Since 2005-ish, I’ve had a frustrated love-hate relationship with electronic drum pads. This was even part of the passion for musical interfacing that carried me through grad school, but now I’m finally putting my ideas and tools to test a design that remains dynamic even under hard playing in loud-vibrating environments.
Product Tech and Background
Before the 1980s, there were two sources of rhythm; acoustic drums physically played by humans, or electronically-synthesized drum sounds triggered by machines. In the latter case of early “drum machines,” the “sequencer” would send electrical pulses to a “sound synthesizer” (or “brain”) which could then generate the desired sound. Rhythmic variety was limited to how one could program or control sequencer’s pattern (or randomness) of “hit pulses” or the timbre of the drum sound synthesized … but all of this was done with patching wires and twisting knobs… and not the intuitive muscle memory held by the stick in the hand.
Then, between the 1960s and 1980s, we slowly make the connection simple simple-but-effective connection; a “drum trigger” to strike and send the electronic pulses (usually from a simple piezoelectric element) in real time. Human time.
- In 1967, Dutch pop band The VIPs drummer Felix Visser modifies a (pre Roland) Acetone automatic drum machine to trigger the sounds by live touch. This hack’s electronics were so sensitive to moisture that the sounds could be triggered by breathing on them, and had to install a hot 40 watt bulb to dissapate moisture of a club stage to avoid “phantom triggering.”
- In the 1970s, Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge, in collaboration with Sussex university professor Brian Groves created the first integrated trigger/synth “electronic drum,” triggered by hitting a pad that generated pulses from a moving magnet coil, with sound generated by a (pre-microchip) circuit containing 500 hand-wired transistors.
- In 1978, Pollard releases the first commercial electronic drum product, the SynDrum, used by drummers like Carmine Appice and Terry Bozzio.
- In 1983, Terry Bozzio patented the first self-contained piezoelectric drum trigger (the “TBX”) with velcro-adjusted housing.
Early systems were crude. The pads we struck were unnaturally stiff (even painful) to play, and did not effectively translate natural drumming dynamics between soft and hard strikes.
The 1980s LA soon became a hotbed of design (and some collaboration) among the names who became the brands of the modern electronic drum industry, improving everything from the hit-feel of the pads to the expression and programmability of the sounds.
In 1984, Mario Deciutiis and others form Kat percussion. In 1996, Mario later took over Alternate Mode, who make triggers based on force-sensing resistors (FSRs) instead of piezos to reduce false triggering. The “Kat” products seem to carry a double-edged renown for both the sensitivity of their proprietary FSR trigger tech (that can only be used with their brains) and the steep learning curve of the expressive brains in their expensive all-in-one KAT series of multi-pad units.
Dan Dauz moved to LA and started fabricating drum pads from modified Rogers snare mute/practice pads (which themselves were a popular product). From the outset, Dan’s pads were respected for their natural feel, sensitivity in translating dynamics, durability, and manageable pad noise. No fragile plastic or loud wood; just industry-standard piezos embedded in a combination of steel plate and ballistic rubber. A body that takes a lifetime of beating, and plugs readily into “brain.” Dan became a choice subcontractor, making pads for Kat and others.
For over a decade, the “LA school” of electrified rubber pads dominated. The biggest subsequent shift came in the 1997, when asian music-elecronic giant released the V-drum series which, instead of a embedding the pulse-generating piezo sensors in moulded rubber pads, suspended them under foam that were thrust by tunable mesh heads.
Roland’s V-drum product line rose to dominate the market, with many other companies ( PinTech, Alesis, Kat, etc) adopted the designs of shelled triggers with tunable, damped heads. Triggers that are built and mounted like acoustic drums, but (to me) feel even less responsive.
This took market focus away from the above West Coast hand-makers. The only major manufacturer to keep solid rubber pads at the top of their product line has been asian giant Yamaha. In 2005, Dan Dauz moved back to LA to quietly resume hand-making his pads, and his products continue to be seen on top touring drumkits, an
My Background and Bias
During my tenure in MusicForHeadphones after college, the band was morphing from shoegaze/noise to kraut, and I sought electrify my kit in 2005-ish. Starting with a “brain” of a roland TMC-6 trigger device sending MIDI to a SP202 sampler. Obviously, my major constraints were budget and mounting.
Shopping at the now-defunct web store of Washinton’s Drumbalaya, I got a used Roland PD11 rubber pad to replace my L-rod mounted cowell, and a set of 3 of Dauz’s “bone” triggers, which I chose beca rim; no brackets required. I especially liked the way the Bone pads felt like an extension of the rim: I could tap in gently, or lat into it. The only fuss was figuring out how to dial in the “brain” to give me dynamics without being false-triggered every time I hit the drum upon which the Bone was mounted.
After upgrading the brain to an Alesis DM-Pro, I sought to “upgrade” my triggers with a store-bought a 10 inch V-drum pad, but was from the outset disappointed with the already-dominant V-drum mesh head. It was too bouncy, like playing on a tennis racket. The dynamics didn’t translate (for me). My hard strikes seemed to be overwhelming the element, so that there was no translation between forte and mezzo forte. Worse, my softer strokes would drop out at a very definite point. Despite all my tweaking of the extensive threshold/sensitivity/dynamics/gain/etc settings on the DM-Pro module, the V-drum never played as vigorously as the rubber pads. Perhaps the v-drum’s spring-loaded cushioning was over-damping soft vibrations form getting thru the piezo.
Eventually, I left MusicForHeadphones (to got to grad school for electrical engineering), and lost focus on the material practice and problems of most drumming, but the problem remained stuck in my head. After graduating, I joined maxim-volume doom outfit WormRider. When I eventually resumed incorporating electronics, I found that playing next to bassist Eric’s thousand-watt 18” subwoofer made the mesh-head ring freely at any usable setting, and the Bone pads fared better, even if I had to blunt their sensitivity. Wormrider ended before I could play many gigs with this system, but I kept the Bone pads on my kit, and kept coming back to them.
Making Contact with Dan
After about a year, one of three Bones seemed to lose sensitivity. I called the only phone number I could find associated with Dauz drum products, and was pleased to be talking directly to Dan himself ! He was pleasant and demure, with tons of stories of the tech and people (and gossip) from his years in the industry. I was half star-struck and half geeking out about gear.
After my own hour of picking his brain about vintage (and vaporware) elecronic drum tech, we eventually got to the topic of the call: my dulled pad. He explained that, he’s cool with user-service, and would rather save on shipping and let the consumer hack or patch the sensors on his standard 5” and 8” bowl-body pads.
However, the Bone pad was a different matter a problem; where the round-body pads held together with bolts, the Bone design has has all it’s sensor and guts between the an aluminum body and a moulded rubber hood-pad which are super-glued together, so a Bone could not be opened without being destroyed.
Before our next phone call, I had sacrificed the Bone in question; ripping it apart to see how it worked, and why it may have gone bad. Without revealing too much, I found the Bone product contains more guts than (I later found) are in his round pads…some familiar Dauz features…. some I’ve never seen in other pads… all of them coming from obviously a product of Dan’s “99% perspiration” approach to design.
Fast forward another year, and I have a flash of insight; not in how to make the Bone pad more durable, but in how to make it more selective, to only fire off under direct hit, and avoid being sending the vibrations from the drum it’s mounted upon when you don’t.
Without revealing too much, my idea requires a combination of piezo and FSR technology, which seems uniquely possible given the stiff mechanics of Dauz’s product line, and the cavity in the die-casting of the Bone product in particular.
Using the tattered remains of the Bone I gutted, I build a proof-of-concept that wouldn’t hold together, but showed that it would only send pulses when the rubber hood was under strain. I sent Dan the proof-of-concept video (below), and he called me the same day.
When I tried to explain the electromechanics of my idea for him to build this way, he preferred instead to send me spare parts for me to iterate and refine. What a generous craftsman !
Within a week, I received half-a-dozen Bones worth of outers and guts, and set to work. I experimented with variety of positioning of piezos and FSRs, rigid and damping materials, and glues and tape, and by the 5th one, I had something that kinda showed the improvements I sought.
Already having plans to visit the Salton Sea in SoCal, I made arrangements to visit Dan at his shop in Anaheim to share some benchtime over my first weekend out. ProTip, TSA prefer you travel with your wire-strippers and soldering iron in your CHECKED baggage.
We met for dinner (he’s just as much a picky eater as the interview above suggests), and spent Saturday repeating the proof for him in his shop.
Ultimately, while my modified bone does profoundly isolate the signal to only intended hits, it sacrifices sensitivity to lighter hits.
For now, it’s back to the drawing board !
Dan was a wonderful host and collaborator. He even introduced me to his wacky drummer/comedian friend Jim, who had an electronic drum kit worth its own article.
Keep perspiring !
For now, I’m putting this project aside to catch up on other repairs and lesson plans. I look forward to speaking and tweaking with Mr. Dauz again soon.
Stay tuned for more news when I resume tinkering. If you’re interested in learning more or helping with these ideas, contact Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or myself through this site.