Are triggers cheating?

Thursday, 6 February 2020 4:07 pm

Drummer and educator Aaron Edgar defends the use of triggers.

We all know that person who won’t hesitate to proudly announce that “triggers are cheating”, and beneath someone like themselves who plays “real” drums. Maybe you’ve encountered this person side-stage at a show, glaring at the drummer with crossed arms, becoming increasingly disgruntled by each passing note: “It sounds like a machine! It’s the only way they can play that fast!”

This rancour generally seems to be the case when our anti-triggerist can play at a certain level achieved through hard work. This person then sees someone playing lightly with triggers in a way that is beyond what they can do with their skillset, and then proceeds to go on about how “triggers are cheating”, and that’s the only way the drummer on stage is able to play that way. This is merely a petty jab that comes from insecurity.

While triggers are tools that can be used to make acoustically unrealistic things happen, is that really so bad? The fact of the matter is simple: triggers are a tool that creates MIDI data from vibrations - and that’s it. How one uses triggers and the resulting MIDI data is entirely up to the person.

Let’s look a little deeper into some of the more nuanced ways to use these tools.

Sound replacement

If you’re playing live and only sending electronic sounds to the front of house, you can use drum sounds or anything you want! One benefit of this approach is that you can entirely change your drum sounds for what the song needs at the click of a button. Better yet, if you’re running a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), you can automate changes in the same way that guitar players can automate their patch switches, alleviating their need for pedalboards live.

Sound reinforcement

This is when you take a blend of acoustic and electronic sounds for clarity or presence, usually with a similar-sounding drum or even a studio recording of the same drum. Microphones can pick up a lot of bleed from other sound sources, whereas samples are clear. Triggers, in this sense, can reduce unwanted noise levels and lead to a cleaner live sound.

Sound augmentation

This is my favourite way to use triggers: adding different sounds to your drums! You can do this with totally alien sounds, or percussion, or you can simply add ambience. In my studio, I like to play a pair of snares to my left: a 10×7 Sonor SQ2 Acrylic tuned tightly beside a 16×10 VK Aluminium tuned extremely low with loose wires. When I rimshot the 10″, the 16” adds a dark sizzle underneath, which is something I’d never be able to create live acoustically. With triggers, I can sample the underside microphone from the 16” and blend in as much as I want, electronically, without any bleed!

Other ways to use MIDI data

You can use triggers to record a MIDI performance into your DAW, which can be a great way to do demo drum recording if you don’t have studio gear. There’s no rule confining that MIDI drum data to drums, either! Try copying your kick line into a guitar, bass or synth instrument, and you immediately have music to complement your drums! You can even auto-snap the notes to melodic scales you want to work within.

Beyond audio

MIDI can even be used to control non-audio devices. For example, DrumLites can be set to flash whenever you hit a drum. Or you can set MIDI data to control stage lights!

Whether you’re using triggers to create the acoustically impossible, control lighting or simply add some punch to your live drum sound, the devices themselves are innocent! They’re just another tool available for musicians to use creatively.

So quit your whining and go be creative!

This article appeared originally on