What are drum triggers, and are they for cheaters?

July 4, 2008 at 10:48 am (Essays) (, , , )

Drum triggers have received an unfair beating (pardon the pun) in reviews and discussion forums. I’ve seen countless reviews attributing magical powers to triggers, often claiming triggers make drummers faster. This is unfair and ignorant. There are instances when using triggers can either hurt or help a drummer, but they aren’t inherently cheating devices.

Microphones or drum triggers can be used in live or studio situations. There is usually be a blend of the two techniques in either situation. The original approach to drum amplification or recording is with microphones. Usually, this involves dedicated microphones for the bass drum(s), toms, some cymbals, and an overhead microphone. The signal can then be recorded analog or digital, though purely analog recordings are becoming more and more sparse.

Drum triggers are small transducers that are placed on the drum, each one dedicated to its own drum. The trigger sends a digital signal to a drum module, which can then export the digital information to a P.A. system or recording software. A sample for each drum is selected. Simply put, “digital” means something is either off or on. So a trigger is either “firing” and producing a signal, or not.

Therein lies the complaint with trigger systems. A drummer can lightly tap a snare, or smack it with a 2 foot wind-up, but the module will report the same signal. High quality microphones will pick up a light tap or strong hit with greater fidelity, producing a nuanced and dynamic signal. This is the only place the “cheating” accusations truly belong: a drummer can merely feather-tap the double bass pedals and the module will produce an optimized and consistent signal. So there is no auditory reward for a powerful drummer with stamina who uses triggers.

Triggers are still a double-edged sword. The inconsistencies in timing will become much more apparent. With microphones, a flurry of double bass can become blurry and the drummer can sometimes scoot by on less than perfect playing. Triggers expose flubs and off tempo hits more clearly than microphones.

It should be noted that in metal, most drummers trigger the bass drums for live performances. A mic’ed bass drum is very difficult to mix, and will more often than not sound like a muddy thud. Triggers in a live mix can be tricky, but they provide much greater clarity and a great bass drum sample can make the whole band sound better. Another note: I can think of no recording or performance I’ve heard that has utilized triggers for cymbals. Metal cymbals don’t work well with triggers.

A third option in the studio is sound replacement. After recording digitally, each drum hit can be replaced with an optimized recording of that specific drum. For example, if a drummer hits a snare weakly, the bad snare hits can be replaced with strong sounding samples. The end result can sound identical to triggered drums. For an example of this, check Necrophagist’s Epitaph.

After reading all of this, you may want some examples of triggered and mic’ed drums on different albums.

Triggered (entire drum kit):

Decapitated – Nihility

Behemoth – Zos Kia Cultus

Not Triggered (entire drum kit):

Dismember – Dismember (entire recording was done analog)

Suffocation – Human Waste

Immolation – Dawn of Possession

Bass drum triggered, Snare mic’ed:

Brutus – Slachtbeest

Inveracity – Extermination of Millions

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