Rob Brens

Musician : Educator : Writer

A word on triggers...

A student recently came to me explaining he was considering employing triggers as part of his set up due to a new band he was working with. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a trigger is a sensor you can attach to a drum (or any surface for that matter) that you then run into a module, such as the “brain” of an electronic drum kit, which you then use as your drum sound instead of mic’ing up a drum. Metal drummers typically utilize triggers on the bass drum.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is to compensate for the drop in volume when hitting higher tempos, so a constant dynamic is maintained. Clarity is the aim of the game when it comes to metal. Regardless of speed, a genre like death metal typically is characterized by low tuning in guitars with busier playing etc, so a solid, tighter, brighter kick drum sound will cut through more effectively which will be better for your band mates to lock into and of course, for the audience to hear. 

So I’ll just offer my experience, as this subject is something that’s personal for everyone. 

Triggering was brought up almost straight off the bat after I started working on Hadal Maw, given that all my previous work with Alarum and King Parrot only demanded a natural kick. Initially I wanted to see if I could make Hadal work with a natural kick (I think I was just kidding myself at the time) but after a while it became clear (or unclear depending how you’re looking at it) that the natural kick wasn’t cutting it, there was the obvious issue of the volume drop with tempos above 200bpm. 

So I spoke to a few friends, including notable double bass players such as Dave Haley (Psycroptic), Dan Presland (Ne Obliviscaris), Lee Stanton (Thy Art is Murder) and anyone I had the chance to ask when I was on tour. The temptation would be to emulate the set up of whoever the fastest, craziest double kick player is right? Not really. The key thing I learned from asking so many people about their set ups is that they were all very much individual, but at the same time, they all deal with the same issues. You can be sure that I did as well.

So my first setup involved borrowing an old Ddrum trigger and an Alesis D4 drum module, which is a very common setup (The DM5 was the staple trigger module for a long time). I’d also use a small mixing desk to run the triggers into so I could hear them through headphones or in ears as I didn’t want to rely on fold back. All the typical problems showed up immediately, along with the raw honest truth about how consistent my double kick playing is (ouch). 

DDrum Bass Drum Trigger

DDrum Bass Drum Trigger

Alesis D4 Module

Alesis D4 Module

There are two problems that are usually encountered with triggers, double fires and misfires. Misfiring is when you hit and no sound is produced and double triggering being when you hit once and two (or more) sounds are produced. These can be resolved depending on the trigger, the module and its settings and external factors (the bass drum). Conventional wisdom is to put a lot of dampening in the bass drum and increase the tension on the kick-drum head. This is something I’ve experimented with and I’ve only had improvements as I’ve increased the amount of dampening in the bass drum. Some people fill their bass drum until there’s no room left, but two pillows is a safe enough bet. I don’t crank my bass drum head too far, as feel is still somewhat important to me, so I only tighten it a bit further than usual. Also at one point, during a period where I was getting very consistent response with triggering, it would suddenly start double firing quite a bit which was baffling as I had not changed anything. However, after changing the bass drum head, this fixed everything on the spot so that’s another factor to bear in mind. As mentioned, having a super tight or really loose drum-head may work for you, so experiment! 

This should be enough to eliminate issues surrounding cross talk. Cross talk refers to the trigger firing as a result of external vibrations. This could be something like the bass guitar being really loud and vibrating into the kick drum so the trigger will mistake the vibration for a hit. With double triggering being the major issue for me, I focused on decreasing sensitivity so that only good solid hits on the kick drum would fire the trigger, the only issue being that it can increase the chance of misfiring. It’s a delicate balance. The calibration of the module is probably the most personal part of the process and requires a huge amount of trial and error. I would keep a note pad on my phone where I’d record what all the functions did and what I’d be achieving with different settings and different combinations of settings.

So to anyone who doesn’t play triggers, this might seem like insane lengths to go to. Well, it probably is. But it goes back to that point of focus of the triggered kick drum cutting through the mix, being right up front. Everybody can hear all too clearly what your footwork is like. So you could be practicing hard and making sure your consistency is on point, but if your trigger set up isn’t accurately representing that, then it’s all going to waste. 

Roland RT-10K

Roland RT-10K

The on-going battle of refining my set up waged on. The biggest turning point was recalling that my Roland SPD-S had an input for external triggers and I coupled this with a Roland RT-10K. Add to this that I could use any kick sound I wanted through the SPD-S and the shift was enormous. At this point I’d like to note that I have no affiliation with Roland, mind you, considering the continuing success I’ve had with their products, I wouldn’t mind one! Anyway, the SPD-S has parameters that account for double and misfires so I was able to fine tune those settings and greatly reduce any instances of mistriggering. Reduce, but not eliminate. (note: these days, The SPDS-X is more common).

Roland SPD-S

Roland SPD-S

Roland SPD-SX

Roland SPD-SX

                                                                                      Roland TM-2

                                                                                      Roland TM-2

A change in modules occurred after a show, wherein the tip of a lead jack fragmented inside of the input of my SPD-S and basically ruined it, which was a good chance to get my hands on the new Roland TM-2. It’s an incredibly small unit (it’s about the size of my hand) with only two inputs, so it’s pretty much built for two triggers or two pads. All the parameters are the same so you can get pretty detailed with the calibration. 

I should also note, there has also been an ongoing correlation between my overall improvement in foot technique and the accuracy of triggering, but that possibly also to do with simply getting used to the feel of it. It’s a whole new style, over time you learn to focus more on playing off the triggers than how your bass drum would normally respond, so you tend to shift your focus towards economy as opposed to tone. 

The greatest wildcard at this point became scenarios that involved me using other people’s drum kits. As you can imagine, we’ve got smooth sailing at rehearsals and gigs, then there’s a show where you have to use someone else’s kit. As we’ve established, the configurations involved in triggering are incredibly personal. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a show where there was a borrowed kit, but the hoop on the bass drum was just a bit too long, meaning the trigger wasn’t quite contacting the head. So maybe one in every three hits was actually triggering and when you’ve got your trigger sounds running straight into your ears, you’re talking one hell of a nightmarish gig. Fortunately I was informed that the kick was mic’d too, so that was a sort of relief. But enough was enough, I couldn’t chance that happening again. There was also the feeling that the stuff I was playing (typically reaching 220bpm and beyond) was too much information to expect from a single trigger to capture on a single bass drum head. I’ve since become aware that players like Alex Rudinger use a single trigger on a single bass drum and you only need to look at some of his videos to see he does it with great success. This is definitely a scenario where sheer technique can prevail as I mentioned earlier. 

Considering I’m not Alex Rudinger, other options needed to be considered. I’d also been aware that more and more death metal drummers were utilizing direct drive pedals that had inbuilt triggering systems. So the triggers are built onto the pedal. The two most common being the Axis E-kits and the Trick SB-1 (or the “Laser” triggers as they’re affectionately known). Just for a quick run down, the E kit involves a hammer that follows the movement of the pedal, which then contacts a small plate that’s attached to the pedal, which acts as the trigger. The laser trigger involves a fin that, like the hammer on the e kit, follows the movement of the pedal, which then passes through a laser beam that’s also attached to the pedal, which acts as the trigger. In both instances you have triggers that function independent of contact to the bass drum and also allow for a single trigger to be attached to each pedal, even if it’s a double pedal on a single bass drum, which is great news for single kick players as it allows for more accurate triggering. The opportunity arose to grab an Axis Longboard double pedal with fitted e-kits and the next phase began.

Axis E-Kit trigger

Axis E-Kit trigger

Trick SB1

Trick SB1

The shift to direct drive after playing chain drive for a good 17 plus years of drumming is a huge one. I spent a bit of time trying to replicate the configurations of my eliminators (pedal angle, beater angle, spring tension etc) but what helped a lot was changing out the beaters for the Pearl quad beaters, just for that bit of top heavy feel. Even as I was adjusting to the feel of direct drive pedals, I could notice immediately notice a huge difference with the accuracy of triggering. My only hassle is I’ve developed a habit of resting the beaters against the head of the kick drum which means when the other pedal hits, it can send a vibration through the hammer on the other pedal, hence, you have the trigger occasionally firing off. The current intermediary solution has been to massively decrease sensitivity on the left trigger to compensate and that’s been quite successful, however it’s not overly economical. For a more permanent solution I can either change my technique, or shift to two bass drums. Given I have no interest in changing my technique, I’ll be giving the two bass drums a crack, so once they come in, I’ll update this article with results, but from kits I've played on with two bass drums, it's a huge difference. 

Just remember that all of this is just my experience. Some of these things may not work for you especially when considering how different all of us are as players. This is just something I really want to emphasize and despite receiving and utilizing a lot of advice from a lot of experienced players, I still think you can’t top going through the motions yourself. Best of luck and shoot me a message if there’s anything you think I should add to this article. 

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