never had an issue getting my snares to trigger accurately, but if you’re experiencing issues, try putting some gaffa tape on your drum head or using a dampening ring. An ‘extreme’ method of getting a very accurate trigger from the snare drum is to place a towel or sheet inside the drum. This will impact the ‘feel’ of the drum, and you won’t hear any live snare drum sound.

Rack and Floor Toms

These are by far the most difficult drums to trigger. As mentioned above, smaller drums will be much easier. I’ve had great difficulty triggering drums bigger than 14″ without using lots of padding. Try taping some foam (the soft foam found in cases, as opposed to polystyrene foam) to the drum head to dampen the drum. For the best results, deaden the drums completely or use mesh drum heads. I personally find this much less enjoyable.

If you’re finding that your triggers are still double triggering, try putting some soft foam between the drum head and the trigger sensor, and secure it to the drum head by using some gaffa tape.

Drum trigger with padding

Here’s one of my triggers on a rack tom. I’m using moongel and some foam to deaden the drum head enough to trigger accurately.

Adjusting drum module settings for the best results:

It’s difficult to go into detail here without going into the specifics of each module, but there are some general tips that can be applied to most drum modules:

Sensitivity/Gain:

This is by far the most important setting on the drum module, as it allows you to adjust the signal sensitivity. Have a look for a sensitivity or gain setting in the modules settings. Each trigger input should have one, or on basic modules there may be a single adjustment for all trigger inputs. This is useful if you’re finding that you’re having to hit hard to register a trigger hit, or if your softer hits or ghost notes are being triggered too loud. If the sensitivity is too high, you might find that hitting the rim or the drum shell will trigger a drum sound. I’ve also found that having a high sensitivity increases double triggering and ‘miss triggers’. This is less than ideal! Lower that sensitivity!

Velocity/V Curve/ Pad Curve:

Some modules have a velocity curve setting, which changes the rate in which the triggered sound will increase in volume. If you’re finding that your light hits or ghost notes are too loud compared with your hard hits and rim shots, you may need to decrease the velocity setting. If you’re finding that your light hits are too soft, then increasing velocity will decrease the volume difference between light and hard hits. Experiment with different settings and see which works best for your playing style.

X Talk/Cross Talk:

Some older modules will have a cross talk setting. I recommend leaving this at zero. If you notice that when playing two drums simultaneously only one drum trigger produces a sound, then you may need to increase the cross talk for that specific trigger input.

Troubleshooting

Double Triggering:

There are a few things you can try if you are experiencing double triggering with your triggers:

  • Experiment with ‘gain’ settings. You may have the gain set too high. I find that the best results are achieved with a low gain and a high velocity/v curve.
  • Add more padding to your drum head. This will by far give you the best results.
  • Add some soft foam between the trigger and the drum head. This is a more extreme approach. See my example image above.
  • Experiment with different drum head tensions. Make small adjustments and test.

Miss-triggering:

Miss triggering can be caused by double triggering, so the fixes offered or double triggering can apply here. You’ll find this most prominent when playing a fast succession of notes.

  • Make small adjustments to the X Talk/Cross Talk setting on your module (if there is one)
  • Check for a ‘Decay’ or ‘Noise’ setting and experiment with making small adjustments to these

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve found this article helpful in some way. Drum triggers aren’t perfect, but by tweaking your setup you can get the most out of them and ultimately enjoy them a lot more. If you have any questions or think I’ve left something out, feel free to email me directly at drums@bobbyeggleston.com and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Alternatively, leave a comment below.

If you’re looking at purchasing some drum triggers but are unsure of what brands/models to buy, I’ll be briefly covering a few of the main drum trigger manufactures in a separate article to be uploaded soon. I’ll also be posting an article on how to make your own drum triggers, so be sure to check in on my blog page for updates.

Best of luck!

Bobby.

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